Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bananas and Taxpayer Dollars at a Big Aid Conference

Yes, I am still in Mozambique. You know you've been in a country too long when people start asking, "You're still here?" Actually, I don't think my friends hate me, but rather they ask that because I had planned to leave (and told people so) a few weeks back. Another indicator that you've been in a country too long is when, walking home, you think to yourself, "We needed rain," or when texting in your cell phone, the T9 automatically predicts Portuguese words before English words.

At any rate, I am leaving soon, but I extended my stay to help USAID with a big international fruit conference. I had the duties of PowerPoint clicker, name tag designer/cutter and, most importantly I think, composing the conference summary document to be sent out to all attendees. Over the past six months, I have been fortunate to experience the "big aid" side of development, and attending one of these conferences was the icing on the cake, or the cherry on top, if we're trying to go with a more appropriate analogy.

Basically, the setup was a two-day gathering of about 150-200 big shots in the industry, from large-scale seedling producers, to the governor of Nampula, to the director of the Port of Nacala. The head of USAID Mozambique opened the conference, and several of my former bosses at TechnoServe came up from Maputo. TechnoServe is one of the primary facilitators,
along with USAID, in this big fruit industry push. It was one fantastic reunion for me.

The first day was spent at the conference complex. There were presentations and panel discussions. My first impression was just how bad some of the presentations were (though some were great). We're talking excessive text, redundant information, and no illustrative graphics. I had to actually show one presenter how to move to the next slide - he had clearly had his presentation prepared for him. The second thing that really struck me was the overall grandeur of the entire process. Between the coffee breaks, gut-busting buffet lunch, little pastries, and desserts, by the time we got to the cocktail party at the end of the first day I was too full to put down any more than a couple of these amazing appetizers they were relentlessly walking around with. One of the Mozambican USAID workers with who Andrew and I work asked, "You guys don't tip the bartender?" Our response was something along the lines of "We already did, and paid your salary. It's called US tax dollars." However, thinking more critically about it, I think it would be hard to do it any other way - you probably need to have things done up nice when you're flying in the chefies and trying to launch an industry.

The biggest takeaway for me was that there seemed to be a lot of fluff thrown around, lots of general comments without substance. I took some choice quotes, such as "To produce and to be competitive, we have to be efficient," and I found myself often wondering if people would just fly back to Maputo and forget about all this.

Chiquita and its local producer/partner Matanuska were one of the few to actually keep it real. Chiquita buys top grade bananas from Matanuska, which took a lot of risk as the first company in Mozambique to pioneer the fruit export business in northern Mozambique. On day 2 we visited the Port of Nacala (pic 2) and, more interestingly, Matanuska's farm (pic 3). Chiquita and Matanuska explainedthat EU tariff advantages for African countries on fruit (esp. banana) were being phased out over the next six years, so Mozambique didn't have long to become competitive. Chiquita/Matanuska didn't want excuses, and it got a bit heated. When the port director explained that their efficiency shouldn't be compared to India but rather other Mozambican ports, Chiquita, Matanuska, and others said absolutely not, we need to be compared with the world's best. And Chiquita argued with a research institute and the government, let's not wait for this training center that you are two years behind in completion. Bring the trainees to Matanuska's farm. I liked those guys.

In the end, I had to compose the summary document, and most of the outcomes I found are still being threshed out. They don't happen at the conference, but at arranged meetings, through phone calls, and via emails. What conferences like these do well, I think, is bring a lot of people with similar interests together to exchange business cards and get them talking.

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