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The contagious excitement for business in emerging countries

July 1, 2009

I am just back from a tour of duties with a large agricultural chemical company where I participated in co-creation workshops with Indian, Brazilian, Spanish and US farmers. There was so much excitement in India and Brazil that we had to say no to many local sales and technical people who wanted to take us to their farmers, while in Spain and the US, getting those workshops organized was like pulling teeth. Why is that, I wondered.

The greatest asset of emerging countries is their enthusiasm for business and their eagerness to discover new ways of competing. The people simply do not know they should be all-knowing and cynical. You can see the excitement everywhere, even at this time of global economic crisis. In India, the workshop involved a huge tent with a large group of farmers and close to twenty managers of the local subsidiary of the firm. The senior company leader for the Asia Pacific region, a highly-respected Indian gentleman now based in Singapore, role-modeled with great humility how to engage farmers in the development of new ideas. Life was fun. I was at home in the universe.

In Brazil, the first farmer who came to our workshop was the owner of a huge farm in the Cerrado region who had driven more than 100 kilometers to be with us. The town of Luis Eduardo Magalhães where we were based consisted nine years earlier of two gas stations. Today, it is a booming town of more than 40,000 people. Watching the bustling breakfast scene of farmers and dealers discussing commodity prices, and the incessant ballet of flatbed trucks in and out of the hotel, I could not help but think that the corn and soybean farmer of Iowa better realize he is up against this passionate embrace of business life by the Cerrado farmer. I myself had to drive more than 100 kilometers to get back to an airport and spent more than 24 hours through four flight segments to make it back to Boston. I barely noticed times and distances. My head was full of wonder.

In Spain and the US, we could immediately feel the lack of growth, economically and spiritually. The local subsidiaries were suspicious of any value that would come of those workshops. We had to explain what co-creation is and why it is different from what they already do. We had to prove we would not embarrass the local subsidiary. Granting us access to customers involved a favor, a concession made to the need of headquarters personnel to educate itself. There was no joy of discovery, no sense that we could innovate, nor was there any expectation that locals would learn anything. They were the experts who spoke for the customers, so what need did we have to go engage farmers directly? In the end, a couple of open-minded and innovative people in Spain and the US did sponsor the effort and because of the masterful job they did, triggered great insights, but it took an act of courage on their part.

Alarmingly, the farmers themselves exhibited the same pattern of destructive laziness. A Minnesota corn and soybean farmer told us he would like to reduce the number of applications of crop protection products from three down to two and be done by the 4th of July, so that he could go on vacation up north to the lakes region after that. I could not help but think of one of the Cerrado cotton farmers, who is spraying his fields every three days for six months of the year, mostly at night. I love watching the film where this Harrison Ford-looking character describes the hardship of fighting bugs in the Brazilian fields, because his broad smile lights up the screen every time. Who do you think will prevail in the end in a global agricultural economy?

Of course, cynicism and arrogance allow the painting of others as naïve. “Indian and Brazilian farmers are excited about innovation in agriculture” they may think, “because they do not know as much as we do.” As for me, between arrogance and naiveté, I will pick naiveté any time.

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