What Do You Actually Do In-Country?
B4D projects are, by definition, very difficult.
If the situation was easy, there’d be no need to bring us in.
People would simply end extreme poverty in their communities.
Unfortunately, the reason we still have extreme poverty today is because situations are enormously complex, and because the obvious solutions haven’t worked.
Therefore, our mission is to create some not-so-obvious solutions that are feasible, sustainable and impactful.
Not everyone is happy to see us.
We walk into a drama that’s been unfolding for years and years, often with a rich history of corruption, failed experiments and disappointment.
Some people see us as a breath of fresh air, whereas others feel they have a good plan and don’t want some foreigners getting in the way.
This is completely understandable.
We’ll have previously read up on the area, its politics, agronomics, economics and geographic layout.
We want to understand what has been tried, what has worked, and what hasn’t.
Then we get to meet the main stakeholders – local politicians, business owners, successful farmers, community groups and the clients who hired us.
Everyone has their own high hopes for our work, and it’s tricky to reassure everyone without making specific promises.
These are a mixed bag – some are fascinating conversations that reveal what’s really happening behind the scenes, while others are formalities that help remove suspicion.
Lay Of The Land
Usually, our client has a solution in mind, which we take seriously.
That said, we don’t take it as gospel, and will think laterally about alternative ways of achieving the main goals (e.g. number of households, target income, budget, timeframes)
This involves visiting farms, factories and warehouses, as well as conducting soil tests to see what can be grown in the area.
This process feels like a mess.
We’re bombarded with a series of ideas, whilst also creating our own, and need to ask a lot of questions to test our assumptions.
A single piece of news can make or break an idea, such as market prices, land suitability, farmer enthusiasm, local laws or our client’s willingness to entertain an abstract idea.
Therefore, we try to ask questions in a way that keeps everyone feeling safe, so as to not give the wrong impression.
To create a new solution, you first need a thorough understanding of the problem.
People don’t always say what they mean, but they’re good at answering “If” questions.
“If we could guarantee $X per kg, would you grow…”
“If we found a partner who would run…would you build…”
“If someone helped you re-plant your garden with a new crop, would you grow more…”
This tends to reveal one of three problems:
Agronomic: Something won’t grow well
Economic: Something has too narrow margins
Motivational: Farmers aren’t excited enough to try something different
In India, where most households grow corn, the solution might be around providing better fertilisers or equipment, rather than changing the crop.
In Indonesia, the solution might be to remove some middlemen from the supply chain, creating higher prices for farmers.
In PNG, the solution might be to change the perception of a crop through support programs, and reassure people that this “boring” option will triple their incomes.
As I mentioned earlier, these problems still exist because they are so damn complicated.
Maybe there are no roads, or a supplier has a monopoly, or there are cultural barriers (especially involving women).
Maybe there is political tension, poor land maintenance or no access to credit.
Maybe a “positive” change has negative side effects, (e.g. flooding a small market with a crop, so its price plummets).
Our next challenge is to think through a range of options from all angles.
Each member of our team has a special focus, such as agronomics, women’s rights, local politics, competition, or governance.
For this reason, we work as a team to consider all the ramifications of each idea.
My two specialities are the financial model (does it go bankrupt?) and the behavioural economics (will people actually go for it?).
We leave the country with our heads spinning, ready to start thrashing through the alternatives and preparing our reports/presentations.
We travel to some dangerous places, but are well protected.
Every trip goes through a risk assessment, and we have tools that keep us safe.
We use two clever apps – International SOS that gives us up-to-date safety information and instant evacuation at the press of a button.
We also use Polar Steps, which uses cellular signals to track our trips, so our team and families can see exactly where we are in the world, right down to which building we’re in.
I have learned the hard way about meals – violent food poisoning on an Indonesian plane has changed my views drastically.
Some people get very macho about their ability to eat like a local, but I’m happy to seem like a precious petal if it keeps me in a good mental state – especially when we have 12-14 hours of meetings per day.
There are no prizes for looking tough, the only job is to create a solution that changes people’s lives.
Whilst I don’t like the 30+ hour transits, the work itself is fascinating.
Seeing how people live in the developing world is simultaneously inspiring, heartbreaking and humbling.
Better yet, it reminds you of the people behind the statistics, and brings meaning to the world of finance and development.
If this sounds like work you’d like to do, have a look at B4D’s website to find out more.
If you have a specific question, feel free to send me an email at Isaac@isaacjeffries.com