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High Impact Communications In A Major Crisis: UNDP Mongolia 1997-1999 | 18 February 2016

I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.

Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”

From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly'” Communist countries. 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

Writing in 2018, author John West  found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.

“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …

“Mongolia’s corruption is greatly weakening its attractiveness as an investment destination, is fracturing society and weakening its fragile political institutions. Its culture of corruption has also fed its love-hate relationship with foreign investors, which has destabilized the economy.” Asian Century … on a Knife-edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development by John West, Springer, 24 January 2018.  

In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (https://www.scribd.com/document/35249986/United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts, including: 

Media

Working with journalists and media both within Mongolia and outside, the Communications Office was able to significantly raise awareness of Mongolia and its development challenges. This was reflected in a substantial increase in media coverage of the country and in the numerous books and other publications that emerged post-1997. The book In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) archived the stories by theme.  

Ger Magazine

Ger Magazine (the Mongolian word for home and traditional tent dwelling) was published as the country’s first e-magazine in 1998. There were four issues in total from 1998 to 2000. The launch issue was on the theme of youth in the transition. Mongolia was transitioning from Communism to free markets and democracy and this had been both an exhilarating time and a wrenching time for young people. The magazine drew on talented journalists from Mongolia and the handful of international journalists based there to create a mix of content, from stories about life adapting to free markets to stories on various aspects of Mongolian culture and life. 

The second issue of the magazine proved particularly effective, with its modern life theme and cover story on a thriving Mongolian fashion scene.

Archived issues of the magazine can be found at the Wayback Machine here: https://archive.org/. Just type in the UN Mongolia website address for the years 1997 to 1999: http://www.un-mongolia.mn.


Blue Sky Bulletin

The Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter was launched in 1997 initially as a simple, photocopied handout. It quickly founds its purpose and its audience, becoming a key way to communicate what was happening in the country and a crucial resource for the global development community, scholars, the media and anyone trying to figure out what was happening in a crazy and chaotic time. Blue Sky Bulletin was distributed via email and by post and proved to be a popular and oft-cited resource on the country. The quality of its production also paralleled Mongolia’s growing capacity to publish to international standards, as desktop publishing software became available and printers switched to modern print technologies. Blue Sky Bulletin evolved from a rough, newsprint black and white publication to becoming a glossy, full-colour, bilingual newsletter distributed around Mongolia and the world.

Archived issues can be found online here:

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 1

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 2

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 3

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 4

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 5

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 6 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 7 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 8

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 9

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 10

Publishing

MHDR 1997

The Mongolian Human Development Report 1997 (MHDR), the country’s first, placed the story of the Mongolian people during the transition years (post-1989) at its heart, using photographs, stories and case studies to detail the bigger narrative at play.

This groundbreaking Mongolian Human Development Report went beyond just chronicling Mongolia’s state of development in statistics and graphs. Designed, laid out and published in Mongolia, the report broke with the practices of many other international organisations, who would publish outside of Mongolia – denying local companies much-needed work and the opportunity to develop their skills. The report’s costs helped to kick-start a publishing boom in the country and significantly raised standards in design and layout in the country. The foundations laid down by the project producing the report ushered in a new age in publishing for Mongolia.

The report’s launch was innovative, not only being distributed for free across the country, but also part of a multimedia campaign including television programming, public posters, town hall meetings and a ‘roadshow’ featuring the report’s researchers and writers.

The initial print run of 10,000 copies was doubled as demand for the report increased. To the surprise of many, once hearing about the free report, herders would travel to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pick up their copy. The report proved people cared passionately about the development of their country and that development concepts are not to be the secret domain of ‘development practitioners’. The report also became an English language learning tool as readers compared the Mongolian and English-language versions. 

You can read the report’s pdf here: http://www.mn.undp.org/content/mongolia/en/home/library/National-Human-Development-Reports/Mongolia-Human-Development-Report-1997.html

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

Assembled by a team of health experts after the Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the Mongolian AIDS Bulletin was published in 1997 in the middle of an HIV/AIDS crisis. It provided timely information and health resources in the Mongolian language and was distributed across the country.
 
“Mongolia’s first AIDS Bulletin marked the beginning of the UNDP Response to HIV/AIDS/STDs Project back in the autumn of 1997. Over 5,000 copies of the magazine were distributed across the country, offering accurate information on the HIV/AIDS situation. The project has been pivotal in the formulation of a national information, education and communication (IEC) strategy, bringing together NGOs, donors, UN agencies and the government.”
 
Source: YouandAids: The HIV/AIDS Portal for Asia Pacific 

Green Book

In the Mongolian language, the Mongolian Green Book details effective ways to live in harmony with the environment while achieving development goals. Based on three years’ work in Mongolia – a Northeast Asian nation coping with desertification, mining, and climate change – the book presents tested strategies.  

EPAP Handbook

The Environmental Public Awareness Handbook was published in 1999 and features the case studies and lessons learned by UNDP’s Mongolian Environmental Public Awareness Programme (EPAP). The handbook draws on the close to 100 small environmental projects the Programme oversaw during a two-year period. These projects stretched across Mongolia, and operated in a time of great upheaval and social, economic and environmental distress. The handbook is intended for training purposes and the practice of public participation in environmental protection.

In its 2007 Needs Assessment, the Government of Mongolia found the EPAP projects “had a wide impact on limiting many environmental problems. Successful projects such as the Dutch/UNDP funded Environmental Awareness Project (EPAP), which was actually a multitude of small pilot projects (most costing less than $5,000 each) which taught local populations easily and efficiently different ways of living and working that are low-impact on the environment.”

Mongolia Updates 1997, 1998, 1999

Mongolia Update 1998 detailed how the country was coping with its hyperinflation and the Asian economic crisis.

The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_Financial_Crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history (http://www.jstor.org/pss/153756).  

Mongolia Update 1998 – Political Changes

1998 proved a tumultuous year for Mongolia. The country’s existing economic crisis caused by the transition from Communism to free markets was made worse by the wider Asian Crisis. The government was destabilised, leading to an often-confusing revolving door of political figures. In order to help readers better understand the political changes in the country, a special edition of Mongolia Update was published that year.  

UNDP Mongolia: The Guide

The Guide, first published in 1997, provided a rolling update on UNDP’s programmes and projects in Mongolia during a turbulent time (1997-1999). The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_financial_crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history.

Each edition came with short project and context summaries, key staff contacts, and facts and figures on how the country was changing. For the first time, any member of the public could grasp what the UN was up to in the country and be able to contact the project staff. An unusual level of transparency at the time for a UN mission.

Memoranda of Understanding

Three Memoranda of Understanding were negotiated with the Mongolian Government to help focus efforts and aid the attainment of internationally-agreed resolutions. This was affirmed by a series of youth conferences, One World, held in 1998 and 1999.

Strategy and Leadership in a Crisis

The scale and gravity of the crisis that struck Mongolia in the early 1990s was only slowly shaken off by the late 1990s. The economic and social crisis brought on by the collapse of Communism and the ending of subsidies and supports from the Soviet Union, led to a sharp rise in job losses, poverty, hunger, and family and community breakdowns. 

The challenge was to find inspiring ways out of the crisis, while building confidence and hope. The sort of challenges confronted by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office included: 

1) A food crisis: agricultural production was down sharply, and the traditional nomadic herding economy, while at peak herd, was failing to get the meat to markets and to a high enough standard to restore export levels to where they once were. As a result, a cross-border trading frenzy became the solution to falling domestic food production and availability.

2) HIV/AIDS/STDs crisis

3) A major banking crisis

4) Both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Russia Crisis.

5) An ongoing political crisis and an inability to form stable governments.

“Mongolia is not an easy country to live in and David [South] showed a keen ability to adapt in difficult circumstances. He was sensitive to the local habits and cultures and was highly respected by his Mongolian colleagues. … David’s journalism background served him well in his position as Director of the Communications Unit. … A major accomplishment … was the establishment of the UNDP web site. He had the artistic flare, solid writing talent and organizational skills that made this a success. … we greatly appreciated the talents and contributions of David South to the work of UNDP in Mongolia.” Douglas Gardner, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Mongolia

Citations

The response by the Communications Office has been cited in numerous articles, stories, publications and books. It has also contributed to the development of the human development concept and understanding of human resilience in a crisis and innovation in a crisis. Book citations include: 

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

A more detailed list of citations can be found here: http://www.davidsouthconsulting.com/about/

For research purposes, key documents were compiled together and published online here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=K76jBgAAQBAJ&dq=undp+mongolia+key+documents&source=gbs_navlinks_s

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in a 15-year bid to use a focused approach to development centred around eight goals to accelerate improvements to human development. From 2000 to 2005, work was undertaken in various UN missions (Mongolia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Ukraine) to communicate the goals and to reshape communications activities around the goals.

*Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah, Eastern Universities Press, 2003 

Transition and Democracy in Mongolia by Richard Pomfret, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 149-160, published by Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/153756?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

UNDP Mongolia team photo in 1997. I am sitting front row centre left of the UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner.

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Insects Can Help in Food Crisis

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

For many years it was a given that the world’s problem was not a lack of food, but that it was unfairly shared. But as the switch to biofuels gathers pace, farmland is being diverted away from growing food for people, to food for fuel. On top of this, growing prosperity in many countries in the South has boosted demand for better quality food, including grain-devouring meat diets – it takes 10 kilograms of grain to get one kilogram of meat from a cow. The crisis has deeply alarmed the UN’s World Food Programme and the World Bank. In the economic battle for food, the poor are the most vulnerable.

So-called agflation (agricultural inflation) has seen spiraling food prices, which in turn are causing food shortages, hunger and malnutrition around the world. For example, rice in Thailand has jumped from US $400 per 100 kilograms in January, to US $760. World grain stocks are at their lowest level in four decades.

But where can new sources of food be found? And what would be a more efficient use of the world’s resources to feed the growing population? One answer, surprisingly, is insects.

In February this year the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization held a conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand to devour the dietary value of insects as food and discuss how to harvest more of them. The working group of three dozen scientists from 15 countries probed the role of edible forest insects in food security. They explored insect protein as a contributor to better nutrition, the economics of collecting edible forest insects, methods of harvesting, processing and marketing edible forest insects, and ways of promoting insect eating with snacks, dishes, condiments — even recipes.

The range of insects that can be tapped for food is huge: beetles, ants, bees, crickets, silk worms, moths, termites, larvae, spiders, tarantulas and scorpions. More than 1,400 insect species are eaten in 90 countries in the South. Known as entomophagy, insect eating is a growing industry. Entrepreneurs in the South are making insects both palatable and marketable – and in turn profitable. These innovations are adding another income source for farmers and the poor, and supplying another weapon to the battle for global food security.

Insects have one big advantage as a food source: they are efficient converters of food into protein. Based on the weight of the food required to feed them, crickets are twice as efficient as pigs and broiler chicks, four times more efficient than sheep and six times more efficient than cows. They breed at a far faster rate, and they contain essential amino acids. They are seen as an ecologically friendly alternative to traditional animal rearing.

There are downsides to insects, however. In areas where there is heavy pesticide spraying on crops, insects can retain the pesticides in their bodies. Another key issue is sustainability: insect harvesting in some places has driven species to extinction. Then there is revulsion for some: in Western diets, there is an aversion to entomophagy, although most Westerners are happy to eat honey.

Revulsion at eating of insects is misguided. Most grains and preserved food products contain large quantities of insects or insect fragments mixed in. For example, rice usually contains rice weevil larvae – and they can be an important source of vitamins.

In Africa, 250 edible insects are eaten, from termites to grasshoppers, and have helped people through many food emergencies on the continent.

In South Africa — where edible insects are a multimillion dollar industry — Botswana and Zimbabwe, the local taste for mopane worms is being harvested for profits and nutrition. The worms, which inhabit mopane tress, require only three kilograms of feed (mopane leaves) to produce one kilogram of worms. At a rural factory in Limpopo province, South Africa, the community of Giyani is working to launch a wide range of products made from mopane worms – sustainably harvesting this larvae of the mopane emperor moth, gonimbrasia belina.

The Greater Giyani Natural Resources Development Programme in partnership with scientists at the University of Pretoria, is developing mopane worm products, including essential oils. The worms are usually par-boiled and then sun dried by locals. But at the Dzumeri Mopane Manufacturing Centre, the worms are processed and made ready for market. The local people are being trained in how to harvest the worms hygienically, and how to sort and grade the worms. The products will include deep-fried snacks and seasoning spices. It is critical the worms are harvested in a sustainable way, because in some parts of southern Africa, they have been driven to extinction.

Johnathon Mndawe, the programme manager, is organizing women and youth into co-ops to make viable commercial enterprises. “We expect the product to hit supermarket shelves in 2009,” said Morewane Mampuru, coordinator for the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, another partner.

One of the women, mother of four Mthavini Khosa, is excited: “For many years, we have been harvesting worms for food. We are excited because we will soon be doing it to make money.”

In Thailand, insect harvesting is a well-established business. Thais eat more than 150 insects, including crickets, silk worms and dung beetles. Canned crickets are regularly sold in supermarkets. Bugs are easily bought in the markets of Bangkok.

Online vendor Thailand Unique, based in Udon Thani, sells and markets a wide range of edible insects. They include edible scorpions, preserved giant water bugs, roasted grasshoppers, edible big crickets, bamboo worms, crushed giant bug paste, and introducing this year, Bug Snackz and Scorpion Thai Green Curry. There is even a ‘Bug Sample Pack’, containing a mix of seven edible insects and arachnids, all slow roasted for easy snacking.

Another important centre for insect harvesting is Latin America. In Venezuala, the Pemon Indians eat fire ants during the rainy season.

In Colombia, so-called “fatass ant” or “hormiga culona” is eaten like popcorn in movie theatres. Some believe it is a defence against cancer, or a natural aphrodisiac. Eating the ants or culona, has been happening right back to the ancient Guane Indians.

In Santander province, farmers are exporting the ants for sale, some being dipped in Belgian chocolate and sold as a luxury food in London’s Harrods and Fortnum and Mason department stores. The abundant ant population brings in US $11 a pound (kilogram conversion) for the farmers, a doubling in price since 2000.

Farmers in the artist colony of Barichara harvest the ants – though concerns have been raised that they have been over-harvesting the population. Restaurants in the area offer ant-based spreads for bread and an ant-flavored lamb sauce.

“It’s an age-old dilemma for the farmer — should I kill it or eat it?” said Andres Santamaria to CBS News, who was given a $40,000 grant from Santander’s government to develop an environmentally sustainable, export-oriented programme for breeding the ants.

In Tijuana, Mexico, ancient Aztec, pre-Colombian insect meals are on offer at this restaurant, joining a global trend. Cien Anios (“100 Years”), specialises in pre-Colombian, Aztec insect recipes. It is proof there is money in preparing insects for food. Typical dishes include garlicky ant eggs and cactus worms in butter.

Resources

  • A network for insect collectors: Website: www.insect.net
  • Sunrise Land Shrimp: A do-it-yourself guide to raising and harvesting insects for food, with important information on health and hygiene: Website: www.slshrimp.com
  • Edible Unique: An online supermarket of gourmet insect food products. Website: www.edibleunique.com

Published: April 2008

Tijuana‘s Cien Años was the original inspiration for this story. As one of the first stories to draw attention to the insects-for-food market, it contributed to a growing awareness of this exciting food source. I had a delicious all-insect meal there in 2002.
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Landmark Study Finds Simple Toys Key to Boosting Educational Development and Meeting MDGs

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 5

African youth need to play more according to a new landmark study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, The Lancet. The study tackles the high rates of illiteracy and educational under-achievement in Africa and finds that malnourishment and lack of stimulation are leaving millions unable to benefit from schooling. It found projects that encouraged learning through play led to children boosting their IQs and getting better reading skills. And it comes up with a very simple and low-cost solution – but excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs – toys and play.

“These are not high tech interventions,” said team leader for the study, Professor Sally McGregor of the Institute of Child Health of University College London. “Research over decades in Jamaica (and other countries) has shown that women with only primary school-level education and a few home made toys can be trained to make a significant difference in the education, intelligence and mental health of disadvantaged children. The Millennium Goal of universal primary education for all cannot be met unless these children’s poor development is tackled.”

The paper – Strategies to Avoid the Loss of Developmental Potential among Over 200 Million Children in the Developing World – is published in three parts in the journal.

Twenty projects around the world were evaluated for the benefits they produce for children under five who use toys. McGregor, who has set up several projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda designing and constructing toys using whatever materials are available, was appalled by the widespread neglect of play throughout these countries. With play, the study found children read better, have better mental health and better self-esteem. In Africa it is ‘desperate, really desperate’ she says.

African primary school enrolments and literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, with over 42 million school children in sub-Saharan Africa not enrolled in school, and many children not able to afford to go or stay in primary school. Today a little more than half of African adults are literate and some 60 per cent of children go to school, according to UNESCO. The agency has forecasted the need for an additional 1.6 million teachers in Sub-Saharan African classrooms by 2015 – an increase of 68 percent.

The materials used to construct the toys do not need to be expensive or sophisticated. Toys can be constructed from banana trees, mud, corn on the cob, old plastic bottles, or cloth and straw dolls. It is key that the toys are safe for children under five and that anyone building such toys for sale must follow existing manuals.

McGregor continues: ‘One mother in a village was doing marvellous things with tiny scraps of material to make a doll. She received no recognition in the village for the work she was doing yet it was so important. It doesn’t take much – dolls or simple wooden blocks – they are so versatile. You see schools with nothing – it is unforgivable. The problem is how poor these people are – food just takes priority over toys – it is that stark.”

Locally produced toys are key to resolving this crisis for several reasons. Cost is the most important, with those most adversely affected also the least able to pay for toys and who are already living a precarious existence where basic survival takes precedence over play. Another factor is Africa being home to the countries who import the least number of toys: Somalia, Liberia, Togo, Rwanda and Chad. But the situation for African toymakers is often desperate as well, with many craft workers living at the economic margins. Several initiatives have emerged in the last couple of years to address this problem and ensure African toys are local and toymakers earn a living.

Initiatives like the African Toyshop based in Johannesburg, South Africa – a fair trade business – work to ensure African toymakers can make a living and get their wares to as wide a market as possible. The toymakers featured all use natural resources or recycled materials. Most work at the village level and produce toys that are culturally relevant to Africa. The organization COFTA – Cooperation For Fair Trade in Africa – is a network of Fair Trade producer Organizations in Africa involved and working with disadvantaged grassroots producers to eliminate poverty through fair trade. It is an excellent resource for grassroots organizations wanting to work with African toymakers.

Resources

The UK charity TALC – Teaching-aids At Low Cost – is planning to make available toy making manuals on a CD. Tel: (0) 1727 853869

This website also has excellent resources for budding toy and play area makers in Africa.

Online exhibition of African toys: Click here

Book: Africa on the Move: Toys from West Africa Stefan Eisenhofer, Karin Guggeis, Jacques Froidevaux Stuttgart, Germany: Arnoldsche, 2004. 216 pp., 195 color, 28 b/w illustrations. $75.00, cloth.

Published: January 2007

SDG Resource Centre: The southern origins of sustainable development goals: Ideas, actors, aspirations.
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Social Franchising Models Proving Poor Bring Profits

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The four billion people in the world who live on less than US $2 a day have been described as the bottom of the economic pyramid, or BOP for short. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Indian business consultant and professor CK Prahalad argues that this attitude must be turned on its head: rather than seeing the world’s poor as a burden, only worthy of charity, Prahalad sees nothing but opportunity and unmet needs that business can address. In short, he argues, profits can be married with the goal of eradicating poverty.

Prahalad has gone so far as to claim this is a market potentially worth US $13 trillion, while the World Resources Institute puts it at US $5 trillion in its latest report, The Next 4 Billion.

One of the tools business is turning to reach the world’s poor is known as social franchising. The concept borrows from the business world and the highly successful franchise models that are more commonly associated with fast-food restaurants and computer and clothing retailers – wherever rapid expansion and scale are required to reach the biggest market possible. And there is no bigger market, social franchising advocates claim, than the world’s four billion poorest people.

In the past, most formal business in developing countries chased the small middle class or the even smaller elite or foreign expatriate communities. Traditional poverty eradication strategies have also been criticized for being too narrow, focused on a very small group, or for wasting time and resources replicating what has already been achieved elsewhere, and for ballooning and shrinking depending on aid grants or success at fundraising. Social franchising aims to bypass these weaknesses by finding models that work, making sure they are self-financing, and then quickly scaling them up to reach as many people as possible. It’s a model that is gaining more followers and the serious interest of big and small businesses.

One example is the Scojo Foundation in India, established to tackle the common problem of blurry vision as people age (presbyopia). Not a disease, the first symptoms occur between the ages of 40 and 50. Low vision affects 124 million people in the world according to the World Health Organization’s Vision 2020 campaign, organizers of World Sight Day 2007 on October 11.

Blurry vision is a serious disability for weavers, mechanics, goldsmiths and others whose livelihoods depend on near vision. As vision deteriorates, these people are unable to provide for their families. Yet it is easily treatable with a pair of eyeglasses.

Since, 2002, the Scojo Foundation (the social franchising wing of eyeglasses manufacturer Scojo New York, has launched operations in Bangladesh, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Ghana. Its largest and fastest growing operation is in India, where it employs more than 560 entrepreneurs in rural villages, and selling more than 50,000 pairs of glasses since 2001.

It has grown quickly because the business model has been replicated by local staff who work as franchisees. It has followed the franchise model by building a network of “vision entrepreneurs” – low-income men and women, who in turn sell reading glasses directly to rural villagers throughout India. The franchise model enables the “vision entrepreneurs” to earn a good income, and gain respect from other community members.

Nico Clemminck, co-author of a case study on Scojo, found the price was very competitive with other options in India, and that the higher quality of the glasses made them attractive to villagers.

“The franchisees, or Vision Entrepreneurs as Scojo calls them, that we met were very involved with Scojo – some of them shifting away their focus from previous occupations to spend the majority of their time on conducting vision screenings and selling glasses. The main reason is that the business is quite profitable to them – they make a US $1 margin per glasses sold, which is very high compared to other retail products. A trend we did notice is that commitment decreases over time, as the entrepreneurs exhaust their immediate circle of relatives or target village populations, and the incremental sale becomes tougher to make.”

According to Clemminck, Scojo has been able to quickly and successfully expand to other countries by forming partnerships with existing networks that reach into villages.

The profit hierarchy works like this: the manufacturer charges US $1 for the reading glasses, Scojo charges another US $1, the franchisee a further US $1, and the customer pays US $3 for the glasses. By creating profit at each stage, the model ensures the financial incentives are there to keep the distribution network active.

Prior to Scojo, it was believed developing infrastructure in rural Indian communities is too high to sustain a franchising model for low-cost products. Scojo found it was possible to succeed with this model, by focusing on profitability and sustainability right from the start, pursuing aggressive growth through partnerships to build economies of scale, blocking competitors by having a strong brand and first-mover advantage, constantly refining the model across regions, and delivering a tangible social benefit, both economic and health.

On average, franchisees work 20-30 hours per month and earn US $15 to US $20 per month. Considering most franchisees were living on US $1 a day, the extra income is very welcome, Clemminck said.

“This project gave me insight into the large, untapped market opportunity that exists,” says case study co-author Sachin Kadakia, “and how the concept of ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ provides a tangible and significant improvement to the quality of life of people in these communities.”

Another social franchise gaining ground in India is Medicine Shoppe. As a chain of pharmacies, Medicine Shoppe targets underserved communities by offering entrepreneurs franchises. It is an offshoot of the largest franchiser of independent community pharmacies in the US, Medicine Shoppe International Inc.. It can draw on its strong brand and identity to appeal to potential franchises.

Acumen Fund fellow Nadaa Taiyab, who is working with Medicine Shoppe’s expansion to help the rural and urban poor, found it was important to learn lessons and adapt the model.

“When I arrived in December (2006),” she said, “we opened the first Sehat Clinic. Last weekend we opened the seventh, with an eighth shortly underway. The model has undergone a tremendous evolution in the past six months. We shifted our site selection strategy from relatively affluent areas with a slum nearby, to locating the clinics right inside slums. We redesigned the process through which we recruit doctors and created an employment package that allows us to hire experienced doctors at a salary we can afford.

“We also implemented an entirely new concept for Medicine Shoppe called community marketing outreach. Through this program, we hire local women in each area to make daily home visits, refer patients to the clinic, spread health education and awareness, and promote our free health camps and health clinics. In the past four months we have held over 35 health-plus-vision-testing camps, serving over 4,000 people.

“We have also made some changes to the look and feel of the clinics and shops and put all our marketing materials in the local language, to make our services more appealing to low-income markets.”

There are critics of the BOP approach, however. Aneel Karnani from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, argues from a for-profit perspective, business would be much better off targeting the needs of the growing middle classes, especially in countries like India and China. He, however, does acknowledge that social franchising businesses like above, where social responsibility is key, are relevant to meeting the needs of the poor.

Published: August 2007

Resources

  • A detailed and thorough case study of how the Scojo Foundation model works is found here
  • An excellent set of decision matrices to help budding social entrepreneurs and existing businesses to decide if social franchising is the right solution: www.createproject.org
  • The Social Enterprise Alliance has built a knowledge network and extensive range of resources (including 160 case studies) on social enterprise.

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

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