By Dawson Markle, Junior Fellow, Business Development Services Zambia
During the summer of 2015, I was a Junior Fellow with Business Development Services (BDS) Zambia, consulting with a local agricultural services company. After conducting three months of research, I presented my results to the CEO and executives of this company. In this salient moment of my life, I realized I had failed to align my research with the needs of the farmers it was intended to serve.
I was tasked with investigating the viability of a new program that would establish avenues for farmers to receive ripping (mechanically breaking-up compacted soil layers) and planting services from their tractor-owning peers. However, I did not consult with farmers until late into my research. When I did, I discovered a strong need for access to a more regimented and comprehensive delivery system for seeds, fertilizers and other input supplies.
When I presented my results during our meeting, the CEO of the company asked me if farmers would prefer tractor services or better access to input supplies. I explained that, based on my limited consultation, the tractor program was ultimately not a priority for farmers. The realization that my research was not as impactful as it could have been was difficult to swallow.
Instead of spending a large amount time planning my inquiry, I should have taken the initiative to meet with farmers and discover their needs at the beginning of my placement. The importance of input supplies may have been unearthed much earlier, shifting the nature of my research to a more direct, impactful use of the time I spent as a Junior Fellow in Zambia.
The biggest barrier to this realization, on an individual level, was my inexperience working in this context. As a rookie social change leader, questioning the scope of my research was the last thing to cross my mind. However, the bottom-up thought process is exactly one of the mindsets that BDS Zambia is working to instill in Zambian business management.
With the bottom-up approach in mind, a different string of questions posed to the people that matter most may have been more productive: Is this program the best use of resources? What do farmers actually need? How can we work together to get there?
Regardless of the work that we do, it’s important to remember that we, as social change leaders, must constantly question the protocol of the systems we operate in. If we want to reshape the world, we must be willing to reshape the way we think. For me, this reform is prioritizing the perspectives of those who are most affected by inequitable opportunity.