The Human Dimension

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National security experts commit many sins. They write about concepts such as multipolarity and balance of power as if they are real things and treat nation states and societies as if they are abstract. I remember in college reading a famous text about international relations theory that never once mentioned an actual country. You can scan article after article about regional issues and never encounter the story of a real human being.

So this time I want to focus on a real person I recently met: Don Larson. He is an American businessman in Mozambique. He had previously been a hard-charging executive for the Hershey Company. He says he was unsettled when, during a cocoa buying trip to Ghana, he was told by students that the farmers there were kept impoverished by the low prices paid for their products. This got him to thinking.

When he arrived in Mozambique in 2011, it was the third poorest country on the planet. Of course, that’s just a statistic. What this means for actual human beings is, for example, that young kids not even in their teens must leave school to help support their families. Maybe they sell oranges on the street for 20 cents each.

Don Larson started a business in Mozambique. The Sunshine Nut Company. He told me he sent the factory equipment to Mozambique in a container. He chose cashews as a crop because they grow in bad soil, are drought-resistant, and are easy to transport. But Larson only wanted to export processed cashews. For so many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, their colonial heritage means they export raw commodities for processing elsewhere in the West or, increasingly, China; as a result, most of the potential value chain is lost to the African people. Take Nigeria. It is the largest producer of tomatoes in sub-Saharan Africa (14th in the world) and yet it spends $1.5 billion a year importing tomato paste.

Two years into his time in Maputo, Larson, his wife, and their teenage son were held at AK47-point while their cars were stolen. For many well-intentioned people, such a horrifying incident would spell the end of their Good Samaritan phase. But Larson just shrugged it off. Sunshine Nut Company is expected to turn a profit this year; you can find them—in four flavors—in many U.S. grocery chains.

But it’s the way the Sunshine Nut Company turns a profit that most impresses. Larson believes in what he calls the quadruple bottom line—the Sunshine approach. A positive financial bottom line is not enough. The company has three other bottom lines: environmental, social, and transformational. Transformational means that Larson prioritizes business decisions that can have a multiplying effect on Mozambique’s fragile society. The Sunshine Nut Company recruits its workers among the young orphans and disadvantaged. The plant manager had been a young criminal in the making.  Company employees—all except Larson are Mozambican—visit rural communities to plant cashew trees. Don Larson’s company invests most of its net proceeds back into the Mozambican society and economy.

Much is made today of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic revival. According to Business Insider, 6 out of the 13 fastest growing economies in the world last year were in sub-Saharan Africa. These countries are so poor that even if their economies doubled in one year, most of their citizens would still live in poverty. Nevertheless, stories like that of the Sunshine Nut company illustrate progress is possible and that perhaps private sector, for-profit companies can lead the way. Non-profit development efforts remain important in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, but I suspect that if countries such as Mozambique succeed in breaking out of the low-income trap, it will be due to the efforts of tens of thousands of individual businesses that commit themselves to transformational goals.

So the next time you hear talking heads pontificate about the international threat environment and the new multipolar world, think of Don Larson. Theory won’t make the world a better place. But people will. 

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