15 March 2018

Development has to meet the REAL local needs

Carsten Nico Hjortsø has worked to support knowledge creation and promote entrepreneurship in developing countries during the last 15 years. His biggest personal challenge has been to understand the local cultures and how they affect his partners’ motivation to make a change.

Written by Julie Lykke-Nedergaard

”It is very hard to dump into a totally foreign culture and really understand what sorts of games they are playing,” Associate Professor Carsten Nico Hjortsø (Nico Hjortsø) says and adds with a smile: “To understand what is going on - that is a big challenge.”

Nico Hjortsø works to increase the creation of knowledge and entrepreneurship in developing countries. One example is the project “Forest Management for Timber and Non-Timber Products in the Tropical Lowlands of Bolivia” (FOMABO) which took place in Bolivia. In the project, Bolivian partner universities and researchers from UCPH were to develop knowledge on sustainable management of the local rainforests and implement a training program making indigenous people in the tropical lowland of Bolivia able to manage the forests sustainably.

"It is very hard to dump into a totally foreign culture and really understand what sorts of games they are playing

Nico Hjortsø

Nico Hjortsø has also worked with development of six agribusinesses incubators in Africa in the project “Universities, Business and Research in Agricultural Innovation” (UniBRAIN). The projects have taught him that before evaluating and improving anything, he had to learn himself

Local farmers and university staff during a joint field excursion to a two-years old reforestation plot.

Promises, persuasion and prestige
During his project in Bolivia, Nico Hjortsø hosted classes on how to write academic articles to help the researchers to communicate their research – but the classes were not as popular as expected.

“If you go to Africa or Bolivia and meet your colleagues thinking it is important for them to publish, you can be very badly disappointed,” Nico Hjortsø says and explains that in Denmark publishing ones research is very important. Danish researchers are rewarded and evaluated based on their publications. “It is much more political compared to here…,” Nico Hjortsø elaborates and adds with a grin: “Or at least than what it is on the surface here”.

In Bolivia, he discovered it was important to know the right people, be popular with them and support them at the right times. That was the way to get ahead in an academic carrier.

Another cultural obstacle occurred around the meeting table with the local partners. Time and again all kinds of promises were made to take action, but often almost nothing was done.

“You can interpret it and say they are a couple of bandits – why do they not keep their promises? But really, it might be a cultural behavior, where people do not like to say no,” Nico Hjortsø says.

To overcome these obstacles, Nico Hjortsø tried to create ownership, incentive and meet their real needs.

Focus on the local
To encourage the Bolivian researchers to get started on producing scientific articles Nico Hjortsø and his team tried to focus on local interests. While pulling green magazines down from a top shelf in his office, Nico Hjortsø tells, that this is something he is very proud of. On the pages of the green magazines, Bolivian students and researchers have written articles on local issues that really mattered to them. In one of them, there is an article on how to pull trees out of the forest with an ox.

System for oxen to transport wood in the 6th publication of FOMABO magazine, 2008

“Then you could think ‘how interesting can that be?’ but maybe it is if you have oxen but no tractor,” Nico Hjortsø explains.

"Without ownership nothing will happen. You cannot force people to do anything

Nico Hjortsø

He and his team took initiative to the magazine and the colleagues from the Bolivian University had the responsibility for developing it: “Without ownership nothing will happen. You cannot force people to do anything,” Nico Hjortsø underlines

One of the main problems, which Nico Hjortsø found in the FOMABO project, was that the Bolivian Universities “are very isolated from practice”. Many of the articles in the FOMABO magazine were practical - they would not be able to be published in a recognized scientific magazine, according to Nico Hjortsø but:

“They can use this to get in contact with practice. Suddenly there was something, they could show people and talk with them about and they could also show that they produced useful knowledge,” he explains and adds that the magazine was a success because the format fitted the local need.

The inauguration of a field station in Chapare region, tropical Bolivia. As part of the FOMABO research capacity-building project Denmark co-funded a new research facility in the Bolivian university’s tropical research forest.

Entrepreneur out of passion or out of need?
The creation of incentives also challenged Nico Hjortsø when he engaged himself in the development of six agribusiness incubators in East and West Africa in the UniBRAIN-project. There are hordes of entrepreneurs but not culture for cooperating on developing large businesses. ”Statistically, Uganda is the country with most entrepreneurs in the world. 30 percent of the population is entrepreneurs, but it is not here Google or Skype are developed,” he says.

According to Nico Hjortsø, there are two types of entrepreneurs: The ones who do it out of passion and the ones who do it out of need. It is the last type that is overrepresented in Uganda and that is not the type, which creates new big markets and lots of jobs.

“They (the Ugandans) do not have jobs and need to figure something out, or they are challenged with problems they have to find solutions to. Nobody is there to help, so they have to figure it out themselves,” Nico Hjortsø explains and adds that those who do it out of need do often not dream bigger than selling enough to get by.

”All the time while traveling around in Africa, I was introduced to new entrepreneurs making a ‘new’ yogurt… or juice,” Nico Hjortsø explains and adds: “I met a lot of these but they do not produce more than what they are able to sell in their neighborhood”

The society affect entrepreneurship
On the quest to advance small agribusinesses in Africa, another challenge appeared: Limited experience and culture for cooperating across sectors.

“There are much firmer boundaries between the sectors in the African societies compared to here,” Nico Hjortsø says.

You need to create partnerships and relations to customers and suppliers to start a business and: ”If you do not live in an entrepreneurial environment it can be hard to understand what it takes,” he adds.

The right partnerships can create magic. During Nico Hjortsø‘s research in Africa a university which educated coffee entrepreneurs, a public research institution producing pest-resistant coffee plants and an NGO, which had 150.000 coffee farmers organized in farmer groups in order to support them, started cooperating. The research institution had troubles diffusing its knowledge but the NGO could help spreading it to the farmer groups who needed that knowledge. Moreover, the university and the NGO could help each other by linking university graduate entrepreneurs with the market and internships.

“Cooperation is always the key,” Nico Hjortsø says and adds, “You cannot do anything on your own.”

The next to grab the interview-baton is Assistant Professor Mattias Borg Rasmussen who works with resources in developing countries from an anthropologic perspective. Read the article with Mattias Borg Rasmussen here.

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