Tomatoes, Hippos, & Best Practices

Ask, don't assume what communities need

The Zambezi River flows east, with histories of border wars and civil wars on both sides.

Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia when Dr. Ernesto Sirolli first arrived, uninvited, as he later reflected on a now world-renowned career.

1971. Sirolli was 21 when he arrived in Africa with a big heart and good intentions. He would go on to spend seven years working in Zambia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Somalia for an Italian NGO.

But things didn’t go the way the young idealistic PhD student imagined.

“Every single project that we set up in Africa failed,” he admits, with unprecedented honesty in the field of international philanthropy, at District 5110’s International Speakers Series.

When he first arrived in Zambia with Italian tomato and zucchini seeds he was excited to teach the Zambians how to grow horticulture. They were not interested. He wondered why? With such fertile soil and river water, he was certain any agriculture would be abundant.

After paying local Zambians to do the Italian project farming, planting seeds they had not requested, the tomatoes flourished. They grew enormous, robust, bigger than any tomatoes he had ever seen in Italy. When they were nice and ripe, overnight, 200 hippos trampled the crop and ate everything.

“Oh my God, the Hippos!” said the Italians. “Why didn’t you tell us?!” They exclaimed.

“You never asked.” Was the reply. “This is why we don’t plant by the river,” one of the Zambians told him, surrounded by the destroyed crops.

After seeing more philanthropic endeavors from international NGOs fail all over Africa, he readily admitted the most difficult thing: we failed. “It broke the spell,” he said.

Once this spell, this code of silence broke, other NGOs and aid organizations started communicating more, they started sharing lessons learned, and brainstorming instead of assuming they knew how to “develop” people and economies from the outside.

His famous 2012 Ted Talk, and the company he built actively and empirically dispel myths about the White Savior Complex. They challenge governments, NGOs, and academia to adopt and utilize a social technology, a “repository of best practices” — all of which are rooted in responding, not assuming we know the solutions.

If you are invited sit and listen to the community. Don’t assume “we” know what’s best for “them”. Sirolli says “There is no geography to intelligence, there is no geography to passion. Sit with the elders and find out why they invited you”

More than thirty years, 22 countries, and 55,000 businesses later, the Sirolli Institute is a social enterprise training people how to respond to communities needing economic development.

If you want to help, become a servant of the local passion.”

Facilitating entrepreneurship flips the script. Dr. Sirolli counsels against paternalizing or patronizing community partners. “They are not your children. You become partners in their growth and their dreams.”

What’s next for social innovation? “I’m 71,” he shares. “I’m not stopping, I’m accelerating.”

Rotarians are grateful to learn from and partner with experts in every field.

Twitter @sirollinstitute
Instagram @sirolli_international

Photo credit © Stefan Steinbauer