How Do You Define Dirt?

How Do You Define Dirt?

If you grew up in a mud hut, how do you define what dirt is?

A short 7 years ago in Zimbabwe, you couldn't buy bread in the supermarket, but you could in the streets and alleys—like drugs.

People would burn money and then other people would pay with the same burned bills. When you have a $100 Trillion dollar note, $100 is a great deal for everything. The psyche behind it sort of threw the value of money out the window. People lined up for days and bankers hated their jobs. Wheelbarrows of cash and blocks of paper bills were the faithful sidekicks of all shoppers and dealers.

When the market finally collapsed, people would willingly pay $100 USD for a chicken sandwich and it was a good deal. $5 for a small coke during the price freeze!

Value is relative. It always has been. And the systems that have been built have created a “oh you’re poor attitude” from those who are on the top end of the value scale. Who are we to tell a bloke selling buddie cards that he needs to sell more and scale his little company? “The Street Corner Buddie Boy”—success to him may be the fact that he has a nice chicken dinner and sadza once a week. That he has a roof over his head, never mind he shares sleeping quarters with a dozen other family members.

That’s one of the problems with outside thinking bring a Hero Complex to solving economic problems. Building businesses in a 3rd world economy is hard enough without overcoming cultural biases. The difference between how a typical American and Zimbabwe look at a situation is that an American immediately filters the system through “How can I fix this problem” whereas a Zimbabwean thinks “How can I get around this?” Seems like a small difference, but it’s gigantic.

Neither view is wrong or correct, it just is. But to try and change the point of view is wrong—imposing your cultural will on someone else not only creates sustainability problems, but also hinders progress in general.

Paul Polak discusses this in his book Out Of Poverty. He says if you want to sell a product to rural farmers in Zimbabwe, then go live with them for a week and see what they need. Don’t assume they need your product and it will vastly improve their lives. They may be in the category of “poverty” but that doesn’t mean they’re in a category of “stupid.” And that’s how many Americans view poverty (it's ok, some of us are American too).

Google had a great advert they put together recently. It depicts a Kenyan man who built a windmill and powered his home. He learned how to build a windmill solely by researching from an internet cafe in a nearby village.

His friends in his rural township didn’t have bicycles and couldn’t drive the 10 miles into the village to access the internet, so he created a manual Google on a wooden board with hammers and nails for his village. Here’s how it worked in the video.

Any member of the village could write a question on a piece of paper and stick it to the board. He would take those questions, Google them at the internet cafe and post an answer back onto the board. Knowledge is power. No internet, a little innovation, a little way around the situation and BINGO.

If a young man grew up in a mud hut and has grand plans of owning shoes and driving a car, then let him dream and pursue those dreams. But to place a sticker of “This is what success looks like” on someone who lives in a rural village is not just wrong, it’s ignorant and foolish.

Build where you are. Use what’s in your hands. That’s development. Encourage local involvement and empower it. Then get out of the way.


Pitch Night is tonight! You can still RSVP here. If you're in Harare, we look forward to having you.

(photo via swiss.frog)