Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Beach Means Business (and pretty good times)

Riding along a bumpy dirt in the back of a covered pickup truck, crammed in with pumpkins and a big pile of wood, we were excited about our bolea (means “hitchhike” in Portuguese, or “ride” when it’s thrown around informally in English). My colleague Andrew, our friend Toan (pronounced “Twan”), and I were heading to Carrusca, a little beach resort (pic 1) a few kilometers down the road from the nearest town Chocas. Andrew and I have been taking weekend trips to different Peace Corp sites to visit our friends (which has given me a pretty good idea of whether I ever want to do Peace Corp), and this one happened to be right next to probably the nicest beach I’ve ever been to. Sand as white as pearls, water so clear you can see to the bottom, and enormous palm trees heavy with coconuts. Seven of us found our way to a couple little huts for a genuinely good weekend.

But I’m getting sidetracked. When we got out of our bolea, with my butt in pain from the pile of wood and Toan and Andrew pretty soaked with sweat, we chatted for a minute with the driver. She was a young Dutch woman who happened to be starting a 5-star resort right next to Carrusca. The resort was done, but the staff was still being trained, and they would open in a month.

It seems like every day I run into someone starting a business, whether it’s agriculture, industry, or tourism. This might be because my consultancy position puts me in an environment that makes exposure more likely, but even regardless I think there are a lot of people who are just starting to dig into the loads of opportunity here. I’ve been to places like yogurt factories, feed mills, poultry farms, soy foods factories, chili pepper farms, cashew factories and I’ve talked with all kinds of business owners, from those at bakeries to trading companies. I’ve seen a LOT of new business activity, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.

My basic premise here is: So what if it’s a for-profit business? Can’t that work for poverty alleviation? I’ve always (trans.: since early college) thought that someday I would possibly start an NGO or a “social business” – something with social objectives, a good motto that talks of “empowerment” or “sustainability” or something like that, and maybe a website that shows how much the poor we work with have improved their lives. And maybe I still will. But regular for-profit businesses, if run in a respectable manner (i.e. paying fair wages, pollution control), can also have a big impact on the poor.

Novos Horizontes poultry company, which I visited numerous times, is doing great things for the poor, all while competing as one of the top two chicken companies in northern Mozambique. They have over 100 “outgrowers” (see pic #2) who raise flocks at their homes, which brings in much needed income to these subsistence farmers. Nutriset in France, is a fabricator of Plumpy’Nut production lines (see last two pics), which are used to produce the peanut-based therapeutic food that is used to help severely underweight children. Nutriset wants to make boatloads of money, but its product (the production machinery) is sold to NGOs, who then use the end product in development efforts.

Businesses, we know, cut the crap and get to the point. They don’t mess around with fluffy goals that can’t be measured. They’re scalable too, which means more jobs. And if you run a business in a place like Mozambique, especially if it’s related to agriculture or industry, you’re going to be employing at least a few poor Mozambicans (maybe the devil is in the details). And who are your customers? Mozambicans, of course, and they are generally poor. That 5-star resort that’s opening up – think of the workforce: I’d bet at least some of the managers and all of the attendants are locals. They’re probably not the poorest people, but I think this is how knowledge transfer happens.

Maybe I’m being na├»ve or stupid, or simply playing devil’s advocate. Maybe you can’t run a company honestly and still expect to compete with all the dirty business that goes on in a place rife with corruption like Mozambique. And maybe the way I would run the business would just put it right back into the category of “social business”, since I don’t’ want to become rich – I want my employees to become rich. There are a lot of holes in this composition, which I could object to myself, but I welcome anyone to point them out and discuss them. It would save me some thinking…I need to get back to the beach.


  1. Yeah, I don't know, Rob. Of course, you could always choose to be the benevolent capitalist, but didn't you know that before you went on this trip? But ultimately, aren't you looking for some sort of solution that is scalable? A model that relies on the magnanimous manager (you like that?) just doesn't seem to be something that would have the kind of impact that you'd been talking about.

    Certainly you could find models of this that have worked successfully (e.g., Ben and Jerry's, Google, Clif), and as I'm sure you know/have seen first hand, they all have their own problems.

  2. I agree with Josh...whatever he said.