Sunday, August 31, 2008

So what is it… you would say… that you… do… here?

Earlier this week I spent the day at the Swaziland International Trade Fair, where TechnoServe set up a booth to promote a number of its programs and the work that the organization does within Swaziland. After spending the day communicating the mission and programming at the fair, I thought I’d write a bit about TechnoServe generally, and what we’re doing in Swaziland.
TechnoServe’s mission is to create jobs, income, and economic growth for the rural poor. We do this by identifying and working with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and individual entrepreneurs, and providing business planning advice, technical help, access to finance, and other services that will help businesses grow, and help the benefits flow down to the poor. In addition to working hands-on with specific businesses, TNS also runs a number of programs aimed at raising the business literacy and stoking the entrepreneurial drive of the population here.

In Swaziland, most of the consulting engagements focus on a handful of industries: agriculture – mainly horticulture (e.g. vegetables) and feed & livestock, handcrafts, and tourism. TNS is selective about the engagements it takes on, and does its best to identify clients with the potential to maximize impact among the poor.

While TNS works with individuals, a more typical project would be to provide support for a project management office (PMO), which would oversee and support a larger group of smallholder farmers.

For example, TechnoServe is working with a company here that specializes in the production of chili mash, which is the main ingredient in Tabasco-brand sauce, which all of you have seen in restaurants and supermarkets in the US. TNS helped this company pilot a program to grow chili peppers, provided technical support for growing, and helped arrange the market for the mash with the Tabasco company, and was involved in financing the capital investment required. Our client oversees the production of the mash, and sources chilies from a number of rural smallholder growers. Chilies are a good and profitable crop to grow in Swaziland – technically it is not that difficult, and there is a guaranteed market for them through this project. TNS has helped to pilot this vegetable, and is hoping that to roll it out on a larger scale.

In all of the work, the importance of the entrepreneur is high. It takes committed individuals to start or grow an enterprise, especially in a business climate as difficult as Swaziland's. TNS will look for an individual or small team to work with that could help drive forward different projects.

In Swaziland the entrepreneurial spirit is lagging, and these individuals are hard to find. To help foster a better environment, TNS sponsors three country-wide initiatives – SAYE (School-Aged Youth Entrepreneurship), The Business Place (TBP), and Believe, Begin, Become (a business plan competition, or BPC).

SAYE is targeted at primary and high school students, and is an elective program that students could sign up for. They work with about 50 schools nationwide and put together a number of classes that teach economics, financial literacy, and decision making skills, and other initiatives (such as a program where classes organize and run their own business out of their schools).

The Business Place is the project I’ve been working on, which will be a physical business resource center located in the countryside, where farmers and other small business operators could walk-in and receive a variety of management and technical help. TBP’s focus is to be accessible to its clients, and the center will provide resources to smallholder farmers who otherwise would lack access to them. The center also will incubate a number of shared services and increase coordination between farmers, lenders, and PMOS.

The last initiative is a business plan competition, where TNS solicits individuals to start or improve a small or medium business. TNS takes the participants through a variety of trainings to help develop their plans, which are presented to a judging panel at the end of the competition. Prizes include seed capital and vouchers for professional services.

Throughout all of the work, TNS takes a scientific approach. Most of the staff and volunteers here come from management consulting backgrounds, and projects are selected and conductive based on industry analysis, feasibility studies, and study of data (which could be hard to come by) of potential impact. As a result there’s this interesting and somewhat exotic mix of business and agriculture, with a good dose of silliness/frustration negotiating the sometimes difficult and arduous Swazi business culture.

Swaziland’s size presents a challenge to TNS’ work here. The country is small, and it’s difficult to identify projects and interventions that will have the same scale of impact that they would elsewhere. For example, in East Africa, TNS works largely in the coffee and cashew sectors, both of which (coffee especially) are huge industries with high potential for impact. An intervention in the coffee value chain could bring higher prices and more income to probably millions of individuals. In Swaziland – a country with a population of just over a million, and with great diversity in geography and climate (and thus in what crops grow in what areas) – there’s no industry with anything close to that scale. The industry that comes nearest is sugarcane, which is seeing prices decline over the next few years. This is a huge challenge, and makes TechnoServe’s work much more one-off and labor intensive than it would elsewhere.

Between learning about sugar cane, agriculture, small business, social investment, micro-finance, and development work, it’s all quite an education.

1 comment:

Joel Montgomery said...

Marc:

Great to see that you are working with TechnoServe. Sounds like you've got some interesting challenges ahead. I am currently working with MBAs Without Borders in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and will start work in NYC with Acumen Fund for two months followed by nine months in the field. You can check out my blog at globalimpressions.blogspot.com. If you will add an RSS feed to your blog, I'll be sure to add it to my blog roll. Good luck!