Failing: A story of forgetting our own lessons at PEPY

by Daniela Papi, Founder, PEPY (Promoting Education, emPowering Youth)

  • Project: Sahakoom Apeewaht Sala
  • Location: Cambodia
  • Sector: Business Development, Education and Youth
  • Professional Designation: NGO


Sometimes, even when we know the right thing to do, we fail to do it. We do this with seatbelts, diets, speeding, and love, and as it turns out, we sometimes do this with PEPY programs too.

Recently one of our programs faced a failure which should have been avoidable but which will hopefully help us set better systems in place to avoid similar problems in the future.

You might have read about our “Saw Aw Saw” program, the arm of PEPY which partners with communities to help them create and implement plans to improve their government primary schools.

To build more long-term sustainability into the program (learn how we define “sustainability” at PEPY), SAS includes a small business development component. The idea is that if schools are able to generate additional income on their own, they can use this income to further develop their school beyond what the government or other fundraising efforts provide.

Last year one of the SAS partner schools decided to start a small mushroom growing business. It did quite well, as there was no other local supplier of these nutritious mushrooms, and their first rounds of sales went very well. Eventually, it became too difficult to source mushroom spores and the program stopped.

This year, two schools decided to start a spore-growing program, as spores typically generate a high net profit and in this way they could support local families in improving their nutrient intake by affordably growing their own mushrooms at home. This sounded like a great plan!

BUT we rushed into this program to try to get it started before the end of the school year. We didn’t do enough research, or support the communities with the tools and networks to do this themselves and we also didn’t have the in-house technical expertise to understand the threats to this agriculture program.

Part of the SAS model provides support for the one-off training costs which go into business development. We sent representatives from both schools to a course on mushroom growing. In addition to poor research, we made another big mistake, which goes against the lessons we have learned:

We paid for this in full. The school support committees did not have to invest funding into this project, only their time. As such, if there was a financial waste, they had very little incentive to point it out or prevent it.

We didn’t send any PEPY staff to the training, which would have helped us to understand the program into the future and might have also prevented us from wasting funds on unnecessary equipment. You see, the key to growing spores, it turns out, is a sterile working environment. We had researched this enough to know the very basics, but when signing community members up for the course, we failed to research what technical tools, apart from the training component, would be required for the success of the program. When the community came to us with a proposal to go to a nearby training on spore growing, we accepted the proposal without doing enough research on how the training would work.

It turns out that part of the training included how to use one of the key tools in spore growing. This sterilization device is, you guessed it, electricity-powered. We had sent two people who live in remote communities with no electricity to a training about how to use an electronic instrument, just because they had asked.

Big oversight.


One of the more important lessons which was reinforced through this process was that when we asked the community members to return these products, they didn’t want to and instead wanted to try to just “put the machines on coals”. Clearly, apart from being dangerous, this would have been a waste of money and a valuable tool. Why didn’t they want to return it? In large part, because they didn’t pay for it. We did. If they had been making decisions with their own funding, it is much more likely that the decisions would have been pushed by impact rather than interest.

Rather than grow spores, the plan now will likely be to search for more affordable and reliable sources of spores so the School Support Committees can go back to growing mushrooms to support their education programs. In the meantime, we’ll be sure to improve our systems of research and decision-making so that this type of problem can be better avoided in the future.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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  1. Tanya Cothran says:

    Thank you, Daniela, for sharing your story. I really see the importance of making sure the community members have a financial stake the project. We’ve also had issues recently with reimbursing travel costs – since the participants knew we were paying they stayed at nice hotels and ate at (relatively) expensive restaurants. We forgot to tell them to be economical in their travel decisions. Thanks again.

  2. Paul Palmer says:

    I find it disappointing that no mention is made of any attempt to design a different kind of sterilization chamber that does not depend on electricity. This seems to me to be a second failure.
    There is a talk on TED about the design of an anesthetic administering machine for delicate surgeries that does not depend on a reliable supply of electricity. That is a far more demanding piece of equipment than a sterilization chamber.

    For example, sterilization can be achieved with oxidizing chemicals, such as bleach. Or perhaps by ultraviolet radiation, a good deal of which comes in for free from the sun. What were the actual requirements for what level of sterilization? Was this even ascertained?

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