Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies, Ernesto Sirolli. New Society Publishers, 1999. 151 pp. Cloth: $14.95.
As a young man working for an Italian aid agency in Africa, Ernesto Sirolli witnessed something he would never forget. Colleagues of his had started a tomato farm on the banks of the Zambezi river. When the locals they hired to work on the farm (the supposed beneficiaries of the project) got enough money in their first day of work to buy a week’s worth of food, they didn’t return to work until the following week. Rather than reconsidering how their projects might engender more of a sense of ownership, the young Italians proceeded to get the workers hooked on buying consumer goods – watches, trinkets, beer – so they would have a motivation to come to work. That motivation “worked,” but the tomato patch failed. In a single night soon before harvest, hippos from the river ate every plant in the field, a danger the foreign development specialists had never considered. The story embodied for Sirolli the folly of trying to impose the vision of outside “professionals” on different cultures or specific communities.
Sirolli went on to pioneer an economic development approach he calls enterprise facilitation. Enterprise facilitators start with no plan and a firm directive to initiate nothing. They make it known in an economically struggling town or neighborhood that they are available to help – in confidence – anyone with a dream of starting a business. Once they have clients, facilitators are part business consultant, part advocate within the bureaucracy, and part matchmaker, helping entrepreneurs find “masters” who can pass on a skill or partners who will complement their strengths.
Ripples from the Zambezi is told in a personal, almost autobiographical style, focusing on detailed success stories, such as Esperance, Australia, the first town in which Sirolli tried enterprise facilitation. In 1985, this isolated coastal town of 8,500 had 500 people registered unemployed, and a recent quota on fishing the overexploited tuna population had demoralized and shrunk the fishing industry. Bureaucrats and neighbors alike didn’t trust each other, especially the fisherman. Sirolli’s patience in finding and cutting the red tape for one individual with a dream to process and sell smoked fish set off a chain reaction of hope and creativity. In relatively short order, Esperance boasted a sushi processing plant that provides jobs and buys tuna at 30 times the price the fisherman had been getting from the cannery. After four years, the town had 45 new enterprises, and since then the number has grown to 380. Since then enterprise facilitation has been brought to hundreds of communities in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, first through a series of government contracts for Sirolli and then interested universities and local groups. New wages from projects assisted by enterprise facilitation created $2 million annually in new wages for Lincoln County, MN, one of the poorest rural areas in the United States, with a workforce of only 3,000 people.
Sirolli’s approach can appeal to many political persuasions: It is founded upon the progressive belief that given support and a positive environment, all people can do well, and the problem with poor and unemployed people is not laziness. But enterprise facilitation is also the ultimate anti-bureaucratic approach. Sirolli considers himself an economic development freedom fighter, calling on bureaucrats to be true servants of the people – to help them achieve their dreams and not try to predict or plan the future.
While his stories of success are the most compelling and detailed part of the book, Sirolli also makes an unexpected leap into politics. If strong economies are based on smart, excited, passionate people rather than on resource exploitation or a few clever CEOs, then, he says, our government needs to support all individuals, including the unemployed, the elderly, certainly all children, to have their basic needs met. “Every single person is important in the creation of a better, wealthier, smarter society,” he writes. “Whether employed or not,… the quality, both personal and professional, of every single person is what will make a country prosperous.” This premise could have implications for any number of public policies, but he only extends it to specific policy recommendations in the area of education, for which he favors radically redefining high school and moving to almost an apprenticeship system.
Like others who have had to fight an intransigent system, Sirolli’s critiques of those he sees as obstacles – particularly economic development programs, the planning profession, and higher education – are on-target, and withering, but a little too dismissive. While these institutions may sometimes be counterproductive in helping entrepreneurs get started, and may employ some approaches that should be jettisoned all together, Sirolli needs to remember that supporting all individuals includes both supporting institutions that serve a range of employment aspirations beyond entrepreneurship and supporting collective efforts to improve the quality of life. There is plenty of need, for example, to train employees for new enterprises, as well as plan for and support schools, healthcare and other “professions,” and any number of other economic activities. And even Sirolli acknowledges – albeit as a sidenote – a role for planners in creating public infrastructures conducive to the economic freedom he values.
Ripples does beg the question of scale. Can local small businesses reverse globalizing trends and severe concentrated unemployment? Sirolli thinks so. “Individual entrepreneurs are the powerhouse of the economy – full stop,” he writes. But he doesn’t follow that up with any concrete numbers or analyses of how his recommendations fit into the larger patterns of employment, technological change, or the multitude of other factors influencing economies today.
Enterprise facilitation may be something business consultants have done for wealthy clients for years. But Sirolli’s major accomplishment is to show – from the underlying values to the nitty-gritty details – why and how providing this kind of resource to everyone can be a vigorous catalyst to the economies of some of our most disinvested communities.
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