Exploring the Sustainable Development Goals
Beyond the Fishing Rod:Unlocking Innovation and Sustainable Development Goal 9
By Allison Kooser
Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2021.
Sustainable Development Goal 9 | Building Infrastructure—and Possibility—in Nicaragua | Information Technology and the Power of Mobile Phones | Improving Farming Through Access to Irrigation | The Future of Infrastructure and Innovation
I recently finished reading a book written by South African comedian Trevor Noah. In it, he discusses his childhood living in apartheid South Africa as the son of a white father and a Black mother. Given the political realities of the region in the 1980s, Trevor’s very existence was illegal, and he faced a lifetime of identity crises, unsure of where he fit among the distinct racial communities apartheid enforced. In addition, he was raised by a single mom who struggled to make ends meet, so he had to grow up while living in extreme poverty and faced countless obstacles in his path to success.
While I was inspired and challenged by the entire story, I was particularly struck by his comments regarding breaking the cycle of poverty and investing in development. He wrote:
People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’Trevor Noah
He’s right—in order to succeed, a fisherman or woman must have both the skills to fish and the rod itself. The skills to fish are irrelevant if they don’t have a rod. But Opportunity International knows the rod itself is irrelevant if they can’t get to the lake or doesn’t know where the good places to fish are. And even the fullest nets won’t earn them any money if they can’t reach customers once they bring in the catch.
That’s why we go one step further, connecting the fisherman to an entire fishing village where they can buy bait and sell the day’s catch at the local market for a good price.
Physical, technological, economic, and educational infrastructure are critical for progress and success. In order to thrive, people must have access to markets, technology, banking, roads, water, education, and more—which is why Sustainable Development Goal 9 is so important to both Opportunity International and the global development community.
In many ways, SDG9 feels like the “boring” Goal:
Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.Sustainable Development Goal 9
It feels bulky and slow, and doesn’t convey the urgency of education, health care or food security. But those other, more well-known goals rely upon SDG 9 in order to work. Without tools, infrastructure, technology and industrialization, even the most brilliant entrepreneurs will struggle to break free from the cycle of extreme poverty. Without physical, economic, educational, and technological access, talent and drive become superfluous. Without a way to get to the lake, even the best fisherman in the world won’t catch anything.
Sustainable Development Goal 9 provides the backbone and structure necessary to achieve all of our development priorities.
At Opportunity International, we teach people to fish and provide loans for fishing rods, nets, and boats—but we also invest in the larger projects that make that fishing possible to begin with.
As a nonprofit organization that partners with banks and MFIs around the world, all of our projects advance the SDG9 target: “Increase the access of small-scale industrial and other enterprises, in particular in developing countries, to financial services, including affordable credit, and their integration into value chains and markets.”
But we don’t stop there.
We know that in order to unlock personal opportunity, creativity and progress, we must first connect people to the market, arm them with appropriate technology and equip them with the tools, knowledge and infrastructure they need to thrive.
And we know that the biggest advantage of infrastructural investment is that it creates a public good that benefits not only the entrepreneur, but the entire community. When you build a tool or a platform for one person, it impacts everyone around her.
By investing in and making possible the building blocks of developing economies, we unlock innovation on a broad scale and unleash the potential of each of our clients. Sometimes, an entrepreneur’s path out of poverty looks like a loan or a job, but sometimes it must first look like an irrigation system or a cell phone.
When Opportunity began its Community Economic Development program in Nicaragua, we surveyed communities to identify the greatest needs for development. We learned that people eventually wanted personal growth, but the things they mentioned first were repairs of roads, wells and aqueducts—infrastructure projects.
In response to these needs, Opportunity began partnering with more than 60 communities in rural Nicaragua. In Altos Norte, Opportunity currently supports an aqueduct project where community members play an active role by raising funds, engineering the new system and performing most of the labor. In other parts of the country, Opportunity communities are improving roads, repairing buildings and investing not only in personal growth, but in community-wide change.
Simultaneously, Opportunity spoke with farmers and identified a need not only for infrastructure, but also for industrialization. Farmers in rural parts of the country were able to grow their crops, but they didn’t have anywhere to take them. They wanted to move from subsistence to commercial farming, but knew that their growth would only be successful if there was industry that wanted to purchase their harvests.
Opportunity responded by investing in a processing plant that serves as the buyer for thousands of farmers throughout Nicaragua. Opportunity clients and farmers can now deliver their crops to the plant, connecting them to a stable and permanent market. And the plant itself is thriving, too. With state of the art technology and systems in place, the plant has achieved all three levels of Safe Quality Food certification—one of the most rigorous food certifications worldwide.
This plant has made it possible for farmers to work with confidence, knowing that they have a buyer for their crops and freeing them up to focus on their quality and yields. Now, Opportunity is working on a second processing plant to serve more farmers in another region of the country.
Perhaps the most celebrated technological tool for those in the developing world is the cell phone. The onset of mobile technology, particularly in East Africa, has led to developments in health, banking, agriculture, education and more. By connecting even the most rural communities with the global economy, phones make it possible for all people to access the information, tools, markets and relationships they need to thrive.
In 2012, Harvard Business Review noted the advantage that the developing world has when it comes to mobile technology.1
Poor countries are jumping ahead of rich ones by building a 21st century infrastructure because they have little legacy infrastructure to begin with.Harvard Business Review
Countries that never built a traditional telecom infrastructure are skipping over that step and jumping immediately to mobile—enabling them to develop technologies that are on par or ahead of those utilized in more industrialized economies.
And this mobile technology is transforming everything.
Cell phone applications are used for health, education, and for Opportunity, banking. Opportunity clients can access their accounts to make payments and deposits 24/7 through their cell phones.
For Stukia Mwakindopa in Morogoro, Tanzania, cell phone banking has made her life so much easier and enabled her to dream of a bright future for herself and her family. As a rice farmer in a rural part of the country, Stukia never accessed loans because it was cumbersome and expensive to travel to and from the bank branch, and it could be dangerous transporting cash long distances. She longed to invest in her farm, but she couldn’t because she wasn’t able to easily access the market. She couldn’t advance, not because of a lack of creativity or work ethic, but because she didn’t have access to the necessary infrastructure.
When Opportunity presented her with the opportunity to make payments and transactions via her phone, the world opened up to Stukia. Now, she can stay on her farm and, with a few clicks on her phone, handle her banking. This technology has illuminated a world of possibility for Stukia and so many women like her around the world.
Opportunity is also rolling out agency banking more broadly in Africa and worldwide, equipping trusted local partners and clients to serve as extensions of Opportunity’s partner banks. Armed with a cell phone, point-of-sale device or card reader, agent bankers are able to connect even the most rural communities with the bank through information technology infrastructure.
Irrigation systems make it possible for subsistence farmers to expand their plots, introduce new crops and grow crops year-round by using water more efficiently. Instead of relying just upon rain water, which makes their businesses inherently risky, farmers can utilize irrigation to make progress toward food security.
One person who knows well what irrigation can unlock is Opportunity client Ned Edison.
Like many farmers in Malawi, Ned relied upon traditional agricultural techniques and grew cassava, maize and tomatoes in his garden. He had heard about the nutritional power and growing popularity of orange sweet potatoes—they were high in vitamin A, highly recommended for HIV patients and could be easily sold for a good price at local markets—but growing this new crop required irrigation that Ned simply could not access.
Ned dreamed of expanding and diversifying his farm, but he was limited by a lack of infrastructure and technology. In order to be competitive in the broader market, he first needed to upgrade the capabilities of his farm—a large and expensive project.
Then Ned received a loan and training from Opportunity International to build and install a 1.3km irrigation system, and everything changed.
This simple infrastructure improvement unlocked Ned’s own innovative capabilities and set him on a path to success. He began growing sweet potatoes and soon began experimenting with vine multiplication of his new crop. By splitting and growing vines, he began growing a large secondary business selling plant starters. And before long, he began drawing attention from the international potato community. A facility called the International Potato Center, which is based in Peru and has their African headquarters in Kenya, took notice of Ned’s creativity and began purchasing vines from him.
He modified his sprinklers to not only water, but also mist his crops, keeping them healthier longer, and enabling him to grow year-round, which provides him with a steady stream of income. He invented a new way to arrange crops—in squares instead of rows—that helped him almost double his production. Because of the quality of his crops, Ned built relationships with large food companies in Malawi, selling them his potatoes which they used to make local potato bread and biscuits.
Armed with a second loan from Opportunity, Ned invested in additional irrigation infrastructure, as well as fertilizer and greenhouse facilities. International organizations began approaching him, hoping to learn his techniques and then teach them to other subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
At his own farm, Ned currently employs 40 workers on 7 acres. He plans to expand to 20 acres. He purchased a car so that he can more easily transport both his plants and his family. And his three children are all studying, and have all learned their dad’s agricultural secrets.
Around him, his neighbors are following his lead. Ned says that 15 other farmers in his area have adopted some of his strategies and are improving their own yields and production. Ned became a leader as soon as he could access simple irrigation technology. Because he is connected to the appropriate infrastructure, Ned has unlocked a future marked by innovation and success.
Ultimately, Sustainable Development Goal 9 is about access. Access to markets, jobs, banking, health, education, productivity and information. Access to advancement and futures marked with progress and success. Access to creativity and innovation.
It’s about tools and platforms that connect even the most remote people to the global economy, and empower everyone to be able to work toward a brighter future, even as we overcome hardship and transition into new circumstances.
When we invest in and build the foundation of infrastructure and industrialization, we unlock a future of innovation and possibility. When we provide determined, hard-working women and men with not only training, but the tools they need to implement those lessons, we spark sustainable change.
Let’s teach men and women to fish. Give them the rod to do so. And connect them to all of the knowledge, platforms, tools, and technology they need to succeed.
Keep Reading our Sustainable Development Goal Series
Partnering for Health and Well-Being
We know that health is foundational. Without good health and well-being, people cannot work, go to school, contribute to their families or transform their lives and communities. Poverty is complex, and cannot be solved with one organization or one solution—which is why Opportunity International is building innovative programs and partnerships around the world to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She spent the last year backpacking around the world meeting and interviewing incredible people with remarkable stories, eating amazing food, and climbing very scary mountains. Now, she lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.