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People become what your expect of them
An African Farm
By Duncan Austin on Fri, 5 January 2024

Lately, I've been thinking about a chilli farm in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Although it's not related to technology, it's the thing I'm most proud of in my career.

I used to do Local Economic Development back in South Africa in the 2000s. In 2005, a colleague and friend who is an economic development consultant, called me up asking for help.

He had a development project, funded by the municipality, to help bring two poor communities out of poverty by starting two chilli farms, one on the banks of the Tugela River and the other in the hills of Maphumulo. The first year was a disaster. The crops had failed, everyone was blaming everyone else, it was politically radio-active, and now in the second year the chillies were about to ripen in the next week but they were nowhere near being able to harvest.

It was days away from failing again. Also, the growers were supposed to deliver chopped chillies, but they didn't have the bowl cutter they needed to do that.

"Can you go and meet the growers and see if there's any possible way to save the project? If I go, they might shoot me", he asked.

Who will pay us to water on a public holiday?"

The growers had been given land, given chilli seed for the first year, given mentorship from a farmer, and even a guaranteed market with African Farm, a company set up specifically to help rural growers. Yet it failed. For example, apparently, in the hot week after Christmas, the chilli plants all died because they weren't watered.

"Who will pay us to water on a public holiday?" the growers reportedly said. It was a mess.

A stranger, driving a Toyota, lost in a township

I must admit that I was more than a little nervous to drive into the heart of Sundumbili township in my old Toyota Tazz. A stranger, driving a Toyota, lost in a township, going to meet people who were already upset.

It was in the days before Google Maps, but I managed to find the chilli farm, much to my relief. I could see chillies already ripening. The growers were there: Ernest who spoke for the Tugela farm, and a group of ladies from the Maphumulo farm.

Ernest greeted me with a grin. I'll never forget that grin. He ushered us to a shipping container office that was on site and I started into my prepared pitch.

One of the ladies interrupted me: "Is this you?" she asked, holding up a small piece of paper that she had pulled out of a folder she had. I went over to get a better look, and sure enough, it was a photo of me cut from an article in the local newspaper from several months earlier when I had co-ordinated an agriculture development initiative. I got a glimpse of other article cuttings to do with agriculture in the area in her folder too. I looked around - they had pens and paper and were taking notes. They were taking this seriously.

So why was this failing?

These clearly weren't entitled people looking for an easy payout. They were serious about making this work. I also knew the person who started African Farm. I knew him to be a person of integrity and was there when he set it up. I knew they genuinely wanted to help rural growers. So why was this failing?

I cut my speech short and asked them to go for a walk with me through the fields to have a chat.

"How much are you getting for your chillies?" I asked.

"We don't know. Hopefully R4 per kg."

"You don't know? Who is your contract with? African Farm, a middle man, or the municipality?"

They didn't know. All they knew was that the municipality would collect the chillies and someone would pay them.

This might sound strange, but it's how these things often have to work in rural Zulu areas. There is often a gatekeeper who everything has to go through - it may be the local Nkhosi or the municipality.

No wonder there was confusion. Nothing was clear. Also, it was clear that the growers, as is often the case in these initiatives, weren't being treated like real farmers. They were being treated like a charity.

This was the key issue. For many Zulus, farming is a very low-status occupation, being associated with farm labour. By not being treated as business owners, which farmers are, they were falling into the role of labourers.

I knew we had to fix the project structure, roles, and incentives. And quickly.

I called an urgent meeting with the municipality, the managing director of African Farm, and Ernest to represent the growers so that we could clarify roles and responsibilities. I wanted the growers to be at the table themselves.

Ernest's grin grew

I sat Ernest next to African Farm (I wanted them talking) and they got along great. Straight off the bat, African Farm offered twice what the growers were expecting and the chillies didn't need to be chopped - so no need for the bowl cutter. Ernest's grin grew. African Farm also offered help to teach them how to get the most for their chillis, eg, "Don't take the stems off until the morning you deliver them. This keeps the moisture in and they weigh more, so you get paid by weight".

The municipal rep hardly said anything. He was watching his problems dissolve. Municipalities are great at getting resources unlocked for projects like this, but they're not good at operational tasks, nor do they want to be doing them. As the relationship was worked out between African Farm and the growers, his headache was evaporating.

By the end of the meeting, the only thing on the municipality's plate was to deliver the chillies as the growers didn't have a vehicle. I pulled Ernest aside and urged him to start making a plan now to be able to deliver themselves, as the municipality can't do that forever. He grinned.

African Farm also brought the growers to the bottling factory where the sauces are made. The growers saw their chillies go in, followed the assembly line to the end, and saw the finished bottles of Thai cook-in sources come out.

Larneys buy those!

"We know those sauces! Larneys buy those." - they were part of somthing valuable.

In that week, they made more money than they had the entire previous year. And the next week too. And the week after that.

I called all three parties every Monday for the following months to check how things were going until they all said that I could stop calling - it was going well.

Sometime later the municipality didn't show up to deliver the chillies. But the growers had made a plan and delivered them themselves.

Some years later, due to the pressures the weakening Rand was putting on manufacturing, African Farm and its parent company, Taste Of Thailand, were bought out by a Thai company and moved to Thailand. What happened to the growers? Well, they were still going. They found other markets. They were capable entrepeneurs.

What stands out for me in all this is the importance of how people are treated. If you treat people like they are capable, they almost always will be. No one was trying to mistreat anyone, the motives were all good. But people are people, and people thive the way people thrive.

The growers went from failing to success in one week. African Farm wanted to help rural growers, but they hadn't been able to sit with the people they were helping. They were being treated like any other company. The municipality wanted to make resources available and enable projects like this, but they were lost in the weeds of opperational things they didn't need to be doing.

All I did was restructure the project to remove the things holding each of them back.

The whole thing had been a textbook example of Westrum's pathological culture. After re-aligning the incentives and roles, it went from pathological to generative in a week. Actually, it was that one meeting.

All of the parties involved were perfectly capable. They just needed to be treated like that.

I see companies scratching their heads and wondering why their teams or employees don't perform. I'm convinced that it is almost certainly not the employees. It's the organisational structure. It's how people are treated. Get the principles of a generative organisation right and the rest will follow surprisingly quickly.