Archive for the ‘Joel Montgomery’ Category

May 16, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Mohammed Ishmail is an eleven-acre farmer who doesn’t need a broker to diversify his portfolio. Like his counterparts in the developed world who invest in various types of stocks and bonds in order to spread the risk on their portfolios, Mohammed does not put all his eggs in one basket. During the summer season, he plants 10 acres of cotton, a crop with minimal price volatility, and one acre of onion, a crop that is notorious for huge price fluctuations. The price of onion can fluctuate between PKR 10,000 to 300,000. Mohammed sees this as an opportunity to hit the jackpot. According to him, during a 10-year period, he will hit the jackpot five to six times. Not bad odds. An onion lottery… that is innovation

Innovations in the Field: Wheat ATM

May 14, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Zulfiqar Ali, a four-acre farmer in the small village of Dabri, Pakistan, doesn’t travel to his nearest bank branch when he needs some cash. All he has to do is open the door to a room where he stores his wheat crop and travel to the market. Unlike most farmers in Pakistan, Zulfiqar does not sell his wheat crop upon harvest. He realized that harvest season was the worst time to sell his crops due to a glut in supply. Zulfiqar stores his wheat crop and sells it one bag at a time, based upon when he needs cash. With each passing week, the value of his remaining wheat increases. A wheat ATM… that is innovation.

Joel Montgomery

Innovations from the Field: Natural Insurance Policy

May 13, 2009

The next series of blog posts will cover innovations from the field. Recently, I conducted some in-depth farmer interviews around Hyderbad and learned about some pretty interesting innovations that are happening on the ground. Keep in mind that these are not college-educated individuals; most have not even finished high school. What I saw was human ingenuity in its purest sense. At the end of the day, I found myself leaving inspired by their innovativeness and creativity.

Agriculture is extremely risky. There are so many things that can go wrong: bad seed, no water, pest attack, fake fertilizer, bad weather, no transportation to market, etc. Price fluctuations are also quite common. This means that a farmer may spend Rs. 25,000 (USD $315) or more on inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticide, etc.) and land preparation (tractor rental, laborer wages, etc.) just to find out at the end of the season that the price of his crop is so low that he will make a loss. He borrowed money at the beginning of the season from an arti (money lender) at a rate of 120% annual interest and now is even farther in debt.

In Pakistan, most farmers grow two crops: cotton (summer) and wheat (winter). We always wondered why both crops were so prevalent and finally realized upon completing our interviews. Firstly, most farmers grow cotton and wheat because the prices are stable. It takes a lot of the guess work (and risk) from other types of crops that have more volatile prices. Secondly, farmers grow cotton and wheat because they don’t spoil. If you grow vegetables, then you must transport them to the market quickly before they rot. Cotton and wheat, on the other hand, can be stored for a long time and won’t go bad. Probably the most interesting reason for the traditional cotton-wheat rotation is that wheat is a natural life insurance policy. Farmers grow wheat and keep 50-100 munds (1 mund = 40kg) back to ensure that their families have food to eat during the coming year. Usually an average family needs around 50 munds per year, but they keep extra for festivals, weddings, and unforeseen circumstances. No matter what happens in

Faces of Pakistan

February 25, 2009

The Pakistan that I see in the media and the Pakistan I see on the ground seem to be two very different worlds. I don’t delude myself into thinking that they are not both realities of the same country, but I wish that people could see what I am fortunate to witness here on the ground. In that vein, this video is a collage of the faces of people I have met in my travels…

Ethical Hurdles at the Base of the Pyramid

February 9, 2009

Micro Drip is a company that is committed to demonstrating the highest level of ethical behavior. Unfortunately in Pakistan, that makes our job even more difficult than it already is.

Besides the obvious benefit of helping farmers earn more with less, Micro Drip’s work has the added benefit of helping Pakistan address its impending water crisis. Currently, Pakistan is under a severe threat of water scarcity, according to the current level of per capita water availability, which hovers just above 1,000 cubic meters of water per person. The World Health Organization has set 1,000 cubic meters of water as the minimum amount of water necessary to satisfy basic needs for food, drinking water, and hygiene. At the current rate of decline, Pakistan is projected to reach 886 cubic meters of water availability per person in the year 2020, well below the minimum threshold. In light of these issues, the Pakistani government has enacted a number of programs designed to increase water efficiency, including a US$ 1.3 billion program for subsidizing drip irrigation. On the surface, this seems like it would ideally suite Micro Drip, but the proposal was written primarily with the highest quality orchard drip irrigation systems in mind. Micro Drip’s innovation is being able to reduce the price of drip irrigation so that it is more accessible to poor farmers, but this same innovation is making it much more difficult for us to qualify for the subsidy.

Recently, we had a discussion with a government representative who asked us why we had flagged our products in the beginning as not meeting certain government specifications. He questioned why we did not simply forge certification documents and place fake labels on our material in order to qualify for the subsidy. This same representative also alluded to the fact that other drip irrigation companies are doing just that. By doing what is right, we have made the path before us even more complex, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

HR Woes

January 20, 2009

Anyone who has worked at the Base of the Pyramid can tell you that human resources is a major challenge. Recruiting and retaining good talent can be a nightmare and has major implications for how fast (or slow) a social business can scale. I am faced with these issues every day in my work as an Acumen Fund Fellow with Micro Drip, an irrigation solutions company that focuses on poor farmers in Pakistan.

Micro Drip has been searching for over a year for a competent Operations Manager. Most candidates are either extremely over or under-qualified. As a social business, we simply cannot compete with large multi-national corporations in terms of salary and benefits. Our plight provides further evidence to the gap at middle management that is often present in developing countries.

Recently, I helped develop a start-of-year workshop that was designed to rally the company around a new Vision & Mission and build a feeling of belonging & teamwork (video: As part of the three-day event, we introduced a strategic task list to help strengthen the company’s foundation in preparation for further expansion. Each employee was assigned at least one strategic task with which they were supposed to outline a logical sequence of steps to complete the task, along with an estimate for how much time each step would take. Yesterday, I reviewed the tasks in detail with several key managers and requested that they jointly create a sequence of steps necessary to complete one of the tasks. I was amazed when they were unable to do it unassisted. After about an hour of coaching the managers through the process, we arrived at a logical plan. It is not that these gentlemen aren’t intelligent, quite the contrary. I attribute their inability to complete the task at hand to two main factors: (1) Traditional Pakistani education system, and (2) A “Yes Boss” culture.

In the traditional Pakistani schooling system, there is often a stronger affinity for rote learning, discipline and respect for authority. In most classrooms in the country, critical thinking skills and problem solving skills are new concepts. This can lead to dependency on superiors in the work environment. Some of the more prestigious schools do embrace independent thinking as a critical concept to teach students, but these schools primarily cater to the elite.

Pakistan is a very hierarchical society. Many bosses in hierarchical cultures simply want to give orders and have their direct reports follow their plans to the letter. They encourage a “Yes Boss” culture in which employees never voice a dissenting opinion. This poses particular problems in Micro Drip, as we are a small company with limited resources. We need capable employees who can think for themselves without having to be guided every step of the way. Ultimately, our company will be stronger if different points of view are better represented, irrespective of where they come from in the organization.

At Micro Drip, we are committed to helping develop our employees to better themselves, but the verdict is still out on how long it will take to introduce a culture of problem solving. We must begin now to think on how we will retain our talent, because once our employees reach a higher level of professionalism, they will be a scarce commodity in an underserved human resources market.

If you are interested in learning more about my experiences in Pakistan, please check out my personal blog ( or my website ( 

A Team in 3 Days

January 19, 2009

Last week, I helped conduct a start-of-year workshop to help Micro Drip clarify its Vision, Mission, & Values. This video has some footage from the experience. 

Eid al Adha

December 10, 2008

This is the second day of Eid al Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. Take a look at my video blog to see what it’s all about…

A Look Back to Acumen Fund Training: A Day on the Streets of New York

December 3, 2008

As part of our training curriculum for the Acumen Fund Fellowship, we were required to spend a day on the streets to better understand the poor.  As soon as we arrived in the office one beautiful fall Friday, we were required to empty our pockets of our wallet, cell phone, keys, etc.  We were given a $6 metro card and $5.  The following is an article I wrote about my day with the homeless…

I have often wondered what is the most appropriate response when faced with a beggar in the street.  Too often, I have balanced the choices of giving or not giving in favor of the latter, without truly understanding the person behind the request.  Through spending a day on the streets of New York City, I was able to explore the lives of the very individuals that I have passed without even a smile or a kind word.  Much to my surprise, my stereotypes of the urban poor were thrust back into my face. 

Rose passed by carrying a small, black suitcase and a clear plastic bag full of cans and bottles.  She eagerly accepted my offer to help her on her quest.  Her slight smile, gentle eyes, and grandmother charm immediately made me feel comfortable.  Rose taught me which cans were acceptable and which grocery stores accepted our booty. Every day of the week, she started work at 7:00am sifting through trashcans to collect the five-cent rewards that were hidden along her treasure route.  On the day that I worked with her, Rose only managed to raise just over $3.00 after four hours of work; that is less than $1/hour.  What struck me most about Rose was that she didn’t appear homeless at all.  She was quite intelligent, very articulate, and knew more about literature then I could ever know.  As I said goodbye to my new friend Rose, she asked, “Can I have a hug?”  “Of course,” I replied.  “I don’t get many hugs,” she responded. 

Shirley caught my eye as I entered Penn Station.  She was a small black woman, sitting in a motorized wheel chair with a sign that indicated that she was a veteran and in need of help.  I struck up a conversation with her and was immediately taken with her jovial laugh and joyful demeanor.  She told me how she often comes to Penn Station to raise money to live on.  I asked her if people were being generous and she said, “Well, you came by and it is a blessing to talk to you.”

Peter sat on the gum stained sidewalk, cowering next to a hand written sign and cup full of change.  I sat down next to him and noticed the sadness radiating from him.  I learned that he was from a part of Hungary that I had visited in May of this year.  He had come to the U.S. in 1999 at the age of twelve with his two parents.  Since then, both of them have past away from AIDS.  Peter lives in a cardboard box on the street.  He told me how he has regulars who give him money, but he remarked that no one stops to really ask how he is.  When asked what he likes to do for fun, Peter remarked, “I don’t really have fun.” 

The homeless don’t have feelings.  They are a group of nobodies with no life worth living and no real value to society.  That is how you and I treat these human beings when we speedily walk past to escape their disheveled appearance and jingling cups.  Oh, we may give a few coins or even several tattered bills, but contributing to their plight doesn’t lessen the dehumanizing behavior that we engage in.

Each of the 35,000 homeless in New York City has a story.  Many are just as happy as you or I, if not more so.  Certainly, some have mental illness and others are drug or alcohol addicts, but that does not give us the right to treat them as if they are not human.  During my day on the streets, I met eight individuals who marveled me with their resourcefulness, touched me with their affection, tickled me with their laughs, and rebuked me with their humanness.  No longer shall I walk by without acknowledging their humanity.  To give money to their cause is a matter of personal choice, but to give a smile or kind word requires nothing but a little courage.  The next time, you pass a beggar in the street, remember that he or she had a mother and a father.  He or she has intellect and emotion, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, just like you and I.  

Joel Montgomery

Thanksgiving Sadness

November 27, 2008

I awoke this morning to the terrible news that Mumbai had been bombed yesterday evening.  So far 125 are dead and 327 injured.  Apparently, one of the terrorists in custody is of Pakistani descent.  I hope to goodness that this will not derail the recent talks of partnership between the two countries.

The Acumen Fund team immediately went into action to check on all of the fellows in India along with those of Indian citizenship to see if they and their families were safe.  It’s comforting to know that there is such support here and abroad.  

Apart from the dreadful news, this day has been like any other.  Earlier this week, I tried to contact the US consulate in Karachi to see if they had any Thanksgiving plans open to US citizens, but they did not.  While I may celebrate Thanksgiving alone this day, I still have the fresh memories of my family’s Thanksgiving celebration on November 9.  I traveled home for a wedding during my final weekend before leaving the states.  My sister, brother, and brother-in-law all came home as well for the festivities.  We cut-a-rug at the wedding and then enjoyed our last meal together for the next 10 months.  I am so blessed to have such an incredibly loving family that supports me and loves me back home!                 

Joel Montgomery