Zambia’s greatest natural resource? It’s youth

By | September 19, 2023

a global model for self-sufficient agriculture emerges in southern Africa

As a consultant who always has four to five projects in progress, I have little time to reflect on the nature of the business – the 1,000-foot view, as they say – except when I’m not at work. But one thing I’ve learned is that it’s impossible to be a consultant if every engagement is tailor-made. What is needed is a working model about as the work is done. This is because no matter how unique a particular engagement is, there is often not enough time to experiment much.

It’s not just a challenge for companies. In fact, it may be the biggest challenge for nonprofits.

Scale modeling was on my mind when I began researching this story about an Israeli organization with a remarkable and seemingly quixotic goal. The organization, Tevel B’Tzedek, led by American rabbi Micha Odenheimer, aims to transform poverty-based subsistence agriculture in the Global South into small commercial enterprises that could potentially lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And to do this, it is he has in fact, developed a replicable model. The foundation was a discovery that Tevel made at the beginning of his journey. Across the Global South, especially in Zambia, many communities are rich with a rarely untapped resource: an abundance of young people looking for a better way.


On an early visit to Zambia, Micha, accompanied by a local crew, set out by jeep to inspect one of the most remote villages in the Mphande region. It was a long, bumpy and desolate journey. Only every hundred meters did he see people going about their daily routines. An elderly lady walking on the side of the road. A young woman carrying a child, right behind her. Schoolchildren in bright blue uniforms outside the village’s only school, which only goes up to seventh grade. They waved.

“It was a beautiful mountainous region,” he wrote to me in a recent email. “It’s physical beauty and isolation – it’s uplifting.” The landscape grew greener, darker, and more lush as they advanced. When they reached his destination – a small village on the edge of a forest called Shamanjanji – a small band of villagers, along with the village chief, gathered to greet him. They came with one purpose – to take the Rabbi to the village’s water source. With Micha in tow, they walked along a narrow trail for about 20 minutes, then slowed down as they approached the terminal. Micha took a look at a “pool of damp water about a meter wide.”

“Is that it?” Micha asked.

“Yes,” said Rodney Katongo, co-founder with Paul Kapande of Africa Access Water, Tevel partners who helped organize the day trip. This was the village just water supply, he confirmed. They were just a few hours from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Paul and Rodney’s mission was to develop Zambian villages through the use of groundwater and other solar-powered water resources. Here was proof positive of how much they were needed.

Micha had been down this path before, and early conversations with villagers and colleagues prepared him for one of Zambia’s biggest challenges: although rich in natural resources, past practices have left the region devoid of ways to access them.

Access to resources is fundamental to the development of the impoverished region. As Tevel noted in an introduction to his work, “agriculture contributes 19 percent to GDP and employs three-quarters of the population.” However, although close to 80 percent of the food supply is grown by smallholder farmers in places like Mphande, it is likely that an almost equal percentage of these farmers live in poverty. Today, Zambia is “one of the hungriest countries on the planet”.

The lack of access to water has been exacerbated by an unfortunate historical trend in Zambia’s rural economy. Forty years before Tevel’s arrival, Mphande was a largely unpopulated forest, populated less by people than by “lions, elephants and hyenas”. But when migrants began arriving, they saw an opportunity to harvest the region’s large trees to make charcoal. The practice denuded land already difficult to develop for food cultivation. In a 2022 baseline survey of Mphande residents, Tevel found that 68% of respondents listed “coal as their main source of income during the eight months of the dry season”.

Tevel then noticed a number of gaps in agricultural practices and methods. In his literature, he discusses eight of these gaps: agricultural capacity and knowledge; water and irrigation infrastructure; access to quality inputs; financial literacy and market knowledge; strengthen and create community institutions; community outreach and inclusion; value addition through small-scale industry; and monitoring, evaluation and research.

Without going into too much detail, what Tevel created was a replicable model, in a type of language accessible to Zambian financiers, partners and leaders in the public and private sectors. But as any nonprofit leader will tell you, a model is great, but execution is what really matters.

Having managed projects like this before – with previous versions of the framework – Tevel decided to put it into practice, using three assets it had at its disposal: access to advanced agricultural technology by virtue of the relationships it developed with Israeli agronomists and academics; a historical understanding of how community-centered agronomy has fared in different cultures, including Zambia; and, most importantly, a theory on how to access and mobilize what is perhaps Zambia’s greatest asset: its youth. Seventy percent of the population is under 30 years old and more than 50 percent is 17 years old or younger.

For many, this presents a problem: with a lack of economic opportunities, a young population can lead to higher crime rates and violent young political cadres that fuel instability. From Tevel’s perspective, youth is an opportunity. It’s a big focus of their work

The YSP Program

Focus is smart. Another rule in consulting for scalable impact is to focus on each person’s strengths. Given the abundance of young people in Zambia, Tevel chose to address each of the challenges in its eight-point plan with a singular focus on young adults — men and women ages 18 to 28. Launched in Zambia in February this year – after a successful run in Nepal – the Tevel Youth Services Program (YSP) is designed to tap into “the energy and idealism” of village youth to boost the entire village economy. By providing a small stipend (or in-kind opportunity) to village youth, YSP sought to educate them in financial literacy and community and business organization.

Tevel implemented the program based on its strengths. First, the idea was to train the trainers, in this case young adults from the village, – a model with which Tevel leaders had deep experience – for a virtuous cycle of community learning – the students were trained so that they could train others in the village. . Rodney of Africa Access Water enthusiastically embraced Tevel’s model. Over the following months, it was his knowledge of how community leadership works in African villages, his easy relationship with the villagers, as well as his and Paul’s experience in water resources, that allowed Tevel to begin his work in Mphande .

Second, Tevel took advantage of an eleven-month program for young Zambian adults to study in Israel. Led by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – and conducted at the Ramat HaNegev International Center for Advanced Agricultural Studies – the program brought more than 150 young agricultural graduates from Zambia to Israel, along with young farmers from Nepal, Vietnam and other African countries, to learn from agricultural scientists, farmers, and university researchers about modern water irrigation methods, small farm management, data-driven methods for predicting the weather, and basic principles like timekeeping. Among all the skills learned, timing was the favorite of two young agronomists I spoke to via Zoom – Mwali Masiliso and Chibesa Makalu. Mwali summarized: “It is very important to arrive in Israel on time. Because if you don’t arrive on time you’ll miss the bus, and if you miss the bus, you’ll miss your job. But I also learned that despite the different cultures on the farm, we were still trying to achieve the same goals at the end of the day.” It was a reference to the universal language of work, a fundamental principle for Tevel.

Kibbutz Thought

Finally, an asset that stood out to Tevel was the founder’s Israeli heritage and knowledge from a much earlier agricultural experience: the kibbutz movement. When first reviewing the eight-point plan with Micha, the community-building aspects caught my attention. I asked Micha: “Is it accurate to say that the history of the kibbutz shaped your thinking?” Micha organized a meeting with two experts on the subject, Israeli historian Dr. Shaul Paz and Dr. Sara Shadi-Wortman, CEO of the Varda Institute for Community Building, who consulted for Tevel.

The kibbutz movement, which began with the flight of Jews from Eastern Europe to Palestine to escape pogroms, was dominated by young idealists. The problem is that they know nothing about food, water or survival. “But they were committed to working, with their hands, in the field, to create a new model of man,” Paz said. Together, they learned through trial and error, not just through first tools and practices.

In the first decades, the movement prospered and gave rise to other community experiments in Israel, such as the Moshav movement, in which Zambia invested until the communities were expelled from the country, when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) forced its member states cutting ties. with Israel after the 1973 war. With the rise of liberal democracy in Israel, the kibbutz and moshav had to evolve with less emphasis on communal sharing. But older models continue to inform with their principles of how to start a community from scratch. Dr. Shadi-Wortman went further to codify the process of community building, which I think captures the essence of what drives young people to create a new world – a sense of belonging. “When the community’s intention is clear for the Individualyou find a higher level of initiative.

After my conversation with Sarale, I paused to reflect. I believe Tevel has grown in a scalable way that has delighted his funders, such as the Pears Foundation, the Rochlin Foundation and Gary Carmell, who funded Tevel’s training farm. The numbers are there. As reported in its public disclosure, Tevel has helped create eight hundred new agri-entrepreneurs in villages, in Nepal and elsewhere, seventy percent of whom are women. Educated and supported thousands of farmers in small-scale agricultural production, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in new income annually. But more than that, he learned how to shape and reshape these efforts so that similar programs can grow. And that, I am sure, is their ultimate contribution – a replicable model that can be owned and operated by many emerging communities in the Global South.

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