Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

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

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A Day in My Life: Farmer Interviews

April 20, 2009

It is critical that any social enterprise have a deep understanding of the customer it is trying to serve. At Micro Drip, we conduct in-depth farmer interviews using various techniques in order to understand the particular farmer’s circumstances along with how he makes decisions. Many thanks to IDEO for their Human Centered Design Toolkit which served as a guide for our work.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH4gv2tm_UU). 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 (www.globalimpressions.blogspot.com/) or my website (www.joelmontgomery.info). 

Social Enterprise is HARD to do

December 23, 2008

Starting a business is hard enough, but starting a business that has a social focus is even harder.  For Micro Drip, we are still very much working to refine our business model so that we can successfully sell to the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) here in Pakistan, those who live on less than $4/day.  For Micro Drip, one of the most difficult challenges is that we can have the greatest low cost, high quality drip irrigation system in the world, but ultimately success for a farmer depends on much more than our system: microfinancing, stable water source, good seed, fertilizer, storage, know-how, distribution to markets, etc.  As a result, we cannot simply sell our system off the shelf; we have to think about ways to directly and indirectly (through partnerships) address the problems that come before and after our product. 

A second difficulty that we face is the seasonality of our product.  There are two growing seasons in Pakistan each year with most farmers growing cotton during the summer season and wheat during the fall season.  Unfortunately, drip irrigation cannot be used with wheat given the density of the plants/acre.  Vegetables can be grown during both seasons and offer much higher prices, but the lack of storage and access to markets forces many farmers into cotton and wheat, which are more stable with much less risk of going bad. 

A third difficulty that we are tackling is how to motivate local sales reps in the communities that we serve.  CEMEX, a Mexican cement company, has successfully mobilized a large network of local promoters in its program Patrimonio Hoy, which helps clients who make between $5-$15/day to save money for do-it-yourself home improvements.  While there are some successful models out there, many social businesses are struggling with this issue, as it is often difficult for local sales people to make sufficient income selling a single product.  Where sales channels to the BOP already exist, it is much easier for existing sales people to add additional products to their offerings.  Unfortunately, we are not aware of any other sales channels that reach our target market that would be willing to add our systems to their existing portfolio.

In spite of the challenges, we are committed to bringing irrigation solutions to the poor farmers of Pakistan.  Drip irrigation increases crop yields by 30-100% all the while decreasing water usage by 50-70%.  This translates into more money for poor farmers and ultimately has the potential to free farmers who are imprisoned in debt and a subsistence life. 

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…

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

The REAL Pakistan

November 22, 2008

Bombs, Taliban, Terrorism, Extremism, Danger.  This is the Pakistan that the media portrays.  Since my arrival to this country of 162 million a week ago, my picture of this land has transformed into a grand landscape painted by one of the Hudson River masters. 

The sketches of this masterpiece began to take shape when I arrived late on a Saturday evening to the house that will be my home for next 10 months.  The family that welcomed me immediately accepted me as one of their own.  Now, I must confess that as a Southerner, I have been brought up with certain ideals of hospitality, but the level of acceptance that I received that evening makes us Southerners look plain old rude and shallow. 

The first color began to hit the canvas as I traversed the land to visit poor farmers in the desert. Dust and desert shrubs stretched on for many miles in every direction.  The only colors to break free from the abyss of shades of brown were on the bright pastels of the kurta shalwars that the women wore.  As we neared, women would shield their faces with vibrant orange or red or pink fabric.  80% of these people live on less than one dollar a day and are entirely dependent on Mother Nature’s grace to give them rain during the summer.

The dabs of color began to mix together as my colleagues and I sat on the side of the road drinking tea before embarking on the rest of our journey.  Converted WWII-era trucks that the British had brought many years before passed us decorated with intricate detail and hauling several times the amount of cargo that they had originally been designed for.  Their unique horns seemed to posture toward one another in an attempt to dominate the others.  Men sat on rope coaches conversing about the day’s events and enjoying the comforting warmth of a teacup that warded off the coolness of the evening air.  A nut vendor passed roasting small chickpeas and selling peanuts by the bag full.   

This is the REAL Pakistan and I have only gained a glimpse of its complexity and beauty.  Now, I am not denying that there are elements Bombs, Taliban, Terrorism, Extremism, and Danger in this country, but which country can repudiate the existence of these elements within its own borders (minus the Taliban)?  I wonder how might the world’s view of this country be if a more balanced portrayal of its reality were shared.

Joel Montgomery             

I Don’t Know Why You Say “Goodbye”… I say “Hello”

November 19, 2008

Given the fact that I have lived abroad on several occasions, I have not really anticipated much about the 10 months that I would soon spend in a foreign land. I was busy enough with training and arming all the necessary documentation to get my visa to think much about what life would be like once I arrived in Pakistan. That all changed on my last day with the Acumen Fund team in New York. During the day, Acumen Fund held its Investor Gathering for all its key investors in a shareholder meeting that is atypical in the non-profit world. As part of the afternoon session, my cohort of fellows and I performed a 10 minute presentation to give the audience some background into who we were, why we were there, and where we were going. In preparation for the event, Rives, the renowned slam poet, helped us refine our ramblings into a more thoughtful and more entertaining package. The performance held special significance given the fact that this was the last day that our team of fellows would be together until out mid-project meeting in March 2009. Many of us were leaving for the field the very next morning. 

During the evening, my fellow fellows and I greeted guests to the Investor Gala with silk scarves. We mingled with the greater Acumen Fund community and I was impressed by the way that the engagement of most of the people in that room was far deeper than a simple financial commitment. I am convinced that social change requires much more than capital; it requires a passionate community that is committed to breaking molds and blazing new trails. It was at the Investor Gala that the importance of my work took on a new meaning. There is a movement brewing. For too long, the traditional aid models have thrown trillions of dollars at developing countries and in most cases making the situation far worse. Acumen Fund, Endeavor, and other like-minded hybrid organizations are challenging the old guard. We are leveraging the power of business to empower the poor. As I leave for Pakistan, I am eager to live this work firsthand.

Joel Montgomery