Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inconspicuous Intended Outcomes

So it’s my last post.* I won’t go into the obvious stuff like the culture shock (airport bathrooms in D.C. with auto water, soap, and towel…needless to say running water!), or even how blessed I feel to be from this great country of ours. And I’m not even going to talk about poverty.

That’s because poverty is not what this fellowship was about. It never was intended to be, but I didn’t know that at the beginning. Thinking back to Bangladesh, I can recall sitting in one of the few modern cafés of Dhaka, racking my brain over tea after tea, trying to figure out what I was going to produce from this fellowship. What tangible thing was going to be the outcome? Along the way I would explain to expats what I was doing, and of course, one of their first questions would be, “So what do you have to do? Is this for a degree? Do you have to write a report?” When I told them, no, I only had to blog, they didn’t get it. Their next question was, “No, I mean, don’t you have turn something in?”

Even though I knew I didn’t have to create anything, I still, for some reason, felt I did.

And so, I sat in Dhaka, thinking that if I was going to do something, it needed to be comparative and a consistent theme, and so it needed to start here, country number one. Would it be a book? A photo journal? What would be the angle? Mega slums? Social enterprise? Big aid? The fellowship proposal I had written seemed like a guideline enough when I composed it, but now that I was actually carrying it out on the ground, it became more of a tenuous concept than a clear roadmap. Time was running out – I had to leave Bangladesh soon.

I was consumed with self-doubt. I really couldn’t think of anything – I was interested in all the areas of poverty and all the areas of development. Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover it comprehensively, I couldn’t tie it together. Here I was, I felt, with this golden opportunity that so many people would kill to have, and it looked like, if I didn’t act soon, I was just going to wing it.

And that’s pretty much what I did.

I tried to set things up along the way in terms of volunteering or some sort of network in each country of which I could be a part, but these plans really had no consistent theme except it was all stuff I was just really interested in. Often, such as in South Africa, I would just hitchhike around a country doing outdoors activities or, like in Zimbabwe, I’d just walk up to the border and see if I could get across to talk to people and see what was going on with the farmer situation.

This is when I started to think. Smashed between sweating Malawians in the back of a minibus that never seemed to move. Speeding through rice fields in southern China on a mountain bike under clear blue skies. Spending New Year’s Eve alone in northern Mozambique, knowing really no one in the city. Though not all of these were the most pleasant experiences, they are some of my fondest memories.

It was during times like these that I really started to understand myself and how I see the world, as cliché as it sounds. My thoughts rather exploded – I had scraps of paper with ideas to explore and write about a later date when I was not traveling. Even now, back home and not completely back in the mix, my corkboard has become a holding pen for notes bearing one random thought or another.

All throughout college, and my life in fact, I’d been producing, pushing, trying to get to the next level. College entrance. Scholarship applications. Getting internships. Admission to societies. Meeting after meeting. Rinse and repeat.

But I never really stopped to think about what it all meant, or how I fit into the bigger picture. Of course, much of this was self imposed, but I’d wager to say that many people, especially those at top-20 colleges, have had similar experiences at some point. A lot of this, I think, has to do with the way the system is set up: to value lines on a resume much more than creative thought.

When I got back Stateside, I was able to catch up with the other Keegan Fellow from my year, Kathryn Moreadith. It was shocking how similar our reflections were. Talking over Skype, the essence of our conversation was as if we were both saying, at the same time, “Can you believe what just happened?! It never was supposed to be about the project!” The creeping feeling of failure that I felt, even after I was back, was something she could understand. But now, having had time to reflect, that feeling of failure is gone. I realize I’ve succeeded in ways valuable beyond measure.

*I will technically post a few more of my thoughts from the trip on my main fellowship site. In fact, I’ve already published one about Chinese social enterprise, a piece I was working on while abroad but never published. Go here to see this first piece.

Monday, March 28, 2011

In-Flight Entertainment

Exhausted, 10 pounds lighter, and wearing a tan that almost had people mistaking me for a Liberian, I sat between two massive engines laboring for the Boeing 767 that was carrying me across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

As I sat there, almost two days after I had left the village, I was still running through everything that had happened in the last two weeks.

There were certain events that simply showed the amazing obstacles these people confront too often: for example, watching (and shortly after joining) Game pick up rice that spilled on the ground, grain by grain in the dirt, or when I went with Esther to see her home, slogging 20 minutes through thick mud and water over my knees. She goes through this every night, except she carries Ma-Mary on her back and pots on her head.

And the end was typical enough – they were sad to see me go, I was sad to go, I promised to come back. Some of them gave me gifts, which was really uncomfortable considering how much they had already given me.

But beyond this one of the real takeaways of the two weeks was seeing how people handle poverty across the spectrum.


During my trip, I’ve come to poverty largely in terms of opportunity. Under this definition, a villager with a small house, little money, but a technical degree and many friends in government agencies or formal companies would probably be less impoverished than a villager with lots of money, a big farm, but no schooling or outside contacts.

So, how do you get opportunity?

If we’re talking about the impoverished, you either WAIT for opportunity to come to you, or you SEARCH for it. Examples could be working extra jobs for tuition and being accepted to college (searching) or waiting for the country/economy to structurally improve and bring your standard of living with it (waiting). My arrival to the village was, in a sense, a convenient proxy for an opportunity.

Then, the question becomes: what do you do with it once you get it?

You either CREATE more opportunities for yourself and/or others, or you CONSUME it. For example, do you just milk the NGO that’s come to your village for all it’s worth, or do you try to capitalize on the program offered and/or the Western connections?

On the plane ride home from Monrovia, I sketched a diagram out, which I later altered a bit with the help of my cousin, a sociology professor. First off, I’ll admit it’s not the most simple and sexy diagram. I’m not a theorist. More technically speaking, a couple notes:

1) The pyramid is not indicative of ranking but rather of quantity (like the food pyramid). The middle “?” indicates that not all “Searchers” will be “Creators” and vice-versa.

2) The wave indicates that a person’s status as a “Searcher” or “Waiter” is not static, and is influenced by various things throughout their life like cumulative capital (financial, social, human, etc.) and dependencies (career, family, etc.). Perhaps I’m more of a searcher now, but check back when I’m married and have kids and see how willing I am to take big chances.


The reason I started thinking of it in these terms is because this is exactly what I saw in the village. On one hand, Togbah was comfortable to use me like a pocketbook throughout my entire stay. Conversely, Amos never asked me for money or for me to buy anything for him. He’s not content to wait and wants to create businesses that will have impacts far beyond himself. He’s already started saving, but I’ve offered to partially fund one of his businesses, which we’re discussing now.

James and Goma fall somewhere in between. They really valued me as a friend, I believe, and wanted to convert this friendship into support for themselves and for their children’s college. They’re a bit harder to characterize because I saw varying tendencies.

So what’s the point?

I think this has a lot of indications for development organizations/businesses and where they intervene. One school of thought is that if you have a limited number of aid dollars, to get the largest social return per dollar, spend the money on high potential villagers (creative searchers) and let them be examples to the others.

However, perhaps these people will be creative on their own, and maybe the people you really need focus on are people like James and Goma, who risk becoming a complacent waiter/consumer.

And this doesn’t mean that waiting consumers can be ignored – certain Bottom of the Pyramid approaches and business ideas, such as launching a product, really needs to pay attention to these consumers and what they want.

It’s not a perfect model, but thinking back to people like Josue in Mozambique, Sihphiwe in Soweto, and Anis in Bangladesh, it creates an interesting lens through which I can see how people handle poverty.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

DIY Infrastructure

In my small hometown, in terms of infrastructure and specifically roads, city officials often consider things like whether to repave a road, install a roundabout in place of a stoplight, or alter speed limits. Rural Liberians in Bong County were faced with a similar dilemma on a slightly larger scale: their government, out of lack of will or capacity, had failed to provide a road connecting their villages to the city. I talked with Amos Mulbah, one of the villagers (not the Amos previously mentioned) who explained the problem was that pregnant women had to endure many pains over the footpaths that made villages accessible only by foot or motorcycle. Yea, I think a road connecting my home to modern civilization is probably pretty important, too.

Villagers are taking matters into their own hands. When I first heard them talk about this, I envisioned them uprooting stumps or something of the like to make it more passable. Instead, they are essentially hacking through the forest to build their own road from scratch. Follow the road far enough from Kpellemue as I did one Friday, and you will run into about 25 people, five or so of whom have axes and are chopping away at trees, while the rest are destumping, clearing, and smoothing the road. A group of women come out to provide food for the workers.

They’d been at it since January 2010, and when I talked to them in November they estimated they would be able to finish the last two miles by last month, February 2011. They let me take a few swings of the axe, and it became pretty obvious why it was going to take them over a year (I didn’t get an estimate on the distance).

The effort was started in Gbanga, the county capital, and most villagers worked as much as they could until the road reached their village, meaning there were many more working early on. There was no formal structure in place, and I even had trouble identifying who was in charge – it was as if everyone rolled up their collective sleeves and said, “Well, we’re not going to wait any longer”. Every Friday, people would take off time from their farm or job to work on the public road, and even a few like Amos Dolo (the aforementioned entrepreneur) have continued to help after the road passed their villages.

Similarly, at Amos Dolo’s school, he showed me another problem. The national government mandated a cap of 35 students per class, but failed to provide the funding necessary for additional buildings. Whoops. Though school officials have voiced their concerns to government, the PTA decided they were going to do something about it themselves. Subsequently, they have been going out to find “contracts” – essentially agreements with people who need brushing done, need fields harvested, or have other labor-intensive jobs in need of completion.

He showed me the extension, which only needs funding for the zinc roof before completion. In the meantime, they’re using a one room church and have divided it into thirds with tarps and stand-up dividers. Technically they’re separate rooms, but when I tried giving a short lesson, it was a bit distracting, to say the least.

They expect their government to provide the infrastructure and social services – that they were vocal about. But given these examples of collective initiative, it seems they understand the nation has just emerged from years of war and recovery will be slow. In the meantime, they can help too.

While I won’t compare apples with oranges – Liberia and the US are in two completely different development situations – it is tempting to envy this combination of urgency and will. Writing this from back in the US, where years of spending beyond our means and gridlock on issues such as healthcare and social security have produced one of the most pressing situations in recent history, it sure seems we have the former but not the latter.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Amos' Vision

Walking the main path through Boi Town and Kpellemue during the early morning hours and dusk hours is like going to a small town grocery store just after 5 p.m. It’s hard for me to get very far before running into someone. One day I stopped to talk with middle-aged man caring a bundle of sticks on his head. He let me try it out. The load must have weighed over 50 pounds, as I could barely make it up the hill. Somewhat amused, he took it off my hands and continued on his hour-long trek.

On several occasions I also ran into Joseph, a young man about my age walking village to village to sell medicines in order to save money for college. On average he estimates that he walks about five hours a day.

Then there’s Jacob. A friend of mine who’s often around the farm, I asked him to charge my phone. The village is off the grid, so he had to go in town. The transport to get there and back, at 40 Liberian dollars, was almost the same cost of actually the phone. Assuming you walk, that’s a half day of work you’ve missed.

I met many shopkeepers in the village, such as Niepoo, who kept me satiated with the delicious, peanut buttery Liberian snack, kanyah. Others sold small consumable items like matches and cigarettes. But I only met one entrepreneur (or maybe more accurately, one entrepreneurial family). This was Amos, who I’ve previously mentioned briefly.

Amos is an elementary teacher at a nearby school that I took a half day to visit, and almost every afternoon you can find him on his porch, in his dusty Florida Marlins hat and running shorts, working on tomorrow’s lesson plan. He’s one of the few people in the village with a concrete home and one of even fewer who have completed high school. His responses to questions can be slightly curt, but at the same time he’s a bit of a jokester. In his spare time he works on his rubber and rice farms, and recently has been vaccinating children in the village for polio on behalf of the World Health Organization. His wife, Framadah, runs the only “restaurant” in town, and is a local to Kpellemue (Amos is from out of town). Amos explained that she didn’t get very far in school – he tried to teach her the ABC’s and she only got to K – but she’s quite the shrewd businesswoman.

Amos is even more enterprising. After I got to know him a bit better, he told me about some of his past failures with fish farming, but also how he has other plans. Particularly nagging him is an idea to bring electricity to the village. He wants to save enough money to buy a small generator to charge cell phones, which are growing in number in Kpellemue and surrounding villages (no nearby villages have electricity either). He would use Framadah’s restaurant as an anchor point. He envisions the restaurant extending service to dinner time, when the generator could be used to power a TV and VCR to screen football matches and movies. During the screenings for which he would charge admission, he could charge phones and serve meals, coffee and tea.

He’s thinking bigger, too. His next idea after that is to start a rubber purchasing/consolidation depot. Currently, most villagers individually take their rubber into town and sell it to the traders in the market, getting middleman prices. His plan is to buy up any rubber in the village at the going rate that traders are offering and take it in aggregate, to save on transport costs, directly to Firestone, the multinational company. The villagers would benefit because they wouldn’t have the added transport costs, and his transport costs would be covered by the higher margins at Firestone.

He went on and on like this in priority order – next it was poultry farming, then pineapple. As with anything entrepreneurial and especially agricultural, there’s an enormous amount of risk. Exhibit A is his fish farm, which crashed when the region was hit by a drought. But still, I can see the opportunity: I bought a pineapple in the village for the equivalent of 35 cents, while I saw the same pineapple in the city a week later for around $2.50.

And it seems like he’s not the only one of the family. His brother-in-law Anthony is planning to start a pharmacy, giving the aforementioned Joseph a run for his money. I can only hope that Amos and others like him hang around and hang onto these visions. He’s one of few who are really leading by example.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where’s the Corn?: Thoughts on Idea Spread in Liberia and Beyond

Staying on the topic of rice, as I swished through the rice fields day after day, I started to wonder: Where is all the corn? In Southern Africa, corn is everywhere – everyone eats it as a thick porridge, and as a result grinding mills are ubiquitous. Maize is present in Liberia, but it’s much less available than rice is in Southern Africa. It’s not the case that corn can’t grow in Liberia (see data available for Liberia). It seems, rather that Liberians haven’t developed a culture of consuming it as a meal. Something happened – and I’m not sure what – but the idea of rice as the country’s staple food above corn spread long ago and has cemented itself.

What’s interesting to me here is how ideas and customs spread or don’t spread, and what this means for a diversified, and thus more stable, economy (and more diversified diets in this case!). Something as culturally distinct from traditional African customs as spaghetti – which I loved to eat at the many roadside stands – has taken off in West Africa and specifically Liberia. In contrast, corn is still relegated mostly to a grilled, midday snack.

So why didn’t corn establish itself originally in Liberia and why has it still not?

On one of my days off from harvesting, I was chatting with Cooper, a teacher at a nearby school. We talked about idea spread in Liberia. Cooper thinks that part of the corn absence might have to do with the fact that no one has taken up corn on the processing side. Currently, there are few grinding mills for corn, and almost as few people know about them. He told me a story of an entrepreneur who had brought a pineapple processing business for juice near to his home, which created a huge jump in pineapple production. People need to see that you’ve built a factory, and they want someone before them to test the waters.

He continued, “We only know two ways to cook cassava [another staple food] – boil it and pound it.” No one had hit upon the idea of grinding the root and then frying to serve as a topping on foods like they had in Ghana (they do grind it, but don’t fry it). Certainly, you can’t treat Africans as one homogenous group, but many ideas can be and have been transplanted from other neighboring countries.

It’s conversations like these, and observing how certain products spread like wildfire throughout a country but stop immediately at the border – like boat shoes in Cote d’Ivoire – that underscore the huge opportunities for entrepreneurial activity. These open market gaps can be filled. Consider poultry in northern Mozambique, which I worked on in Mozambique with TechnoServe: people are getting into all aspects of the industry – growing, processing, trading – largely because it’s simply an available, profitable option. Along the same lines, NGOs have found “look see” demo plots to be one of the most effective ways to convince farmers to adopt new agricultural practices. In Africa, more than in the West, seeing is believing.

Without digging around for different studies online, just being in Africa I get a sense that there is an almost “if you build it they will come” size of an opportunity. Of course, there are many complications that need to be carefully navigated, such as politics and quality control. If you could do that, and determine WHY certain products hadn’t reached a consumer segment, I’d bet there are many untapped pools of producers to ready to work and customers waiting to be served.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Models for Governance in the Rice Fields of Liberia

The primary work I came to do at the village – and by “work” I mean that I owned the dead-weight title for the duration of my stay – was rice harvesting. It was harvest time and so much labor was needed.

From a high-level perspective, the way it works is that for every day you work on someone else’s farm, they owe you a day on your farm. So you end up with about 15 or so people, whose farms you’ve already worked on previous days, assembling at your farm on one planned day to knock out most or all the field. It’s much more efficient than going on your own because you have a couple young men collecting the cut rice from behind the line of attack (see last picture), and I can attest there’s strength in numbers. (In this first picture I'm getting ready to haul the rice back to the farm kitchen in typical style - on top of your head with cutlass under your arm.)

The first day was a grand failure, as everyone showed up to Togbah’s farm, but soon after left when they realized Togbah had not prepared the ties (vines) to bind the cut rice. In following days, as I joined the team and went to other fields, I never saw anyone’s field unprepared and thus realized the blatant lack of preparation by Togbah.

But eventually it was our turn again, and Game and Esther, as is custom, prepared a big midday meal for everyone, which the workers devour in quantities I’ve never before seen. The meal is much needed because it’s tough work. Ten solid hours under the blistering sun, hunched over the rice, day after day, is difficult when you don’t have any climate-controlled refuge to return to or any Western amenities. The irony is that to cut the rice almost everyone uses the same paring knife bearing the brand name “Enjoy Living” on the handle.

As we cut, we would do rhythmic chants to propel the work along. It was usually one person leading, and then everyone chanting a complimentary phrase, with me somewhere in the background trying to sound like I was saying the right thing. Seeing as how Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, I couldn’t help but consider the unsettling possibility that I was singing along with them songs that were once sang on my country’s southern soil.

But what is most intriguing about the harvest itself is the developed leadership structure and well-defined schedule of fines for those who don’t follow the rice harvesting rules. I talked with the friendly Superintendant James Flomo about this. His position is supported by a Secretary and Solider, and as the leader, he is in charge of organizing the group and recording fines. A line leader with a whistle indicates when the group should move to a new section of the field.

The fines are rather strict – 5 Liberian dollars for talking during a song, 20 dollars for leaving rice behind you, 10 dollars for leaving the area without telling anyone. All the money goes in a pot, primarily used to help the family pay for the food and purchase palm wine that is consumed throughout the day. I took a few swigs but being the nice guy that I am, I saved the rest for them.

In a country where corruption and leadership is so poor that the president dissolved her entire cabinet save one minister, next to neighboring leaders who alter election results to their liking, this village governance is impressive to me. Why can’t policy makers take a hint from the leadership and discipline from their constituents in the village? To be certain, there is much less power at stake in the village, but my experience in the rice fields makes it seem that the raw capacity is there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Do Resources ≠ Riches on the African Farm? Pt. II

So why have Africa's resources not been turned to riches?

There are many compounding factors, and I won’t go into them all here, but near the core is lack of stable property rights, which in turn translates to people finding little gain from investment, and in the end few companies find an incentive to be there to buy the raw materials of people like James.

Without enforced property rights, two key things can happen, which have interrelated effects:

  1. A strong-armed government, such as Angola or Zimbabwe, can capture export rents and fail to spend it on the public, alienating business and not supporting public infrastructure and social goods. Botswana’s equitable partnership with De Beers, the diamond company, is one reason for the country’s success.
  2. The mindset of people like James becomes consume now, save later. As higher demand chases a constrained amount of goods, inflation ensues, and the central bank raises interest rates to combat it. This high cost of capital, a key symptom of weak property rights I’ll hit upon next, compounded by corruption, lack of infrastructure, and other factors, isn’t the most inviting scenario for investors, foreign or domestic.
When at a USAID conference in Mozambique, I remember the Standard Bank official tell the delegates, point blank, something to the extent of, “There’s no way we can give your farmers lower rates than 16% or reduce the 40-60% equity requirement. It’s just not possible.” At the root of what he was talking about was property rights: in Mozambique, the government owns all property, so private individuals have no equity in their property with which to take out loans.

As a result of these factors, the cost of capital in Sub-Saharan Africa is enormous. The average commercial lending rate for all SSA countries with data available is 17% (CIA Factbook, 2010), and you can imagine that countries without data likely have higher rates.

Business investment is sorely needed, for both agricultural innovation (higher yields for farmers) and to serve as an outlet to which farmers can sell. When I was in the village for those few weeks, I almost ran out of money from people trying to sell me things – pineapple, pumpkin, fish. I was like the United States of village trade – heavy on the imports.

It’s also no coincidence that while doing my work with TechnoServe in Ghana, I heard villagers singing the same song, telling me they loved having a “ready buyer” in Guinness Brewery, even though the price was slightly lower.

The villagers need agricultural business to start up, and it’s starting to happen in Liberia. Attracting large commercial investors can be a powerful way to grow an economy and help people like James, but if property rights and cultural traditions aren’t respected when business comes, as this NY Times article points out, it can lead to foreign companies and dictators running away with the loot. In a few posts I’ll talk about people in the village who are looking to serve the business need from the ground up on a much smaller scale.