People are going to create real solutions: an interview with Leland alum Laura Ostenso

Laura OstensoAlums, Leland

We’re continuing our series of interviews with alums of the Leland and Emerson Hunger Fellows programs, catching up with what they’re doing now and how their fellowship service has shaped their career.

Laura Ostenso

Today we’re talking with Laura Ostenso, a member of the 6th Class of Leland International Hunger Fellows (2011-2013). Laura partnered with the World Cocoa Foundation and was placed in Accra, Ghana, and Washington, D.C. During her fellowship she collaborated on the Empowering Cocoa Households with Opportunities and Education Solutions (ECHOES) project, the Cocoa Community Development Fund, and the Cocoa Metrics and Progress Initiative. Laura holds an MA in Anthropology of Development from the University of Sussex (Brighton, UK) and a BA in Political Economics from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wa. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Fishing boats at low tide in Accra, Ghana. Photo by Laura Ostenso, 2012.

“Everyone was trying to do the right thing—they just didn’t necessarily have the same idea, priority, or need at any given time.”

You have international development as a theme running through your undergraduate and graduate education; what drew you to apply to be a Leland International Hunger Fellow?

Kind of a funny story! I was working at a small evaluation firm called Innovation Network. At that time Innovation Network was doing the evaluation for the Emerson Fellows Program, and I was so impressed by the Emerson Fellows and the way the program was done; after looking at the Leland one, I was like, “oh, I would like to apply for this!” It seemed great, especially since it was mid-career, so I knew I’d be around other people who had worked. I liked how I would be with other folks to process whatever we were learning, and I also really liked the fact that it brought me back to the field. I’d done a lot of short term, three-month to six-week kind of mini-field trips as part of school and work, but I never really got to live anywhere outside of the United States and Europe. Living in Ghana, as opposed to just spending three months in a single place, was really attractive to me.

Can you describe a significant or impactful memory from your time as a fellow?

Yeah, so many! I would say, programmatically, with World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and the ECHOES project, part of what I did was liaise with the NPECLC1 around child labor monitoring and reduction activities. Working with NPECLC and some of the company members on ECHOES and being able to exchange some of the needs and priorities of both, that was a huge highlight. Being the node, going across them to take all of that different child labor knowledge and expertise and what was going on in the government and their needs along with the companies’ needs, was really intriguing. I saw that everyone was trying to do the right thing—they just didn’t necessarily all have the same idea, priority, or need at any given time. That was fascinating to be a part of, and as a fellow, to reconcile in my own mind.

You’re currently working as a knowledge exchange lead at Fintrac. What would you say a knowledge exchange lead does?

What a knowledge exchange lead does is liaise between what’s going on in the field (in an agricultural setting, in my case) with what’s going on in the head office, and what’s going on at the donor (USAID in our case), and to figure out what people need to know and what they [already] do know, and then capture all of that so that it benefits everyone in our network who’s working with smallholder farmers.

Why are smallholder farmers so important?

Smallholder farmers grow all the food in their countries, and some exports. They’re the backbone of the majority of countries that USAID works in.

What kind of partners do you work with?

We work with commercial companies and their partners to commercialize services and products and technologies that ultimately improve farmer productivity and income. We’re basically looking to create business values, and then, within their businesses, integrate benefits for farmers so that farmers become integral to the business—so that as the business succeeds, they continue to serve smallholder markets. What we really want to see is these small companies succeed and find value and profit in smallholder markets. And we want USAID to see and value the sustainability that businesses can bring for scaling development results, especially when funded within the larger market system.

What’s the scope of your work? Do you work with one country, or a portfolio of countries, or regions within certain countries?

For my program, Partnering for Innovation, we work in seventeen countries. If it’s a Feed the Future (FTF) country, so far they’ve had these “zones of influences,” so we work in specific zones that they designate. But we work in agriculture, so that’s the one scope that limits our work. We’re not really working on food security in cities, we’re focused on agricultural technologies and services and products that help farms.

Are these partner companies based in the countries that you work with?

The majority of them are based in those countries; I think we also have five or six American companies who have a technology that made sense to bring to an emerging market, and then we partnered with them. A good example is Farmforce, which was developed by the Syngenta foundation. That technology is basically a traceability system, and it’s sold to exporters. That’s important, because in Latin America, exporters have to start complying with FSMA2. Exporting to the United States is their biggest market, and they weren’t going to be able to do it any more, because now they have to show where that food came from, it has to be traceable. And so this traceability system helps these exporters trace back the food that they’re buying to the farm it’s grown on. We’re also working with a company in Haiti called Solutions doing a similar thing, but with mangoes.

So it really depends on the company and their product, and generally, yes, the companies we work with are based in developing countries. Some are also American or European companies that make sense to commercialize in an emerging market. Then you have others who have global services. One of our partners in Mozambique is an incredibly large company, one of the largest in southern Africa, but they hadn’t been working in the smallholder market. What we did was de-risk their entry into a smallholder market in Mozambique, and as they learned to operate there and find efficiencies and profit they were able to go back to their board and say, “hey, this is actually a profitable market, let’s continue working there.” So a company who was not working in the smallholder market then went to work in a smallholder market. That’s pretty powerful.

You said “de-risk?”

Yeah, agriculture is a really high risk sector; it’s a tough sector to be profitable in, even here in the United States. It’s hard to find capital to start up, or to grow. What we do is de-risk that, so that they can go on and find conventional funding. For example, a lot of our companies will go from getting a grant-based investment from us, which has little risk, to getting more conventional loans. When we’re able to kick in cash and they’re able to grow the total amount in their capital account, then the total risk goes down. You’re basically helping them diversify and take on less risk; then, if the investment turns out to be a good one on our part, they’re able to turn that into viability down the line.

So it’s a little like crop insurance, but not for the actual farmer?

Yeah, for a company. That’s a good way of looking at it. And then in turn, sometimes the company ends up having a line of insurance for the farmer as an incentive to contract with them. It’s really interesting, I really like this work!

The 6th Class of Leland International Hunger Fellows. Laura Ostenso on the far right.

“To make development work in the rural area, you need people who are going to be there for the long haul.”

What are the big challenges that you face in your job?

I think the biggest challenge is whenever you’re a node, you’re not really a decision-maker. So you can hear about challenges, and you can communicate them, but you can’t decide that something’s going to be done. [Also,] making sure the information gets to the right people, and that you’re not irresponsibly saying things that aren’t right. I’ll really make sure that I’m triangulating all the information I’m getting—you have to question everything. If you don’t, then you’re not doing a good job. That can be a challenge, because it’s really easy to think, “Oh, that person says this is the problem, so therefore it must be the problem.” That’s just their experience of the problem, and you have to figure out other people’s experiences of problem, and then do research about the economic situation, or the field situation, to make sure that you’re not just taking what a couple people say as “this must be what’s happening.” It’s hard because it also takes time, and people want things not to take time.

How do you see the work that you do as creating an impact in ending world hunger?

The work that I do is all about educating donors and companies about the importance of sustainable solutions that keep creating value for smallholder farmers. In order to end hunger, you need sustained behavior change among farmers, among businesses working with farmers, within a community working with farmers. We’re talking about making sure that that work can remain working, and that we’re able to improve [it] as we move forward. I think when you’re able to bring things that work into a situation where a lot hasn’t worked, it starts also to rebuild trust. A lot of what we’ve done over the past thirty to fifty years has caused a lot of benefit and some harm, so being able to mitigate the harm and bring it back into sustainable development territory is really important for ending hunger. Also, the places where we’re working are quite rural, and in order to make development work in the rural area, you need people who are going to be there for the long haul. Traditionally, programs have been three to five years, whereas when we work with companies, as long as they’re successful in smallholder markets, they’re there to stay. That’s absolutely necessary. We don’t need three- to five-year programs, we need long term systems and knowledge that continues.

How much time do you spend in-country, talking to people on farms?

Me, personally, not very much. I’ll give my colleagues, who are partnership managers, a protocol to ask certain questions of certain people, and they’ll bring back that information. We want to make sure what we’re doing is sufficient and not wasting taxpayer dollars, so anytime we can integrate our learning agenda within the core pieces of our work, then we do that. But I’d rather have my colleague who’s already going to the country do that. The only time I go is if there’s not enough capacity for the people who are already planning on going. For example, I was just in Nigeria, because that group could only send one person because of competing priorities. It just depends. My priority, too, is to make sure that everyone here in my office has that capacity, so when they go to their next job, I want them to have those knowledge exchange and management tools, no matter what. So I work with them to build in those activities, and when need be I’ll travel with them as well, to do it if there’s not capacity in a given trip. I’m very picky about that. I find that a lot of people just want to go to the field and I think it’s really important that you know farmers, and that our partners have a sustained relationship with specific people.

How would you say your experience as a fellow has prepared you for the job that you’re doing now?

Oh, big time. As a fellow I was working with public-private partnerships, market-led, private-sector-led development, and that’s what we do here. A little bit differently, because [at WCF] it was value chain- and supply chain-directed, working with big companies to improve the sustainability of their supply chain in their work with farmers. The companies I work with now, we’re taking products and services that farmers want to buy and making them affordable and available to them. So it’s a different endgame, between what I was doing as a fellow and now, but both are all about being able to understand private sector priorities. People don’t like to talk about it, but a private sector company needs to make money. If they’re not making money, then they can’t exist, literally. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just true. Being able to work with companies and understand that any farmer impact I want to have needs to be integrated directly into their business models and operations, and done efficiently, was very important to learn when I was a fellow. And, I would argue, working directly with the private sector and bringing market approaches to development is going to be how all donors move forward, so I definitely would say learning that skill is important if you want to be in development at this point.

You prefigured my next question. Have you noticed any big movements or trends in international development?

I’d say market approaches. Aid over the past five or six years, and specifically FTF, has looked at value chains in absence of the larger market system, and they’re just starting to reintegrate that. I think it was a mistake that they separated it so much. There’s a lot of actors within any market, and there’s a lot of different segments of customers, and that’s something that aid wasn’t really focused on, seeing farmers as unique individuals with several needs. Another shift is “know your exit strategy:” how does your program help USAID graduate a country from its portfolio of services? Basically, how does a program make it possible for USAID to not be needed in Ghana, or in Nigeria? That’s important.

So, people are talking about “what’s our plan for phasing ourselves out of here?”

It’s a priority of the new administrator of USAID. His other priority is sustainability: how do program services keep going, minus the program. If I was still with WCF, then it would be “where are the USAID-funded interventions going to be embedded so that they continue without us?” From where I sit I would say that would be a private sector partner, but it depends on your sector. In education, it makes sense for it to be embedded within a government structure because it’s the government’s job to provide education as a public service in most of the countries where USAID works. I think that sustainability plan has always been there, but now it’s being even more emphasized. Which is actually the other thing I learned when I was a fellow, because WCF did that really well. My boss at the time, Charlie Feezel, had been in development for a very long time, and would always ask me, the staff, and our member companies, “What will happen to this when we are done funding it? How will it continue to be carried out, or at least benefit the community, after we leave?” He would look for existing structures to embed it in—a school, a business, a teacher’s union, a parent’s group. Or NPECLC!


A road in Accra, Ghana. Photo by Laura Ostenso, 2012.


“People are going to create real solutions that actually grow food sustainably, and enable those communities to benefit and nurture themselves.”

What makes you hopeful for the future, for ending hunger by 2030?

It’s the employees of the companies that I meet. When I was in Nigeria we were visiting a company called Babban Gona [“big farm” or “great farm” in Hausa] and met with their regional staff, the people who are operating the actual business, who are doing the supply chain management and procurement and all of the different things, and they were just amazing. They weren’t people who thought that they’d be in agriculture, but there they were, in this rural area, doing agriculture, in different parts of the business. One of them was an IT person, and they have enterprise management systems, like a standard database-type thing that companies use to run the business. They hadn’t worked in development, and so a lot of the farmer stuff was new to them, but they were bringing this business approach to it, just making it work and creating profit for the company while bringing incredible value to the farmers, and you could see in how they interacted with farmers—it was just really cool. They also have this network of MIKs, customer service representatives I would say would be the most similar thing, who go back to the farmers constantly to make sure the technologies they’re using are being applied correctly, so that the farmer is getting the yield that they want, and then Babban Gona buys back all of that yield and sells it, which is how they make money. The level of professionalism and the drive of the staff made me feel like, “people are going to create real solutions that actually grow food sustainably, and enable those communities to benefit and nurture themselves.” That definitely gives me hope.

What advice do you have for someone who would want to work to end hunger in the world?

I would say look at agriculture. There’s a thousand million things to do in agriculture and the majority of them aren’t actually growing food: it’s transporting food, it’s developing technology and software for tracing food, it’s tractors and businesses that supply mechanization services. There’s just so much to agriculture, and we need really bright amazing people who are passionate about ending hunger to take on those myriad needs. And, I would say agriculture is profitable. It can be hard, but the more people get involved and bring their expertise, the more we can make it profitable.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think that the Leland Hunger Fellows Program is really important. I think that policymakers should be paying attention to the legacy of Leland and Emerson, and keep moving it forward.

  1. The NPECLC is the National Programme for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor in Ghana. []
  2. FSMA is the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011; its rule on Foreign Supplier Verification Programs went into effect in May 2017. []