Saturday, March 17, 2012

Killer bees and a Honduran business development workshop

I’ve done a lot of business analysis exercises over the years, but never one where African killer bees showed up on the list of threats and opportunities.
I just spent two days in a Cuso International workshop for producers in Honduras, bringing together about 30 people to help them take a look at their businesses and what they can do to make them stronger.
On one level, it was familiar after years as a manager. It’s important to sit down and analyze your operations and the external factors, current and future, and come up with plans to do better.
On another, it was wildly different.
Most obviously, because everything was in Spanish. We did an early get-to-know-each-other exercise which included drawing a symbol for yourself. People did trees and suns and hearts and birds and the like. I did a question mark, because, I told them, I listened to the presentations and kept thinking “Que? Que? Que?” (Jody Paterson, my partner, drew herself leaping off a cliff. Her post on the workshop is here.)
But the challenges were also very different. The workshop - tallers they’re called here - included a few people from local NGOs, but mostly primary producers. There were several intense, darkly tanned coffee growers, some cocoa producers, furniture makers, fruit and vegetable growers and some women in a tiny honey business.
The program combined instruction with a lot of group work, with people joining others in the same field to study their businesses and do the standard SWOT analysis - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Except here it’s a FODA analysis - fuerzas, opportunidades, debilidades y amenazas. They were seriously committed; we went from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. the first day, and started the sessions at 7 a.m. the next day, because we were running behind schedule.
The theory was that, using the analysis and considering the “value chain,” they would come up with action plans to strengthen their businesses and get to work on them.
It was effective, and fascinating. A few things leapt out.
First, they mostly weren’t as sophisticated in their analysis as a comparable group of Canadian business people. I spent time with the vegetable growers as they did their FODA analysis, and there wasn’t a lot of talk about new markets and pricing strategies and branding.
But that was realistic. If you’re growing tomatoes in a region with limited transportation and few restaurants or even supermarkets, then branding strategies are just silly. You’re selling a commodity. You could find the nicest tomatoes and charge a small premium, but organic isn’t a niche.
That was another difference. In a similar Canadian exercise, based on my newspaper experience, people would have come up with grand strategies for new products and brand extensions and multiple platforms. They would have produced a plan that sounded oh-so-clever, but was actually completely unrealistic, designed to please their masters, not produce a stronger business.
The Honduran producers weren’t so delusional. Some of the action plans won’t work out, but they were pragmatic.
Second, the producers had a sound assessment of their businesses’ positions, and what needed to happen. The coffee growers knew they needed to improve living conditions for workers, or they wouldn’t have enough of them, so their plan included better housing and food. (They also raised interesting questions about organic and fair trade certifications. These are family operations, but if their kids help with the picking they lose their fair trade certification. And more broadly, work harvesting coffee by kids keeps a lot of families out of desperate poverty. Is it really “fair” to cut them out of that work without any alternative? A school-aged boy can make $15 a day picking coffee, three times the wage for an unskilled labourer and as much as a bank teller. For a poor family, that’s a huge benefit.)
The rambutan growers knew they needed to come up with products based on the fruit. (I’d never heard of it, but rambutan is a cool-looking Asian fruit that is, according to Jody, like a lychee without the disgusting floral flavours.) Their plan included exploring wine and marmalade products, though the concept of opening export markets seemed remote.
Third, the barriers to success were often, by North American standards, small. A way of getting goods to buyers - as simple as an available truck, or car in the case of the honey producers - came up on several lists.
And fourth, the importance of the support of NGOs was overwhelming. The action plans included investments in processing equipment to add value, or technical improvements to increase crop productivity. They looked to NGOs to support those efforts.
Some argue aid encourages dependency. But North American agricultural producers benefit from a huge amount of aid - university agriculture departments doing research, government ministries providing experts and funding and marketing support (and in the case of marketing boards, protection against competition).
That doesn’t exist in Honduras. There’s no money. Agencies supported with foreign money provide the technical and financial support Canadian producers take for granted.
The vegetable producers dragged me into the group photo and made me sign the official pledge to deliver on their action plan.
I’ll let you know how it went in six months.
Footnote: And I hope the African killer bees don’t wreck the honey business. They killed two children here last week, when the eight-year-old brother of one ill-advisedly threw a rock at a hive in a tree. We are not in Kansas anymore, as Dorothy would say.

1 comment:

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