Behaviour change by bonuses

Processing baobab fruit by handI wrote the proposal below as my recommendation to my partner organization, TreeCrops, to achieve a higher level of hygiene at their baobab processing depots. I wanted to use a few ideas from the psychology of loss-aversion to make a more powerful (yet still low cost) incentive for hygienic processing. We’ve yet to implement the system, so I’m certainly open incorporating feedback and input on how to make it better (or to scrap it entirely if it seems to miss the mark.)


Proposal: Hygiene Bonus


Members’ current hygiene practices are poor and will not simply improve on their own: members do not see hygiene as an issue. This goes for the whole range of depots, from best buildings to worst. If better hygiene is desired, TreeCrops will needs a specific targeted program to achieve it.

Big Idea:

Members will not improve their hygiene practice without relevant incentives and punishments. Psychologically, losing money feels worse than gaining money feels good—human beings are, by nature, loss adverse. Thus a bonus system should include a mandatory monthly bonus subject to reductions as punishment for bad practice. As well, this bonus system should be simple for TreeCrops to implement so that the benefits of better hygiene aren’t outweighed by their higher administrative cost.

Format of the Hygiene Bonus:

(numbers are as examples, not, necessarily as recommendations for numbers to be used)

  1. Each member starts with a MK300 bonus for the month.
  2. All of this money is pooled together: thus, if there are 8 members, the pool is MK2400.
  3. A list of hygiene “must-haves” are laid out by TreeCrops (sample list below) and agreed upon by all of the depot members.
  4. Any infraction of  a “must-have” results in a monetary penalty to the pool of K2400. These infractions are judged and recorded by Peter whenever he visits the depot (minimum of once per 2 weeks).
  5. At the end of the month, the each penalty is subtracted from the pool, and the remaining sum (say, for example, MK1200) is re-divided amongst the 8 members. Thus each member would get MK150, down from MK300.
  6. The bonus would then again be set to 300MK and the process is repeated for the next month.
  7. Members not having processed baobab in that month are excluded from the bonus.

How I’ll persuade you that this format is useful and workable:

  1. Each member knows their initial share is MK300. They know that any infraction by any member of the group takes from their share. Thus, they have incentive to make sure all other members follow the hygiene rules. This is key to the system.
  2. The punishment of specific bad practice draws attention to it and shows all members that such practice is unacceptable and punishable. It puts a much finer point on bad hygiene than is currently the case (where we simply resort to exhortations to “do better”.)
  3. The administration of the system by Peter is fairly simple: a standard hygiene check of each depot when he visits, and a once-a-month calculation of bonus pay based on the number of active GRNs and the total number of penalties. This bonus can then be paid during Peter’s regular payment visits.
  4. This system forces TreeCrops to put a price on hygiene—how much better hygiene is worth to TreeCrops is reflected in the value of the bonus set. This enables a cost-benefit calculation of what hygiene is actually worth to TreeCrops.
  5. This system can be depot-selective. If TreeCrops only wants improved hygiene at organic depots, then the bonuses can be restricted to these depots only.

It would be sensible to trial this system first, using one or two depots, to see its results.
Hygiene “must-haves” and penalty values. (example values included)


# times observed

Penalty (MK)

Total (MK)

Unsuitable or lack of hair covering




Hand-washing water and soap absent or of poor quality



Member not washing hands or panga



Mat not used when breaking baobab




Baobab shell in contact with pulp




Broken baobab found in a heap




Black plastic not being used when removing pulp




No Grade C bag at hand for pulp that was in contact with ground




Stored bags touching ground




Stored bags touching walls




Un-weighed bags improperly stored


Shoes worn inside


Total deductions (MK)


Pool: # of Members (_10_) X MK300 =


Total pool less deductions


Member Bonus



2 Responses to “Behaviour change by bonuses”

  1. 1 Mike K September 2, 2009 at 5:43 am

    This is a baller Beh. Change idea my friend!! It’s got a lot of components that seem to work well in harmony. I think you’re dead on the money regarding the importance of it being a pooled fund – it can make group norms change really fast because everyone is paying attention to their own and each others’ behaviours.

    Something else to consider (if applicable) would be competition between depots? Not sure what the scope of the project is, but even if you’ve got a few this could take things to the next level – particularly once behaviours are engrained and you’re looking to certify/reward/celebrate it.

    Good stuff – love to hear how it works out in practice. Hope you’re able to pilot it.

  2. 2 Graham Lettner September 27, 2009 at 11:31 am


    Thanks for the comment. Sorry for my slow reply.

    On competition between the depots: I floated this idea to my TreeCrops manager, Chris Dohse, early on in the project. I wouldn’t say he was overly interested, but I’m sure he was open to an idea that worked. I would say this about competition bonuses, or any types of bonuses in fact. One, you’ve got to calculate out the actual benefit to the person since if you low-ball it too much they’ll realize you’re just wasting their time and trying to bait them into working harder. Two, it’s got to be administratively simple and transparent. TreeCrops was over-stretched already, so running around handing out bonuses was a hard sell. Also, the self-contained idea of depot bonuses is simpler than competition, because with competition you’ve got the perceptions of groups vs other groups to manage. If you’re not sufficiently transparent then you can just stir up a lot of trouble.


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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.
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