Helping the Developing World is so complex that simple, linear thinking does not make the grade. Those who seek to improve rural livelihoods face huge challenges. In this installment of our Engineers Without Borders series, one volunteer’s experience is put under the microscope
BY ALLISHA SORDI, E.I.T.
Engineers Without Borders has two core values. We strive to employ critical thinking and analysis — in essence, to ask the tough questions. We’re also a learning organization, one that continually tries to better its methods and practices.
Problem-solving involves the right mix of analysis, innovation and action. It requires that we fully understand the problem and ask a lot of questions.
This is the approach adopted by EWB overseas volunteers. But development is complex and there are many challenges to implementing changes that will improve rural livelihoods and achieve prosperity. Take, for example, the experience of volunteer Graham Lettner, E.I.T., in Malawi, Africa.
Mr. Lettner began his EWB overseas placement in March 2008. He was paired with a small-scale rural entrepreneur, Mafayo Lungu, to improve processing of cassava flour in his factory. From May to August 2008, Mr. Lettner and Mr. Lungu were joined by an EWB student volunteer, Duncan McNicholl.
Here are some questions to ask yourself while reading their story: What could have been done differently? Would the end result have been more sustainable? More profitable? Did Mr. Lettner, Mr. McNicholl and Mr. Lungu ask those critical, tough questions?
Mr. Lungu’s Factory
Helping Mr. Lungu become a successful rural cassava processor was Mr. Lettner’s main goal. If this goal was met, Mr. Lungu would have an opportunity to learn more about rural entrepreneurship and be in a better position to assist other entrepreneurs in the future. Up until mid-May, Mr. Lettner worked side-by-side with Mr. Lungu, trying to understand what processing cassava was all about, making a few small sales of flour, and buying a bit of cassava from local farmers.
When Mr. McNicholl arrived, the team was ready to get down to business. The two volunteers helped Mr. Lungu analyze processing problems within his factory and make changes to improve production. They helped him learn business skills, such as how to calculate revenue, expenses and profit. These skills were put to use in the making of a number of larger sales.
The duo also helped him pitch his business to a group of village headmen, crunched numbers to find his break-even sales volume and price, and joined Mr. Lungu on a couple of sales trips to the capital city of Lilongwe.
So far, so good.
The Cassava Crux
But by mid-June, the trio met with a major obstacle: there weren’t any farmers left with fresh cassava for the factory to buy. Therefore, it now sat idle. And teaching Mr. Lungu new skills grew more difficult, since he had no opportunity to put them into practice.
The EWB volunteers looked for a solution. Realizing that the lack of regular cassava supply had caused the problem, they set out to find a farmer with a big field of cassava ready to sell.
After two long weeks of bicycle trips crisscrossing the countryside, Mr. McNicholl came across a farmer who had a field of almost one hectare of mature cassava. This was enough cassava to operate Mr. Lungu’s factory continuously for two months.
But at least one problem remained. Mr. Lungu didn’t have the money to purchase such a large quantity of cassava.
Agriculture and Micro-finances
With finances as the only thing left to figure out, Mr. Lettner and Mr. McNicholl came up with the idea to loan Mr. Lungu 100,000 Malawian kwacha — about $750 — to purchase the cassava. “McNicholl and I were confident from our number crunching that sales from the flour he produced would be more than enough to repay the loan,” said Mr. Lettner.
For the next two months, things went just as expected. The factory processed every week and Mr. Lungu was receptive to learning and practicing new skills. However, as August came to a close, new issues cropped up.
Mr. Lungu had not yet found a profitable external market. He was forced to store the processed flour at his factory and was planning to wait until December to sell it. Traditionally, December is a time of year when the community food supply is short.
In the meantime, with no new sales to bring in money, Mr. Lungu could no longer afford to pay the staff hired to process his cassava. The factory employees had no work and had to be let go. For his part, Mr. Lungu was once again without ways to practice the new business skills he had learned and the factory was once again idle.
The EWB volunteers realized they’d failed to search for alternatives. This occurred at two major levels.
First, after deciding that fresh cassava supply was the main problem, they quickly jumped to a solution — find a large field and help finance the purchase of the crop.
“In fact, there were dozens of other alternatives we could have assessed,” said Mr. McNicholl. “Even comparing one other option to our chosen solution could have made a difference in our assessment of what was best for Mr. Lungu, his factory and the cassava processing workers he employed.”
Second, Mr. Lettner and Mr. McNicholl did not look for alternatives to their definition of the main problem being tackled. Hastily defining the problem as “not enough fresh cassava supply” overshadowed other, perhaps more pressing concerns. Were market signals clear enough for farmers to grow more cassava? Was Mr. Lungu connected to local financial services? Would he need to find other buyers?
As soon as the volunteers settled on a problem definition, additional data was used to further their position — but not to better understand the situation.
Mr. Lettner summed it up this way: “It is clear in retrospect that, once we had decided upon the problem, our minds moved quickly to justify our actions. The reasons we gave were many.” Among these reasons were that Mr. Lungu wouldn’t learn if the factory didn’t run, that he shouldn’t sit idle until local cassava is matured, and that he needed experience for later when farmers did have cassava to sell.
What we need is thinking that values criticism and takes the time to explore other options. Even if these options seem unattractive or contradict standard practices, they still deserve consideration.
Mr. Lettner and Mr. McNicholl learned that the factory, though seemingly small and straightforward, was part of a larger, more complex system of community dynamics, financial norms, interpersonal relationships and overall Malawian society. Without appreciating it as such, they came up with a pretty blunt and inadequate solution to a complex, non-linear problem.
Likewise, EWB is a complex system of people, values, ideas, relationships and much more. If we can appreciate that, then we are much farther along our path to creating a culture that supports overseas work and connects to EWB members in Canada. Communication of ideas, successes and failures are key.
EWB Canada co-CEOs George Roter and Parker Mitchell put it this way: “We would like to be able to confidently say that we have it all figured out. That we found a neat engineering solution. That we could draw a straight line between our actions today and systemic change tomorrow.
“But we can’t escape the fact that we are navigating complexity as we struggle to create lasting, positive changes. The solutions are never simple, and successful results hinge on our ability to understand and act within complex systems.”
Simply put, it all starts with realizing that there is no easy answer.
Allisha Sordi, E.I.T., works for CH2M HILL. She has been involved in EWB work in Calgary for over seven years. When not helping with EWB’s communication and outreach initiatives, she can be found on the pathways training for her first half-marathon.
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