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Designing to context


If you want to solve the world’s problems, you have to be where the action is—and every location is different.

To be sold at the larger vegetable markets in Zambia, tomatoes must be packaged in standard wooden boxes. Each market has an agent offering to send boxes to Zambian farmers for packaging tomatoes. If the farmer agrees to do so, she is committed to selling her produce to that market, even if she later hears about another where the tomato prices are higher. Instead of making it easier for the farmer, it actually reduces her market choice and flexibility. The farmer is a market captive.

To us, the holy grail is an entrepreneurial idea that changes the power dynamic for those with the least power. iDE has been working in Zambia for two decades, bringing new technologies to small-scale farmers. We’ve also been studying the complex dynamics of vegetable markets and looking for ways to improve the situation for farmers with limited resources.

In early 2016, we had an entrepreneurial idea that we thought might change the power dynamic for these particular small-scale farmers.

What if farmers had their own tomato boxes, that were not tied to a particular market?

Tomatoes are an important cash crop in Zambia, but getting produce to market hasn’t always been easy for small-scale producers. Farm Business Advisors provide the tools and technologies that allow these farmers equal access to buyers.

Thinking outside the tomato box

We encouraged Farm Business Advisors (FBAs) to invest in a supply of tomato boxes, which they rented out to farmers. With their own tomato boxes, farmers would not be bound to sell at any particular market. It worked. We’ve seen both a modest increase in FBA earnings from the box rental and increased market choices and crop revenues for the farmers.

There is no way we could have come up with the tomato box idea if we hadn’t seen the dynamics first hand in remote farms and the crowded streets of vegetable markets in Lusaka. We are working on bringing the box-rental solution to more areas in Zambia that have similar market issues—but we won’t try to bring this idea to Honduras, Nepal, or Bangladesh without talking to farmers first.

Caphus Mahongo is a Farm Business Advisor in Katuba. He rents these boxes to his farmer clients—offering them an affordable solution and earning him a new source of income.

It’s in our culture

Our organizational structure is intentionally decentralized, to allow for visionary leadership in the field, not just back at headquarters. That’s because those in the field—located in the countries they are supporting—have a much better feel for what is going to succeed in their environment.

Our country directors live in the countries they support, not just flying in when a ribbon needs to be cut. They lead teams that are constantly in contact with our customers. And once we have identified a need in a country, we are committed to staying until we have achieved our goals.

Let’s work together to design solutions

We have a global in-house design team that loves to work with others to create stellar solutions. If you’re interested in exploring a partnership opportunity, let us know!

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Going the last mile

Getting to most of the world’s population isn’t easy. The road that takes you there isn’t paved, but a dirt path, overgrown with vegetation, barely big enough to get your bicycle or motor bike down. In some seasons, the path becomes mud, sucking at your tires and shoes, making each yard a chore. But if we are going to solve poverty, this is the most important distance to travel: the Last Mile.


Read more: Connecting the first mile with the last