Right now, the air is abuzz with opportunity in Ethiopia. Across the country there is talk of reform and change and new ideals upon which governance and growth can be built. It is too early to know what will happen long term, but 2018 has brought a palpable energy and hope that was not present here even just six months ago. One of my favorite parts of working in rural development is when we are able to tap into this energy, this dynamism, not just to reach, but to leapfrog, advanced economies – when mobile technology makes doing business possible on a new level, when there is success at intensifying agriculture and business for smallholders rather than defaulting to industrialization that benefits just a few. These moments are the reason to stay in this field and a firsthand reminder that this work was never and should never be just about smallholder farmers catching up to existing standards – but about working to transcend them.
How can we do this consistently or make this principle part of development work? There isn’t an easy answer to this question but I believe that sometimes, one way to do it is to build people up to do it themselves, set some things up, and then, get out of the way. That has been the vision from the beginning at Nuru, and it was something I had the privilege of doing for the first time three years ago when expatriate staff exited from Kenya. I am currently repeating that process in Ethiopia as I finish my role as team leader and step on a plane with all of my foreign colleagues. This exit is an important milestone for Nuru Ethiopia. It signals the beginning of a new phase; one where Ethiopian leaders are at the helm of the organization and driving the transformation of rural communities across their country. The organization is strong – run by a cadre of extraordinary leaders, reaching more people in more geographies than ever before, with programs that have been redesigned to address key vulnerabilities stemming from a changing global climate. Nuru Ethiopia is ready to tap into the potential unfolding across the country. It has been a privilege to collaborate with so many incredible leaders as Nuru International staff exit Nuru’s second country project.
I am eager for the future but I have also been taken aback by how difficult and non-linear this work has been at times. In the end, leading this team of exceptional individuals working to solve difficult challenges was extremely humbling and hard, but I can’t think of anything more worthwhile. And of course, my time working on familiar problems in a new place has taught me innumerable lessons about this work, and leadership, and life:
- Make time for people. Invest in them genuinely. Let them know that they matter. It is essential to take care of yourself but it is just as important to learn to put others first.
- Poverty is complex and many things are interconnected – still choose consciously to do a few things well rather than many things poorly.
- Stay nimble as an organization. The world is changing quickly.
- As you gain experience, learn to cultivate humility or you may wake up one day and discover you have none left. (Same with gratitude.)
- Don’t underestimate the importance of minimizing risk. Farmers will not and it is essential to work with them to understand and prioritize this. If you don’t consider risk you might be left wondering why your big idea didn’t work – and the answer will often be risk.
- Understand that your brain takes shortcuts to make sense of the world. Sometimes things will seem the same as something else you have experienced but in reality, they will be different. Learn to listen well enough that when someone explains how something is different than what you think, you hear them.
- Get technology into the hands of those who haven’t had much access. This is not easy to do but can change so many lives so very rapidly.
- As a leader, don’t underestimate the power of being vulnerable. Humans want to follow other humans.
- If you are a foreigner working in development, you need to prove yourself more than if you are working in your country. This is more than a fair price to pay for the privilege of getting to choose where you live and work. (Remember: this is a tremendous privilege)
- Most of the time, give people the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were good. Refuse to build your team’s foundation on anything other than this principle.
- But also understand that development needs to be more than a pile of good intentions – if it isn’t working first face it and then figure out how to fix it. (And use data to figure this out.)
- Markets are important and smallholder farmers need reliable access to them.
- Don’t take anything too seriously. Laugh – at yourself, at things that maybe you shouldn’t, with your team, every day.
- Fairness is relative and culturally specific and very important to running an organization or leading a team. If you’re not from a place and don’t understand what fair looks like, make sure you have people on your side who do and will tell you when you’re getting it wrong.
- Books, not just articles. They will help you understand and connect to others’ stories. They will help you better understand your own story.
- Stay long enough in one place to understand it well enough to add real value. There is so much emphasis placed on travel and constant motion today. Be brave enough to belong somewhere long enough to build something lasting.
Doing good in this field and doing it well requires many things – data, science, money, sound management – but at the end of the day it is fundamentally all about people. As I leave Nuru Ethiopia to continue to grow on their own, in the direction they choose, perhaps the best, most straightforward advice I can leave behind comes from my former team leader, Alex Martin, who as we were leaving Nuru Kenya said, “Get up early. Work hard. Don’t complain. Be nice to people. Repeat.”