Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Language of Business

“The Language of Business”


Feet on the ground


After two weeks of trying to get back into my Zambian life, I am still finding it difficult to re-adapt.  Ideas, memories, people, places... everything that had  happened in my five weeks in Canada has been running through my head.  The whole experience at home was some sort of sensory overload.  And saying goodbye is one of my least favourite things to do.  But I suppose this isn’t unlike trying to settle into any other job after a whirlwind vacation.



A honey delivery


As I drive with Dan to drop off an order of honey, it all seems too familiar.  Both Dan and Barb (the owners of Forest Fruits) go way out of their way to make a sale, and to make the customer happy.  I remember a time at Springbank Cheese when I questioned my Dad's enthusiasm for selling just $50 of cheese at wholesale prices...which would give a meagre 4 dollars profit.  I remember he'd spend a lot of time making sure the order was perfect and he'd even drive 30 minutes to drop it off himself. 


One such customer ended up becoming Springbank Cheese's biggest at 10 grand a week, most of the others disappeared and many never grew beyond $50 a shot. 


Now I see the same at Forest Fruits in Zambia.  Huge amounts of time and energy go into the tiniest of details to be sure that no sales opportunity is missed and that every customer is happy.  Similarly, in the development sector, huge amounts of time and energy go into making the customer happy, however, the customer isn't the Zambian living on a dollar a day, its the donor who provides the money.



A common language


Every four months I get the chance to meet with the other EWB volunteers and talk about ideas we have and things we're seeing.  As I take it all in, I notice that development has its own language, each of the other volunteers are working with non-governmental organizations (NGO's) and this jargon-filled development language is always used.  Words like - capacity building, beneficiary, monitoring & evaluation, participatory learning.... they are NOT used in regular business. 


Capacity building means investing in people/employees.

For us, the beneficiary is everyone – business, employee and beekeeper.

Monitoring & Evaluation is like a customer survey.

Participatory learning is like dialogue between customer and producer.


These buzzwords start out as meaningful but after a few years they are thrown around in project proposals so much that the meaning is lost.


Maybe its just me - but somewhere between the good ideas and the lingo and what actually happens on the ground, any hope of transparency in the development sector is lost.



A visitor from Zambia

Chris and I at the EWB gala banquet.

The operations manager of Forest Fruits had the opportunity to come and attend the EWB conference in Toronto.  I have spoken about Chris before in my blog, and there was this surreal moment of picking him up at the airport - "worlds colliding" was all I could think of.


At the conference, just minutes before a panel discussion was about to take place, Chris was asked to speak on what he's seen at Forest Fruits.  He went last and his presentation was like a breath of fresh air.  He spoke about very tangible issues on the ground, and about the ways in which Forest Fruits has dealt with them.  The contrast to the other presenters was undeniable, the other three were from NGO's, talking about high level issues dealing with multiple countries, whereas Chris was speaking about 6000 farmers and about running a business.


I have asked Chris to be a guest writer on my next blog - I'm sure he'll have lots of interesting things to say.