Sustainable Development: Working with TechnoServe, Coca-Cola and Others to Inspire Progress
I will never forget my first night in Kalawa village. As I sat down to a dimly lit meal of goat stew, a thousand thoughts raced through my head...
Women farmers harvest coffee at a TechnoServe-supported cooperative
I will never forget my first night in Kalawa village. As a Peace Corps trainee, I would be living for the next three months in a crumbling mud house in rural Kenya. My host family spoke little English and had few possessions, yet I was amazed by their friendliness and generosity. As I sat down to a dimly lit meal of goat stew, a thousand thoughts raced through my head: How would this experience change me? How could I help in a culture so different than my own? Had I made the right decision? Regardless, I was determined to make a difference.
It was not long before my romanticized view of development began to fade. East Africa is home to thousands of NGOs, and working at a grassroots level provided a firsthand view of their outcomes. Handout oriented development models were rarely effective, and projects defined by good intentions but limited planning were all too common. These efforts often created a welfare mentality and bred mismanagement, and most were not sustainable -- as soon as funding was pulled, the projects would fail and people were no better off than when they started. There are circumstances that necessitate humanitarian aid, but I found that most people in my village did not need charity. They were intelligent, hardworking and more than capable of taking care of themselves. What they lacked was a level economic playing field and the tools needed to succeed in a market-driven world.
My saving grace was my Peace Corps assignment. My business background provided me with an opportunity to work with the United Nations, teaching farming as a business and establishing market linkages for smallholder farmers. I was surprised at how transferable business skills were to the development field, and the sustainable impact was rewarding. Two years after my first bewildering evening in Kalawa village, I had become inspired by the work ethic, resiliency and ingenuity of smallholder farmers in my community. I realized their vast potential, and believed business-driven yet socially responsible development could lift millions out of poverty. The burning question was what to do next.
Farmers sort premium washed coffee at a cooperative-owned wet mill in Tanzania
My inspiration came at a value chain conference in Nairobi. There, I learned of TechnoServe’s work in the Tanzanian coffee sector. By identifying a business opportunity with a direct link to reducing rural poverty, TechnoServe helped increase incomes and improve livelihoods for thousands of smallholder farmers while increasing the country’s production of specialty coffee. TechnoServe was not giving a handout, but rather providing skills, tools and market linkages to help rural farmers help themselves. With methodical upfront planning, market-driven performance targets, and a clear and sustainable exit plan, this was a development model I could align with, and in early 2008 I joined TechnoServe as a Volunteer Consultant.
I joined TechnoServe in a pivotal year; the organization had just received $47 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – TechnoServe’s largest project grant yet. The Gates-funded program would scale and replicate this model. The initiative would help smallholder farmers in four countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania – to improve the quality and quantity of their coffee for sale to the specialty market. After four years, the program has reached 170,000 smallholder farmers and 280 wet-mill businesses.
I meet a farmer over 90 years old and in better shape than I am
As a Volunteer Consultant for this initiative, I conducted and analyzed farm-level assessments of smallholder cultivation practices. Growing conditions varied greatly – not only by country and region but by cooperative and individual farm. Factors such as pest and disease control, erosion and soil management, and postharvest processing had a significant impact on yields and quality, and these findings were used to customize farm management training for thousands of farmers. This agricultural training provided a critical link in TechnoServe’s value chain model, and when combined with training on business operations, financing for cooperative-owned milling equipment and linkages to specialty markets, the initiative provided a holistic platform to increase incomes and improve smallholder livelihoods throughout East Africa.
More than three years have passed since I returned to the U.S., but my work with TechnoServe has had a profound influence on my career path. The organization affirmed my commitment to “Business Solutions to Poverty,” and I have since earned an MBA from Duke University focused on social entrepreneurship and international development. Through the MBA program, I participated in a summer internship with Mars, assisting rural cocoa farmers in Indonesia. This, in turn, led to my current role supporting The Coca-Cola Company's Sustainable Agriculture program, through which the Company has partnered with TechnoServe on several ambitious and innovative initiatives. Naturally, I remain impressed by TechnoServe’s model, and am indebted to my experience as a Volunteer Consultant for where I am today. I am confident TechnoServe will continue to provide economic opportunities for millions across the developing world, while providing a model for sustainable, market-driven development that others will follow. I am excited about the potential of this work to transform lives and create a better world, and I hope to remain engaged in these efforts regardless of where life takes me next.