Social Impact: Loving vs Doing the Idea (Impressions from my first-hand experience with Agriculture) 

Around early October 2014, I made one of the biggest decisions in my career. I was to move to a new city, into an industry I don’t know much about, save for the part that I can speak the local language. I was to be a LGT VP ICats Fellow for a cacao company that strives have a social impact.

I was a newly-minted MBA and back then I felt that the opportunities in front me were endless to the point of overwhelming. Most of my peers from Australia have already launched ahead with their newly found niches in consulting, banking, finance and marketing – sectors you would expect from a typical MBA grad. I was excited to pursue similar opportunities that came into my way and yet unexpectedly, one of my biggest life questions came into my lap: wouldn’t you want to give back? Given that I was a scholar of the Asian Development Bank, I knew that it was highly likely that should I say yes to that question, it will seem to be an unpopular decision at this point in my career.

I decided to go with Kennemer Foods in Davao, Philippines without knowing much about the growing, harvesting and making business with cacao. Apart from getting free hot chocolate from time to time, I had two reasons in mind: I wanted to use my MBA skills in a way that would have far-reaching impact in a field that usually goes unnoticed and unappreciated – agriculture. You see, for us millennials, we always think of looking for the next best solution out there using what the latest technology and social media has to offer (which by the way I totally give a thumbs up sign). We have solutions how to make food ordering faster, making cab hailing faster, making movie tickets cheaper – name it, we’ve got it.

However, I’d like to make case that if we could also learn to make equal effort and contribute to sustainable food production then I think we would worry less whether there are still enough resources to put into our mouths.

Vulnerable and easily misunderstood

Agriculture remains to be one of the most vulnerable and typically misunderstood fields until today. With climate change rapidly impacting yields of growers and world population exploding, there is a huge pressure for land areas to produce more than say, 20 years ago. Add to this is that despite the availability of information running about, a lot of people (especially those in the highly urbanized areas where typically a lot of entrepreneurial ideas brew out) remain in their impression that agriculture is a very backward industry to be involved. It’s like people are way cooler if they have this start-up in the tech space. But a start-up in agriculture? Not so sexy.

I confess that before I joined my fellowship, I had this very naïve understanding that agriculture was just a matter of putting all the necessary ingredients together – much like what we see in cooking shows in TV today: put in some seeds, add some fertilizer, make sure you have available water with you, bring in the sunshine, wait for some time and then voila, harvest is ready!

I wish it was all that easy.

So uncertain

Throughout my fieldworks and actual conversations with farmers who are mostly based in the rural and hard-to-reach areas, I learned that agriculture is one of the most uncertain and yet one of the most rewarding fields you could get into.

Contrary to popular belief that for agriculture to provide a significant contribution to the economy was just a matter of putting more fertilisers and more machinery (of course these inputs will indeed make a difference), I learned that success for these farmers meant making a lot of decisions amidst a lot of factors – ones that are beyond our grade school teachers simply led us to believe (bless them though). Before, little did I know before that growing crops involved deciding what inputs to use, how much to use, where to use and why to use and even when to use whilst thinking that climactic, geographic and topographic conditions may not still give you an upper hand. And it’s not just a matter of information asymmetry – I have heard the best inputs and technology used by a lot of agribusiness companies and yet harvests are still below par.

Now think about for a moment how smallholder farmers deal with such uncertainty. Throughout my fellowship, I have learned to respect farmers even more because despite this immense uncertainty that they have to deal with, they still have to make it a point to earn a yield to feed their families. And yet here we are, us in the highly urbanised areas, groaning and moaning about how inefficient things happen in agricultural side of things.

And that is why I’d like to call out the difference between loving the idea versus doing the idea of social impact. A lot of urban millennials today, with the best of intentions, want to get involved with solving problems agriculture calling out that “this” should be done and “that” should get implemented. A lot of us love the idea of making an impact and yet do not really want to get their hands dirty first to identify what is good to be done. Here is my point: even before we point out certain problems and try to help the farmers by simply offering solutions, it is essential we take the time to understand what’s really happening on the ground.

Yet so rewarding

And yet, I also say that agriculture is one of the most rewarding fields you could get your hands on. In one of my visits with a cacao farmer in a rural spot in Davao, I noticed that he seemed to be very contented and happy just tending to his field. He doesn’t have the latest tablet or latest smartphone and yet that encounter made me realise that if this farmer was already happy with his farm and his family alone, then maybe, just maybe, the reason a lot of us remain to be unhappy and feel unrewarded because we might be running after the wrong things. Beyond the profit that farmer is going to get for his cacao beans, I could just imagine that his joy seeing the literal fruits of his labour take life in front of his eyes. And I believe that work couldn’t be more rewarding than that.

I finish my fellowship in Davao having realised that solutions to world’s biggest problems are not so easy as they seem to be at first sight. The experience humbled me in that it made me reflect whether I signed up so easily for social impact because I was “loving” the idea of social impact and not equally putting importance on the “doing” part. I learned that these two cultivate each other otherwise you’re in the wrong kind of work.

A selfie with cacao pods right after they were harvested and just before they are broken for their beans (May 2015).

A selfie with cacao pods right after they were harvested and just before they are broken for their beans (May 2015).

Performing one last paper-based monitoring and evaluation exercise prior recommending the use of a mobile-based technology to field technicians (Dec 2015).

Performing one last paper-based monitoring and evaluation exercise prior recommending the use of a mobile-based technology to field technicians (Dec 2015).

Let these impressions serve as an important thinking point for those budding agri-entrepreneurs and future LGTVP ICats fellows to ensure that their intentions are in check: do you just LOVE the idea of making an impact or are you also ready to DO the actual work involved? I hope that they will say a resounding YES to both.

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