Meeting Farmer Needs

by Charity Ngoma, Sector Coordinator, USAID

  • Project: PROFIT Zambia
  • Location: Lusaka, Zambia
  • Sector: Agriculture
  • Professional Designation: NGO
Charity Ngoma speaks about her work as Sector Coordinator with PROFIT Zambia. Admitting and addressing failures allowed her project to meet farmer needs and successfully improve veterinary services in Zambia.


Good evening. My name is Charity Ngoma. I’m from Lusaka, Zambia.

I work for a project called PROFIT. PROFIT is a USAID-funded program started in 2004 but we only started to go out and do interventions in 2005.

For those that are from Zambia, I think we have heard a huge publicity about PROFIT and what it has done to improve the private sector. It is perceived as a successful project.

But I want to draw the crowd this evening to a different thing: How did we get to where we are? It hasn’t been very rosy. I think people read our reports and they come to PROFIT and say “Oh, you guys are doing a great job.” But it has not been that great.

In 2005, when we started – I mean after being interviewed, given the job, the package was good, they sent in for a grant, we were young, from university, just thinking we were going to change the whole industry – we wanted to change Zambia.

We started and went out with our big books and talked to farmers about what we thought we were going to do. It was good because we had all the energy. We had all the incentives waiting for us and with good pay and vehicles and everything. So we were all out to do a good job. But it didn’t work like that.

In 2005, as sector coordinator, I was supposed to help vets and farmers come up with an intervention that was going to help promote vet services. It worked well. We talked to the vets. The vets bought our idea. We talked to the farmers. The farmers were saying “Oh great, finally we are going to save our animals.” And we said to the vets, “You can sell this package, and it will give you lots of money.”

But that package had one thing: farmers needed to pay for the vet service well in advance, a year in advance. Twelve months in advance they pay for the services and all the vet does is go in and do the services.

The first year, the first month, farmers signed up. Farmers paid, some for six months; they didn’t trust us enough to pay for a year, but they paid for six months. Some paid for a year. We had a good number join. But the following year, 2006, all those that had paid didn’t want to pay again. So we only had a few people want to buy that service.

But did we stop? No.

We kept on saying “This is the best solution for you. You need to buy this service. You need to keep your animals alive. You’re doing it all wrong. This is how you should do it.” Six months later we only had a few farmers again, most of the farmers had dropped out of the package.

And here we are: How do I go back and say “It’s not working.”?

How do I go and tell my supervisor, or go back to my quarterly report when I am writing to USAID saying “Oh, we are not getting the numbers, farmers are not buying our interventions.”?

It was hard. We didn’t want to do it. So we kept on pushing it. It meant – personally, on me – it meant I was not doing enough. You’re not going in the field enough. You’re not talking to farmers enough. You’re not having enough meetings.

I was also putting the pressure on the field staff because I was supervising a good number of field staff. I was putting the pressure on them: “You’re not going out enough. You’re not selling this thing. You’re not talking to service providers.” So another two years of pushing a service that farmers didn’t want to buy.

But we had a very good organization. They still kept telling us: “When you go out in the field, please come back to us and let us know what is not working so that we can work on that.”

But because admitting that it is not working means you are a failure, that you haven’t done a good job, no one wanted to do it. So we go out and still market it, come back, still market it, and come back. Until such a time that we really got problems from the supervisors: “Why are we not getting the numbers? You guys have been busy at this for two years and still only five vets are paying for services. The vets that paid last year do not want to pay for it. Why is this happening?”

But then we came to the problem, and this has to be done very well: You need to have very good people because it’s hard to tell them it’s not working, because they sign your paycheck. You’re thinking “If I say it’s not working and my contract is up for renewal, am I going to get the job?” So you’re in the middle of “Should I tell them ‘It’s not working’?” or “Should I pretend it’s working and it’s going to work if we push it more?”.

But with that lesson, with that problem from the supervisor, we reached a stage where we said “It’s not working. Guys, we have failed. The farmers are just not buying this. It’s not working for the service providers. It’s not working for the vets.”

And it’s only when we reached the stage when we were admitting that it was not working that we started to learn. Because all this time we were closed to learning about what wasn’t working, because we just thought “This is the best thing. This is it. No one has any other solution than this.”

Only when we sat down and we said “Guys, it’s not working. Let us re-look at this. Why are farmers not paying for this service? Why does a vet still not see this as a business? Why is it so hard for the farmer to come and pay for the service without us forcing him to do it?” That’s when we started to learn.

I want to say tonight: failure is painful to admit. And a lot of people that are in development work push an intervention just because they need to keep the numbers on and they don’t admit it in a report on the table. But sometimes, even though they know it’s not working, it’s a very difficult thing to admit.

When we sat down and re-looked at it, and we asked the question “Why is it not working?”, then we started to look at other ways in which this intervention could still be brought out to the farmers without it being a very difficult thing to buy.

The first thing we had to look at is: Why are they not paying for it? We forgot that these communities were not conventionally driven; they were trust driven. So their thought was: “If I pay a vet for a year, is he going to come out and vaccinate my cattle? My money is going to go, so I’ll lose out.”

They were not paying because they just didn’t trust to pay up front. And I would also not do it. I think we were asking too much from the farmers who have never met the vet, to pay him for a year – the vet who comes from 400 kilometers away – and pay him for a year so he’d come in and do the services.

When we admitted that this is not very good, we looked at it, and then we sat down to redesign it. When we looked at the why it was not working, we broke down that package into individual services and farmers buy as they want the service. So the farmer will buy the service that he needs at that particular time.

We just saw the way that it shifted: farmers started to buy it, and now we’re talking about thousands of dollars in sales to vet firms or vet service providers. That wouldn’t have happened three years ago.

So what I would like to say tonight is: A lot of donor-driven organizations, we have to answer to our donors, of course. Money is coming from somewhere. We’re evaluated based on the numbers: “What have you done with the 17 million dollars that have been given to us?”

But also, this is a lesson to people that are implementing projects. They need to build in their organization a culture of learning. A culture to allow their staff to admit that “No, this is not working.”

We need to get a conducive environment. Our supervisor – he was from somewhere else – but he made that environment a viable one for us. He said: “You guys, if it’s not working, come back and tell us it’s not working.” We just didn’t want to do it because we thought “Oh, this is going to take my job away.” But there was an incentive for us to come back and say: “It’s not working.”

And this is the lesson that a developmental organization needs to put in. They need to create their environment. They need to let their staff know that it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to say “This thing is not something that will work for this community” so that those staff come back and they tell them the truth and they’re able to change that in the intervention.

And now – between that same period, 2005 to 2010, we can safely stand up and say “the farmers were able to buy the vet services from the vets without any of us going out and pushing them because now it’s working for them and vets are also able to do business with the farmers without feeling “Oh we are being pushed to push the service to the farmer”.

At the end of this I want to say failure is not the end. The worst thing is – you as an implementing organization – you fail and you do nothing about it.

[Instead] You fail and ask why.  When you answer the why question – why is it not working? –  and look at other reasons and ways in which it would work, get up and do it because if you fail and say “it didn’t work so I’m just not going to try anything else”  it won’t help anyone. That is the lesson I would like to let people know.

Maybe some people have not been to Zambia or Africa. It looks so easy but if you are working there you know that I need to keep this job. It’s an environment that is very difficult to work in and say “I am not doing a good job.”

Thank you.

Ka-Hay Law (Engineers Without Borders Canada):

Sorry, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Charity for three and a half years in Zambia and her voice needs to be heard more. Her voice needs to be heard more, and more of her voices and her peer’s voices need to be heard more. But something is stopping it and we need to do something about it.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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