Other than the fact that dresses and headscarves made of brightly patterned kente cloth dotted the room, the scene could have been from a young professionals’ networking event in San Francisco or Boston: 11 millennials, gathered into small focus groups in a hotel conference room, discussing what leadership meant to them.
Although the session followed a long day of training at a financial management workshop in Tamale, Ghana, the energy of these young leaders still shone through tired smiles. They were excited to share their thoughts on a critically important topic: how to promote youth leadership in agriculture.
These focus groups were Root Capital’s first step in a human-centered design inspired process to develop a new service focused on leadership development. IDEO.org, the San Francisco-based organization that pioneered this concept, describes human-centered design as “a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.” In other words, rather than assuming you know what someone wants from a cursory look, get to know them.
The goal of our new leadership development service is to further develop capable leaders who can both ensure their own success and inspire the next generation. Guided by the principles of human-centered design, we went straight to the source: ambitious youth working in agriculture in West Africa.
The commitment of the young leaders we found in Tamale counters a stark reality that dominates much of West Africa. As climate change threatens the future of agriculture and drought and food security become ever-more-pressing issues, talented young people living in communities just like Tamale have left their families’ farms behind — migrating to urban areas and foreign countries in search for opportunities that no longer exist at home. A survey that we conducted with the Mastercard Foundation in 2014 further reinforced this trend: the majority of agri-business leaders we surveyed (70%) estimated that two-thirds of youth in rural areas were leaving for urban areas and reported that youth viewed agriculture unfavorably.
When young people reject careers in agriculture en masse, entire communities suffer. Those who remain to run the businesses watch their supply of talent dry up, and their enterprises stagnate – leading even fewer people to desire careers in agriculture. It’s a vicious cycle; but it’s a cycle that can be halted.
By investing in opportunities for youth to pursue careers in agriculture across West Africa, we can ensure a sustainable source of talent for businesses with the potential to raise incomes for hundreds of thousands of the world’s most vulnerable farmers. Communities like Tamale need their young people to inject new energy and new ideas into a sector that their peers increasingly see as stagnant. Here are a few of the leadership principles that these young leaders found particularly important:
- Strong leadership begets strong businesses. Our clients in Africa know that a business with strong leadership will outperform a business with weak leadership. Whether from experience working in a microfinance institution or a gas station, focus group participants did not need to be convinced of the business case for leadership training. And Root Capital’s own experience as a lender echoes this – we know that deep management experience and expertise is tied to lower lending risk. To address this “experience gap,” our leadership services will give leaders more practice in effective management.
- The best leaders develop a compelling vision and build an organizational strategy and culture to embody it. One participant told the story of a former boss setting such a clear vision that all employees began to “live [her vision]… and that vision became part of them.” Root Capital’s leadership development services will strive to support the growth of leaders like these, who not only lead effectively but inspire their teams to lead as well.
- Creating professional networks is crucial. Whether a group of agribusiness founders discussing market trends or young graduates looking for their first job, professional connections are valuable yet frequently lacking in the West African agricultural sector. We heard from young people that they did not have a mentor to call upon when looking for a first job out of college. As such, our leadership development services will incorporate a strong networking component.
Ultimately, our findings echoed what 18 years of agricultural lending have taught us: that business leaders in places like Tamale have the same desire for leadership development as their counterparts in other parts of the world, but less opportunity to access them. In our next post in the series, we’ll talk about how we took what we learned and applied it to the next phase of our human-centered design process in West Africa: piloting prototypes of leadership development services among young leaders in Côte d’Ivoire.
Without access to predictable markets for their crops, many of the estimated 48 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty. To address this, Root Capital and the Mastercard Foundation have partnered to support early-stage agricultural businesses that will help raise incomes for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in West Africa.
One component of this partnership will be a focus on developing stronger leaders in the sector – leaders who can then support their teams and businesses to achieve greater success. In order to cultivate the business leaders that high-potential agricultural businesses need to generate maximum impact, Root Capital and the Mastercard Foundation are collaborating with other thought leaders in the sector to develop leadership development services for the business leaders of the future.
This is the first in an ongoing series of stories about our partnership with the Mastercard Foundation in West Africa.