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The Power of the Word: African Blogging and Books

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

“Culture is not a luxury … Culture is the spiritual backbone of society”: with these words Jan Kees van de Werk, the Dutch poet and long-standing advocate of African literature, summed up the importance of culture to Africa’s development. Two trends could significantly alter the prospects for African writers in 2007: the new wave of African bloggers and websites that are now emerging, and the increasing awareness of African literature. More traditional writing is now being joined in 2007 by a surge in African blogging. As internet access has increased, and awareness of free blogging websites like WordPress has also shot up, Africans are jumping online to express themselves (see also Development Challenges, March issue).

African literature is gaining an ever-greater audience through high-profile prize-winning. From veteran Nigerian writer and UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador Chinua Achebe winning this year’s Man Booker International Prize, to best-selling French language authors like Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma (Allah is not Obliged) and Albert Memmi, winner of the French Academy’s Grand Prix de la Francophonie. They are joined by many others gaining international acclaim, including Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko – winner of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing – Nigeria’s Chris Abani (Graceland), Cameroon’s Calixthe Beyala (Lost Honor), Congolese writer Daiel Biyaoula (Alley Without Exit) and Mauritius’s Carl de Souza. The Salon International du Livre et de la Presse de Geneva has established the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize, and the new Book Show for African Literature, Press and Culture is scheduled for 2008.

Increasingly, the creative industries are gaining respect as a key part of a vibrant economy. The power of a successful author or musician to generate awareness and excitement about a country and its products, has gained the respect of many governments. And they are also learning to respect the wealth that can be generated. For example, in Britain the creative industries earn almost as much as the powerful financial sector (Work Foundation). The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, has singled out Africa’s creative sector for its future investment.

Blogger Titilayo Soremi in Abuja, Nigeria, is typical of the new wave. A business development officer for an NGO, her blog is a vivid snapshot of life in her country. Obed Sarpongin Accra, Ghana is a budding poet and does not shy away from thorny issues. In his current blog, he tackles domestic politics and writes about the on-again, off-again electricity supply. The secretive Kenyan banker known by the name Bankelele is a lover of new ideas judging by his blog. The content is a mix of financial tip-offs and upcoming business investment opportunities in the region, all stirred up with some rather frank thoughts on politics. He has also gone the extra mile and acquired sponsors for his blog (that banking experience is not going to waste).

The Internet age has also given birth to a new phenomenon: the so-called ”long tail” This is best explained by Kelvin Smith in his paper ‘African Publishers and Writers in British and International Markets’: “What now emerges is that more than half the revenue of Amazon is in the ‘bottom’ two million books on the list.

“So, the ‘Long Tail’ principle goes, we are now looking at a technology that can service the needs not of dozens of markets of millions, but millions of markets of dozens. This has great significance for the small publisher, whether that publisher is in a large publishing nation or in a country where publishing is a smaller scale activity.”

It looks as if getting creative is not only fun, it can be the next goldmine for Africa’s entrepreneurs.

Resources

Published: August 2007

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Update: There is no better proof of concept than impact.

“Great economic and business reporting! Very helpful for us.” Africa Renewal, Africa Section United Nations Department of Public Information

The story Nollywood: Booming Nigerian Film Industry, from UNDP e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions, cited in Innovation Africa: Emerging Hubs of Excellence edited by Olugbenga Adesida, Geci Karuri-Sebina, Joao Resende-Santos (Emerald Group Publishing, 2016).

Southern Innovator was published from 2011 to 2015 by the United Nations.

Team | Southern Innovator Phase 1 Development (2010 – 2015)

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Innovation Villages Tackling MDGs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The global economic crisis that began to roll across the world in September 2008 is threatening gains made against poverty and hunger all over the South. As Kevin Watkins from UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report told the Financial Times, “With the slowdown in growth in 2009, we estimate that the average income of the 391 million Africans living on less than US $1.25 a day will take a 20 percent hit.”

How well millions of people survive the economic turmoil will depend on how local communities respond. And there are innovating communities across the South that show it is possible to succeed. By studying the microcosm of test villages, where quantifiable results are being tracked, lessons are being learned on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (http://www.undp.org/mdg/).

The challenge of matching improving living standards and quality of life with environmental sustainability has been taken up by one village in Colombia. The technologies it has developed over the past few decades have been adopted around the country.

In Las Gaviotas, Colombia a unique experiment was hatched at the end of the 1960s: to see if a village could survive – and even thrive – while eschewing fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. It found its first test in the oil crisis of the early 1970s. For Las Gaviotas’ survival, meeting energy needs became paramount.

One of the simple concepts the community applied is a take on the physical reality that energy is never created or destroyed, it just moves from one medium to another. Las Gaviotas believes in using all the sources for energy that can be found in a local area first, before seeking out others.

Founded by development specialist Paolo Lugari,Las Gaviotas(http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org) is located in a desert region of Colombia. The area covers a vast territory comprising three-fifths of the country but is home to just 10 percent of the population. To Lugari, the harsh environment is a challenge to be overcome. To begin to reverse the arid environment at Las Gaviotas, the villagers reversed the dry climate by planting trees.

This had the effect of increasing local rainfall by 10 percent, making it possible to do other economic activities.”The only deserts that exist in this world are deserts of the imagination,” Lugari told the New York Times.

The 200 people living in Las Gaviotas have been able to get by without guns, police, a mayor, cellphones, television or the Internet. Nobody uses a job title — instead the adults in the community rotate jobs.

While the villagers do not use many of the technological tools people associate with modern life and prosperity, they do have a culture of invention. The inventions they have come up with include a solar kettle for sterilizing water and a 8,012 hectare pine forest which is harvested for resin to make biofuel for trucks and motorcycles. The resin is also used to make varnishes and linseed oil.

For years Colombia’s ongoing civil war raged around the community. Violent drug traffickers and private armies destabilized the country for decades. But despite this mayhem, Las Gaviotas has attracted rural peasants seeking to double their wages (US $500 a month) and enjoy the quiet life away from the war.

“We try to live a quiet life, depending on nothing but our own labor and ingenuity,” said Teresa Valencia, a teacher who has lived in Las Gaviotas for three decades.

Other products developed by the village included a turbine powered by a small, one metre high dam that produced 10 kilowatts of electricity, a windmill that was able to spin despite light breezes, and a pump strong enough to draw water from the hard-to-reach savannah water table.

Pride of place was the village’s hospital. Despite hot temperatures and high humidity, the hospital used clever technologies like subsurface tunnels and double ventilation systems in the walls to cool its operating theatre. The roof slid off to allow ultraviolet sunlight to disinfect rooms. After healthcare reforms in Colombia, the hospital was closed. Undefeated, the village turned the hospital’s kitchen into a potable water bottling facility, and reduced the need for hospital visits by making sure everyone in the area had access to clean water.

The community’s approach inspired scientists and architects, who came to design homes, laboratories and factories for Las Gaviotas.

One significant success has been the windmill-driven water pumps developed by Las Gaviotas. Invented by Jorge Zapp, head of the mechanical engineering department of Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes, it is a lightweight windmill unit weighing barely 45 kilograms. The blades use the airfoil found on airplane propellers to make the most of light breezes.

In the 1980s, UNDP hired the Gaviotas team to install water and windmill pumps in other places in Colombia. Thousands have now been installed in Colombia and the design has been copied throughout Latin America.

Other inventions include a solar-powered kitchen, a water pump powered by a children’s see-saw, and a zeppelin that floats above the savannah plains to detect forest fires.

While the community has been able to forge a success, it can’t avoid the ups and downs of the global economy entirely. Competition from cheap imports of pine resin have pushed down the price the community can charge.

But in a topsy-turvy world, and surrounded by a civil war, what Las Gaviotas has achieved still seems impressive. “We have survived,” said Andrea Beltran. “Maybe, at this time and place in Colombia, that is enough.”

More recently, a much-publicized experiment is also underway in the Millennium villages. The Millennium Villages (http://www.millenniumvillages.org/index.htm) is a joint project between Columbia University’s The Earth Institute and UNDP, and is a bold experiment working with villages in Africa to identify and test solutions to help in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (http://www.undp.org/mdg/).

Britain’s Guardian newspaper has also been sponsoring and tracking changes in the villages of Katine sub-county in Uganda (http://www.guardian.co.uk/katine). Comprising 25,000 people, the project began in October 2007, and is conducted in partnership with the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africa in Katine.

What is useful to people looking for solutions is the way the project is being tracked in detail on the newspaper’s website.

In India, the Model Village India (www.modelvillageindia.org.in) concept pioneered by Rangeswamy Elango, a head of the village of Kuthampakkam near Chennai, has now expanded to 30 model villages. Its approach is about being positive, eschewing griping about problems and instead getting down to work to solve them. Its success is based on an ancient Indian self-organizing model, the Panchayat, and Elango has modernized it to become what he calls The “Network Growth Economy Model” – a direct challenge to the “special economic zones that benefit only capitalist owners,” he said.

Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World – 10th Anniversary Edition by Alan Weisman details further the achievements of the village (www.amazon.com)

Resources

1) Unleashing India’s Innovation: Toward Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, a report by the World Bank. Website: http://www.worldbank.org/

2) NextBillion.net: Hosted by the World Resources Institute, it identifies sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poorest citizens. Website: http://www.nextbillion.net/news

3) Model Village India: Drawing on self-organizing methods used in India since 1200 BC, the Model Village India is based around India’s democratic system of Panchayats: a village assembly of people stemming back to pre-colonial times. Website: http://www.modelvillageindia.org.in

4) Maker Faire: The African Maker Faire has tapped into Africa’s well-entrenched do-it-yourself development culture. It went looking for more inventors like those celebrated on the website AfriGadget (http://www.afrigadget.com/), with its projects that solve “everyday problems with African ingenuity.” The Faire works with the participants to share their ideas and to find ways to make money from their ideas. Website: http://makerfaireafrica.com/

5) eMachineShop: This remarkable service allows budding inventors to download free design software, design their invention, and then have it made in any quantity they wish and shipped to them: Amazing! Website: http://www.emachineshop.com/

6) The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website: http://www.red-dot.de

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Growing A Southern Brand To Global Success: The Olam Story

Most people haven’t heard of Olam International, but they know the brands they work for and they more than likely eat their produce. The story of Olam (http://www.olamonline.com) – a global food supply company in ‘agri-products’ that got its start in Nigeria – shows how a Southern brand can grow and go global, and overcome the difficulties of cross-border trade.

Olam supplies well-known global food brands including Cadbury (chocolate), Nestle, Lavazza (coffee), Mars (chocolate), Tchibo and Planters (peanuts).

Olam not only survived its startup in Nigeria, it has thrived, trading around Africa and across the globe, becoming a major supplier to the world’s top food brands.

The quantity of agri-products harvested in the world is 5.2 billion metric tonnes. In that market, Olam is a significant producer of cashews, peanuts, spices, beans, coffee, cocoa, sheanuts, packaged foods, rice, wheat, barley, sugar, cotton, wood, and rubber. It is already the world’s largest supplier of cashew nuts and sesame nuts and in the top three for peanuts. Olam’s cashew business in Africa provides work for 17,000 people, 95 percent of whom are women.

Olam also uses its success to play a critical role in securing the world’s food supply and has specialized in meeting the food needs of the world’s rapidly growing population, especially in China and India. Between 2001 and 2007, annual increases in the global consumption of agricultural commodities were larger than during the 1980s and 1990s. Higher incomes are leading to higher consumption of proteins like meat. And as meat demand rises, so does the demand for grain and protein feeds to produce the meat. It takes two kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of chicken, four kilograms of produce for one kilogram of pork, and eight kilograms of produce for one kilogram of beef.

Chris Brett, Olam’s senior vice president and head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, said the company tries to blend business success with wider social goals.

“We are one of the few businesses investing in rural environments and am tackling the problem of urbanization,” said Brett in Olam’s London office – the company’s global headquarters is in Singapore.

In 2008, it won the World Business Development Award for its contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/).

Olam also has been recognized for its contribution to global food security. By providing farmers with credit to help build their communities, it has also been able to revive declining rural economies and help stem the outflow of farmers to the big cities and urban slums.

“Many countries are afraid to lend to farmers,” Brett said. “We gather the farmers together in groups of 500 and Olam manages the loan while a local bank receives the money. Defaults have been low and farmers are building up a credit rating. In this way, farming becomes a business not just a subsistence existence.”

The dramatic changes taking place in African countries – especially rapid urbanization that has made the continent home to 25 of the world’s fastest growing cities (International Institute for Environment and Development) – means there is an urgent need to increase food production and stabilize rural economies to support farming.

Olam International, started in 1989 in Nigeria by its India-born CEO Sonny George Verghese has many lessons for any Southern entrepreneurs who have their sights set high.

After developing its skills in exporting cashew nuts from Nigeria, Olam moved into cotton, cocoa and sheanuts. From 1993 to 1995, the company explored ways of taking their skills into other countries and different products. It was a period of rapid expansion into other African countries including Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Olam now operates in 26 African countries.

There has been a renaissance in South-South trade in recent years before the current economic crisis, growing by an average of 13 percent per year between 1995 and 2007. By 2007, South-South trade made up 20 percent of world trade.

Olam started with one product, got its supply right, and then started looking around and seeing what other products and services it could offer, applying already-tested expertise and supply skills – what the company calls the ‘Olam DNA’.

Olam claims its success has come from building strong relationships with farmers to guarantee high standards for the food products. The company does this by tightly tracking its stock and its quality. Olam then uses the information to analyze risks to the supply network. The company also keeps both warehouses and field managers close to the farmers. Olam estimates 65 percent of its profit comes from managing the journey from farmer’s field to factory gate.

Its selling point to customers is the ability to guarantee the entire journey from farmer’s field to factory gate, taking on all the risk and stress for ensuring the product is of the right standard and delivered on time.

Its niche is to provide the food products required by some of the world’s top food brands. The company has grown from just one product in Nigeria and two employees in 1989, to directly employing over 10,000 people worldwide and supplying 20 products in 60 countries, according to Brett. He says the company, which had a total 2008 turnover of US $5.75 billion, was “born out of Africa.”

Brett says the company is now “investing heavily in Africa in processing and distribution centres” – proof that a success story feeds back into more success and investment. It has been able to use its profits to go back and buy up failing businesses and former state-run enterprises, and modernize them. Olam now grows the food, processes it, and transports it to market.

Olam actively works with international donors, global NGOs like Technoserve (farmer business development), WWF (environmental impact of supply chain), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cocoa and cashew farmers).

Olam, however, has received criticisms for its past practices. The global environmental group Greenpeace attacked its logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/tags/olam), and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) divested its holdings from Olam for it trading illegally cut timber.

Olam and the Gates Foundation project are working with 200,000 cocoa farmers in West Africa to double their incomes. In Ghana, cocoa farming has become synonymous with poverty and perceived as an occupation of last resort. The work force is rapidly aging and the industry will die out if it doesn’t become more profitable and attractive to young people.

“We want the farmers to be profitable, the transporters to be profitable,” Brett said. “We believe a supply chain does not work if one player takes too much.”

And what advice does Olam have for budding food producers and growers? “Catchy, simple brands work. Our Mama Mia pasta caught the wave of the Abba revival.”

“Our Tasty Tom brand became very popular in Africa so we extended the brand into other products than just tomato paste. You reduce the cost of advertising by extending the brand name.”

“We feel SMEs (small, medium enterprises) growth is critical because it would give us more support. If more people invested in SMEs, we would have more people to do business with. We want to be able to make deals: they could be entrepreneurs.

“If you can add extra value it costs nothing but time.”

Brett advises budding SMEs: “It’s all about quality: trust and shared business ethics like formal contracts. When you have those, the bigger brands will give you support.”

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: October 2009

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Baker Cookstoves – Designing for the African Customer

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An innovative social enterprise is using design to create an energy-efficient cookstove for Kenya. By turning to an experienced Swedish architecture and design firm, the people behind the Baker cookstove wanted to make sure the stove’s design was as efficient as possible and relevant to the customers’ needs, while also making sure it is visually appealing and something a person would proudly want in their home.

The Baker cookstove (bakerproduct.com) has been designed to be a high-quality and desirable product that also accomplishes the goal of saving money for the user. This unique product is being developed and made at the company’s factory in Nairobi, Kenya.

Baker’s owner is Top Third Ventures Global (topthirdventures.com), a social-impact company registered in Kenya and founded in 2011 by American Lucas Belenky and Björn Hammar, a Swedish/Finnish entrepreneur. Their goal is to make sure that everyone in the developing world has access to an affordable, high-quality efficient cookstove.

While cooking is a daily necessity for billions of people, it is also costly and polluting. By switching to energy-efficient cookstoves, families can reduce the cost of cooking daily meals and, if the stove is designed right, cut the amount of pollution generated. One of the great obstacles to the take-up of energy-efficient cookstoves to date has been the absence of sustainable business models to sell and distribute them.

The Baker cookstove, designed as an aspirational product and backed up with a seven-year guarantee, hopes to change this dynamic. If things go to plan, the company hopes to significantly scale up its production based on customers wanting to have a Baker cookstove proudly on display in their home.

The Baker cookstove is the product of a deliberate attempt to use design and a well-thought-out production life cycle to create an item that is eye-catching, effective, and manufactured consistently to a high standard.

Designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune (http://www.ckr.se/), a Swedish architecture and design firm, the Baker cookstove is a sleek, round, modern stove and comes in eye-catching colors such as orange. It could easily fit in with other kitchen products in a high-end design shop. And that is the point: they want people to want the Baker cookstove.

Quality is key, and engineering and design teams constantly monitor the product and make adjustments to the cookstove as they receive feedback from customers.

The Baker cookstove is benefiting from new financing being made available through carbon credits, which its founders believe will bring big changes to the energy-efficient cookstove market over the next 10 years.

Baker’s chief executive, Lucas Belenky, told Southern Innovator magazine – this newsletter’s sister publication – about the thinking behind the Baker cookstove.

SI: What role does design play in the Baker cookstove social enterprise? At what stage did Top Third Ventures start to think through the production life cycle for the Baker cookstove? What did you feel was missing in the other cookstove models currently available on the market?

The Baker cookstove is the cornerstone of the social enterprise. Top Third Ventures is at its core a product company. There are different aspects to the business model to make it work (i.e. carbon credits and big data) but everything depends on the success of the Baker product. We started thinking through the production life cycle from the day the company was founded in late 2011. The Baker is designed for usability, aspirational value, and performance, prioritized in that order. The most important thing is that the Baker is easy to use and does not require its users to change their daily routines or cooking habits. Cooking cultures vary greatly across the developing world so it is important to understand exactly who your customer is and focus on meeting their requirements. When you have a product that is easy to use it needs to be desirable as well. Beyond the service provided, the product should make the customer feel good about themselves. Finally, the Baker cooks the same food with half the fuel and much less smoke.

The priorities seem reversed for other cookstove models on the market. Efficiency comes first, then the aesthetic design, and cultural conformity is last. Hyper-efficient cookstoves are great for health and the environment on paper but the benefits are not realized because widespread adoption isn’t achieved. Most products are imposed through a top-down approach instead of starting with the customer and designing the stove around them.

SI: Why did you choose to have the Baker cookstove designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune, a Swedish architecture and design firm? What were some of the challenges encountered when designing the product and the production life cycle? What advice do you have for other social enterprises looking to offer an appealing product to low-income households?

We wanted the Baker cookstove to be an aspirational product that you use as much because of the performance (less fuel and less smoke) as because it is beautiful. Claesson Koivisto Rune believed in our vision at a very early stage and I doubt we could have gotten where we are today without them. Challenges around the design mainly involve keeping the costs down. Our customers do not have a lot of disposable income so balancing affordability with performance and world-class design is tough.

For other entrepreneurs selling to low-income households my advice is identify your customer, listen to them, and never stop listening. This is obvious to most businesses but for social enterprises sometimes the grant organizations or other dispersers of donor funding become the customer without you noticing.

Finally, often just because the consumer is in a developing country, enterprises neglect aesthetic appeal and branding. Do not do this. Your consumer behaves for the most part like their counterpart in the developed world. They want products that look nice and make them feel good.

SI: What role is information technology playing in the Baker cookstove’s development? How do mobile phones help with reaching customers in Africa? How does offering software products such as Top3Tracker help Baker cookstoves?

Information technology has a huge impact in decentralized areas because it enables cheap flow of information. For Top Third Ventures it allows us to track our sales in real-time, communicate with current and future customers instantly, and gain valuable insights about how to improve the sales pitch and marketing strategy. The Baker cookstoves also depends on carbon finance, which requires a dialogue with current customers to ensure the usage of the cookstove is accurately measured. Information technology such as our Top3 Tracker significantly reduces the cost of accessing carbon finance.

SI: It is said an innovator is somebody who disrupts existing products and ways of doing things. How is Top Third Ventures innovating and disrupting the current approach to energy-efficient cookstove distribution?

We hope to change the way products for low-income households are designed, marketed, and sold. Top Third Ventures’ Baker cookstove embodies our conviction that these products should be customer-centric, have aspirational value, and conform to local cultures. The success of our product will show that consumers in the developing world want the same thing as their counterparts in developed countries.

Top Third is a partner of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (cleancookstoves.org).

Resources

1) Baker cookstove: The website details how the cookstove was developed. Website: bakerproduct.com

2) Top Third Ventures: The company designs, manufactures, and sells its own unique efficient cookstoves made to fit the local cultures and traditions of their customers, supported by a strong brand and world-class customer communication. In addition, Top Third Ventures works with existing manufacturers and distributors to secure carbon financing for their activities through their programmatic CDM activity and electronic data management system. Website: topthirdventures.com

3) Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves: The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. Website: cleancookstoves.org

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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