An honest eye for success


Mafayo, and his wife, Tryness, count up their cassava kgs

Mafayo, and his wife, Tryness, crunch the numbers

I check-in once a month on Mafayo Lungu. He’s the man with whom I worked last year, helping him at his small cassava flour factory that had been started by IITA, my former partner organization. Last weekend, I found him still struggling to get by.

One whole year and very little progress. Why? Why were all my efforts unsuccessful, or maybe what I want to ask is, what does it take to be successful? Reflecting on my work with Mafayo I realized the trap of not seeing the truth of his situation honestly. IITA, myself included, kept talking ourselves into seeing Mafayo’s situation as better than it was. We weren’t willing or able to see that our own plans and efforts had likely failed.

This latest visit to Mafayo gives a good example of what honestly looking is.

I arrived at Mafayo’s to see things seemingly coming along. There were ladies peeling cassava on the factory porch, and a newly constructed drying shed. If I was only passing through I might have concluded that Mafayo had managed to get his operation to work.

But since I stayed with him for two days I had time to ask questions. Turns out IITA, my partner organization of last year, paid for the cassava the ladies were peeling to test the effectiveness of the new drying shed, which they themselves had built. So Mafayo wasn’t producing flour because of demand. He told me, in fact, that this month he had hardly sold any flour at all.

And what about that new drying shed cost, how much did it cost? And the old one? And Mafayo’s factory shed and the gas-powered cassava grater inside? All his capital is depreciating in value and would eventually need to be replaced. Was Mafayo making enough money to do this? Not even close.

Finally, while Mafayo’s factory might see some action, what about the other five sites that were also launched as part of this cassava flour project? Last year I visited each of these sites and each one was much less active than even Mafayo’s.

So there it is: one big ball of failure that’s not pleasant to look at. The difficulty for me to  face up to failure is part of my human condition: human nature nudges me towards a view of reality that conforms to what I want to see, what I hope to see. I’ve realized that there are multiple reasons why it’s difficult to resist.

Personally, it’s not pleasant. Last year I loaned money to my farmer friend Enos Banda for fertilizer. He now has his maize crop all gathered into his straw-and-stick bin, and it looks like he’s done awfully well. Seeing his big smile, us being good friends, and hearing that I’ll be paid back soon, makes it tempting to congratulate myself for a good deed done. But is his surplus maize worth the $700 I loaned him? Without weighing his maize and calculating how much he’ll have remaining after he pays me back, can I really call this success?

Intellectually, it’s challenging. Hans wrote recently about intellectual honesty. The ongoing Malawian fertilizer subsidy program receives popular accolades, but is it a success? To know for certain we need ways to measure the surplus maize due to the subsidy, to discount effects like good weather, or higher productivity by some farmers. Once this is known then the subsidy cost has to be weighed against other priorities, such as better hospitals, schools, or agriculture extension, all of which Malawi needs. Without this intellectually trying work, can the subsidy be pronounced a success?

Social, it’s unpopular. Asking hard questions is difficult; it often leaves one looking like a callous jerk. An example can be found with baobab. Many village women sell sachets of frozen baobab juice which they make after gathering the fruits and breaking them by hand. Is this savvy money-making by those who need it? Well, how are these village ladies, with just enough money to buy firewood or maize, accessing a freezer? (Turns out they find a nearby NGO and use its facilities for free.) If you account for the cost of electricity to freeze the juice, and the capital cost of an imported freezer, is baobab juice making any longer economical? Seems like an awful harsh thing to ask from women living on as little as they do, but unless I do ask will I really know if this is success?

Looking at my own work with persistent honesty is personally unsettling, intellectually demanding, and, at times, socially unwelcome. But it’s absolutely essential to truly being successful, and it’s a major failing of many development projects. Which is why for all it’s difficulties, an honest eye for success is needed. Because while I might be willing to gloss over failure, people like Mafayo Lungu are the ones who have to live with my own lack of success.


2 Responses to “An honest eye for success”

  1. 1 Ben August 13, 2009 at 3:53 am

    Hi Graham;

    Finally getting around to responding to you, both via e-mail and here (I spent some time today getting caught up on the blog as well). First of all, and this goes to Hans and Thulasy as well, great stuff on the joint blog! Its makes for some good, and VERY interesting reading.

    My main thought on this post deals with who is doing/giving the ‘critical evaluation’ and how that effects the contents and quality/usefulness of the evaluation. It seems to me that its much easier for an outsider who is not connected to a project/organization to be critical. However, in most cases this person will, in all likelihood, not have the full knowledge and experience that would be desirable to properly complete the evaluation. Or, is this assumption wrong and outsiders can generally complete effective evaluations of project/organizations?

    Now, staying with my main thesis, in order to get the knowledge/experience etc. necessary to effectively perform the evaluation, an individual needs to be very familiar with the project/organization. Basically they need to be heavily involved in it as an employee/volunteer etc. However, as you pointed out, this generally means becoming personally and socially invested, which in turn makes it more difficult to do a critical evaluation.

    In conclusion, this seems to create a fairly large paradox for finding out how to complete an effective critical evaluation of anything.

    My first gut opinion is that outsider evaluations would generally be more effective, because they wouldn’t be attached to the project. But, now that I have put slightly more thought into it, I think I can see scenarios, such as where communication is dificult, where an internal evaluation would be better suited to the task. So, as usual, I seem to end where I do every day in the lab…it all depends.

    Now for the questions:
    1. Do you see flaws in any of the arguments that I have just made?
    2. Do you see either method as being more effective, and have you seen examples of this in your time in Malawi?
    3. Do you see using both types of evaluation as the most effective?
    4. Are there certain environments where one type of evaluation is better than the other, or does it really vary completely situation to situation?

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, and here some Cow-town love:)

    Thanks, Ben

  2. 2 Graham Lettner September 27, 2009 at 11:36 am


    Wow, time flies. I am absolutely delinquent in responding to this. But here goes. I’ve posted this on the blog as well, but I’m emailing it to so that you get a response directly. Also–Scouts’ Honour–I will reply to all your future comments in less than a week. That’s a promise.

    Now for the questions:
    1. Do you see flaws in any of the arguments that I have just made?

    No. I more or less agree with the general line of argument. Being inside gives more information, but less objectivity, and vice versa for being outside. However, I think there’s at least one important distinction. When it’s said “insider”=”subjective” and “outsider”=”more objective” I think this isn’t a very helpful distinction. Rather both insiders and outsiders have biases and blind spots (perceptions), just in different ways. Thus, it now becomes a problem of spotting and accommodating for these perceptions, not one of trying to be more or less objective. If this idea holds, then I think insider evaluations can be quite good because of the increased information, as long as perceptions are corrected for.

    2. Do you see either method as being more effective, and have you seen examples of this in your time in Malawi?

    One thing with evaluations is that they aren’t necessarily useful or used. If an evaluation isn’t linked into some bigger, actionable picture, then it’s likely to not accomplish much. With this in mind, I could see a scenario where internal motivated evaluations done by insiders could be the most useful because they’re searching for learning to use for a specific purpose.

    3. Do you see using both types of evaluation as the most effective?
    4. Are there certain environments where one type of evaluation is better than the other, or does it really vary completely situation to situation?

    Careful with these two: don’t fall into the common EWB trap of “it depends”. “It depends” is not a helpful statement, and is often (though, yes, not always) a cover for not understanding things well enough. Would it have been helpful if quantum mathematicians when asked how an electron behaves said, “It depends”? Or is something like the Schrodinger equation a more helpful output, even though it can’t tell you where an electron is exactly? Tangential, but as an engineer hopefully you can appreciate the analogy.

    Yes, of course different methods are more or less applicable at different times. I don’t think that anyone debates that, thus it makes bringing up the point a bit of a redundant exercise. Above I’ve already pointed out that I think that evaluations, to be used and useful, need to be grounded in a real desire to use their outputs. Thus, like many things, if an evaluation is crafted by the actors in the actually situation then it may often end up having more utility than an evaluation imposed from the outside. There, I gave you one more specific condition to follow, at least a step better than my ol’ “it depends”.

    To close, I’ll go out and say that evaluations are often marginally useful. They are often more about documenting what’s happened than really learning from and adapting to the current situation.

    Thanks for writing, Ben. I heard a rumour: are you coming out to these parts? That’d be something.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
>> more

Twitter (Hans)

Twitter (Graham)

Twitter (Thulasy)


%d bloggers like this: