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Potatoes - a failure story with a happy end

In October 2014 GlobalgGiving issued an invitation to post so called “fail forward stories”. It gave us a chance to look at our work from an outside perspective, and provides us with a venue to write a thought piece or a critical reflection.

2007 was a great year for Zahana. First of all, we had raised the funds needed to launch our project. Rooted in our participatory development approach, we successfully built a clean water system (still running today in its now 10th year) and, once again together with the community, their school and grain storage building. Because of this success we had a very good standing in the community, as we had built the trust that our joint projects deliver what we set out to accomplish.

We were ready to tackle the next priority of the development goals the community set: crop improvement.

Training the womens group in rural Madagascar - ZahanaBased on our philosophy that local problems require local solutions, we hired an agricultural expert who lived in the community nearby. As it so happened, he was the father of one of our teachers, which assured us that he knew the people, social networks, taboos, climate and agricultural conditions in our rural village. We paid him at the time a fair consultant wage which was quite a hefty sum (much more than a teacher's monthly salary) and asked him to conduct a hands-on workshop. He showed up on a motorbike, which for the local context is a very impressive status symbol (comparable to a fundraising advisor for a small nonprofit in the US showing up in a Maserati.)

We assembled the entire women's group and all the other interested farmers for a workshop. Our water system had been completed the year before. A communal water faucet located right next to the school gave easy unlimited access to watering needs. He selected a piece of land right next to the school. It was very flat and had never been farmed before. He recommended growing a variety of crops, last but not least potatoes as the main new crop. Nobody in the village had planted potatoes before. He assured us that this was the ideal location and that with some judicious watering, a completely new crop could be introduced in the village overnight, one that could be grown outside of the rice growing cycle. The women's group dug up the land (by hand of course) and planted potatoes under his supervision.

To make a long story short: the potato crop was an utter failure. Exposed to the blazing sun on top of the mountain, the newly planted potatoes grew very well in the beginning and later withered away in the heat. Not a single potato was harvested.

The worst unanticipated consequence for us was that we lost all credibility with the community, because they equated Zahana with the agricultural expert. It took us quite a while to gain the community's trust again. Not only did we spend a sizable amount of our scarce donations at the time on a local agricultural expert, the much higher price was the community's trust.

Now to the solution. We want to tell the reader in advance: this is a story within stories, but rest assured, we will return to potatoes.

growinf potatoes in Rural MadagascarOne of the saving graces in this entire fiasco was: one of the farmers ignored to the agricultural experts advice. He planted his potatoes down by the creek near the shade of a mango tree. His potato harvest was phenomenal. Two years in a row. At the same time it showed that growing a new crop was indeed feasible. In addition, potatoes are highly sought-after in the market and the village nearby. Quite an attractive prospect to possibly earn some cash in the market.

In talking with the villagers we found out that the agricultural expert had also overlooked teaching the villagers that you can only eat the tubers in the ground, the actual potatoes, but not the fruit that grows on the green plant looking surprisingly like tomatoes (both nightshades). These are toxic. When potatoes were introduced in Prussia in the 17th century farmers ate the fruits on top by mistake. Rumor has it that quite a few died. King Frederick II of Prussia had to eat potatoes in public repeatedly to prove to his subjects that humans can indeed eat potatoes. (Introducing potatoes provided Prussia with unlimited food supply for their troops year-round, with far-reaching historical consequences, but that is truly a different story.) The villagers were amazed when we told them this story. While most likely nobody knows who the King of Prussia was, it had a great impact that a king needed to publicly eat something to prove that it's edible. Malagasy history has its fair share of royal houses and kings and queens are culturally very important. But since this fact comes with a story that everybody will re-tell, everybody, not only in our village, will know very soon not to eat the poisonous fruits on top of the potato plant. Educational message accomplished, failure to mention a dangerous fact was remedied.


But now to the real solution: In our second village of Fiarenana Jean was a well-trained master gardener. Jean - Zahana's master gardenr in Madagascar. www.zahana.orgYears back he had been sent by another NGO for an extensive agricultural training far away from his village. But that project failed because the funding ran out and all his expertise went untapped. He approached us with the proposal to hire him. Again, with microcredit in mind, we thought we pay him for the initial 6 to 12 month and after he's established he can sell his seedlings in his village and the neighboring communities and earn a living this way. In addition, we thought that while he was on Zahana’s payroll, he should spend half of his time teaching gardening at our school. Basically a two-for-one deal for us.

Results where phenomenal. He has an incredible green thumb and he provided the community with seedlings and training. With the help of the parents and students, he grew a huge variety of vegetables in the school gardens.

After some twelve months went by, came the moment of truth: it was time to cut the ties and let the budding entrepreneur walk on his own. Little did we know that the next failure was lurking. Very politely Jean, our master gardener, explained to us that he was not inclined to go on his own. He felt uncomfortable charging his friends and neighbors for seeds, seedlings and expertise. He explained he’d rather return to rice farming, not his first choice, than working with the insecurity of a self-employed gardener in the community and potentially be faced with no income and starvation. The dilemma: microcredit philosophy requires that projects become sustainable by supporting themselves. We could either lose a brilliant gardener and schoolteacher, or reconsider our own assumptions and continue to employ him. After much deliberation and discussion, we chose the latter. Paying the salary for by now two master gardeners, has become an integral part of our annual microcredit budget. The payoff of this small investment, employing truly local community advisors, has paid back our investment tenfold ever since (just think reforestation.)

In 2009 our master gardener Jean approached us with the idea of planting potatoes. Based on the prior fiasco, we thought: “not potatoes again”. But this time it was different. Different, first and foremost because the request came from the community; not for the community, from an outside expert advisor. In participatory development requests from the community have priority, or it would not be participatory.

To make this long story short: we provided Jean with 100 kg of potatoes. They were bought locally in a market in Madagascar's prime potato growing region. He distributed 2 kilos to every family in the village. Over 2 tons of potatoes were harvested only a few months later, making this a 20-fold return on our investment. But if you want to find out why this story also has a mini failure built-in, since no potatoes were sold for much needed cash, you need to read the story in full. Just a hint: with 2 tons of potatoes harvested nobody went hungry during the season that is called ‘époque dure’ or ‘hard times’, with is a nice euphemism for ‘going hungry’.

What is fit for Kings, is fit for our villagers anytime.

Potato vendor in Madagascar

Potato vendor in a market in Madagascar