I am intrigued by the problems suffered in third world countries. Maybe even fascinated. Without the infrastructure that developed nations enjoy, some of the problems suffered in third world countries are caused by – what might seem to us – the tiniest little problems. I was just listening to a story on NPR’s This American Life called “Island Time”. At first glance, the story is about mangos. Take a step back and we see how one woman’s mango problem is tied to Haiti’s larger issues of absence of reliable infrastructure, government and health resources.
One thing to know is that this story takes place before last January’s earthquake – the earthquake is not a complicating issue here.
One poverty-ridden woman makes about $600/year with the two mango trees she tends. If she had more trees, she could make more money, but she only grows two mango trees on a plot of land that could easily hold 100 trees. Why? She can’t water that many trees. We learn that her land is bordered by a river, but she needs to build a ~$2000 canal to get the water from the river to the land. The amount of money she would make from that $2000 investment could pay for the canal within the year (2 trees = $600, just 10 trees = $3000) There is money and support flowing into Haiti from all over the world being managed by a lot of NGOs (non-government organizations), some of which are there specifically to help solve these kinds of problems, but she doesn’t know about that. She doesn’t have the resources or the connections to appeal to these groups for assistance. Of course, if she did get the canal, and she did plant 100 trees, then you have a “scale up” issue – Who’s going to pick all those mangos? Who’s going to transport the mangos?
The second part of the story is about MangoMan, a mango distributor who sells Haitian mangos to Florida and New York City . His problem is that the farmers pick their mangos and then store them outside in the elements or shoved away under a bed or in a closet until MangoMan can collect them. This means about %50 of the mangos end up rotten, bug-infested or just bruised. Apparently we picky American consumers want pretty fruit – no bruises, just perfectly ripe, and certainly no bugs. MangoMan sees a solution – Ah ha! He knows that if the farmers pick the mangos and then place them in these plastic crates, the mangos will be protected and the yield will go from %50 up to maybe %80 – easy! So he buys the crates and personally delivers the crates to every mango farmer from who he buys fruit. He comes back a little while later and…all the mangos are outside along the houses or under the beds or in the closets. But where are the crates? The crates that he bought and delivered all over the countryside? Well, they’re being used as chairs, as bookshelves, as tables. Why would the farmers want to put their mangos in perfectly good furniture that can be used elsewhere? After all, they don’t have a problem with their current mango storage. The farmers don’t have a problem with a few bruises, ripe is just a spectrum, and a few bugs aren’t really that big of a deal.
The NPR story goes on to explain MangoMan’s efforts to implement his crate fix – and boy does he have a lot of hoops to jump through! He works with an NGO, he holds meetings with the farmers, he has to track down a land deed from an ex-pat Hatian living in the United States, he implements new educational programs and attempts to building a central “crating” building where all the farmers bring their mangos.
If his planning works, MangoMan has a specific scale-up issue that he’ll have to deal with: the seaport they use is too old and too small to support larger shipments. You need to rebuild the seaport, which means finding and bringing in skilled labor. You need more people to handle administration and more people to deal with the increased mango production. All of these people will need access to food, child care, hospitals and entertainment, so you need grocers, school teachers, doctors and entertainers. The list goes on and on.
But eventually January 2010 arrives and the earthquake buries the villagers’ and MangoMan’s efforts. Even the people working for the NGO are affected when their NGO cuts funding for this project because the executives want to reassess the organization’s budgeting and resourcing in post-earthquake Haiti.
To listen to the original story, you can visit the This American Life website, or you can download This American Life on iTunes. “Island Time” is episode #408.
Tags: How do you fix that?