The Playbook on How to Become an Agent of Innovation

The 2Seeds Network started with humble beginnings—just a conversation—when a small group of young Americans visited a Tanzanian village.


The 2Seeds Network started with humble beginnings—just a conversation—when a small group of young Americans visited a Tanzanian village. They got to know the community (composed mostly of small-holder farmers), observed the breakdown in agricultural production and distribution, and a conversation on why the breakdown existed began. What resulted was an invitation from the community to stay, try some new concepts, and work together to improve their yield and profit. Their initial conversation led to much more dialogue, and three months later, their efforts were met with big reward—their Tanzanian partners' income tripled in the first harvest and the village did not have to face its usual hunger season. What 2Seeds learned in that first project, and what it continues to experience throughout the eight projects since, is how to become agents of innovation in the poorest villages in Tanzania.

What does it mean to be an agent of innovation? Let me start with a story.

On my last trip to Tanzania, I found myself in a conversation with one of our project coordinator teams. Their project established and supported a community-level farmers group. Farmers received collective training on new agricultural best practices and subsequently grew, harvested, and sold crops to markets. This meant they could provide a higher volume of higher quality produce, decrease their transportation costs, and increase their profit. Seems like simple economics.

However, this particular project struggled under the weight of too many participants in the farmers' group. Not only did the distance between farmers make trainings, shamba visits, and harvesting difficult, but such a high volume of participants meant there was a drastic spectrum of both skill and commitment to the group's goals. These variables proved difficult for the project coordinators to manage.

I prompted a question to the project coordinators: "Help me understand. I can wrap my head around why a farmer would have low or high skill in farming—that's a function of education, experience, and human nature. But why would someone have low commitment to the group, when it has demonstrated returns in previous harvests?"

The project coordinators explained to me that most of the farmers in the group were also harvesters of tea leaves for the big tea companies in the area—putting in long hours and making an incommensurate income. Farmers who were on the low end of the commitment spectrum had a difficult time reallocating even one hour away from work that had a known result (e.g., "I know I can get x income for y grams of tea leaves picked") to put towards an unknown, riskier venture, like a new farmers' group. Even with the evidence of the group's successful harvests and the forecast of higher income by working with 2Seeds, it still felt like a risky choice for some.

This is how poverty affects decision-making, and something we can all understand: when resources are tight, there is nothing to waste. Choices carry immediate consequences. And the new and unknown carries greater risk. Innovation is met with reservation, and a strong value case needs to be proven before stock and time is invested. This is not just the reality for the low-income, small-holder farmers in rural Tanzania; it is a human reality.

We at 2Seeds see innovation happening across the villages in which our project coordinators live and work. Our partners in the Kwakiliga village started a savings program, putting 90% of the profit from their new egg business into a fund for next stage business investment. Our project in the Magoma village operates school-based agricultural businesses, run by students, which funds school lunches for 1,300 children. Our partners in Bombo Majimoto received a loan to invest in Money Makers—high quality irrigation pumps that allowed our partners to increase their per acre profit by 20% last year.

Savings funds, loans, school lunch programs generated by the students themselves... these are culturally radical and innovative concepts for our partners. How are they able to step into the risk of trying something new? We believe most of development has overlooked a basic human concept: the trusted relationship. It is when people feel that someone is with them in their struggle that they can begin to hear and incorporate new ideas. 2Seeds has been successful in finding young people who possess the virtues of humility, empathy, compassion, intellect, and an orientation towards partnership. These individuals are able to genuinely sit in that struggle with people around the globe to begin the process of moving towards a better life.

2Seeds works in some of the poorest and most isolated villages in Tanzania. Project coordinators from across the globe and at varying stages of their young careers spend a year living in the villages. We stick with our partners through their good days and their bad, their weddings, and their funerals. We accept every invitation for chai and every invitation to church—no matter how sweet the chai or different the religion may be to their own. We work full-time to become part of their lives and earn their trust. Once trust is established, and our partners know we are there to walk with them, they allow us to dream with them, brainstorm with them, build projects with them, and work with them to implement their ideas. They are leading that process, and we are with them. As they say in Tanzania, "Tuko pamoja"—"We are together."

To spend a year in Tanzania working on a 2Seeds Project, apply here for a position in their fifth class. Application deadline is March 15, 2014 for an August 2014 departure.

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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