Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Seeking Out Narrators

Puneet Goenka - Ross School of Business

Imagine a world in which everything that anyone outside the U.S. knew about the U.S. came from the news.  The country would struggle to garner respect and admiration for itself.  The only thing people would hear about is the string of senseless gun shootings, racial attacks, and Donald Trump’s media escapades around his presidential campaign – making it impossible for a non-U.S. resident to form a positive opinion about the country.

But thankfully, the U.S. is able to export so much more to the world than its domestic news.  It has a brigade of artists and musicians whose songs are played on radio stations around the world.  It has a bearded man to sell greasy chunks of fried chicken in red fast-food outlets.  It has citizens working in organizations such as Peace Corps and USAID to dispel myths and misconceptions about American life and culture.  It has the imagination and skill to recreate dinosaurs on the big-screen and enthrall audiences from Adelaide to Anaheim and beyond.  The U.S. (and several other countries) through its own efforts and that of others is able to spin multiple narratives about its country, culture, and its people.

Why then are several developing countries stuck with a single, often negative, narrative – that of being undeveloped and poor.  Either they really have a single narrative to offer the world, or there is a severe lack of narrators.  In my experience working in three countries over the summer, I have found the latter to be true.

On my last weekend in Uganda, I made a quick trip to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  As an undergraduate student I raised funds for an organization that provided life-saving HIV drugs to Rwandan clinics without knowing anything else about the country.  The only thing I had known about Rwanda was that its population struggled with HIV/AIDS, and that they were largely poor.  That was the narrative that stayed with me all these years in the absence of any other news or information about Rwanda from personal discussions or from the consumption of traditional and social media.

Kigali has to be one of the cleanest, and most organized cities in the developing world.  I looked hard but wasn’t able to find much garbage on the streets or other public spaces, roads and related infrastructure were top-notch, and there was a general civic sense in following traffic rules and road signs.  How does Kigali achieve this?  Partly through a Government mandated community service program that requires all citizens to partake in community building activities once a month.  On probing further as to why this program came about I learnt that it was established as a peace building endeavor after the horrific 1994 genocide that killed millions of people from a particular ethnic group in Rwanda.

In his 2009 TED talk, Shashi Tharoor, former Indian Member of Parliament and senior UN official talked about the importance and impact of countries generating soft power, a way of attracting people to a country by its culture, political beliefs, and foreign policies.  He goes on to argue that McDonalds may have done more to improve U.S. soft power than any formal policy or activity.  In recent months, India’s Prime Minister has rolled out one campaign after the other.  ‘Make in India’ brands India as a manufacturing powerhouse, ‘Swacch Bharat’ (Clean India) aims at bringing basic cleanliness and hygiene to the forefront of Indian consciousness, while the more recent ‘World Yoga Day’ was an endorsement by the United Nations of the significance of Yoga and by extension, of India, the country of its origin. 

These campaigns can, and should, be viewed with caution.  Unless backed by the right guidelines and adequate resources, they could end up being PR campaigns that benefit the Prime Minister’s next election campaign more than it benefits the country.  However, I also realize the potential upside of this if things do move in the right direction – more so after my experiences this summer.  It gives India the opportunity to develop additional narratives for itself and its people, strengthening its soft power.

Having a dominant negative narrative define a country and its people is detrimental.  It warps public perceptions, impacts business and tourism, influences policy and Government more than it should, and leaves us all with somewhat silly and misguided biases.  Johannesburg’s single dominant narrative of being crime-ridden for example warped my own thoughts and actions a few months ago.

While driving to a performing arts show with a friend, she swerved the car to avoid hitting a man who was laying on the street.  He was delirious and was asking for help.  He could also have been drunk, or putting on a show to get people to step outside of the car while giving him easy access to their valuables, or maybe have an accomplice drive away with the car.  In that split second of decision making I was shamefully unsure of how to react – stop and help someone that may have been hurt or drive away.  All the stories of crime, mugging, and theft flooded my mind and drowned out my own personal values.  Thankfully my friend who was in the driver’s seat got to make the decision, and she made the right one of stopping to help.

Developing multiple narratives in my view is a democratic undertaking that needs equal participation by Government, business, and civil society.  Governments, businesses, and citizens are however likely to be constrained by the resources available within the country.  Access and penetration of the internet/cell phones, stable Governments that support the growth of homegrown multinational corporations, or the ability to connect globally in a universal language are all factors that could inhibit a resource poor country from exporting more than stories about its poverty and challenges to the world.  Rwandan artists for example may not be able to have the global appeal that American or British artists enjoy, their food may not transcend borders the way Italian cuisine has, and its private sector may need another decade or two to build global companies.  But, maybe the story of how a country comes together once a month to better their communities can prove to be an inspiring and workable model for other countries.  And maybe this Rwandan story is worth sharing with other young undergraduates who may still be fundraising for HIV clinics in Rwanda and developing a narrow and negative narrative about the country the same way I had several years ago.

Just as the news headlines do not come close to defining or capturing what it means to be American and living in America, the same logic should be extended when thinking about developing countries.  There are monumental challenges, and I am not suggesting we pretend they don’t exist.  The media, aid organizations, and Governments are already focusing on building those narratives but why don’t you and I focus on building more interesting, nuanced, and constructive narratives? 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Could I Interest You in a Warm Cup of Ceylon Tea?

Michelle Gross

Sri Lanka really is a paradise island.  It is such a small country but is filled with so much biodiversity. 
Waterfall and cloud forest in high country, cooler climate
Some delicious tropical fruits, grown in the low country
I was saddened to hear about the social and environmental impact of the tea industry on Sri Lanka. Employees and managers of small and large tea corporations, government officials involved in commerce, hotel and guest-house owners, random taxi or tuktuk drivers, young professionals in the capital, Colombo, staff of Grace, the orphanage and elder care center where I was interning, and many other people I had the opportunity to speak to openly expressed their concern. It was at least somewhat of a relief to hear Sri Lankans of diverse backgrounds bring up this issue. 

Tea plantation, high country, in Nuwara Eliyah
Tuktuk to get to a tea plantation and visitors center

Meeting at Grace to discuss progress with tea companies

Some History: Social and Environmental Impact of the Ceylon Tea Industry
Sri Lanka was a major coffee producer until the late 1800s before the major outbreaks of a disease similar to coffee rust, a fungus that is a serious threat to coffee all over the world (and a topic of interest in my current research of specialty coffee in Costa Rica for my Masters project at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.)
Then, in the late 1800s, tea cultivation was introduced by the British. Sir Thomas Lipton and his business partners converted vast acres of land into tea plantations, and revolutionized the tea industry, selling individually sealed bags to lock in freshness. The new presentation and promotions of tea increased popularity of Ceylon tea, and the growing industry needed more workers. Tamils from India of the lowest caste were brought as migrant workers to work as tea pickers, given the most basic living conditions and hardly any wage. Increased deforestation of the jungle, and farming practices of monoculture, the use of non-native species of trees on the plantations, and other cookie-cutter approaches led to the current environmental state. Today there is heavy erosion all over the country, causing the rivers to literally turn brown due to the excess silt. I was amazed to see a country lush with endless bodies of water, and devastated to see many of them dark, thick brown in color, only to hear that this was not the case thirty or forty years ago. The social and environmental cost of the tea industry was incurred a long time ago, but the effects are being felt today.
"No Chemical Zone" : Some plantations are now enforcing restrictions on use of certain pesticides and fertilizer

Tea pickers carrying fresh tea sack to the factory to be weighed for their daily wage

Tea processing, near Kandy

Tea bagging facility, High-end pyramid tea bags

Mangroves near Colombo
The environmental department of the government has been looking for ways to mitigate the problem. One of the proposals is to remove the silt from the rivers and ‘refertilize’ the tea plantations; a move that would have a heavy economic cost, and only offer a short term solution, since the erosion would continue to be a reality and the silt would make its way back to the rivers once again. I hope that they find other ways to reverse some of the environmental damage.

River somewhere between Colombo and Trincomalee

Fun Ceylon Tea Facts and Other Observations 

Tea brand with buds used for Silver Tips
Tea leaves and buds
Tea buds used for Silver Tips

Sri Lanka has 6 or 7 tea regions. The exact number depends on whom you speak with. The regions vary in elevation, with 1,800m above sea level in Nuwara Eliyah, where arguably the best tea comes from. Blended tea is considered the best way to drink tea in Sri Lanka, as they say that mixing them together makes it possible to increase complexity of the flavors. Tea at high altitudes has a lighter flavor and redder color; tea produced at low altitudes has a stronger, more astringent flavor and darker color.
Teas of different grades from a single estate in Nuwara Eliyah
Different grades of processed teas
·    Tea is always picked by hand in Sri Lanka. This means that the estate can decide to only pick a few of the youngest leaves, enhancing the quality of the cup. The estates that I visited in Nuwara Eliyah and Kandy regions had some variation in number of leaves picked, but most common was two leaves and a bud. Tea in Sri Lanka is mainly processed by machinery, much of which is dated from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Hand picking and machine processing makes it possible to ‘standardize’ quality. Ceylon tea has a consistently high quality for the cup, but has low market price. Unlike in Japan, Taiwan or China, where hand picked and hand rolled teas are easier to find, and prices can be $100/kilo or more, Sri Lanka does not produce tea that is sold at these specialty prices.  However, there are only a few smaller estates in the country that hand process their teas.  Their output is very small (I.e. A couple dozen kilos per month of single estate, single origin tea).

Mural of a tea picker, Tea Museum, Kandy

Tea pickers

Having tea with owners of a tea house in Japan after the Tea Museum tour, Kandy
     Tea is not seasonal in Sri Lanka, but rather grows and is harvested constantly. There is constant rain and constant sun, so tea can be grown and harvested year-round and generally has a consistent flavor. This could be a benefit, as it only takes about ten days for a plant to produce a bud ready for harvest. However,  this can also make it [nearly] impossible to produce very unique and flavorful teas. Some say that Ceylon tea does not have a flavor that really stands out, or is not complex. In order for those rich flavors to develop, the plant needs to be under stress. In other words, lack of rain, lack of sun, prolonged dryness or drought can make the tea plant go through a process that affects its flavor… (Now, it’s up to the consumer to debate whether this causes a better or worse flavor balance.)

Cloud forest and tea plantation in the highlands

     Tea tasters use all four senses to get a sense of and fully taste tea: first they look at the tea leaves and its intricate shapes, observing from up close and arms length.  Dry, spread on a white cardboard paper, and wet, in a white tea cup (or holder). Then, they touch the tea with their fingers (usually dry) . they smell both dry and wet and finally taste the tea, slurping it in, making a huge sound, the kind that your mother tells you not to make when drinking hot soup. And then again, and again, going down the line of tea to try each sample.

Tea Tasting workshop at De Mel's Tea Academy

·     There is a lot of misinformation.  For example, I was told several times by different individuals that legally estates must sell 80% their processed tea through the Tea Auction, which happens several times a week. The Ceylon Tea Auction is the single largest tea auction in the world where about 6.5 million kilograms are sold weekly.  Tea agents and sellers who attend  the auction must be extremely prepared. They try tea samples each week before attending, and prepare their valuation of each tea they are interested in buying that week. They must be very experienced to be able to taste the intricacies of each sample, and to be able to follow the fast pace of the sellers at the auction. I was told by government officials at the Chamber of Commerce that even they do not understand what goes on; the sellers speak so fast that it all sounds like gibberish. 

      Actually, the different ratios that I was told of 70, 76, 80% of tea having to be sold at the Auction is completely false. Tea estates can sell their product to the buyer of their choice. Most choose to sell through the auction since it is an easy, standardized procedure they are comfortable with, and the payback period is just under a week.

·      Gender Divide Besides tea pickers, it seems women are absent from this industry in Sri Lanka. This is a good conversation starter, so we can talk about this more next time we meet.

Tea pickers busy at the plantation

Tea picker and Manager

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Pearl

Puneet Goenka - Ross School of Business
(This post was written during my last week in Uganda)

As part of my English literature class in middle school, we were assigned a short novel written by American author John Steinbeck called ‘The Pearl’.  It is the story of a pearl diver who chances upon an unusually large pearl – and in an attempt to change his family fortunes he sets out to sell his new possession.  The pearl however brings with it death, misery, and misfortune.  This forces the protagonist to get rid of the pearl by throwing it back into the sea – perhaps realizing that it may be best for no one person to stake their greed and claim something so unique, so beautiful, and so valuable.

While I had done some research and Google Image searches of Johannesburg and Accra when I was in Ann Arbor, somehow I never got to researching anything about Uganda – and so my mind was blank – I had no expectations, good or bad.

Kampala is one of the greenest cities I have visited, and Uganda one of the lushest countries.  My walk to work each morning was alongside the long and windy Kampala Golf Course, and when the smell of grass and trees overpower the black smoke that is emitted from some of the matatu’s (shared vans), you can be assured that the city has something working in its favor (even if the pollution control board has much to be desired in terms or regulating emissions).

Baha'i temple complex in Kampala

Walk to work along the golf course in Kololo, Kampala
And even though Kampala is a beautiful and entertaining city in itself (tons of cafes, restaurants, and bars, beautiful sites such as the Gaddafi mosque and Baha'i temple, and the best avocados and pineapples in the world) the time I spent outside the city has been most exciting.  River rafting at Jinja - the source of the river Nile, game drives through the never ending grasslands and plains of Murchison Falls National Park, and canoeing and lazing around at Lake Bunyonyi in the South West corner of the country.  If I haven’t been explicit enough, I’ll be even clearer – plan your next vacation to Uganda!

Game drive at Murchison Falls National Park
It is now obvious to me why Uganda is known as the Pearl of Africa.  I just hope that unlike John Steinbeck’s pearl, this one isn’t exploited for personal gain but instead is respected, awed at, and enjoyed in equal measure by everyone. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tea Mission Meets True Cinnamon

Michelle Gross - Ross School of Business & School for Environment and Sustainability

Back in April I participated in a spice workshop held at Zingerman’s by the Spice Trekkers, a family from Montreal who travels the world buying high quality deliciously poignant spices directly from producers. Sometimes they share their abundance of knowledge (and secrets) to curious workshop goers like myself. Little did I know they would put me in touch with their ‘Cinnamon friends’ in Sri Lanka, who would introduce me to the world of true cinnamon.

I spent a day touring the cinnamon plantation and factory near Bentota, Sri Lanka, observing the plantation, with its diverse plant and animal species, seeing how the cinnamon plants are taken care of, and how a cinnamon stick is produced: cut and separated from its wood, dried and processed. My new friends Sanath and Deepa showed me what True Cinnamon is (delicate, soft) and what it is not (Cassia bark).


In most countries, an evergreen plant called Cinnamomum cassia, or Chinese cassia is cultivated. It produces a bark that looks similar to Cinnamon, and it is  often sold as Cinnamon or blended with Cinnamomum verum, or True Cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka. Cassia can be easily distinguished from Ceylon cinnamon as it has much tougher, harder bark that cannot be easily ground with a coffee grinder, and the taste simply does not compare. As I stepped into the factory, I was blown away by the intensely sweet smell, and later when the cinnamon powder touched my tongue, I experienced the exquisite, delightful flavor. The taste of Cassia does not even come close to Ceylon Cinnamon, whose aroma is sharp; sweet and spicy at the same time.


Sanath showed me his new equipment, including the stools that he bought for his employees, as well as the recently constructed addition to the factory. I learned that many of the challenges he faces as a producer and exporter of cinnamon are similar to those of producers of tea, cashews, and other products in Sri Lanka. It seems that across the board, Sri Lankans are choosing to work in construction jobs rather than in the agricultural sector. Hopefully comfortable work settings can help these agricultural businesses retain employees. I took a go at scraping off the bark of one trunk, and was very satisfied with the comfortable seating and set up.

Thank you Sanath, Deepa, Ethné, Marika and their families for their generosity and for opening my eyes (and mouth) to True Cinnamon! 

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Traveler’s Tale: Here’s What Happens When Impact Meets Innovation in Tanzania

Diana Callaghan

Everyone loves a great story.  And so far, during my Dar es Salaam-based fellowship with Land O’Lakes International Development’s United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Innovations in Gender Equality (IGE) program, I have accumulated many.  In particular, I want tell you about my experiences meeting innovators competing for grant funds and capacity-building support through IGE-hosted Innovation Expos.

Children In Mbeya Checking Out the Great Expo 5 Innovations

The IGE Expos target entrepreneurs with technologies impacting women in agriculture. For the first Expo, I provided the 10 finalists with needs assessments and business development support. To do so, I traveled throughout Dar es Salaam, Arusha, and Mwanza to sit and speak with:
  •          A top mushroom-growing maven
  •          An engineer creating customizable crop processing machines
  •          An education-greenhouse organization
  •          A fish-poultry-produce aquaculture company
  •          A palm oil extraction company (palm oil is in Nutella… investment please…)
  •          A company developing solar driers
  •          A business creating solar bird and animal chasers
I was thrilled to see many of these organizations using clean energy sources to do everything from dry produce with solar driers to chase bird and animals away—about the latter, think of it as an automatic, screeching scarecrow with a solar panel. Each entrepreneur I met with had great stories. I eagerly listened to their experiences, and I was equally excited to brainstorm ideas with each of them about how to push their technologies even further. For example, through these meetings we learned that many had no accounting systems set up, and therefore had prices that were many times too low to have a sustainable business. In other cases, we heard that they planned to teach people how to develop their technologies, which contradicts the idea of growing their own business. During these visits I noted many areas for improvement, and with the IGE team, we have now developed trainings to help relieve many of these issues and will be working one-on-one with innovators to help push their development further.  

Just as everyone has a story, every story has its setting.

Tarangire Lion Fresh From a Nap

Zanzibar Sunset Sail

Oh what a magical place I’ve found myself in! If you haven’t already checked it out, read my other blog post, Entrepreneurship in Agriculture & Impacting Women's Lives in Tanzania. Since I wrote that, so much has happened in my life here in Dar es Salaam.
I’ve traveled around Tanzania working with additional entrepreneurs in agriculture, met new friends from around the world while exploring the tiny uninhabited islands off the coast of Dar, attended a 3-day Strategic Planning meeting to help devise a strategic plan for a new organization, and even met some of my favorite Rossers for a memorable trip to Zanzibar.


Mount Meru
Tarangire Safari Time

Mommy and Baby on a Walk

During my time working with Land O’Lakes, I was honored to explore some of the most beautiful parts of Tanzania. Arusha is like the Denver of Tanzania. Sitting at the foot of Mt. Meru, the city has a temperate climate with lush greenery, abundant produce and vails of flowers. Expats flock here for NGO work and the many tourist attractions the city brings. Hip English-clad coffee shops, restaurants and boutique hotels made me feel less like I was in an African country and more like I was in the Rockies. Points of interest near this city include Serengeti National Park, Tarangire National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Mount Maru, and the infamous Mount Kilimanjaro.
Given time constraints (read: I’m not in my most “tip-top” shape), I was unfortunately unable to climb Kilimanjaro. Time also did not allow me to take the long trek to Serengeti but I was able to catch a Safari at the beautiful Tarangire National Park. Arusha is also where I met with the innovator developing a multi-crop processor and the organization building indirect solar driers.

DORGO Agro Multicrop Processor

SIWATO Indirect Solar Dryer


Lake Victoria Rocks

Lake Victoria Resort

I also spent some time in Mwanza, during which I made a quick visit to Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world behind Lake Superior (Go Michigan!). This is where I was reminded that some people are just natural entrepreneurs.  In speaking with the warehouse innovator, we learned about all of the work she has personally done to develop her business. We heard success stories, saw prototypes, and heard about the awards she has received to date. In speaking with her, we learned that her innovations came from listening to the needs of potential customers and designing solutions to address those needs—a sign of a true entrepreneur.

JikoBora Warehouse Prototype

Jiko Bora Entrepreneur

Dar es Salaam
Returning to where my internship began, I worked on a kick-off event for 6 other innovators supported by IGE. In part, I developed and implemented a training on business model development and performed a needs assessment to identify any gaps in innovators’ business models. At the training, we openly and successfully brainstormed creative solutions to some of their most pressing problems.

Since then, I have also worked in conjunction with IGE staff members to develop a social media campaign, revised training materials, and developed strategies to help further support innovators in their development processes.

Easy Breeze with Tangawizi (Gingerale) and Skype at Bagamoyo

Mushroom Shelter and Spawn Production

Solar Bird and Animal Chaser

I only wish I had an additional time in this beautiful country.  I’ve made some great friends along the way, joined a volleyball team, sang karaoke under the stars on the beach, had dinner at the Greek Club, learned how to negotiate with the Bajaji taxis (aka tuktuk) like a pro, danced until 5am at the local dance clubs, and became a regular on the islands of Mbudya and Bongoyo—to snorkel and dine on freshly caught fish and lobster. I’ve also attended restaurant openings, sat at wine tasting events, slept on a beach under the moon, swam in the Indian Ocean at night, explored the many restaurants of Dar, and met people from all around the world.  And of course I can’t forget 4th of July on Zanzibar with two of my favorite WDI Fellows.

Zanzibar Market

Me and My Boys

Sailing the Blue

Beautiful Kendwa Rocks on Zanzibar

Simplicity of the Sea  (Not Posed)

 Streets of Zanzibar

Julio, Shukun, and I Representing UofM and Ross in Africa

My experiences have been both personally and professionally rewarding. I wish all of the innovators I’ve met through IGE much success and I’m grateful for working with and learning from all of them. Kudos to Land O’Lakes for partnering with students to catalyze innovation to enhance women’s participation in the agricultural sector and to help improve food security.

Want to hear more travelers’ tales? Be sure to check out the fellows’ blog to read blog posts about WDI Fellows working in healthcare, energy, entrepreneurship, and education in emerging markets.