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Curiosity and small stories

I wanted to talk about the power of small stories, and curiosity. Earlier this year, I was travelling in eastern DRC as part of my work in evaluating a project there. Over time, I had gotten to know the people I was traveling with, as we spent quite a bit of time together.
One thing I had noticed was that when we ordered coffee, all of them would put 6 or 7 spoonfuls of milk powder into their coffee. As a result, the small metal bowls of milk powder that came with the coffee were emptied quickly. I was curious about this and one afternoon, I asked them about it.
They explained that a box of milk powder is so expensive that they only see milk powder when they are at a restaurant or travelling with someone like me. They would not buy milk powder for home, because they can buy enough bananas to feed their family for a week for the cost of one box of milk powder. So when they have a chance, they really enjoy the milk powder.
For me, this information opened up new possibilities. I imagined a dairy that would use milk from local cows to produce milk locally. I told them the story of the dairy in Mauritania which produces camel milk in UHT containers. A lady who lives there noticed that few people drank milk because it was so expensive (it was imported). Yet there were thousands of camels in the desert in Mauritania.
She found a way to organize the herders to bring their camels to be milked, and to produce that milk in UHT containers so it stays good for a long time. That dairy has been thriving for a time and even found a market in Europe for people who prefer camel milk over cow's milk.
In Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus and the Danone yogurt company created a low tech plant that makes yogurt using milk from local farmers. They had to overcome many technical challenges and completely redo how they designed plants. but the result is that local farmers have an income from their cows, local children have yogurt, and women have employment selling the pots of yogurt door to door. (Danone, in fact, has been using this model of employing women to sell small pots of yogurt in South Africa and Indonesia and elsewhere - they even help the women buy the carts to use for distribution.)
All of these amazing ideas began with a question by someone who was curious, which led people to share information, and led to new solutions that reflect how interconnected we are at a local level. So be curious! Ask questions about small things. Such questions can open up new possibilities!


Stella Paul's picture

Thanks for sharing

Dear Rosemary

Call it a genetic disorder or plain shallowness :), but I have always learnt through a story. I pass stacks of travel books, 'how to' books and guides and what not and pick up a dirty old novel to explore cultures. My friends often tease me about this tendency to learn seriously from fictions and I very generously let them do it. Because I know learning is easy when you become the part of the picture and the plot.

Today I am so happy to have had that experience again. What a wonderful story you have there! Being next door, Bangladesh is like that backpage of my daily newspaper. But to know about a dairy cooperative movement in DRC- that I probably could have never done elsewhere. Thanks for telling the story!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

RosemaryC's picture

Story telling

Thanks, Stella. Like you, I am fascinated by stories. I find it really helps people to know that other people somewhere else have found a solution to a problem that might work for them as well. A story provides encouragement and support for them to pursue an idea and to think 'outside the box'.
In this case, those kind of stories have helped change the way development is done. One of the most amazing books I have read was by the late C.K. Pralahad, an economist who began to wonder about how development was being done. He began to wonder about the assumptions that people made about the "poor" and he did some research that showed these assumptions were faulty. He wrote a very influential book called (from memory) The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. This refers to the fact that a great proportion of the world is at the bottom of the economic pyramid in terms of income earned.
His ideas were so revolutionary that even though he was an award winning economist, no one would publish the book. His ideas circulated on the internet and attracted such interest that eventually the publishers did publish the book. Many companies began to develop new corporate strategies for 'developing' countries based on his work - google Bottom of the Pyramid and you will get a sense of this.
Part of what he learned was that 'poor' people had specific strategies they used to manage their income. They bought on a daily basis, for example, and they bought small packages rather than large containers. (This revelation led Indian companies, and then many others, to begin packaging even high end products in small packages.) They valued quality, because equipment they bought had to last for a long time and work well no matter what. And they had a lot of 'consumables' in their homes but didn't invest money in upkeep of a house because they didn't own the house and had no security of title.
Several years ago, a team of World Bank authors published a book that looked at the ifnancial strategies used by people who live on less than a dollar a day. It turned out to be the first time anyone had looked seriously at how they managed their money, amazingly enough. And it had similar revelations that have had an impact on how microfinance institutions work. (The strategies they used sounded very similar to the ones used by middle class people in Canada to manage their money, as far as I could see. The only difference was in the amount of money that they had to manage.)
So small questions can inspire big changes.
I am enjoying your posts here and on Stella's Musings. Thanks so much for sharing :)

Kind regards,

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks again

Ok, I googled the term and I think you know what I see there. But let me tell you this, these days, there is a new, but growing sense that the media needs to be democratized and involve millions of those left out of it today. It already has the making of a media movement (and I am a part of it too) and so, very often you will be hearing people suing this expression at the bottom of the pyramid. When I first heard it, I was fascinated and I wondered who's the person to have coined that term?

Well, it needed a story-telling Rosemary to answer my question! praise the lord!

Looking forward to many, many sessions of story telling and exchanging with you dear!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

YAOtieno's picture


Dear Rosemary,

The title of your article attracted me because one of the things we love to do in Africa is tell stories. I am glad I stopped by to read your article and to the comments because I am all the more wiser from it. I am really fascinated by the theory of the Bottom of the Pyramid....

Thanks for sharing,


A candle looses nothing my lighting another

RosemaryC's picture


Dear Y:

Delighted you dropped by to share in the conversation. The book is well worth reading if you ever come across it - in fact, it is made up largely of stories :) It is sad that C.K. Prahalad is no longer with us - he was an amazingly original thinker as well as a man who tried to put the ideas into practice.

Best regards,

dbunton's picture

Rosemary, A


A wonderfully-innovative idea, for a somewhat practical purpose. My questions are: Is the practice of milking camels for milk currently being implemented in the DRC? and, is there the possibility to introduce this practice as a way of economic development for DRC citizens?

This story reminds me of the little things we often take for granted. Bless you for being able to look beyond that which is right in front of us, to see the bigger picture. Asking questions is how we learn, and create ideas for change. I'm both impressed, and humiliated to hear such a testimonial of creation and innovative thought.

In your response to Stella, you mentioned:

"it really helps people to know that other people somewhere else have found a solution to a problem that might work for them as well".

Well, your story inspires me, inspires us, to work steadfast to change the structure of the pyramid, while creating ways to empower people. Who'd thought that research of how people survive on little, would lead to economists exploring microfinance in disadvantaged cultures throughout the world. I will now google Bottom of the Pyramid. I will also ask plenty of questions.

Thank you!

Darren Bunton

RosemaryC's picture

Thank you

Dear Darren:

I appreciate your comment - thank you so much. In answer to your question about the dairy, I am hoping that someone will start a dairy in eastern DRC. My friends explained that there are cows in eastern DRC but no way to process milk there locally, as there is in Mauritania, where the camel dairy operates.

Here is a story about the dairy in Mauritania:

And also a story about the yogurt plant in Bangladesh:

In terms of locally-led economic development, food offers many opportunities. I met a man from Netherlands who is working with people in eastern DRC to grow potatoes there with the hope they can sell them in Kinshasa. He told me that most of DRC's food is imported from South Africa, rather than being grown locally.

Thus there are great possibilities in terms of creating self-sufficiency by helping people develop small scale agricultural projects. One recent example I found was this one:

Kind regards,

dbunton's picture

Thanks Rosemary

Dearest Rosemary,

We shall discuss these possibilities in greater detail. Thank you for the links.

Talk soon!

Graciously regarded,

Darren Bunton

Ify Onyegbule's picture

Amazing story

Dear Rosemary

It baffles my imagination why there is still so much suffering, i cant seem to comprehend how people go through things like this..."MILK"? oh it that bad. Anyway im glad that you came in contact with that experience, i only wish they will take a cue form the Lady with the "Camel Milk" idea. Often times the answer lies within us but do we look deep enough to find it?

Thanks for sharing!

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