Believing in the future

June 24, 2011

The recent economic crisis gives an example of how the perception of the future can change, and how the level of economic security affects our behavior.

While before the economic crisis, many people preferred to spend rather than save, since the economic perspectives have changed, so has the behavior. A similar behavior, but at business level, is the reluctance of companies to hire when the economic outlook is uncertain.

Readiness to act to build the future depends greatly on people’s perception of what that very word means to them. Some have such comfortable lives that they actually do not think much about the future. They consider it a given, and take the current situation for granted. They have not much incentive to change. They might be in for a surprise someday, though. On the opposite end of this, there are those who have no expectation of the future. For them, life is so insecure because of famine, disease or violence, that all that matters is the here and now. Thinking ahead is almost impossible, and all that matters is the immediate. The future is irrelevant.

For those who live between these two extremes, the goal is to see life conditions improve. However, how this can be achieved, and whether it seems realistic depends greatly on the resources available.

Although many areas of the food and agriculture value chain need to be improved and can be improved, it is important to notice how much resistance many food security plans are facing during their execution. Obviously not all participants agree on the objectives and on the steps to follow. This is especially important in developing countries where  many problems affect food security, such as limited financial resources, limited water availability, post-harvest losses or difficult access to market to name a few.

To get people to believe in “the” future, the first step is to connect to their sense of how far the future is. When you are 20 in a country where the life expectancy is 80, thinking about the future is quite normal, and the life expectancy gives an indication of the period that the privileged ones have in mind. In regions where life prospects are dire, thinking even a couple of years ahead will probably be irrelevant to many. When presenting a vision of the future, one must consider this way of thinking. The acceptance and the commitment to implement actions will depend largely on whether the timeline is perceived as reasonable. People are more inclined to participate when they think that they will be able to see the results in their lifetime.

On the way to the future, actions are always more convincing than words. Positive results need to appear soon. Otherwise, the momentum in favor of the promised changes might slow down. This is why a good strategy is to start with the simplest and the easiest projects. They will deliver results faster. As success breeds success, they will generate more enthusiasm for the more difficult projects that require more time and more resources to be completed. This approach is a good way to build credibility and defuse criticism. Another advantage is that the participants will become more aware of what they can achieve as they achieve success. This gain in confidence will boost the morale to pursue with the further improvements. Often, this creates very healthy bottom-up dynamics that generates newer ideas on how to achieve the goals better and faster, or even exceed them.

Clearly, increasing confidence requires actions at many different levels. In the case of food security, the scope needs to go beyond agricultural development alone. Producing more food will not feed people if the hungry ones still do not make enough money to pay for food. Agriculture is only one of the economic sectors, and it will not produce miracles if it is not included in a more ambitious and broader goal.

Of all activities carried out to improve food security, I find the Chinese policies rather interesting. They are a long-term oriented culture. They are very patient and persistent, as many episodes of their history demonstrate. Their development activities in Africa are comprehensive. Next to all their work to develop agricultural production, they also invest heavily in the development of small businesses. They are working to develop the local economy beyond simply food production. Possibly, they experience of the last 30 years in developing the economy in China explains their approach. They know that social stability depends on people having at least the bare necessities. In the 1990s, I remember when we, in Europe, started to realize that China’s goal was to feed its people first. Imports of agricultural commodities into China started to increase. In particular, their demand for wheat and for what Europeans considered animal by-products was strongly on the rise. They seem to have a similar approach with Africa. They understand that their food supply will be more secure if the countries where they invest are economically and socially stable. It is worth noting that China invests more money in Africa than all G8 countries together do. It would appear that, to follow through with these policies, not having elections every few years allows them to execute a long-term vision without having to sacrifice it through short-term distraction.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of making people lose faith in the future, I could mention Libyan land purchases in Mali. The farmers, who had been working the land for themselves, although the land did not belong to them, have received notice that they will have to leave at the end of this year. This is exactly the kind of practice that could lead a country into civil war.

Businesses and non-profits that are active to develop food production need to take into account the same aspects that increase confidence in the execution of their plans. The owners, shareholders and fund providers must take a long-term approach to succeed. In such projects, the day-to-day share price on the stock exchange is not relevant. Such projects are long-term investments that will deliver a return only after many years. Among the most important investments, I would give a special mention to health and education. Without them, people can simply not get any fulfilling occupation, and economic development will be stuck in low gear.

At my modest level, I once inherited a project to get a fish processing plant operational. This project was a taking place in one of British Columbia’s Central Coast First Nations communities, which was plagued by a staggering 80% unemployment rate. Apart from the fact that there had been no budget allocated, I faced another problem. The local Economic Development Corporation in charge of their end of the project was never carrying out what they were supposed to do. Being my old little me, I never accepted this situation as a reality, and I made sure that all parties would do what they agreed to do. Only after a couple of years did I get the explanation for their dragging their feet. Many projects had taken place in this community before, but they all failed. The locals had concluded that no project would ever succeed, and they were not adamant to invest much in the future. The initial agreement had been signed between the salmon farming company and the leaders of the community, but time was necessary to get the lower levels of the village to be convinced. At some point in time, I was told that if it had not been for my indestructible faith in the project’s success, my persistence and my sometimes quasi-obnoxious insistence, this project would have had the same fate as the other previous ones. I had to deal with many heated discussions, a small social upheaval and death threats, but I quite alive to say proudly that, 11 years after I started it, the plant still is operational today, for the benefit of the community and its residents!

Long-term vision, empathy, sharing the value, strong leadership (even some dose of benevolent dictatorship) are all critical elements to make developing nations believe in the future.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Are “land grabs” a necessary evil?

May 17, 2010

The large land deals between African and Arab countries or Asian countries, mostly China, have drawn quite some attention.

I mentioned them in an earlier post on this blog (The great unseen land grab).

The discussion has taken an increasing political flavour, but very few people seem to look at the causes of the problem.

The reality is simple: the countries looking for land do so because they have a serious problem to feed their people and to guarantee them access to potable drinking water.

The water problem is obvious in Arab countries. In the past, they tried to grow more food on their land by developing irrigation. Unfortunately, they have concluded that this approach depleted their water reserves, while they also realize that they cannot feed their increasing population. For instance, Saudi Arabia has now turned away from its previous food security strategy and chooses to preserve water and look for other sources of food than their own agriculture. China and other Asian countries also realize that they cannot meet the increasing demand for food.

What should these countries do? Home production will not be sufficient. The first other possibility is to import, but volumes in the current world agriculture will also soon meet limitations. Keeping on buying on the world markets will solve some of the shortage problem, but it leaves the importing countries vulnerable to world market price increases. This is a threat for the domestic social stability as many of their inhabitants can hardly afford food at the current prices. These countries simply cannot remain passive. They needed to take action, and they did.

Why is Africa so attractive? Africa is the only continent where agricultural development has lagged behind. Yields are low. Infrastructure is far from optimal. Africa can increase production if African countries can fund their agricultural development. The main problem is one of money and policies. Africa has huge areas of arable land, but that land is not exploited. The FAO estimates at 700 million hectares the amount of land that could be developed for agricultural production. That area is about the size of Australia. It is twice the size of the current world wheat area. This offers huge potential.

What the importing countries bring to Africa are funds ready for investing in infrastructure and equipment. They could wait for African governments to develop agriculture and then buy from them. Considering how slow agricultural development has been in the past, this solution probably would come down to waiting for nothing to happen and cause serious food shortages in Asia and Arab countries, with all the risks of conflicts that this would generate.

The approach of going to Africa and offering to buy and develop the land makes a lot of sense. By being proactive, the importing countries actually speed up the process of getting investment money at work on the land, and the host countries do not have to worry about how to get the money.

Can these land deals work? In theory, they can. The main issue at stake is how both the importing/investing countries and the host countries set up such deals. The population of Africa is very young and it is growing fast. Africa will see its population double within the next 40 years.  Africa is also a poor continent and the combination poverty and high population increase has the potential to create many problems because of a lack of food security. Developing agriculture in Africa is the way to increase food security, but at the same time, a large part of the food produced on the newly developed land will go abroad, to China and Arab countries. This is why it is utmost important that such deals be set up as win-win situations. The foreign countries must help create agricultural and economic development in Africa in order to feed the local population by developing food production and offering employment so that they also can buy food. Failure to do so will very likely result in riots and violence against the new farms and their staff. This would not feed the local population, and could eventually result in not feeding the foreign countries either. Such land deals must be managed very carefully. The people in charge will have more than just agriculture to look after. Social, cultural and environmental aspects will play a very important role in the execution of these projects.

Africa is the continent where such deals have grown to large proportions, but similar deals are also being made in many Asian nations. It is interesting to see that other regions where large amount of investment money would be useful for agricultural development do not get as much attention from the importing countries. Yet, areas like in Kazakhstan, Ukraine or Russia could use some injection of funds, too. Brazil is starting to attract new money. For instance, the China National Agricultural Development Group Corporation has plans to grow corn and soybeans and it is looking for land in Brazil. The corporation has been allowed an annual budget of US$2 billion to realize the objectives and secure grain supplies to China.

More in my upcoming book Future Harvests.

Copyright 2010 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.