Business enabling social impact
Leprosy. It is a terrifying word. We imagine disfigurement of biblical proportions, and people losing fingers if they slam a door too hard. Leprosy is caused by a bacterial infection, which affects the nerves, the skin and the respiratory tract.
The most tragic aspect of leprosy is that it can be easily treated, with nothing more complicated than a course of drugs that have been around for many years, and which are not much more expensive than M&Ms. Yet in some places in the world, people afflicted by leprosy have been banished to colonies (more modernly called “communities”), where they have limited support and rarely interact with other members of society. Despite the discrimination and the stigma, and the fact they had been compelled to live at the furthest edge of the beaten track, I found a group of people in Maowangdong who seemed only intent on celebrating the positive things in their lives.
The drive from Kunming took nearly 8 hours. On the way back I realised the scenery was beautiful. But on that first visit to the village of Maowangdong, home to the best part of 200 of these people affected by leprosy, I gave no thought to the journey, because I was so concerned about what I would find when I arrived. And Maowangdong was everything I expected it to be.
I had accepted the challenge of helping the villagers develop a sustainable source of income, working with HANDA (a Chinese charity), funded by Anesvad (an international charity based in Spain). At first the locals were confused by the very concept of sustainable income, and it took a lot of patience and creativity to get the message across. To be fair this is not simple even when you are operating in your own language, so imagine the opportunities for confusion and chaos when such a strange notion is being proposed by a strange visitor in an incomprehensible language.
It took me less than an hour to come to the conclusion that the people in this village would teach me a lot more than I could ever hope to teach them. Of course I knew a lot more about sustainable income generation than they did, but they seemed to be expert practitioners in everything that was important. They treated me, and my colleagues from HANDA, like they had known us since the day of our birth. They were genuinely delighted we were there to help them, and they became even more enthusiastic when it became clear we wanted to help them help themselves. It sounds like such a cliché, from the worst management book your boss ever made you read. Yet in Maowangdong it worked out exactly like that. These people had never been considered capable of doing anything much for themselves, except surviving. So this was an opportunity they were prepared to cherish and nurture and bring to fruition.
I quickly realized I was at the opposite end of the spectrum from what do you get the person who has everything - because my dilemma was attempting to address the question what do you do for the people who have nothing? Sure they had nothing much, but they had so much enthusiasm it was scary. We considered making and selling orange juice. Then we thought about mushrooms, organic tea and generating methane from compost. Finally we decided on honey, on the basis the community at least had some limited experience in bee-keeping. But it’s one thing to grab a handful of honey from your own bees when you need it, and quite another to develop a viable, credible, sustainable honey business. Every decision was interminable, because every concept had to be explained (in English, then translated into Chinese then translated again into the local dialect), and everybody in the village wanted to participate and had something to offer. I had no idea I possessed such depths of patience and perseverance, but I soon came to appreciate that I wanted this to be successful just as much as my new colleagues.
We aimed our sights low, low enough to ensure everybody could see the overall objective, and we set off on what has become our own remarkable journey. Within 2 months we had developed a business plan. Within 6 months we had invested in purpose-built hives capable of generating enough honey to meet our initial requirements. By that time the project had such momentum it would’ve been easier to stop a runaway train.
Now, a little over a year after I took my first hesitant step out of the truck, the village of Maowangdong has produced its first commercial batch of honey. It’s a big deal that the community has generated their own source of income from their own efforts. It’s a much, much bigger deal that they have proven to themselves what they are capable of achieving. This first flush of success has come through collaboration, partnership, teamwork and mutual respect. In our world we toss these words around, hoping they will encourage some of us to sell more gadgets, or more insurance or put in a couple of hours extra at the office. In Maowangdong collaboration, partnership, teamwork and mutual respect are essential elements of survival, so it should’ve been no surprise that they approached this new-fangled concept of business in exactly the same way.
From a personal perspective, this has turned out to be one of the greatest challenges, and greatest achievements, of my career. Little over a year ago I could never have imagined the very existence of a place like Maowangdong, nor could anybody have expected what such dispossessed, disregarded and disenfranchised people might be capable of achieving. I helped them understand the challenges, understand the principles and get started. I have pushed and pulled them in the meantime to keep them on the path they decided they wanted to follow. I have encouraged the community to think about concepts like branding, marketing and sales margins that were probably as alien to them at the time as drive-through banking and waxed dental-floss. I sowed the seeds, and threw on some water occasionally. But theirs’ is the achievement. It is my new-found friends in Maowangdong who have demonstrated the strength of character to rise above every challenge, and who have consumed every opportunity like they were eating chocolate for the first time.
Regardless of how successful this honey business becomes, and how much self-respect and self-determination it engenders, it will not change the cruel daily reality for the older people of Maowangdong. They have lost limbs, and suffered horribly, and it has all been entirely unnecessary and avoidable. They have been let down, and left behind. Yet they shame me, and every other visitor to their community, by the ferocity of their optimism and enthusiasm. Despite what they have endured, they don’t dwell on missed opportunities, and they refuse to see leprosy, and what it has cost them, as anything other than the consequence of unfortunate circumstances. They have friends and family and they have children and grandchildren who have not been so needlessly afflicted by this disease. They sing, often spontaneously, just for the joy it brings them. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that the original plan was for the old people of Maowangdong to learn something significant from me.