Vanilla Farmers, Maasai Warriors and Rastafarian Hotel Managers—A Great Professional Development Opportunity!


Caylee Talpert is the Deputy Director of the Pears Innovation for International Development Program at Tel Aviv University, which is dedicated to making Israel an important source of innovation and innovative technologies for developing countries.

When I applied to use my ROI professional development Micro Grant for a trip to Africa, I was not 100% sure what I had in mind. All I knew was that I needed to “get into the field” and to spend a brief period taking part in the day-to-day workings of a social enterprise operating in Africa. I believed, as I wrote in my grant application, that this would enhance my work here in Israel supporting Israeli entrepreneurs developing innovations for the African context.

I came to Natural Extracts Industries Ltd (NEI), the social business where I spent the month of October volunteering, through an online advertisement. They were looking for someone with a background in either chemical engineering or marketing to fill a year-long position—neither of which I had experience in, and I actually was only looking for a short-term opportunity. Nevertheless, I liked the sound of this social enterprise, which works with over 1000 small-scale farmers in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, so I e-mailed them. Within a week we had agreed that they would provide accommodation, and I would spend one month working on their business development and marketing strategy. With that, I booked my flight to Tanzania.

NEI’s primary focus is on assisting small-holder farmers to grow vanilla, a crop sometimes referred to as “Black Gold” given its relatively high value compared to other crops farmed in the region. Despite Tanzania’s ideal climate for vanilla, only a handful of farmers had previously cultivated it, and many attempts had been unsuccessful as a high degree of training is required to successfully grow high quality vanilla pods. (Read my article on Entrepreneurship and Vanilla Farming in Business Fights Poverty for more details).

Working at NEI has been a fantastic learning experience in that it has taught me a great deal about some of the difficulties in running a social business in Africa. NEI has all the challenges inherent in any start-up, such as finding investors or access to markets, as well as problems we don’t even think about here in Tel Aviv, such as a stable electricity supply. (While I was there, the company had been without electricity for over a month and had to halt production—part of the reason for which may have been the fact that they were unwilling to pay bribes to the electricity workers, who told them they “were hungry” when they came to inspect the problem).

However, in addition to all that I learned from my time at NEI, I also learned a great deal just from being there and meeting some of the fascinating people working in Moshi where I was based. From social entrepreneurs working on developing income-generating opportunities for out-of-school youth, to an impact investor investing in small-scale agricultural businesses, living in Tanzania for a few weeks gave me great exposure to many of these interesting people. For example, the host with whom I stayed was a woman who had left her high-power career as an executive in a large Spanish telecommunication company to move to Africa and set up a school for vulnerable children. She is currently in the process of building a new structure so that they can move out of the church grounds where they are currently based. The new school will be made entirely out of plastic bottles, which the parents are obliged to help build in exchange for their children’s education.

As a result of a conversation we had one evening over dinner, I am now working with this woman to develop a new project to send a group of students with relevant expertise in agriculture, irrigation and business to Inkoma village in the Serengeti (where her business partner is from) to develop a proposal for increasing the sustainability of the village. The Inkoma Village has very fertile land, but little is grown there partly because of a lack of knowledge and partly because elephants come to eat their crops (a quick Google search taught me that building bee hives in the fences could be a good deterrent to the elephant problem). What’s more, there are a number of five-star lodges in the area, many of which get their produce delivered from the nearest market, a few hours' drive away. This, therefore, presents a real opportunity to create sustainable, income-generating agricultural projects for the villagers.

During my last week, we traveled seven hours to visit the Imkoma Village, which was an incredible experience in community development at its core. We met with the village elders and government officials to gain their approval, listened to community leaders speak about their challenges—which ranged from supporting vulnerable children whose parents had died of aids, to preventing wild animals from eating their livestock—and met with some of the lodge owners to understand what work was already being done within the community. Until then I had been in Moshi, which some had described as “Africa-light,” with its high proportion of exports and many tourists who come to climb Kilimanjaro. However, in this Maasai village of around 3500 people, there was no mistaking the fact that we were in Africa. On our second day, on the way to meet the regional leaders, we encountered hundreds of Maasai warriors in dispersed groups along the road, dressed in their traditional hunting gear and carrying spears. We were told that cattle had been stolen and they were going to find the culprit. Later, as we sat in one of our meetings waiting for the representatives (who never came), we heard news that the guilty party had been found. I asked what would happen to them, and was given the vague answer that it depends if they surrender or are “big headed.” At this point, I was given a look by my colleague that made it clear that it was better not to ask more questions—as they say TIA! (This is Africa).

As the month drew to a close, I headed to Zanzibar for a final weekend of vacation before I flew back to Israel. But even this beautiful island turned into an interesting learning experience. On the ride from the airport, we were stopped three times by police clearly looking for bribes; one of these times, I noticed the taxi driver discreetly handing the officer a crumpled up note. On the same ride we also stopped for coconuts and killed a chicken that ran into the road... I then stayed at a “hotel” called Mama Fatima—run by a group of local Rastafarians called Black Moon, Eddie Murphy and Spiderman—where a large percentage of the very low rate went to a local social business called Business4Africa, which sounded great.

My lesson learned here was that Rustas may make great music, but they are not necessarily the people you want running your hotel—especially when you want to leave and there has been no water for the past 12 hours to take a shower after a day at the beach, or you return one night and your key snaps in the lock, but the guy on duty is too high to be all that productive in solving such problems in a rush.

To conclude, my trip was a great learning experience. I learned a great deal about working with small-scale farmers and about some of the challenges of establishing a social enterprise in Africa, and shared some of the sense of fulfillment when I saw the real impact this enterprise is having on the farmers with whom they work. Beyond my work, the experience of just being in Tanzania—experiencing things for myself and meeting some of the great people I was exposed to—has left me with many new ideas and a potential project in the pipeline (you can guess what my plans for my 2015 Micro Grant may be used for). Finally, if I ever open a social-enterprise hotel, I probably won’t hire a Rusta to be my hotel manager.