So What Do You Do At B4D?
I’ve previously described the general work of Business For Development, but not about what I actually do.
Let’s go Why, How, What:
My job is to help some of the world’s poorest people lift themselves out of extreme poverty.
Not through donations, not through handouts, but by creating sustainable jobs that pay decent wages.
If you can quadruple the income of a rural farming household, you help bring that entire family out of poverty.
That means, if you create 10,000 jobs, it benefits 50,000 people.
This is a pretty compelling reason to get out of bed each morning, and it’s the goal B4D has set for itself this year.
We work alongside large for-profit companies, to help kickstart new businesses in developing countries.
The world is full of companies that have made fortunes in these poor areas, and they have a commitment to help the community thrive.
Unfortunately, their current attempts are often tokenistic, short lived and ineffective.
Our role is to take that short term burst of funding, and create a business that will be self-sustaining for the next 20-30 years.
We work alongside these companies for a number of years, and help spin off a new Inclusive Business – complete with it’s own CEO, management team and board.
That way, when the initial company leaves, the Inclusive Business remains, and so does the community benefit.
Designing these Inclusive Businesses is really tricky – if it were easy, there would be thousands of them already in existence.
It’s tricky because most businesses fail in the first five years, and it’s even harder in countries with rampant corruption and no reliable infrastructure.
The business needs to pay fair wages, employ good people, and stay financially viable. It also needs to fit the local context, or else it will be shunned by the community.
My job is to help design, plan and build these Inclusive Businesses. That means, going into extreme detail to make sure that they work, spotting issues, and re-designing the business accordingly.
Part of my time is spent in Melbourne, where we thrash through the different options that are possible.
For example, there might be 17 different crops that a village could grow and process, like Vanilla, Coconut, Mango, Nutmeg, Macadamia, Stevia, Pineapple, Cassava, Ginger, Chili, etc.
However, only 3-4 of those will actually work.
Firstly, we rule out the ones that aren’t financially viable – calculated with google, whiteboards, spreadsheets and a lot of coffee.
Secondly, we rule out the ones that aren’t agronomically possible – by analysing the soil, rainfall, and the distance from the nearest market.
We then head overseas to the local villages, to interview farmers, meet with potential suppliers and buyers, and conduct soil tests across the region.
This requires patience, an open mind, and a willingness to be surprised. Farmers are incredibly honest and insightful, and our business needs to fit with their lifestyle.
Of the 3-4 options that work on paper, we now narrow it down to the 1-2 that work on the ground.
Next, we go into the finer details – getting quotes for factory equipment, drawing up floor plans, creating a strong financial model, designing the org chart, planning the truck routes, and agreeing to terms with our future buyers/suppliers.
Plans change quickly; I occasionally catch mistakes in our financial models that completely change our minds about a crop.
Scrapping a plan is painful, but nowhere near as bad as building a flawed business.
That’s the hard part about building businesses in the developing world: the Silicon Valley techniques don’t always work.
In developed countries we say “Fail Fast and Fail Cheap” or talk about the importance of running a pilot.
That’s because mistakes aren’t that costly. Losing $10,000 doesn’t kill you.
The problem is, you can’t test a miniature factory like you can test a popup business – it’s all or nothing.
When you’re working with people living in extreme poverty, the stakes are much higher. A failed crop is disastrous for a household.
That’s why so much of my work exists in the micro details – there’s so much on the line.
It makes for some strange and dull days, when you’re researching the power requirements of tunnel dryers, or measuring rural highways on Google Earth.
But it’s also captivating – to see how each piece of the business fits together to change someone’s life.
The jury is out regarding whether or not social enterprises/inclusive businesses work.
Our industry needs more case studies and success stories.
I am fortunate enough to be a part of the team that’s building them.