Patience is more than a virtue

We took the bus up to Kitwe on Saturday, happy to be on the bright blue, air-conditioned bus of Zambia’s best bus company. Always on time, always safe, and always great with customer service. This is unheard of in Zambia. I love this company and rarely take any other.

The route up to Kitwe, however, is a new one for the company. They’re entering a new market. Their brand is not known up there and is thus not as trusted. I figure it’s just a matter of time before they impress customers that are used to non-existent schedules, long waits, and frequent breakdowns.

But, what’s that they say? TIA? This is Africa.

About 86 km from our destination, the bus broke down, and we were told that another one would come get us, but only after 2 hours. So we waited. It ended up taking 3.

I normally get irate when things like this happen. But this time, I was completely content, happy and confident that the bus company was trying their best to help us out.

When the new bus arrived, the staff were apologetic. They brought us cold drinks and biscuits as consolation.

I sunk into the seat as the bus started off with this thought in my head: Patience is more than a virtue when it comes to doing business in Africa. It’s a necessity. Consumers need to be able to trust businesses, but I’ve always felt that forgiveness is simply the other side of the same coin.

I will keep this in mind as Mobile Transactions, itself a high-potential start-up, impresses – and disappoints – as it gets on its feet.


What if NGOs had a customer care line?

I recently started working at Mobile Transactions, a company that does money transfers on mobile phones in Zambia, among other things.  I’ll write more about the company and my specific project on another post, but for now, I just wanted to write about something that pinged me at today’s management meeting.

We have a Customer Care director who sits at a phone and computer all day listening to feedback – in the form of phone calls, SMSs, emails, and even drop in visits – from the 75 agents around the country who process the money transfers and the 4000 customers who send and receive money.  He generates a daily report based on what he hears and the trends he sees, and it’s used by the management team to make day-to-day decisions.

This information is invaluable for the company;  we live or die based on how well we can respond to the demands and needs of our customers.  The Customer Care line is a direct conduit for feedback, and in many ways, it’s our life line.

The last NGO I worked at refused to call the farmers we worked with “beneficiaries” and was adamant that we call them “clients” or “customers” instead.  They did this to maintain a business-like culture and to instill a strong sense of accountability.  And it worked:  This NGO listened to farmers all the time.  Their field staff were constantly receiving feedback at farmer meetings, through phones calls, and when farmers would visit their offices.

But this incredibly valuable information – most of it tacit – was never compiled at a central point and used to inform decision making.  The only formal mechanism for feedback was the NGO’s annual M&E survey; it was an arduous task, taking weeks for enumerators to conduct interviews and months to enter the data, analyze it, and create reports.  Day-to-day decisions, even mission critical ones, weren’t effectively informed by information from the field.

If NGOs really want to be more business-like and treat the farmers they work with like customers, then I think they should open up a customer care line at the head office and dedicate one person to manage it.  The farmers they work with have mobile phones or can access one if they need to send an SMS.  Field staff can report the things they see in the field as they happen.

The information gathered may not be as statistically sound as a survey report, but I reckon its sheer expediency could improve the effectiveness of the NGO’s work many times over.

Why a farmer-first approach might not work

Picture a small scale farmer in Zambia.

Imagine all the things that keep that farmer from running their farm as a profitable business.

There are lots of reasons, but let’s looks at the most commonly cited ones:

Lack of farming and business skills and knowledge.
Lack of capital, financial and otherwise.
Lack of power, societal and otherwise.

All these reasons illicit a common reaction from donors and NGOs:

“Let’s train them.”
“Let’s give or sell them stuff.”
“Let’s empower them by doing the first two.”

Now, for you practitioners out there, think back to the last time you ran a farmer training.

Do you remember how many of those people went home and tried doing something new? Do you remember how many people actually changed their behaviour?

Likely, a very small number. Maybe 5% (the ones that are always quick to adopt), 10% if you’re lucky.

Why is that? Is that an acceptable return on investment?

I’m as big a fan of investing in small-scale farmers as anyone out there, so I can’t help but feel disappointed by this outcome. Even if you use the best methods and even if you design all the best incentives, programs that employ training and technology subsidies by rote don’t get very far.

There must be more to it.

What if a farmer’s lack of knowledge and assets is seen as a symptom, not a cause, of the problem? What if you zoomed out and looked at the larger system?

Though an important player, the small-scale farmer is one of many players in a large and complicated market system. The solution to a problem in one part of the system (e.g., with the farmer) may be found in a completely different part of it (e.g., in the financial industry).

This means that the solution to a farmer-focused problem might require a non-farmer-focused solution (e.g., working directly with banks to create a low-margin-high-volume business model, services from which a small-scale farmer can choose to access to improve their business).

I see a lot of organizations moving in this direction, but I’m afraid their efforts will be futile if the image of a deficient farmer continues to loom large in their methods. Training farmers and “linking” them to other players is simply a variation on the same old theme. To truly take a systems approach, one must detach from this image and put the emphasis on creating a more prosperous industry that small-scale farmers can participate in.

I find it difficult to be so clinical about the whole matter, but I do believe it’s what’s needed to create large scale and lasting changes for farmers. My heart wants to take a farmer-first approach, but my head thinks it might be more prudent to focus elsewhere.

Links We Liked


Nostalgia in high momentum form.

Forget development–the actual toughest job out there.

Learning about my breakfast cereal of choice.


Interesting debate: An African assessment of African governance versus the academic freedom of Western researchers. I give style points to the former.

Wafer thin margins for those selling old t-shirts (do you miss your “Waco Texas Swim Club” t?) from the US (and Canada) in Liberia.

I wish I were home to see this movie. Sigh.


Maslow in Africa: A Hierarchy of Opportunity

FSRP paper states the government has not focused on eliminating real “market failures” that small holders face and suggests 7 areas that need attention.

Trust in a Taxi


I was out and about in Lusaka with my favorite taxi driver Eddie. I like him because he’s deliriously funny but also because he’s very fair. I don’t have to negotiate prices with him because I trust that he’ll be reasonable.

Why do I trust him? I never really thought about it until he started talking about lost cell phones. The number one thing people accidently leave in taxis is cell phones. An opportunistic taxi driver would just take them and flip them for some quick cash. But Eddie doesn’t.

“I keep the phone on, and I wait for the owner to call it. When I answer their call, I tell them I’ll bring it back to them. You know why I do this?”

Eddie was being uncharacteristically serious. “Why Eddie?”

“Because after that, they’ll never lose trust in me.”

A lot has been said about the short-sighted nature of business in the developing world. Making money is hard to do in a place like Zambia, so it’s difficult to turn down short-term gains when long-term ones are not guaranteed.

I can see why a taxi driver would take a lost phone and cash-in instead of banking on a random customer’s repeat service. I can also see why a farmer would side-sell to a brief-case buyer instead of fulfilling a contract with an unreliable outgrower. These are rational choices.

At the same time, though, one cannot discount the power of realizing benefits after investing in a relationship. It may take a long time to realize those benefits, and they may not be immediately gratifying, but once you do, I’d say it would be hard for anyone to go back.

Cultivating strong relationships is every good business person’s secret weapon. Eddie actively think about this, that’s why he’s my taxi driver of choice. I wonder how many farmers and agri-businesses do?

Links We Liked

Here’s the first of a new feature for our blog – a run-down of some of the things we read, liked, and wanted to share. Here’s what’s we’ve been reading lately:


I was looking for money–I’ve got enough ideas. Found this: SoCap 09

Gotta read up on the competition. Innovations in Mobile Banking: The Case of M-Pesa. Oh, Olga.

Mark Hemsworth mentioned it and curiosity got the best of me–it usually does. Craigellachie, BC?


Exactly what I was looking for: balanced reasoning on why Obama deserves the Nobel.

From the man whose witty links-posts inspired this one, Chris Blattman comments on a question started by Wronging Rights: “Who’s afraid of the big, bad market?”


…is M.I.Burkina.  Last we heard, he was enduring the heat with a new buzz cut and eating a pain au chocolat before heading to a West African hip-hop show.  We’ll try to feel sorry for him.

What can donors do for business?

I just wrapped up a final evaluation for a business-oriented agriculture project that was implemented by a large, international NGO. The gist behind the project was this: Train small scale farmers in drought prone areas to grow a drought tolerant crop, then get them to sell that crop to a large, commercial market.

It sounds so simple when you say it like that. The reality, unsurprisingly, was not so simple.

One of the biggest findings from the evaluation was that implementation was significantly hampered by the NGO’s culture and identity as a relief organization. When farmers saw their land cruisers coming, they expected food aid, not a business opportunity.

The result was an ineffectively implemented project that messily mixed messages of a welfare approach (relief and social protection) with those of a business approach (economic development).

During the findings workshop for the evaluation, where leads for all agriculture and business related programs and projects were present, the prevailing sentiment was that this NGO is having an identity crisis.

Are they a relief organization, or a development organization, or both? What is the biggest need? What are they best at? These are tough questions to ask, and we didn’t leave the meeting with any clear answers.

My main thought is that most NGOs exist because they serve a social need or because they’re gap-filling in lieu of public services. This is an incredibly important role for donors and NGOs to play.

But what about business and economic development? Should donors get involved? What role should they play? Should aid have to play by the bottom-line rules of business? Is that even possible?

What role should donors play in the development of agricultural industries in sub-Saharan Africa?

This post leans to one side of the argument, but I’m on the fence.  I’m trying to figure this out and will re-visit the question on this blog as I do. What do you think?


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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