What if you had to reassess every strategic communication planning tool you’ve relied on your entire career? The jargon. The flow charts. The group brainstorming exercises.
And what if, after starting from scratch, you had to translate everything you said and did into an uncommon local language, an unfamiliar culture and an unknown business environment for a client in a remote African village?
A challenge? Yes, but you might find yourself refreshingly reacquainted with the basics you learned early in your career and in the process rediscover what really matters and what actually works.
I recently took on these challenges and was fortunate to reap more than I gave in professional and personal satisfaction through my work with a small farmer-owned cooperative in the extremely rural village of Gumulira in west central Malawi.
This summer, I accepted an assignment with Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) as a volunteer for the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program. My task: Assist Chandawe Producers and Marketing Cooperative in developing its first marketing and communication plan. Together we’d spend the better part of two weeks figuring out how they could expand and promote markets for the maize, soya and groundnuts – that’s corn, soybean and peanuts to most of you – their farmer-members raised. We were all newbies. This was their first effort to move their young co-op forward. And it was my maiden voyage as a global volunteer.
I’ve known and been a fan of CNFA and the Farmer-to-Farmer program for nearly two decades. Numerous U.S. co-op colleagues have volunteered and even worked for the organization in Eastern Europe and, in recent years, Africa and other regions. Trying my hand at an assignment had long been on my bucket list. Soon after making the career transition from Fortune 100 co-op corporate communications leader to independent consultant, I submitted my volunteer application. Within a few weeks, I received an invitation from CNFA.
Would I be willing, they asked, to spend two weeks in Malawi helping a farmer co-op create a marketing and communication plan? I took a deep breath, cleared my mid-August calendar and plunged in.
I’ve spent my entire career in communication as a journalist and as a communicator in the cooperative sector. Believe me, I’ve been through every strategy development exercise, seen every planning tool there is, and have had a love/hate relationship with every buzzword, acronym and flow chart out there.
Would anything I knew translate – literally and figuratively? Most of all, would I leave Chandawe Cooperative with a practical plan and achievable goals once I returned to Minnesota?
Before moving on with the story, here’s a useful geography/history/economics lesson: Land-locked Malawi is in southeast Africa, bordered by Tanzania to the north and Zambia to the west, and wrapped on the south and east by Mozambique. Malawi’s border with Mozambique consists primary of Lake Malawi, a Great Lakes-sized freshwater sea known for its diverse fisheries and a growing tourist attraction. About the size of Pennsylvania, Malawi has a population of about 17 million, more than 80 percent of whom live in rural areas and work in subsistence agriculture. Malawi, then called Nyasaland, was under British control from 1891 to 1964. As a result, English is its official language (and they drive on the “wrong” side of the road), although for most citizens it’s a second language; Chichewa and about 10 other languages are spoken regionally.
In rural areas, most families get by on about $300 annually, making Malawi one of the world’s poorest countries. This means even while they raise much of their own food, its people have little left for the school fees which are standard after primary grades or much else that could lift them from poverty. Ironically, while traditional hard-wired sources of electricity are undependable, modern sanitation is limited and questionable well water is the norm in most villages, solar power is making rapid inroads and cell phones are ubiquitous.
Agriculture dominates Malawi’s economy and exports, but the sector is dramatically polarized. The farmers with whom I worked were typical of the country’s “smallholders” who represent the vast majority of Malawi’s farmers. They typically own between three and eight acres which they plant and harvest with hand tools and family manual labor. For most, marketing consists of hauling a few 50 kilo bags of grain to the nearest village to sell to a local dealer or larger company’s branch at its going rate. Those local firms aggregate many farmers’ grain for sale to larger customers. They, not the farmers, capture the higher prices that come with larger volumes.
At the other end of the spectrum are large farmers and farm “estates,” with a scale comparable to many Midwestern operations. They farm expansive fields with agricultural practices that combine modern equipment and the hand labor of literally hundreds of workers. I observed a tractor pulling the specialized equipment needed to dig up a sprawling peanut field. I also witnessed modern machinery trailed by crews who hand rolled the vines and then painstakingly picked, shelled and bagged the legumes over a period of nearly two weeks. These large-scale farms typically market directly to the country’s major livestock feed, processing and export markets, gaining the efficiencies and additional value that comes through having large, dependable quantities of quality grains and oilseeds. Again, this adds no direct economic value to smaller individual farmers.
Larger operations are daunting competitors to smallholders and their tiny acreages, there is significant untapped opportunity to compete for farmer-owned cooperatives. Through their cooperatives, hundreds of farmers can join together to not only achieve competitive size and scale in the marketplace, but also take advantage of efficiencies and economics for inputs and services, and invest together in value-added processing.
The ability of a cooperative to take advantage of such opportunities comes with a number of big “ifs,” however:
- IF they have solid, achievable plans.
- IF they have the discipline to execute their plans
- IF they have the financial strength and acumen essential for growth
CNFA’s briefing paper provided an overview of Chandawe Cooperative and the objectives for my assignment. But I there was a lot I didn’t know – and wouldn’t learn until I was on the ground – that would prove important. To prepare, I outlined a curriculum for each of the days I’d be with the group, calling on numerous professional colleagues to suggest content and exercises they thought might be useful. I wanted to be ready with every possible tool in the event I my approach fell flat.
So off I went, as prepared as possible, armed with marketing and communication planning tools, and ready to be flexible. The 35-hour journey involved three flights – two a brutal nine hours each – and enduring two long layovers. Although I’m an experienced traveler (with all 50 states checked off the list, and Malawi marking my 39th country) and have visited a few developing countries, I was nervous – not about the trip, but about the challenge of keeping the group engaged and guiding them to a plan they could execute on their own.
Less than 18 hours after arriving in Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe, my translator, Dominic Chilunga and I were driven about an hour into farming country, a region near the juncture of the Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique borders. Leaving the main highway, the four-wheel-drive pickup ferrying us bumped several miles down dusty and rutted red dirt roads. Like a small child, I pressed my nose against the window glass, making a study of countryside. Ox-drawn carts – outfitted with old truck tires – hauled white woven bags of grain to market. Bundles of bamboo strapped to the backs of bicycles made their way down the rural roads. Graceful women balancing bowls and buckets on their heads and comforting the infants strapped to them. Every mile or so, we passed a settlement consisting of a dozen or so houses constructed of homemade red bricks and topped with roofs of thatch or corrugated metal. Near most, brightly colored laundry flapped in the breeze.
Between these enclaves lay the farms with their red soil and occasional groves of trees. In mid-August, most fields lay fallow, awaiting planting in October and November, springtime south of the equator.
My introduction to Chandawe Cooperative began with meeting with the co-op’s leadership – board chairman Samuel Kawalika and a half-dozen directors. This included the formidable woman who chairs the education committee and had approached CNFA to undertake the project. Through translator Dominic, we reviewed the project, their goals and set our meeting schedule.
The cooperative’s office consisted of a single desk upon which lay the account ledgers where all business was recorded by hand, a table and a handful of chairs. Posted on the wall were maps of the Gumulira region the co-op serves and charts depicting the breakdown of its population of 6,650 – an average of five people per household – and the area’s assets including 14 churches, 62 wells, 28 pumps, several cell towers and just two schools for its many children.
I’d been prepared to work with the co-op the old-fashioned way – without technology – so I was surprised to discover I’d be working in relatively sophisticated conditions. The co-op’s office was housed in a large, relatively new community center funded in part by singer Madonna’s foundation (she’s adopted four Malawian children). A large solar array on its roof meant the meeting room where we’d be working had a reliable electrical supply. It was a stark contrast to frequent power outages at the small house 20 minutes away where Dominic and I stayed, and allowed me to use my laptop with CNFA’s small portable projector. Lest you fear that I subjected my Malawian friends to “death by PowerPoint,” I limited the computer’s use to making key points, to sharing photos of oil processing equipment and other examples, and to reviewing critical components of the co-op’s plan.
The following morning, more than 30 farmers, including nine women, representing the vast majority of the cooperative’s membership descended on the meeting room, dressed in their best and at first sitting stiffly in the rows of hard-backed chairs. They looked as uncertain as I felt about what was ahead.
I’m a serious extrovert and a firm believer that great results begin with building relationships. Although it took well over an hour, each member introduced themselves – translated by Dominic – and described their farms and families. Most had four or five children, the norm in rural Malawi, and farmed between three and five hectares. In turn, I showed photos of my family and snowy Minnesota winters and talked about CHS, the largest U.S. farmer-owned cooperative where I’d spent my career.
The getting-to-know-you time investment was invaluable. Not only could I sense their apprehension easing as we shared a few laughs, I started to identify the group’s leaders and its jokesters. I discovered a few fluent English speakers, two of whom had recent university degrees. I also learned that the vast majority were literate in Chichewa, a realization that let me revise my approach, adding more complex small group brainstorming exercises.
There was another more important revelation that first day.
We reviewed the list of components that would be part of the marketing and communication plan we’d develop together and delved into the co-op’s current state. It quickly became clear that the co-op’s real challenge was more basic. It was too small.
While Chandawe Cooperative currently lists 92 members on its roster, only about 40 are considered active. The co-op’s membership program is built on loaning fertilizer to members who then repay with interest when their crop is sold. Currently, the cooperative has only one customer for the crops its members raise. In 2017, the World Food Program (WFP) purchased 50,000 kg (10,000 51 kg bags) of maize from the co-op, essentially its active members’ total crop for that year. This sale was arranged via the Agricultural Commodities Exchange for Africa (ACE) which is the primary link between cooperatives, farmers and other grain producers in facilitating trade in the physical spot and forward markets.
With only a single customer for just one of the three primary crops members raise, the cooperative would struggle to grow and could face a life-threatening crisis if its single customer, the WFP, disappeared. To access and compete in a greater number of commodity markets, and become a viable source for processors of maize, soya and other crops, it was clear that Chandawe Cooperative needed to grow its volumes of marketable crops.
Our relationship was in its infancy, but I was candid. If the co-op was to survive, let alone grow it markets, we needed to start with a solid business plan that prioritized membership growth. Before even considering market expansion, Chandawe Cooperative needed to create and execute a plan to increase its membership base and, equally important, restore and expand business with the more than 50 percent of its current members who are inactive.
The group looked momentarily overwhelmed, but quickly admitted that their small membership was a serious shortcoming. They were ready to move forward.
Our days together developed a rhythm. Dominic and I would arrive shortly after 8 a.m. and, when a critical mass had gathered (the concept of timeliness is a bit relaxed in Malawi), we’d begin. Each morning, we’d review the previous day’s conclusions – often tweaking them based on new information and new opinions that emerged over night. The final plan, I repeated often, was theirs not mine. At the end of two weeks I would return to Minnesota and their future depended on believing in their plan and committing to make it go.
After reviewing our progress, we’d tackle the day’s focus, making our way through the plan elements little by little. We crafted strategies and tactics for membership growth, identified potential new markets, brainstormed value-added opportunities, considered additional revenue-generating services and more. Annual and three-year goals were established for each component of the plan.
When I took the assignment, I was skeptical that my tried and true facilitation tools like small group discussions, brainstorming, topic rotation and role play, would be relevant in a rural setting in a developing country. My eager cooperative members surprised and impressed me each day with their enthusiasm for embracing the new. They were also passionate. Loud, animated disagreements regularly broke out as members differed on a proposed direction, market assessment or tactic. Some required my intervention or Dominic’s, and occasionally a vote.
My favorite moment came, when having agreed upon the cooperative’s core messages, I convinced them to practice telling their story to target audiences. “I’m a potential customer,” I announced. “You three are going to pay a call and convince me I should buy soybeans from the co-op.” There was nervous laughter, but after running several groups through various scenarios, they got it. You need to know your story and tell it consistently, focusing on the needs of the audience.
Pure storytelling also translated. I held up as examples stories of successes and failures from my own three decades of cooperative business experience, always cognizant of the need to avoid hollow jargon, U.S. colloquialisms and unbridgeable cultural elements. And, I shared an all-time favorite tale on the need to speak up rather than silently going along with the group.
Then there was the literal translation. While I’d previously worked with translators to present to foreign visitors or conduct interviews abroad, I wasn’t prepared for the intensity I’d face or how lucky I was to be able to count on Dominic, who I dubbed “The Fixer.” A bright, 30-year-old recent college graduate, Dominic not only turned English to Chichewa and back again, he was an astute partner in managing the logistics and dynamics of group that at times reached three dozen.
Most important, he could translate my jokes and get a laugh from the crowd. We worked hard, but we had fun. Each afternoon, sometimes after a fact-finding trip to a member’s field or local market, we’d return to our home base to capture the day’s progress in the evolving business plan. We’d then lay out the next day’s steps. This regularly required Dominic to turn my English chicken scratch into proper Chichewa and transfer it to as many as two dozen flip chart sheets. When I had internet access, late evenings found me huddled under my bug net researching questions the co-op members had raised or reviewing options and prices for equipment they might strive to acquire.
After nearly two weeks of hard work, our group gathered for a final discussion of the nine-page draft plan, a session that, no surprise, included a few lively disagreements before getting unanimous cooperative approval. It was time to hand over the keys and hope Chandawe Cooperative would arrive successfully at its destination. In a final pep talk, I reminded them that plans are living documents requiring regular review and revision. That circumstances change. That goals may change. That they likely will have failures, but it’s possible to regroup and move forward.
I told them I’d be checking up on them (thank you, email!) and recommending that CNFA recruit a finance volunteer to test their models before they invested in programs, equipment or technology.
And then after photos, hugs and a few tears, we drove away.
They had a plan, but I had a new perspective. I had grown as a communicator and a leader. And I recognized that no matter where you are, it’s getting the basics right that matters most.
Although traditional marketing and communication planning was new to my co-op, Malawi is already on the mark as a nation when it comes to tourism branding. The country markets itself as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” a reflection not only of its subequatorial geography, but also its kind, welcoming people. I look forward to returning to its embrace.
Interested in sharing your expertise in with farmers and cooperatives in developing economies? Visit www.cnfa.org to learn more about volunteer projects in agricultural production, value-added, finance, marketing and more.