Working in the field rather than in an office is rewarding. It’s hands on, always changing, and exciting. But… it’s also very exhausting mentally. Trying to synthesize all of the information I’ve gathered about a new culture while trying to develop business strategies is challenging to do in just seven weeks. One of issues we discuss the most is the idea of development and our role as an outsider. If we assume that monetary aid isn’t the answer, then what is? These are just a few thoughts and stories from over the weeks.
Good Guy/Bad Guy
With my group here in South Africa, we have run circles around the discussion of whether or not we are doing more harm than good in these communities. If we are, then that’s a fatal flaw in the program. And no, I’m not suggesting that we are at all, but it’s an interesting topic of discussion. My co-advisor and I have come back to it time and again and find ourselves talking about it often when we cook dinner. I think it goes for a lot of work in the developing world and am even more interested in it after having recently finished a book called “Dead Aid” (great read by the way if you’re interested in how aid work is hindering development in Africa). While we do not bring any monetary aid, we do bring our skill sets and knowledge to assist the community in business development over the course of seven weeks. But is seven weeks enough? Do we end up motivating the people and then leave things incomplete in the end? These are all questions I wrestle with as I try to push my students forward in their business prototypes.
Good Intentions Aren’t Always Enough
On one of my very first days in the village, I caught wind that another American group would be coming through at the end of June for a few days. We were told by a women’s group that the Americans were from a social entrepreneur company and that they were coming to ‘train the women to sell products, including a water purifier and a solar lamp’ on consignment. However, the reality was quite different.
The ‘American group’ was a group of college students who were doing feasibility studies for a Latin American company looking to expand in to South Africa. They had a contact in the village, a man named J, who organized a group of 20 women before the students came. These women would become their potential salespeople and would also help conduct an eye clinic for the community. The eye clinic was a way for the group to do market research by doing exit interviews after the eye exams took place.
The group stayed for a couple of days and held the eye exam. Turnout was fairly low. We decided to ride the wave of research and attend the clinic. We wanted to see how many people showed up and what type of questions they were asking. I saw many of the selected local women just standing around and not participating. I was chatting with one of my students and not really paying attention when I see the induna (the chief) come out from his eye exam. The students show him the water collection jug. It’s essentially a jug with a rope that you can roll home instead of having to carry it or put in a wheelbarrow. The first flaw is this- the village has community taps that come on three days every two weeks. People usually collect the water they need for five days, but those who need additional water for washing clothes will do their washing down at the dam. Some people collect water from the dam to take home and water their gardens, but not enough to have 20 women trying to sell these jugs.
But hey, isn’t that what market research is for? So I listen in on their questioning. As the induna (the chief) exits from his eye exam, a girl shows him the water jug and says “Would you be willing to pay R500 for this?” I nearly fell off the half-wall I was sitting on. R500 is the rough equivalent of $75. I want to remind you that this is a jug with a rope. It does not purify the water. The price was ridiculously high for me and these people live on maybe $200/month…per household. My cousins laughed at the ridiculous questions. Perhaps they threw out a high price to force the interviewees to come up with a more reasonable price. However, it sounds like this village is not a good fit for their product.
The group left the following morning. Two local women from the group approached me a couple of days later and told me that they had a problem and needed my help. They told me how the American group never tried to get to know the local women and they left without saying goodbye. The issue of not saying goodbye had already previously been brought to me by another woman in the group. The women also said that the group never told them what they were doing with the profits from selling eyeglasses and that they hadn’t heard from them since.
Realistically, the company made no money off of selling the glasses. But that needed to be conveyed to these women who may become potential partners. The women have dedicated time to meetings and never received a dime. While this social entrepreneur company obviously had no guarantee to work in our village, it was obviously not made clear enough to the locals. And once again, you have people with failed expectations and feeling that the assistance of outsiders is helpless.
Where Do We Stand?
Where does my company and students stand in all of this? What do people think of us? For one, we are the first outside group to our knowledge that has stayed in the village for more than a few days. Locals were quite surprised when they found out we were going to be in homestays for seven weeks in Huntington. We bring no money, guaranteed success, or failed promises. The approach is definitely a positive starting point. But is the time long enough? We have teamed up with SEDA (Small Enterprise Development Agency), a government agency that assists small business start-ups and growth, to assist the local business groups upon our departure. Are the people in reliable hands once we leave so that they don’t feel a sense of abandonment or lacking confidence in their abilities? I believe so, but only time will tell.
Approach & Success
The idea of any outside aid or assistance is something to grapple over. Even last night, my roommate and I were discussing the impact of our business projects on culture. Are we trying to change cultural norms? If it happens, is that okay? Is spreading capitalism a good thing? And is it our role to do so? These are all interesting questions floating in the air this summer that have no easy answer. Measured success greatly varies by individual. I know the reality is that start-ups fail more often than not. But if the community has walked away with better business knowledge and the confidence to try again, I think that’s a success. If a small business does succeed, and as a result, a women is able to feed her family of five and send her kids to school, that would be a success for me as well. If we have left a positive impression on our homestay families- another success in my book. I hope in time to see whether our approach, as opposed to monetary aid and traditional charity work, produce better results and an improved community and economic situation.