International development: More than safe bets

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Kenyan LishaBora employee Ester Hanna, right, shows the company's hydroponically grown cattle feed to a prospective customer. (Photo: Engineers Without Borders)

Kenyan LishaBora employee Ester Hanna, right, shows the company’s hydroponically grown cattle feed to a prospective customer. (Photo: Engineers Without Borders)

It’s rare that you get to see the fruits of development work up close, let alone hold it in your hands or feed it to cows.
Earlier this year, I went on a three-country tour of Engineers Without Borders Canada’s work in sub-Saharan Africa. I started in Kenya, where there’s a distinct feeling of “Just Do It” running through the capital — and where some of Engineers Without Borders’ (EWB) ventures are living that mantra every day.
One of the Kenyan projects we support is LishaBora Hydroponics, which launched just five months ago. LishaBora (“better feed” in Swahili) is enabling smallholder dairy farmers to access affordable, high-quality feed for their cattle by growing it on less land, with less water and at a lower cost.
It’s early days, but Graham Benton, managing director at LishaBora Hydroponics, and his team are already seeing incredible results. I saw these results up close when I visited a dairy farmer named Agnes, one of LishaBora’s  first 40 customers, and fed its fodder to her cattle. The fodder is rich, nutritious and consistent, unlike what’s currently available at higher prices to breadwinners and caregivers such as Agnes. With the new fodder, her three cows have already started yielding 20 percent more milk.
The difference between bad food and good food for three cows may seem trivial, but our rough estimates suggest that informal milk production accounts for four percent of Kenya’s GDP. LishaBora’s work is small, but it has the potential to tap into an entire profession’s potential, and not only in Kenya.
LishaBora is a prototypical EWB venture: highly ambitious and constantly experimenting. They’re taking risks — and by backing them, so are we. That’s not to say they’re wild risks, or that we take them blindly. We’re very intentional about whom we support and we’re holistic in what we offer them. We provide mentorship, exceptional volunteers and seed capital to Benton for projects that are at such a preliminary stage that nobody looking solely at profits would take that risk.
By supporting ventures such as Lisha-Bora, we are trying to address Africa’s “missing middle.” The International Finance Corporation estimates that four out of five small- and medium-sized enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa are locked out of the financing they need to grow, representing a $140-billion to $170-billion credit gap. In Kenya, local venture capitalists told me that our blended support strategy of talent, mentorship and seed funding is well suited to accelerating ventures found in that missing middle, ventures that have a high impact potential, but are at too early a stage to get financing.
We understand that profit isn’t everything in international development — that to tackle problems as big as global poverty and inequity, you need to make bold bets.
This year, we’re betting on 14 ventures, focusing on the agriculture sector and small and growing businesses. They range from Rent-to-Own, which provides equipment and advisory services to entrepreneurs in rural Zambia, to Mining Shared Value, which promotes local procurement in the extractives sector.
There’s one more thing we offer to our ventures: a network of dedicated engineers, development professionals and like-minded thinkers. This summer, we were thrilled to send David Lipinski, a biosystems engineering graduate from the University of Manitoba, who brings essential engineering and operations strength, to LishaBora. Lipinski is one of nine long-term fellows who left Manitoba earlier this year to support our ventures in Kenya. They’re joined for the summer by 12 junior fellows. We have another 10 working with our ventures and national office staff in Toronto.
Junior fellows have gone on to become long-term fellows; long-term fellows have become venture leaders; venture leaders have led more ventures or have moved into senior roles at EWB or at other leading organizations. Our blended model of support is creating a tribe of passionate pragmatists who understand the complexity and messiness of international development, and who are not deterred by those challenges. Indeed, they are invigorated by them.
If you would like to speak to an engineer without borders — whether a national office staff member, a venture leader, a long-term or junior fellow or a member from one of our 39 chapters — please visit to see how to get involved. We want you to join  the tribe.

Boris Martin is the CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada. Previously, he worked with EWB ventures in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

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Category: Diplomatica

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Boris Martin is the CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada. Previously, he worked with EWB ventures in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

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