One hundred low-cost tools for global women

A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India

A microfinance circle outside Hyderabad, India

In a gorgeous new large-format book called 100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women , author and activist Betsy Teutsch spotlights, uh, yes, 100 tools for empowering global women.

That’s what makes this book both inspiring and puzzling–the realization that so many different things can be done, at a relatively low cost, to help poor women climb out of poverty, without knowing which of those tools will work best.

I wrote about Betsy’s book for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:

About 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity. Solar panels might help, but rural people don’t often have the cash to buy them, or the ability to access bank loans.

Azuri Technologies, a UK-based firm that does business in 10 African nations, thinks that it might have the answer. It charges customers a one-time installation fee and then lets them use their mobile phones to make regular payments that – it claims – are less than what they now spend for kerosene or phone charging. In return, customers get eight hours of lighting a day and the ability to charge their phones. If all goes well, they own the system in about 18 months.

There’s nothing revolutionary about this business model: cash-strapped US shoppers have been buying on the layaway plan since the Great Depression. But pay-as-you-go solar lighting in Africa is a new twist, made possible by the declining costs of photovoltaic panels, the spread of cheap mobile phones, ubiquitous connectivity and cloud computing.

Environmentalist Betsy Teutsch highlights pay-as-you-go solar in her new book,100 under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, which looks at low-cost, high-impact tools that drive global development.

“This is integrating microcredit, mobile money and the solar panel,” Teutsch says. “If it brings you lights, if it brings you cell phone charging, if it brings you radio and if you get rid of kerosene, it’s transformative.”

Her book presents an array of similar tools that, according to Teutsch, have enormous potential to prevent disease, deliver clean energy, lift incomes and promote human rights. They range from simple and time-tested technologies like breastfeeding, hand-washing, bikes and vaccines to high-tech innovations like Solar Ear, a low-cost hearing aid powered by solar-charged batteries, and Inesfly, an insecticide-infused paint that protects against the blood-sucking vinchuca beetle, which spreads Chagas disease.

I go on to say, however, that

a problem with the 100-under-$100 model is that we don’t know as much as we should about how to alleviate poverty and empower women.

Microfinance, malaria nets and clean cookstoves are among Teutsch’s favored tools. Yet microfinance has suffered a series of setbacks in India and Bangladesh, and now there’s spirited debate among economists about whether it leads to gains in income, consumption or education. While mosquito nets clearly help stop the spread of malaria, many are used for fishing – and perhaps overfishing. And while clean cookstoves undoubtedly reduce indoor air pollution and save fuel, field studies indicate that underprivileged women have not embraced them. A reporter for Nature who spent months in India found that they often sit unused in corners, broken or simply abandoned.

book-cover-100-Under-100_miniIf any of you are reading my other blog, Nonprofit Chronicles–and I do hope you will check it out, and subscribe–you’ll know that this is a current obsession of mine: Many nonprofit groups do a poor job, or make no effort at all, to measure their impact. So it’s difficult to donors, whether they be governments, foundations or individuals, to know how to be spent their charitable dollars.

This is not an excuse for inaction. I recently read Peter Singer’s excellent 2010 book, The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, in which he argues, persuasively, that most of us in the rich world are not doing nearly as  much as we could to alleviate suffering among the poor. He’s got a new book out exploring similar themes called The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Read one of those, or watch his TED talk, then read Betsy’s book, and you will be well equipped to make a difference.

How “evil” Monsanto aims to protect the planet

Ethanols Environmental Damage

Iowa cornfield shows signs of erosion and fertilizer runoff. Climate Corporation aims to help farmers use fertilizer more efficiently. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Monsanto has been called one of the US’s most hated companies (see this, which is credible, and this, which is not). Maybe that’s because the St. Louis-based agricultural giant has enemies who are determined, as well as self-interested. (See this petition to Hillary Clinton from the so-called Organic Consumers Association.) Maybe it’s because the  St. Louis-based ag giant historically has done a poor job of explaining itself to the public. (Farmers appear to like Monsanto, which sold them $16 billion worth of seeds and crop-protection chemicals last year.) Whatever the explanation, Monsanto has been dogged by a series of misunderstandings and outright lies.

As David Friedberg, the CEO of Climate Corporation, wrote in an email to employees after he sold his San Francisco-based data startup to Monsanto in 2013:

Calling a company evil is easy. And if you do it enough times it can become the “reality”—because reality is just the most common perception. Say something enough times and everyone thinks it’s the truth…

When I did my own research—to the source and in the science—I was amazed at how far these inaccurate statements had gone and how wrong so many people were, thinking they were right because they repeated the same things others did.

In the email, which was reported in The New Yorker, Friedberg, a former Google employee, goes on to say:

Did you know: Google sues more of its customers each year than Monsanto does? Google spends 3 times as much as Monsanto on Federal lobbying? There are more ex-Googlers in the Obama administration than there are ex-Monsanto employees?

Read the rest, please. You may be surprised by how much you’ve heard about Monsanto is wrong.

Recently, I went to see Friedberg in San Francisco to learn more about Climate Corp. and the potential for what’s often called precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is  a growth business (pun intended) and that’s a very good thing. A bunch of companies, including well-established firms like John Deere and DuPont’s Pioneer, as well as startups like FarmLogs and Farmers Business Network, are competing to unlock the power of agronomic data and make farming more efficient. It’s one more example of how technology is helping to drive sustainability.

The Guardian published my story about Friedberg and Climate Corp. today. Here’s how it begins.

David Friedberg, CEO of The Climate Corporation, expected pushback when he decided to sell his San Francisco-based big data company to Monsanto. He was surprised, though, when some of the loudest criticism came from his own father.

Lionel Friedberg – a Los Angeles filmmaker whose 1989 documentary, Crisis in the Atmosphere, was one of the first films to highlight the problem of global warming – reacted to the news by berating his son. “Monsanto? The most evil company in the world?” Friedberg recalled his father saying. “I thought you were trying to make the world a better place!”

As Friedberg the younger wrote in an email to Climate Corp employees after the 2013 sale, being chastised by his own dad “was really hard”. But he’s nothing if not a believer in facts, and so he marshaled enough evidence to persuade his father that the $930m sale to Monsanto was not just good for his business, but good for the planet. His email is worth reading, particularly if, like Friedberg’s dad, you’re a critic of Monsanto.

Now Friedberg and his colleagues need to persuade the world’s farmers that Climate Corp will help them save money, improve yields, adapt to climate change and improve the environment. And if the company manages to turn around a few more Monsanto critics, that would be a bonus.

Founded in 2006, Climate Corp is a leading player in the fast-growing business of precision agriculture. Using a data-driven approach, it seeks the most efficient use of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, land and water. It’s the next big idea in farming, Friedberg claimed when we met at his office in San Francisco. He compared the approach to the industrialization of agriculture, the green revolution and modern plant breeding.

The story goes on to explain how Climate Corp. hopes to deliver environmental benefits as well as financial returns to farmers. You can read the rest here.

Healthy junk food? Hey, why not?

brian-wansink-hero2Let them eat kale is not a recipe for solving America’s obesity crisis. Trust me. I’ve tried kale. I like Indian food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, Mexican food. I like spinach. But kale? It ain’t happening. Not for me, not for most people.

Instead, re-engineering the foods that most of us already enjoy – pizza, burgers and the like – might help all of us to become healthier. That, at least, is what Hank Cardello, a former food-industry executive and author of Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s Really Making America Fat, would like us to believe.

I interviewed Hank for a story for Future Food 2050, a website about “how ingenuity will feed the world” sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists. Here’s how my story begins:

Future consumers should be able to have their cake and eat it too—without getting fat.

So says Hank Cardello, who directs the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute and wrote the best-selling book “Stuffed: An Insider’s Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat and How the Food Industry Can Fix It” (Harper Collins, 2009). Products like soft drinks, burgers, fries, pizza and cupcakes should all be reconfigured as lower in calories and “better for you” to help alleviate the ongoing obesity crisis in America and other developed nations, argues this noted consultant to food industry powerhouses. Cardello contends this will enable the industry to grow even as the waistlines of consumers shrink.

Healthy junk food, Cardello maintains, need not be an oxymoron. “If we are going to make progress, we are going to have to focus on taking the most popular foods and modifying them,” he says. “That should be a rallying call for food scientists, kind of like putting a man on the moon. We’ve got to take french fries and burgers and everything else and … find ways to make them better for you without compromising them. This way, you don’t ask the consumers to change their eating habits.”

In fact, companies are already moving in this direction, Cardello explains. McDonald’s hamburgers are, as it happens, leaner than those of competing chains, and Chick-Fil-A has reduced the amount of chicken in its sandwiches—saving the company money and reducing calories for the consumer.

Cardello goes on to say that he’d like to get past polarization that has characterized much of the obesity debate, with activists blaming Big Food, and putting business executives on the defensive. I think he’s right about that. The causes of obesity are complex. The solutions are likely to come, at least in part, from the food industry.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Brainstorm Green: What’s next?

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

Bill Clinton at Brainstorm Green in 2009

In 2007, Andy Serwer, the managing editor of FORTUNE, where I was then a senior writer, asked me to work with the magazine’s conference division to create a conference about business and the environment. His timing was excellent. Presidential candidates Obama and McCain had promised to act to curb climate change. A global climate agreement seemed possible. A wave of clean technology startups were attracting attention and investment in Silicon Valley. And big companies like General Electric and Walmart had put sustainability squarely on their corporate agendas.

On Earth Day in 2008, the inaugural Fortune Brainstorm Green was held at the Ritz Carlton Huntington hotel in Pasadena. Speakers included Michael Dell, Doug McMillon (who’s now the CEO of Walmart), venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, David Crane of NRG Energy, Gov. Jerry Brown (then the attorney general of California), Dave Steiner of Waste Management, Stewart Brand, Mark Tercek (then at Goldman, now head of The Nature Conservancy), Gary Hirshberg, Janine Benyus,  J. Craig Venter, Andy Karsner, Hugh Grant of Monsanto, Ursula Burns of Xerox, Fisk Johnson of SC Johnson, and Shai Agassi, the founder of electric-car company Better Place. Some of America’s most important environmental leaders–Fred Krupp, Frances Beinecke, Peter Seligmann, Mike Brune, Mindy Lubber and John Passacandanto–spoke. Chuck Leavell played keyboards and Shawn Colvin sang. It was too much fun to be called work.

In 2009, Brainstorm Green moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA, where it has remained. The theme of the event never changed: How can business profitably solve the world’s most important environmental problems? I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green for these past seven years, and it has been, for the most part, a rewarding experience.

About a year ago, I decided that I no longer wanted to co-chair Brainstorm Green, for a variety of reasons. I liked programming the conference and I enjoyed moderating interviews and panels, but the process of recruiting speakers year after year, which requires the patient massaging of corporate egos, had become tiresome. What’s more, a good deal of the excitement that had gathered around corporate sustainability during the event’s early years has since faded. Unhappily, the politics of environmentalism turned bitterly partisan, dooming Obama’s cap-and-trade plan. The financial crisis dampened corporate enthusiasm for all things green. Clean tech slumped, and Better Place flamed out.

Last fall, Fortune rebranded Brainstorm Green as Brainstorm E: Where Energy, Technology and Sustainability Meet.  It will be held on September 28 and 29 in Austin, Texas. The powers-that-be at the magazine decided that selling a “green” event to corporate sponsors had become too difficult. Perhaps they’re right.

The best thing about Brainstorm Green, I daresay, were the relationships forged there. A deal or two came out of the event — one year, Bill Ford met Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and later Ford Motor bought a stake in Zipcar — and I know a couple of people landed new jobs there. That’s typical of conferences. But, at least for me, Brainstorm Green felt like more than just another “networking” event. For a few days every spring, a community of sorts formed around a shared belief that business could do good. Collectively, we were trying to make that happen. I’m going to miss many of the Brainstorm Green regulars (yes, that means you, Dhiraj Malkani) as well as the Fortune colleagues with whom I worked so closely over the years, particularly the incomparable Tony Hansen.

These days, I’m spending most of my time writing for Guardian Sustainable Business. But stepping away from Brainstorm Green will give me time for other pursuits. I’ve got a new project in mind (watch this space) and I’m also hoping to moderate at other conferences and corporate events. To that end, I’ve put together these excerpts from my moderating work.

Books I liked in 2014

For my last blog post of the year, I’d like to share with you some of the books that I enjoyed reading in 2014. I made a conscious effort this year to do less work-related reading, which isn’t always easy — so many books about business, sustainability and the environment come my way from publishers and authors — but I’m glad I did.

imageMy favorite nonfiction book of the year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs. It’s the story of an extraordinary young man named Rob Peace, who grew up in a poor, violent, drug-addled suburb of Newark but managed to escaped–temporarily–in part because he was blessed with devoted parents. His father, known as Skeet, was a street hustler who spent the final years of his life in jail, convicted of murder, yet managed to teach Rob both perfect penmanship and the dirty street-fighting tactics to deploy in a tight spot. His mother Jackie had little education and not  enough money, at one point, to pay a few hundred dollars a year of tuition to keep Rob in a Catholic elementary school where he was thriving, but she instilled in him a sense that he was destined to do great things. He was, in fact, not only brainy but tough and possessed of an insatiable curiosity and lifelong quest for new experience that  carried him, not just to Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, but to Ipanema beach in Rio (after teaching himself Portugese) and Croatia, with a high school buddy–trips that he was able to afford after taking a job as a baggage handler at Continental Airlines because the perks included free standby travel. Rob also provided for himself and helped support his mother and grandparents by dealing marijuana, in copious quantities, to his priviliged classmates at Yale.

Rob’s freshman year roommate was as aspring novelist named Jeff Hobbs, a well-to-do son  of a doctor whose father, brother and sister were all Yale grads. Rob and Jeff, who Rob mockingly calls “Da Jeffrey.” become unlikely and close friends who live together throughout their time at Yale and, while Hobbs remains mostly in the background,  his connection to Rob Peace, and admiration for him, lends this book a deeply-felt emotion. Hobbs also turns out to be a dogged reporter who reconstructs Rob’s life before and after Yale in vivid and mesmerizing detail.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my favorite novel of the year, is alsoimage about race, class, privilege and identity. It’s the coming of age story of a spirited young girl from Nigeria named Ifemelu, who comes to New York on a student visa and, after stints as a nanny and worse, finds fame as a blogger. Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, and it’s hilarious. (She writes a lot about hair.) Eventually, Ifemelu makes her way back to Nigeria where she re-encounters her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, who has made his fortune in England. The book, which pushes 500 pages, sprawls a bit but it is never dull, and Adiche is a shrewd observer of human foibles.

Like many of us baby boomers, especially those with aging parents, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about growing old. I read two terrific, but very different, books on the topic. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and a staff writer for The New Yorker, makes a compelling case that the America’s health care system has valued longevity above all else, without much consideration of the question of how we want to pass our final years. That makes it sound like a treatise and it’s not; it’s a series of stories about people growing old, including not only Gawande’s patients but his father. Equally moving is Roz Chast’s laugh-out-loud and cry-to-yourself graphic novel, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, about what happens to her parents (and to her) when they are no longer able to live in the Brooklyn apartment they had inhabited for nearly half a century.

I’ve always been attracted to books that explain complex, arcane, even obscure subjects in entertaining ways. Michael Lewis and Elizabeth Kolbert are willing to bring their gifts for storytelling to the toughest of subjects, so I’ll read just about anything they write. Lewis’s Flash Boys is an unexpectedly lively book about high-speed trading on Wall Street, of all things. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert travels far and wide, from Costa Rica and Paris to the Great Barrier Reef, to show us how we are on a path to destroying fully half of the world’s species this century. It’s not as grim as it sounds, perhaps because she brings a wry sense of humor to science writing.

There’s been an explosion of smart journalism about food lately that has brought forth a number of excellent books, two of them written journalist colleagues and friends. In American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, Paul Greenberg explores the roots of the US’s seafood deficit, and argues that we should buy more fish that are caught (or farmed) nearby. Sam Fromartz, a Washington, DC-based writer and a skilled baker, travels across the US and Europe — baking baguettes in Paris, rye bread in Berlin and sourdough in California–to bring us In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Baker’s Odyssey. Sam’s book will inspire you to try baking. I haven’t done so yet, but maybe next year.

Other books that I enjoyed this year:

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Does spending time with groups of people invigorate you–or deplete you? If it’s the latter (as it is with me), you must read this book.

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, by Megan McArdle. The columnist and blogger argues that one of the secrets of America’s success is that we don’t hold it against people when they screw up.

All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai. A New York Times writer’s account of the collapse of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign is fresher and more relevant to today’s world of journalism and entertainment than you might expect.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts. A moral philosopher as well as an economist, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments to guide people on how to live, as Roberts explains in this reader-friendly volume.

Vietnam, Now by David Lamb. A Los Angeles Time reporter who covered the war in the 1960s returns in the late 1990s to see what has changed, as capitalism arrives in Vietnam. I read this to prepare for my holiday trip to Vietnam and, in fact, I am posting this blogpost from Hanoi–a sentence that certainly could not have been written 10 or 15 years ago. Vietnam was part of my adolescence. I opposed and protested the war during high school (where my anti-war speech on graduation day drew catcalls) and I’m excited to be visiting this vibrant  nation of 90 million people for the first time. One thing I can tell you already–Vietnam is more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in its history, and that can be said about a surprising number of places in the world today. The world has its troubles, to be sure, but for all its woes, tomorrow is likely to be better than today, and next year is likely to better than this. And that’s one reason to look forward to 2015.

Enjoy the holidays and happy new year.

Paul Hawken’s next big idea

98b56975-55f2-45d2-9e39-19578c3bbc70-620x372I’ve learned a lot over the years from Paul Hawken, and when our paths have crossed, I’ve always enjoyed the time we’ve spent together. He was an early supporter of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green, and I recall a delightful walk along the beach in Laguna Niguel where he told me about the work he’d been doing with Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. Some years later, I spent an afternoon with him at his offices in Sausalito, talking about the shortcomings of the socially responsible investment industry. He also delivered a great talk about the high costs of cheap food a few years back at the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

So when I first got wind of Project Drawdown, Paul’s latest project, I was eager to hear more. We talked by phone the other day, and the idea was unveiled last night at the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans. I wrote about Project Drawdown for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Ten years ago, in a landmark article in Science Magazine, Princeton professors Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow wrote, “Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.” They identified a series of so-called climate stabilization wedges – among them efficient cars and buildings, increasing solar, wind and nuclear power, and reducing deforestation – that if adopted would eventually maintain atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at about 500 parts per million (ppm), a level they said “would prevent most damaging climate change.” At the time, atmospheric concentrations stood at about 375 ppm.

A decade later, annual emissions continue to grow and atmospheric concentrations have topped 395 ppm – and they are rising steadily. The situation appears grim.

It is not, argues pioneering environmentalist, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken. Climate solutions abound, he said, and today, at the opening plenary of the big Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, he will unveil Project Drawdown – a new compendium of climate solutions that are designed not just to stabilize, but to reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“Stabilization at 450, 500, 550 ppm is chaos,” Hawken said. “Our goal should be drawdown.”

Project Drawdown will begin as a lavishly illustrated book and online database, to be released late next year. Its purpose is to re-frame the climate debate, by showing that solving the climate crisis will bring, not sacrifice, but “more security, more prosperity, more jobs, more well-being and better health,” Hawken said.

I’m skeptical of what appears to be easy solutions to the climate crisis because, in my view, if it were easy to become radically more efficient and shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, well, why haven’t we done it already? But some of the solutions in the book, which is still being researched, are growing fast–distributed solar power, LEDs, utility-scale wind farms. Others are creative. Educating girls in the developing world, which isn’t ordinarily regarded as a climate solution, would, it turns out, be of enormous benefit because girls who get more education have fewer children, and fewer children mean fewer emissions.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Is the sharing economy really green?

sharing1So many assumptions underly conventional wisdom about all things green. That biofuels are better for the planet than burning fossil fuels. That bans on plastic bags help the environment. That electric cars reduce CO2 emissions. That eating meat is bad for the climate.

All these things are true, I believe. But what I believe doesn’t matter. The question is, where’s the evidence? On biofuels, plastic bags and electric cars, the environmental impacts depend on where the crops to make biofuels are grown, what replaces plastic bags, the electricity mix that powers the electric car and how the cows that went into your burger were raised.

The point is, the “environment” is an extraordinarily complex system, as is the economy. That’s the underlying message of a story that I wrote last week for the environmental website Ensia headlined Is Sharing Really Green?

Here’s how it begins:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I stayed in a house I found onAirbnb and made my way around the city using uberX. I’ve written favorably about house sharingcar sharingbike sharingand getting rid of stuff you no longer want via yerdle. At environmental conferences, I’ve listened to evangelists for the sharing economy such as Lisa GanskyRobin Chase and Andy Ruben. Participating in the sharing economy can save money, open people up to new experiences and build a sense of community among strangers.

But I’m not convinced the sharing economy delivers the environmental benefits its proponents claim.

Because the sharing economy enables more efficient use of underutilized assets — a car that might otherwise sit in a driveway, an extra room in a home, an electric drill or even a wedding dress — conventional wisdom holds that the sharing economy is “green.” With a little help from Google, it’s easy to find headlines like “How Web Sharing Sites Can Save the Planet” and “The Sharing Economy for a Sustainable Future.” Graham Hill, the founder of Treehugger and LifeEdited, has said the sharing economy “makes a lot of sense financially and environmentally as well.” In her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, entrepreneur and investor Lisa Gansky writes: “Using sophisticated information systems, the Mesh [her term for the sharing economy] also deploys physical assets more efficiently. That boosts the bottom line, with the added advantage of lowering pressure on natural resources.” In an interview with Treehugger, Roo Rogers, co-author with Rachel Botsman of a book called What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, declared: “In my opinion — having been an environmentalist all my life — collaborative consumption has the potential to have the biggest environmental impact that we could ever have hoped for.”

But where’s the evidence? It’s hard to find.

I probably could have written that the evidence is non-existent, but the sharing economy is so new and so hard to measure that it’s no surprise that the case for its “green” benefits remains unproven.

I hasten to add that there are still good reasons to patronize Airbnb or Zipcar or Rent the Runway or the many other sharing sites that seem to be proliferating. There’s little harm done when we make personal choices based on our assumptions about what’s good for the planet.

But when big companies or, worse, governments set policy without questioning their assumptions, the consequences can be negative on a much broader scale. I’m afraid that happens a lot more often than it should.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Paul Greenberg’s fish stories

AmericanCatchCoverMuch of what I know about seafood I’ve learned from Paul Greenberg. Paul is an acquaintance and a gifted writer whose new book, called American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, looks at three iconic American seafood species: New York oysters, Gulf shrimp and Alaska salmon. It’s a sequel of sorts to his previous book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, which I blogged about in 2010.

In the introduction to the new book, Paul describes the impact of globalization on the seafood that we catch and eat in the US:

By all rights this most healthy of food should be an American mainstay. The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Our seafood-producing territory covers 2.8bn acres, more than twice as much real estate as we have set aside for landfood.

But in spite of our billions of acres of ocean, our 94,000 miles of coast, our 3.5m miles of rivers, a full 91% of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.

..It gets fishier still. While 91% of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of the seafood that Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. By and large the fish and shellfish we are sending abroad are wild while the seafood we are importing is very often farmed.

…American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fish, but someone out there somewhere is eating our lunch.

Last week, I interviewed Paul by email for Guardian Sustainable Business. I asked him why trade in seafood differs from the global exchange of other goods, the prospects for restoring oysters to New York harbor and a couple of intriguing experiments with community-supported fisheries. You can read his responses here.

There’s encouraging news in Paul’s fish stories. Alaska’s salmon fishermen are in the midst of what could be a successful effort to protect the world’s most productive salmon fishery from Pebble Mine a massive gold and copper mine near Bristol Bay. (The EPA moved to block the mine last week.) Meantime, nonprofit groups in New York are laboring to bring back the oysters that were once plentiful up and down the east coast.

A lifelong fisherman, Paul brings to these stories and obvious passion for his subject and a zest for adventure. (He uncovers and consumes a New York oyster from the muddy waters of the East River.) More than passion, though, goes into a book like American Catch. In the acknowledgements, I learned that Paul’s editor put him through seven drafts of the manuscript. The result, a rarity in this world of 24-7 news, instant analysis, and blogging on the run, is a work of journalism that delivers both insight and enormous pleasure.

The upside of outsourcing

To match Insight INDIA-OUTSOURCING/I heard an excellent, in-depth interview this week with William Easterly, the development economist and author of a new book called The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Easterly, a controversial figure, is critical of top-down development experts — he names Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, among others — who push technocratic, centralized approaches to alleviating poverty. Instead, he argues that the best way to promote economic development is for westerners to push for democracy, human rights and free markets in the world’s poorest countries.

Easterly cites, among others, the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Others disagree, noting that parts of India came perilously close to famine just a decade ago. What’s more, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while suppressing human rights, but allowing economic freedom.

I’m in no position to try to adjudicate the debate about how poor countries become rich, but I was thinking about Easterly’s faith in markets and global trade as I wrote my story this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The story looks at an idea called “socially-responsible outsourcing” or simple “impact sourcing,” and a nonprofit called DDD that tries to put that idea into practice. (DDD stands for Digital Divide Data.) DDD operates businesses in Cambodia, Kenya and Laos that employ young people, typically high school age, to provide information technology and web research, mostly to clients in the US. The goal of the enterprise is to provide economic opportunity to the poor, DDD’s founders told me.

Here’s how my story begins:

So much attention is paid to deplorable factory conditions in poor countries that it’s easy to forget that global supply chains for electronics, apparel and toys have helped lift masses of people out of poverty. Since 1980, 680 million people have risen out of poverty in China which has seen its extreme-poverty rate fall from 84% to about 10%, largely because of trade, reports The Economist.

Now, a small number of companies, nonprofits and foundations want to see if the rapidly growing global supply chains that process data and operate call centers — an industry usually described as business processing outsourcing, or BPO — can be deployed to help alleviate poverty in Africa and South Asia. Can outsourcing, a business driven by the search for cheap labor, reconfigure itself to do good?

“By responsibly and ethically employing hundreds of thousands of people, BPOs have a role to play in shifting the social landscape in emerging economies around the world,” says a report called Outsourcing for Social Good from Telus International, a Canadian outsourcing firm, and Impakt, a social responsibility consultancy.

Others agree. The Rockefeller Foundation has committed $100m to a project called Digital Jobs Africa that aims to improve one million lives in six African nations. A nonprofit called Samasource organizes poor women and youth in Africa and Asia to deliver data services to such businesses as Microsoft and Google. And a company called Cloud Factory that operates in Kenya and Nepal says digital outsourcing can “flatten the world, connect people into the global economy and raise up leaders to fight poverty and change their communities.”

The pioneer of what is called socially-responsible outsourcing or simply impact sourcing is DDD (Digital Divide Data), a New York-based nonprofit that operates for-profit data centers in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya. DDD and its impact-oriented peers set themselves apart from outsourcing giants such as Tata, Accenture and Infosys because, they says, they deliberately seeks out workers in the some of the world’s poorest places and provides them not just with jobs, but with the education, training and career counseling they need to rise into the middle class.

“Our ultimate mission is to alleviate poverty,” says Jeremy Hockenstein, 42, the founder and CEO of DDD. “We focus on students who are finishing high school, who are very motivated and very smart and who come from low-income homes.”

Having met Jeremy Hockenstein (via Skype) and his co-founder Michael Chertok (face to face), I have no doubt of their good intentions. Both gave up more lucrative careers to start the nonprofit. DDD is about helping its global employees, not exploiting them.

But their work raises an intriguing question about how much intentions matter when it comes to infotech outsourcing, or all of global trade, for that matter. Despite all the the abuses in the global manufacturing supply chain, it seems inarguable that the factory jobs created in China, Mexico, India and Bangladesh have benefited the poor in those countries. Is it possible the Walmart and Apple have done more to alleviate poverty than Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs?

You can read the rest of my story here.

The elusive fortune at the base of the pyramid

cimg7634It’s been an exceptionally busy week, beginning with the 2014 edition of Fortune Brainstorm Green (selected videos are online here) and ending with a holiday weekend visit from my new grandson, so I’m going to quickly post a link to my latest story for Guardian Sustainable Business.

It’s a long-ish story about doing business at the bottom of the pyramid, an idea popularized by the late C.K. Prahalad in a book published a decade ago. Here’s how the story begins:

When CK Prahalad‘s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, was published in 2004, the book made an immediate splash. Its argument was irresistible: The world’s poorest people are a vast, fast-growing market with untapped buying power, Prahalad wrote, and companies that learn to serve them can make money and help people escape poverty, too.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates called the book “an intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability”. BusinessWeek’s Pete Engardio described Prahalad, a professor at the University of Michigan business school, as a business prophet. He was awarded honorary degrees and sought out by CEOs.

Ten years later, businesses big and small continue to pursue profits at the bottom of the pyramid. The global uptake of mobile phones has proven that poor people will buy cell service if it’s available at low prices. (It costs a fraction of a cent per minute in India.) Single-serve packages of shampoo, toothpaste and soap dangle from shelves of tiny storefronts in rural villages. Products ranging from eyeglasses to solar panels are being designed and marketed to people earning $2 a day.

The bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) market leader, arguably, is Unilever, with its Anglo-Dutch colonial heritage and a chief executive, Paul Polman, who is determined to improve the world. Unilever generates more than half of its sales from developing markets, with much of that coming from the emerging middle class. Its signature BOP product is Pureit, a countertop water-purification system sold in India, Africa and Latin America. It’s saving lives, but it’s not making money for shareholders.

And there’s the rub. If there is a fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, it remains elusive. Partly that’s because doing business with the poor is unavoidably complex, and partly that’s because the notion was oversold, says Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell’s business school and an expert on the BOP.

“I haven’t seen anyone making a fortune,” Milstein told me. “Unilever’s made money on some products, but they’ve been challenged. Other companies are making profits, but not enough to matter to their organization.”

The story goes on to report on successful and not-so-successful efforts to do business with the world’s billion or two poor people. We’ll be considering this topic again next month at the Guardian, with a live tweet chat on Tuesday, June 10, at noon. You can read the rest of my story here.