How Have I Helped Dorothy?

For those of you not yet familiar, “Dorothy” is a name used by EWB to represent a person trapped in poverty. Using an actual name is intended to give us a personal connection to the work we do.

My placement is quickly coming to a close. This week, I am finishing a couple items on my to-do list, then next week I will be doing a village stay in Malawi. The week after, I fly to Toronto. As things wrap up, it is a natural time to reflect on what I have done. How has my work here helped Dorothy?

My time has been split between three projects.

1) Pre-Paid Voucher Programme

This programme allows farmers to pay in advance for hybrid maize seed. Right after they sell their harvest is when most farmers have cash, but by the time the next planting season comes along, they may not have money to invest in hybrid seed, and they will resort to using recycled seed, lowering their yields at the next harvest.

I was skeptical of this programme at first. Why don’t farmers just budget their money better, and save some for the next season? I have since learned that it can be extremely difficult to hold onto cash in this environment. When you have money, friends and family that don’t have money will ask you to lend them some. Culturally, it can be extremely difficult to refuse them. One way to get around this predicament is to tie up your money in physical assets, such as bricks for a new building. The Zambian countryside seems to be absolutely full of half finished buildings, perhaps for this very reason. Either way, whether you lend money out or build with it, you may be cash-strapped when it comes time to buy seed for the next year. This programme offers a third option; tie up your capital in next season’s inputs, even though they’re not in stores yet. You pay early, get a voucher, then come back before the rains start to trade your voucher for your seed. This system can serve as a sort of savings account for farmers who don’t bank.

How do you determine if this system is working, that it is actually benefiting rural farmers? If it benefits them, they will see value in it and participate. Participation varied in the four districts we piloted. MRI also offered a discount if farmers bought a voucher. Where participation was high, were farmers participating mostly for the discount, or for the value it offers as security for next season’s crop? That answer probably varies from farmer to farmer. Where participation was low, was it because farmers didn’t see any value, or because they were afraid of being cheated? After all, the voucher sort of amounts to an I.O.U. Give me money, and I’ll give you your seed later…

This year’s pilot helped us identify kinks and flaws in the system. Next year, execution can be made smoother. Will it help Dorothy? She can cast her own vote next year by participating, or choosing not to.

2) Market Research Survey

In a nutshell, market research allows companies to understand their current and potential customers better. Armed with this knowledge, they can mobilize their resources to maximize their revenues with minimal capital outlay. In this way, it benefits the companies who use the information wisely. Does it also help Dorothy? Recall that as an Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) team in Zambia, we have identified “better access to agricultural inputs” as a path to increased wealth for rural farmers. If the survey helps agricultural input companies to identify areas where few of their products are being sold, and provide easier access for farmers there, then our team vision will be realized. The survey is also designed to identify gaps in product knowledge that can be addressed through better extension services (from a business perspective, customer education breeds customer loyalty).

The actual impact on Dorothy is more difficult to evaluate than the voucher programme. We have certainly relied on our intuition for this one, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

3) MRI Agent Network

Over the last month, I have done some work in this area. We have tried a new agent recruitment method, and I have followed up by testing out methods of making sales through these agents. The underlying assumption here is that using rural agents extends the distribution of agricultural inputs to more remote areas, where poverty levels are highest.

Do agent networks help Dorothy? Similar to the voucher programme, she can vote for herself by participating or not. Of course, if she doesn’t participate, that might mean the system needs tweaking before we decide to throw it out. Execution is far more important than whatever theoretical model you start out with.

Overall Strategy

What of our AVC team goal? To provide better access to agricultural inputs for rural farmers. Is poor access to agricultural inputs a root cause of poverty? I would say yes, given how popular hybrid seeds are, for example, among both commercial and small scale farmers. But let me frame it a different way… Is cheaper, easier and more convenient access to agricultural inputs a path to increased wealth? I feel that I can give an even more confident “yes” to that question. Why is it a more resounding yes? When you talk of poverty, a multitude of reasons for its existence bombard you. Addressing only one of them can appear inadequate. You have to keep questioning… is this a root cause, or just a cause? When you talk about opportunities to increase wealth, each opportunity is a stand-alone entity. For many people, it’s worth seizing, even if it isn’t an optimal or perfect opportunity.

Working with a private sector partner has been very interesting. Working with private enterprises may seem less altruistic than other development schemes, because businesses are always asking, “What’s in it for me?” But I think it’s a fantastic vehicle for development, because the true essence of good, long-term business is discovering win-win scenarios. Or even better… win-win-win. As business activity proliferates, you get win-win-win-win- ad infinitum… or to put it another way, everybody benefits.