The East African Coffee Initiative: A Partnership Between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and TechnoServe

David Browning, SOM Class of 1999, returned to campus in 2010 as part of the Program on Non-Profit Organization’s (PONPO’s) seminar series. Browning is a senior vice president at TechnoServe, where he directs the Coffee Initiative. In 2008, TechnoServe received a four year, $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work with small-scale coffee farmers in East Africa, helping them to increase their incomes by improving the quality of their produce and linking them to potential buyers. Browning discussed the highlights of the project including challenges and opportunities for smallholder farmers.

According to Browning, a range of alternatives exist when addressing international development. While much traditional development work focuses on macro-level social infrastructure, such as improvements to healthcare or educational systems, TechnoServe focuses on facilitating economic market opportunities, providing business training for rural enterprises to increase their prospects for improving their standard of living. Increases in household income flow through a society’s system, providing wealth via a tax base and consumer purchasing power to support ongoing investment in social infrastructure.

TechnoServe’s consultative approach to development was born in response to some of the challenges inherent in philanthropic aid in the 1960s.  In 1968, founder Ed Bullard noticed that providing aid often disempowered people and communities despite good intentions. He also recognized that without rigorous oversight, philanthropic gifts could end up being diverted to the black market rather than reaching the intended beneficiaries. Concerned about the corrosive effects that this type of corruption could have on civil society, he sought to provide business training rather than donated goods, enhancing farmer incomes and empowering individuals to realize their aspirations. Over the past 40 years, the organization has worked with farmers and entrepreneurs in Africa and Latin America, leveraging this philosophy as a cost-effective means of reducing poverty and creating positive ripple effects on entire communities.

The Coffee Initiative leverages the rich agricultural productivity of East Africa’s highlands, helping growers to produce high quality beans which command a premium price in export markets. TechnoServe envisions sharing the lessons learned in such “best practice” agronomy with other projects in the highlands of Latin America and Asia. TechnoServe’s ultimate aim is to move five million people in East Africa out of extreme poverty within ten years.  Browning made a compelling argument that TechnoServe provides an important, market-driven solution to enable its clients to create opportunities for a more stable future.

Browning previously served as TechnoServe’s Regional Director for Latin America and Vice President for Business Development. Prior to joining TechnoServe in 2003, Browning worked for McKinsey and Company, a management consulting firm. Before McKinsey, Browning held a range of managerial positions in the manufacturing, petroleum, and retail industries. In addition to his M.B.A. from Yale, Browning holds a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and a master’s degree in advanced finance from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Lindsay Siegel SOM ‘11