Africa calling . . .

And the phone call in the middle of the night is from . . . Sierra Leone!

For the past 5 years I have worked as an independent international development consultant.  That ‘definition’ isn’t terribly descriptive, but after working for various for-profit and non-profit agricultural development organizations for over a decade, I hung out my shingle and continued to work with those same organizations and a few others on short-term assignments as needed and contracted.  These have included ones that most people will have heard of including CARE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and a few that you may not have heard of, including ACDI/VOCA, TechnoServe (both former direct employers), Carana, and Fintrac (my current employer.)  These short-term consulting assignments were each unique, working on a different objective, often in different countries (though almost exclusively in Africa), and with a different team of people and unique client requirements.  It has been an amazing professional experience and I met, and collaborated with, some extremely competent professionals and business people.

Most of my assignments have somehow been related to my private sector-led development and market-focused bias.  I’ve mapped industry value chains, reviewed agribusiness investment enabling environments, recommended extension and origination strategies for supply chains, and even helped to draft staple grain policy.  What all of this work has had in common is my heavy reliance on consultation with a wide range of people who actually live, work, employ, and govern in each market and country.  Each assignment begins with a range of meetings with key individuals including large processors, informal traders, government officials of all levels (I’ve had Permanent Secretaries on speed dial), farmers, and so many, many others.  The vast majority are gracious and generous with their time and their perspectives.  At times, we encounter a bit of ‘donor’ fatigue.  I’ve personally experienced this a few times – a large, key business whose perspective was important for my understanding that particularly commodity market I was looking at had received a handful of consultants in the previous 3 months, all sent by the same donor; providing useful insights can actually increase the requests for meetings.  This past summer two other consulting groups had been through within 2 weeks of us from another organization.  We each had different mandates and areas of focus; our timing came after the others and I struggled to make a few meetings because of fatigue.

Sometimes we (consultants in international development) can take the extreme generosity from those consulted for granted.  Sometimes we realize that we are prone to the same negative biases and perceptions as those less traveled and with less professional experience in these foreign cultures.  Not only do we receive the same anonymous fraud emails as everyone else, but sometimes people that we have actually met and who may even be very senior government officials have their emails hacked.  More than once I’ve had some fraud solicitation come from a government official that I met a couple of times and have had legitimate email exchange with.  I ignore the message and a couple of days later comes the apologetic email stating the originator’s email had been hacked.  Also, surrounding the donor community are many who actually do try to get something for nothing and take advantage of the system.

So yesterday, my phone rang from Sierra Leone.  In 2009, I did a short-term assignment there looking at the table egg industry.  I hadn’t heard from that work since.  As I was saying, so yesterday I get a phone call from Sierra Leone.  The connection wasn’t the best and the gentleman had a very strong accent.  He finally communicated his name, that he had sent me a proposal via mail, though he wasn’t sure if I had received it, and would I please phone him the following day as he was running out of phone credit.  I honestly wasn’t sure if I would or not.  It sounded rather sketchy.  While I was in Sierra Leone 3 years ago, I couldn’t really understand this gentleman over the phone.  And let’s face it, after that long . . . he wanted something.

I missed the call that came at 3:30am (I don’t typically answer the phone at that hour regardless – I can sleep through just about anything.)  I saw the call when I checked my phone in the morning, and just went about my day.  Another call came while I was walking the dogs later that morning.  I didn’t pick it up.  It rang again.  I picked it up.  The gentleman again asked if I could call him back as he really would like to speak with me.  I assured him that I would once I returned to the house.  At this point I actually meant it and I did phone him back.  Somewhere along the morning, and actually in that moment of answering the second call, I remembered the incredible generosity of time and attention that I’ve received over the years as a consultant and recognized that I owe it to the gentleman.  I did phone him back, though the conversation was a bit labored (honestly, I do better with strong accents in person.)  I committed to giving him some of my time and attention for a proposal he has been working on and would like some of my input.  It was a fantastic reminder of how much I have enjoyed these rather successful 5 years of consulting and how much of that depended on the generosity of others.

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