Lessons from Tomatoes in Egypt

October 1, 2009

Innovative models needed in PPPs for development:

When Heinz decided to grow tomatoes in Egypt, they didn’t know if they could grow enough to meet their regional needs: the soil was fertile, but there were no farmers, not a strong enough agricultural infrastructure. 

The company went to USAID and expressed its desire to get four or five industrial-sized tomato-growing operations going in the Nile Delta, and USAID countered: how about 4,000 10-acre operations employing entrepreneurial farmers?  Heinz agreed to the model and to purchase all of the tomatoes that are grown—if proven successful, this will mark a major sustainable development victory. 

Market problems like the one Heinz faced need to be met with innovative solutions for development, said Jerry O’Brien, Deputy Director, Global Development Alliance, United States Agency for International.

“Public-private partnerships in development are nothing new,” he said.  What’s got to be new, he explained at the BCLC Welcome Reception, is how development agencies and businesses see development problems.

Businesses, he said, “are working very busily to solve a whole series of business problems: you’re trying to buy, sell, or create something new in that country.” Meanwhile development agencies are seeing those same business problems as symptoms of underlying development challenges.  “If we can see the overlap,” he stressed, “we will see innovative solutions.  We need to reinvent our ways to look at the problems we face—we have to change each other’s minds […] to get better results.”

Johan Åkerblom of SIDA had a similar message:  “Engaging SIDA and international businesses has mostly been about using companies and consultancies as suppliers, not as partners—but a change is underway,” he said.  In practice, SIDA’s relationships with businesses have used businesses as suppliers, advisors, and, increasingly, as partners.  Partnering in lasting and deep ways, Åkerblom emphasized, would be necessary to create the innovations needed in development challenges. 

In other words, if you’re going to grow tomatoes in Egypt, public-private research and discussions might uncover that sustained win-wins require local buy-in and mass participation rather than large-scale industrial domination.

Emily Drew is the Communications Manager and Writer at the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.