This Is What Causes the Knocking and Pinging

Monrovia street market

‘They are the Goba-Chops,’ the specialist says.

‘They are the what?’ I ask.

‘The Go-ba-Chops,’ he repeats more slowly for me.

‘And what is a Goba-Chop?’ I ask.

‘They are the ones who sell the produce in the market for the farmers,’ he says.

We are in a strategy session where all the employees have gathered in the Director’s office to review the organization’s mission and to think about how it might pursue that mission in this country. Space in the Director’s office is very tight but it is a small country program so we are actually not so many. We are talking about agriculture, which is a strategic area for the country but not an area that we currently program in. Our team is mostly national staff and, although they live in the capitol they each have roots in the villages and they know something about the way it is with agriculture there. One is an agriculture specialist and he is the one I am speaking to. Although we do not have any agriculture programs, he is on retainer to help develop our strategy and be technical support for when we do work in that sector.

‘So the Goba-Chop buys from the farmer and maintains a stall in the market where he sells to consumers?’ I say, believing I have inferred the situation.

‘Yes, he has a stall in the market and he sells to the customers but he does not buy from the farmer,’ the specialist says.

‘He sells for the farmers but he does not buy from them?’ I say. ‘So, how does it work then?’

‘The farmer gives the harvest to the Goba-Chop and the Goba-Chop sells it in the market. He keeps a percentage of whatever he sells.’

‘OK, and what happens to what he doesn’t sell?’ I ask.

‘Probably it goes bad,’ the specialist says. ‘It happens a lot that some of the harvest goes bad while it sits in the Goba-Chop’s warehouse while it waits to sell.’

‘And whatever the Goba-Chop does not sell and goes bad, the farmer assumes the loss?’

‘Yes,’ the specialist says.

There is water and good soil here

I am the Livelihoods Project Manager in this country program, although this is rather far from my original area of training. Later we will talk about ‘livelihoods’ but now we are discussing agriculture. First, we have discussed the country’s assets, which is mostly areas of good soil and plentiful rains during the wet season. Then, we discussed the challenges, which are mostly every other aspect of agriculture that requires human intervention.

‘Low production,’ was the first challenge posited.

The Director wrote this on the flip chart and then, when the Finance Manager suggested that this was the problem to be addressed, not a challenge, the Director crossed it off.

‘Bad roads,’ suggested another and the Director wrote it down.

‘Diminished seed varieties,’ said the specialist.

‘Technology transfer,’ said another.

I squirmed at this because it is a catch phrase that was created to encapsulate a complex idea but is now, I think, used without comprehending its meaning. But I managed to keep silent.

‘Import of crops from America and Europe,’ says the specialist.

‘Training to farmers,’ said the first speaker.

This is how it went and I was temped to suggest that it would be simpler and more accurate to write ‘Everything’ and move on to discuss potential interventions. But I managed to keep silent.

‘Farmers will only produce enough for what they can eat,’ said the second speaker and the Director wrote it down.

Eventually, someone said, ‘Trouble to sell in the market,’ and this peaked my attention.

‘What do you mean?’ I said and the explanation that followed brought us to the topic of the Goba-Chops.

I know little about agriculture and I have never been a very successful home gardener, but at the mention of ‘trouble to sell in the market’ I begin to grow interested. When something peaks my interest, my mind speeds up very fast. Thoughts go in several directions at once and, if my informer can keep up, his answers will expel the spent questions before I inject new ones into the chamber. In this case the discussion will go very smoothly. If my informer is of a lower octane, then my new questions will come before he can answer the old ones, and the discussion will be frustrating. In engines this is what causes the knocking and pinging. I like to think the way I like to ride motorcycles. In developing countries you must ride fast and weavingly if you want to survive but you cannot think that way. It can be very difficult for a national staff to keep pace and the interpersonal results will be very bad. So, frustratingly, much of your efforts must go to riding faster and thinking slower.

‘So the farmer brings the produce to the market and then he gives it to a Goba-Chop to sell it for him?’ I say.

‘Yes,’ says the specialist.

‘What if the farmer wants to sell his produce himself?’

‘He does not have a stall in the market.’

‘What if he pays for one in the market?’ I say.

‘It will be expensive but probably they will not let him,’ the specialist says.

‘Who will not let him?’

‘The Goba-Chops.’

‘Of course they will not,’ I say. ‘So this is what I see. The farmer takes the risk to plant the crops and maybe they will yield poorly. Then, whatever he harvests, the farmer takes the risk to transport the crops to the market on bad roads where floods or breakdowns halt traffic for days. So, probably he loses some of his crop during the transport. Then, he arrives at the market and he must pay someone to sell for him. He has no guarantee for how much the Goba-Chop will manage to sell and, whatever is left, he, the farmer, must suffer the loss. And, with subsidized imports for almost any crop that most people can afford to buy, the price he can expect for what is sold in the market is always quite small. Is that about right?’

‘Yes,’ says the specialist.

The room is quiet for a moment while I think about this and, just before the Director is about to press on, I speak again.

‘To me, this is most basically a problem of risk,’ I say.

I wait for someone to catch on to this or to seek clarification through a question, but no one does.

‘The farmer is a small business owner,’ I say. ‘When you own a small business, usually you assume all the risks on yourself. The villagers must look at this situation and decide that farming is an incredibly risky business to be in. There are so many ways to lose everything and, if everything goes just right, your pay off is very small. I certainly would not take on these risks.’

I see heads nod and I think that most of them understands.

‘So, I think the best place to start is to look at which of these risks can be spread from the farmer to other parties.’

I look around again and I do not see any heads nodding. I want to wait a moment to see if it comes as a delay but I have learned better. Often, if there is not a sign of comprehension when you first finish, then the thought was probably too complex and it will be dismissed rather than contemplated further.

‘For example,’ I say, trying a more practical way, ‘a transporter could buy the produce from the farmer and sell it to the Goba-Chop. Then, the farmer only risks a bad harvest. The transporter only risks losing the harvest on the road to the market. And the Goba-Chop only risks not being able to sell the harvest to the customers. Each assumes some but not all of the risks and each gets a percentage for doing so.’

I wait a moment and I see a few heads nod.

‘It’s a good idea,’ says the specialist.

I think the idea has traction and probably there are other ways to spread the risks but it needs further discussion with a real technical specialist. I want to take it further but I know that this is a staff meeting to discuss ‘strategy’ and not the place to discuss new ideas.

‘Anyway,’ I say because I know that the Director wants to wrap up, ‘for now it sounds like the Goba-Chop has a pretty comfortable position.

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