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Monday, July 7, 2008

Moving On: What I Learned From Shrimp Farmers

By Derek Newberry

ShrimpEvery good story begins with a witty insight, a forceful statement - something to grab the attention of the reader.? This one, unfortunately, begins with shrimp.? Before I visited Northeastern Brazil, I had only known the tasty kind - the ones that are served on small platters or served over pasta, that are fantastic with a little butter and lemon.?

A year ago, on a trip to the town of Tibau do Sul to research the aquaculture industry in the region, I encountered the much less pleasant type of shrimp - the alive kind that swim up and thrash you furiously with their little legs as you nervously wade through murky shrimp ponds.? Some days the only sound that would penetrate the heat-induced silence of the farms I visited was the occasional shriek from another victim of an unexpected shrimp attack.?As I look back on my time with NextBillion.net and prepare for a career in anthropology where I may find myself wading through many more such ponds, I have to reflect on what it is that compels me to return to places like the shrimp farm in Tibau.?

There are many things to appreciate about the area in and around Tibau - the region's country-twanged Forro music is infused with a Brazilian sense of carefree fun without pretension; the food is hearty and unassuming.? But the best reason to visit Tibau, especially as someone interested in BoP issues, is to pass time with the local shrimp farmers - their experiences are a real glimpse into the world of people who are targeted as the implementers of the sustainable development work we do in this field.?

It's one thing to talk about the power people at the base of the pyramid have as consumers and producers, and to preach about the ability of small entrepreneurs to tap into that potential.? But actually spending time with those entrepreneurs, and seeing the mundane rituals and startling challenges that mark their daily lives up close adds a layer of richness to our work.? For me this realization came during my time observing the activities of Alexandre.?

Alexandre is a local shrimp farmer who is supported by my parent project, New Ventures, as he is an ardent advocate of organic aquaculture methods in an industry that has gotten plenty of flak for being unsustainable.? Alexandre was to me an ideal example of the type of entrepreneur we promote - working to change an industry's practices for the better by relying partially on grassroots, BoP knowledge and partially on new environmental innovations.

But of course the preconceptions of a person like Alexandre that you have in your head are necessarily two-dimensional, and even if they may be somewhat accurate, they miss the depth and multiple experiences that make up a whole person.?

On one of my first days on the farm, Alexandre drove me around and gave some of the history of how he had arrived in Tibau from Rio.? "Right there," he exclaimed, pointing to a patch of dirt on the ground" is where my wife and I pitched a tent when we came here decades ago."? In the years since Alexandre slept in a tent on a plot of land overgrown with brush in the middle of nowhere, he has built a profitable farm of tens of acres and some dozen or so shrimp ponds.? He then took me to a half completed structure where he dreams of one day being able to complete a larger house for his family.

Further demonstrating his entrepreneurial zeal, Alexandre gave me the story of how he had become the first shrimp farmer in the area to get organic certification, how after taking university courses in biology, he had realized the destruction that conventional aquaculture can have on the land.? He told me about how he began infusing traditional shrimp farming practices with more sustainable methods, such as creating nutrient rich ponds where the shrimp wouldn't need to rely on chemicals to grow.? He maintained his farm's organic status even early on when very few in the industry supported his cause.

Yet along with the success, Alexandre revealed challenges and tensions in his narrative.? Even as an advocate of sustainable practices, Alexandre refused to demonize his fellow shrimp farmers, he understood how difficult it could be for a farmer with a few acres of land to afford the upfront costs of going organic or the long delay in getting certified.? He could see why some farmers felt compelled to forgo registering their businesses at all.? He understood the obstacles and human imperfections that add shades of complexity to the image of the heroic BoP or sustainability innovator that we paint in institutional brochures and handouts.?

These are the entrepreneurs we support - driven by passion as much as by pure necessity, full of dreams, wildly creative, wholly imperfect human beings.? These are the people that get glossed over with numbers and statistics about market size and penetration rates at the base of the pyramid.? Similar to Moses' earlier point about getting into the field, I believe that anyone working on BoP issues should connect with people like Alexandre because ultimately, they are what matters most in our work.

It is my deep interest in these entrepreneurs at the base of the pyramid, and the larger social and environmental contexts in which they work, that has led me to pursue a PhD in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.? Meanwhile, Francisco Noguera will be joining Rob Katz as a co-Managing Editor of NextBillion.net - all I can say is that the site remains in good hands.?

My thanks to the Nextbillion.net staff and readers - I will be maintaining my research focus in the BoP/sustainability space, so if you want to dialogue, please don't hesitate to send me an email at derekn@sas.upenn.edu.? I'll look forward to watching the continued growth of the BoP movement - and I will always remain an avid reader of this blog!
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