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.

Christy Clark decides to be more like Gordon Campbell

Lively read from Harvey Oberfeld on the controversy over Christy Clark's refusal to take questions from the media at a Vancouver photo op, and new communications director Sara MacIntyre's snark-laden on-camera exchange with reporters over the question ban. (Snark-laden on both sides.)
The control-freak approach to avoiding questions from journalists or unscripted exchanges with the public is popular these days. Stephen Harper - for whom MacIntyre did similar work - is a big fan. And he is also prime minister, which might lead some to think it's not a bad tactic.
Not so good for democracy though. Though it's fair to question our performance, reporters play an important role in asking questions that the public might want answered. No one anointed the media as public representatives, but it's part of the checks and accountability of our system and not lightly to be abandoned. (And, theoretically, if the news media ask all the wrong questions people will quit paying attention to them. Which, in fairness, I note they are.)
The alternative is politicians spouting scripted platitudes and talking points.
It's an odd approach for Clark to choose. Her record in government wasn't impressive, but Clark's leadership campaign was based in part on her abilities as a politician, which had been highly rated. Her radio background and personable nature were supposed to make her an effective communicator, able to perform well in challenging situations.
Turning her into a politician like Gordon Campbell or Stephen Harper, sticking to stiffly scripted set pieces in staged settings, tosses away what was claimed as a major political asset.
The increasing distance between politicians and the people they represent, which looks much like dislike, is also damaging for democracy.
As premier, Glen Clark, like those before him, was scrummed regularly by reporters. When the legislature was sitting - a less rare event in those days - the Press Gallery pack could usually count on one or two chances a day to pose questions. Clark also wandered the legislature lawn, talking, sometimes arguing, with people.
Campbell ended all that. He wouldn't stop for questions in the hall, no matter how pressing the issues.
Instead, he introduced what the press gallery types called secret scrums. Reporters were summoned to the premier's office infrequently and waited for Campbell to emerge from an inner office and stand in front of flags and take questions. At any moment he could wave a cheery thanks and bolt away, avoiding tough topics. Campbell also wasn't one for walkabouts, since RCMP officers accompanied him for security. (Though it's hard to imagine Clark having much less need for security by the end of his time as premier.)
Of course, Campbell won three elections, so maybe the tactics work politically.
But at the same time, voter contempt for, or at least disinterest in, politics and politicians, seems to be rising.
Winning elections at the expense of a diminished democracy seems a bad trade for any responsible politician.

Footnote: In the video, MacIntyre claims that there was no release from the premier's office saying the premier would be available.
That wasn't true. Journalist Jeremy Hainsworth notes the Office of the Premier did issue an advisory at 5:34 p.m. on March 13 that said "The event will be held indoors, and photo and interview opportunities will be held after the Premier's address on the trade show floor."
Which suggests level of disorganization in the premier's office, perhaps the result of too many highly paid people rushing around each thinking he or she is in charge.
MacIntyre's testy and inaccurate response also suggests a certain panic. I did a weekly piece for Shaw TV on B.C, politics and policy and frequently had MacIntyre on, when she was the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation rep, to offer commentary. She was excellent, prepared and poised on camera and offering useful perspective. Not at all like in the unfortunate clip.

The importance - and potential corruption - of microcredit

I spent the last two days at a workshop for small producers, mostly agricultural, in Honduras. (I'll write something in the next day or two; it was interesting, even as I drowned in a 13-hour day of Spanish immersion.)
But a key issue was access to capital, even in tiny amounts. Doug Saunders' microcredit piece in the Globe today offers a useful perspective.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Digging a hole with the Christians of Tyler, Texas

Great news, my partner said. I'm going along with a church group doing a water project to see how it works, and you can come.
CASM, the Honduran agency Jody is working for, was helping the group with the logistics. She thought it would be good to see the work, and maybe there would be a communications piece in it.
So at 8 a.m. Saturday we walked up to the Hotel Puente Maya, met a bunch of Texans and hopped in the back of a pickup truck. We dropped about half a dozen of them - and six or seven boxes of medical supplies - at the clinic in Santa Rita de Copan, where they were offering free care to all comers. (They had medical skills; it wasn't totally random.) It was market day in Santa Rita, and teens from the local school were on hand to help with the clinic, which is on the attractive, well-planted square. I practised my Spanish with a happily drunk old guy; in fact, my Spanish seems particularly well-suited to genially inebriated people.
Then back in the truck, and probably 90 minutes of steady climbing, on dirt roads, high into the mountains.
At considerable speed. Merlin, Jody's boss, was driving and he has the skills and commitment of one of those Finnish WRC rally drivers. (That is, for non-motor sport fans, high praise.)
We crossed streams, had stunning views, passed tiny houses and small towns and ended up at La Cumbre, way up in the mountains, a community of houses strung along dirt roads and trails. Up one of the trails through a coffee plantation - they are great looking plants, dense bushy, dark green foliage - and we came to the project.
Which was a hole in the ground, a medium-size hole in the ground at this point. The community water system had a reservoir higher up, but it wasn't large enough. The good people of the First Christian Church in Tyler, Texas, were here to fund and help build a second reservoir to ensure the community didn't run out of water when things got dry. The two tanks and the village would be connected with piping when it's done.
The reservoir was being dug into the hillside. It was to be a circle, about 20 feet across and four or five feet deep. That meant though, because of the slope, that the wall would be about five feet tall on the downhill side and 15 feet tall on the uphill side.
Some people from the community had been working on it. It was probably two feet deep. The Texans - a mixed group, from maybe early 30s to nearing 70, I'd guess - grabbed shovels and pickaxes and started moving dirt. There was one wheelbarrow and a narrow dirt ramp to get it out of the hole. (The kind of useful thing I would have forgotten to leave.)
So we dug too, of course. It would be remarkably lame to watch a bunch of Americans and Hondurans digging a community water project.
It was hard. The views were great, and we were high enough in the hills that it wasn't roasting hot. (Which is one reason it's such good coffee country.) But wielding a short, heavy pickaxe and trying to heave dirt out of a hole isn't easy.
The Hondurans were the strongest. They do this kind of work. But some of those Texans were real workhorses. One guy just settled into part of the hole and worked his way steadily downward.
I held my own, though I started too fast and then faded a little. And my one run at pushing the hugely heavy wheelbarrow out of the hole convinced me that perhaps that was best left to others.
A woman from the community and two young girls brought us lunch - tortillas, refried beans, spaghetti and scrambled eggs - and by the time we called it a day the hole was pretty impressive - another two feet deep, I'd say. We moved way more dirt than I thought we would, though I noticed people got quieter as the day wore on.
The Texans were taking Sunday off, but figured the hole would be dug by the end of Monday and pouring the concrete - also a hand-mix, wheelbarrow operation - would be next.
I was impressed with those people. They worked with varying amounts of strength and dedication, and occasionally seemed a little irked with each other, but they made a big dent in the reservoir, stayed in good spirits, joked with the Hondurans and welcomed a couple of Canadians hanging around. They held a bunch of fundraising events to get enough money for the supplies and worked with a religious organization in the U.S. that links volunteers and projects.
And they were impressively realistic, perhaps because some of them had been doing this kind of thing regularly for about 20 years. Some projects worked great, they said, some only got partly done, one or two had not really turned out. But they showed up, accepted whatever living conditions were at hand, worked hard during their stay and left having accomplished what they could.
Outreach, they call it, and the First Christian Church in Tyler has had a longstanding commitment to use 10 per cent of the money that comes in to help others, in their community or anywhere they see a need they can fill.
I even liked the church motto - Unity in matters of faith, diversity in matters of opinion, in all things love.
It was a good day.