Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company

Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Cassava flour company C:AVA has valuable insight from five years’ experience spreading sustainable technology in Africa

To understand the potential impact of sustainable technologies and why their adoption is often difficult, especially in developing countries, it is helpful to examine a specific case study.

C:AVA, the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa Project, promotes the production of High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) as an alternative for starch and other imported materials such as wheat flour. C:AVA has developed value chains for HQCF in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi aiming to improve the livelihoods and incomes of at least 90,000 smallholder households, including women and disadvantaged groups.

The main opportunity for technology to make a difference is in the drying process. A flash dryer dries cassava mash very quickly, preventing fermentation. The flash dryers that were available in Nigeria before C:AVA’s intervention were run on used motor oil or diesel and tended to be highly fuel inefficient and costly.

C:AVA – led by the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, working with the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – evaluated the traditional flash dryers in 2009. Since then, they have introduced more efficient technology (double cyclone flash dryers). These involve heat exchange systems – using “waste” heat from one part of the process to feed into another part – better insulation and faster drying speeds. The efficiencies have increased the diesel fuel to flour production ratio by an 18 factor improvement according to C:AVA tests, reducing costs and CO2 emissions.

However, these achievements have not been easy. Over the last five years, C:AVA has learned 10 crucial lessons about the successful diffusion of more sustainable technologies in Africa:

1. Capacity building

A critical part of the technology transfer process was that C:AVA mentored a Nigerian fabricator to produce a flash dryer that meets international standards. As a result, new engineering knowledge and skills are being developed and embedded locally.

2. Regional trade and infrastructure

C:AVA organised experience sharing visits between cassava stakeholders in western and eastern Africa. Transporting a flash dryer from Nigeria to Malawi revealed significant constraints to technology transfer in the region due to poor transport infrastructure and high transaction costs (bureaucratic red tape).

3. Value chain fluctuations

Technology can improve one part of the value chain, but changes in other parts can neutralise these benefits. For example, prices of fresh cassava roots can vary by more than 300% in one season. So C:AVA is also working with others to ensure that farmers obtain higher yield per unit area of cassava.

4. Macro trends

It is critical to monitor how changes in the macro environment could impact the technology investment. In Malawi, C:AVA identified large markets for HQCF and organised raw materials in anticipation of the introduction of artificial drying. But due to a drought, cassava suddenly became a major primary food in a predominantly maize consuming nation, resulting in a raw materials shortage.

5. Working with investors

The new dryers required investors willing to make an investment of $200,000 (£120,600). This difficulty was overcome by addressing the fuel inefficiency of the traditional flash dryers, and working with potential investors on their business plans, identifying market opportunities and raw materials supply.

6. Finance dependent delays

For C:AVA, almost all project targets that were dependent on private investor decision making have been off-course. Technology projects need to include or seek guidance from private sector partners in determining their expectations and fixing their decision-making timelines within project cycles.

7. Expectations management

The perception that technology interventions will bring financial or tangible hand-outs can lead to disappointment and even hostility from potential beneficiaries when these expectations are not met. This can be exacerbated by development agencies providing short-term donations.

8. Policy support

C:AVA benefitted from a favourable government policy environment in Nigeria, particularly in the period between 2002 and 2007 when the Presidential Initiative on Cassava was in operation. Currently, the Cassava Transformation Programme of the federal government provides another favourable environment to promote the technology.

9. Private sector partners

One of the big lessons from C:AVA was that their set of collaborative partnerships, although well balanced in other respects, lacked private sector representation. As a result, when it came to getting access to capital, the technology adoption time was considerably delayed.

10. Spreading the benefits

To scale the positive impact, there are plans for spreading the more efficient flash dryer technology through south-south investments, (between developing countries). To this end, the Gates Foundation has funded demonstration projects in four additional countries, including Malawi, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda.


With thanks to Richard Coles and Christopher Thorpe from Emagine and the University of Greenwich C:AVA team for the interviews and/or the information they provided.



[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2014) Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company. The Guardian, 26 August 2014.

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Oil on Troubled Waters

Oil on Troubled Waters:

Can Shell Make Good in Nigeria?

Blog by Wayne Visser

Anyone who works in sustainable business or CSR will probably have cut their teeth on the classic (some would say infamous) case study of ‘Shell in Nigeria’. What makes it such a compelling case is that it has yet to reach any final resolution. Ever since Shell was tarred with the brush of bad publicity surrounding the execution in 1995 of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian government, it has struggled to regain its social license to operate.

My first direct encounter with Shell in Nigeria came a few years after the incident, when I was running KPMG’s sustainability practice in South Africa. In fact, KPMG’s sustainability practice in the Netherlands had worked closely with Shell to pioneer its triple bottom line reporting approach, and the KPMG Norway practice was working with Shell in Nigeria on sustainability reporting and environmental management.

Two things stick in my mind from that time. One was being rather puzzled by the failure of Shell Nigeria’s HSE (health, safety and environment) reports to mention the Saro-Wiwa fiasco, which was still very much at the forefront of protests and boycotts against Shell, both in the country and abroad. If ever there was an elephant in the room!

The second recollection was a trip to Nigeria by one of my team members to do an audit on Shell’s ISO 14001 system. When she returned, I was aghast to learn that, at one point, the Shell vehicle had been surrounded by an angry mob threatening violence, after which the team travelled to Shell sites by helicopter and with an armed guard.

I have subsequently visited Nigeria five times and had a chance to speak to many of those working on corporate responsibility in the country, including a number of Shell’s national sustainability managers. As a result, I am more convinced than ever that the case holds vital lessons for other companies in how to be more accountable in the 21st century.

Lesson 1: Perception is reality

Whether Shell was actually in any way complicit in Saro-Wiwa’s execution did not make any difference. The fact that they made a plea to the Nigerian government for clemency did nothing to change the public perception – shaped largely by activist NGOs like Greenpeace and organisations like The Body Shop – that Shell must be guilty of serious human rights and environmental abuses.

Lesson 2: If you lie with dogs, you wake up with fleas

One of the reasons that Shell was targeted was that it was (and continues to be) ‘in bed’ with the government, which today is a majority shareholder in the company. 95% of Shell’s revenue after costs goes to the Nigerian government. Rightly or wrongly, stakeholders believe that, given these close ties, Shell is little more than a puppet of a corrupt government.

Lesson 3: Beware the resource curse

Despite Nigeria’s vast natural wealth, the majority of its people remain poor. Shell paid $42 billion in revenues to the Nigerian government between 2008 and 2012. A further $5.2 billion was paid in royalties and taxes in 2012. Due to the greed and corruption of its politicians, very little of this money is spent on human development. Poor governance and transparency makes the economic and social contribution of companies as effective as moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Lesson 4: Penalties for losing a social license to operate are high

Shell estimates that, of the 26,000 barrels of oil spilled in 2012, 95% was the result of sabotage and oil theft. Besides these serious economic and environmental impacts, the safety and security of Shell staff are also compromised. In 2012, two contractors were killed in an armed attack while assessing the remediation of an oil-spill site, and in 2010, 26 employees and contractors were kidnapped (down from 51 in 2009).

Lesson 5: Environmental damage is costly

Shell is installing equipment that will reduce gas flaring from its facilities at a cost of $2 billion, in addition to the $3 billion already spent to reduce flaring. In order to lessen its operational spills, Shell constructed a $1.1 billion replacement pipeline. At the beginning of 2012, there 316 sites in need of remediation from spills (they had cleaned nearly 80% by the end of the year).

Lesson 6: Trust begins with transparency

Shell actively promotes and participates in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiaitve in Nigeria, in which all payments to government are publicly disclosed. Besides this, Shell as created a public website which tracks the company’s response to, and investigation and clean-up of, every spill from its facilities, whether operational or the result of sabotage.

Lesson 7: Communities expect more than promises

Shell uses a Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMoU) model (introduced in 2006) to formalise its community contributions. Communities identify their own needs, decide how to spend the funding provided by SPDC and its joint-venture partners, and directly implement projects. By the end of 2011, Shell had signed and implemented agreements with 290 communities, of which 30% are around their operations in the Delta. In 2011, 596 projects and $79 million was channelled through the GMoUs.

Lesson 8: Reward innovation and best practice

In 2012, Shell received recognition in Nigeria’s Social Enterprise Reporting Awards (SERA), run by Trucontact, for its $27 million Kobo Fund, which enables small Niger Delta contractors to access loans needed to finance the supply of goods/services to Shell. The company is also providing $6 million for the UN-led Global Alliance for Clean Cooking Stoves, which aims to supply 100 million homes by 2020.

Lesson 9: Go beyond philanthropy

Despite spending over £31 million on community projects in 2012, Shell’s commitment to sustainability in Nigeria is demonstrably focused on reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of their core business operations, while increasing of the positive economic and social benefits.

Lesson 10: Support better policy

In recent years, the Nigerian government has moved to legislate CSR, including a requirement to spend no less than 3.5% of gross annual profits per year on CSR. Shell would do well to oppose policy developments like this, which only serve to embed a philanthropic mode and act like a tax. Far better would be to encourage better legislation (and more importantly, better enforcement) on critical issues like labour rights, environmental management and anti-corruption.


[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Oil on Troubled Waters: Can Shell Make Good in Nigeria?  (blog)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2013) Oil on Troubled Waters: Can Shell Make Good in Nigeria? Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 7 August 2013.

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CSR in Nigeria

CSR in Nigeria

A few thoughts and reflections

Blog by Wayne Visser

Interview questions by Heini Purho, Aalto University School of Business in Finland

What is the most effective way of helping the local communities in Nigeria (e.g. infrastructural development projects, social investments (offering education, employment, health services), minimizing the environmental effects, giving money to the Nigerian government)? Please state why.

The GMOUs (Global MOUs) that some multinationals have set up with communities are a good approach, and have seen some success. I would say the first strategy is to approach community development as a cross-sector partnership (with government, civil society and labour unions) rather than philanthropy, which only creates dependence and is open to corruption. The second strategy is to invest in improving governance, i.e. the capacity and efficiency of local and regional government. This can take the form of secondments of skilled staff into government for a period, or shared training. The third strategy is to engage actively with social entrepreneurs and to support them financially and in kind. This creates a possibility of scalable solutions to sustainable development challenges.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges or issues in Nigeria at the moment that should be addressed by Shell’s CSR policies and how should they be addressed?

The three areas that continue to challenge Nigerian society are corruption, pollution (especially spills and gas flaring) and human rights (including conflict and kidnappings). It is not for me to say how these should be tackled, but there is extensive guidance by organisations like Transparency International, EITI, UNEP and the new Protect-Respect-Remedy framework on business and human rights by the UN (requiring human rights due diligence investigations by companies).

Do you think Shell effectively helps the local communities and what could be done differently or is missing?(e.g. the level of communication between Shell, the government and communities, addressing the real needs of communities)

Shell operates in a very difficult environment in Nigeria, with high levels of corruption, conflict and poverty. Despite extensive efforts since the Saro-Wiwa incident in 1995 by Shell, levels of mistrust remain high, partly because of the government’s active participation in the operation of Shell, partly because of a very poor environmental record and partly because of ongoing conflict with activists. Shell faces the additional challenge of organised crime (sabotage, staff kidnappings, etc.). There are no easy solutions to these problems. Shell can only continue to focus its efforts on transparency (publish what you pay) and anti-corruption efforts, environmental improvements (to reduce spillages & flaring), community relations (partnerships with credible civil society organisations), creating shared value (more of the profits must be invested in the community) and reducing dependence on government.

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2013) CSR in Nigeria: A few thoughts and reflections, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 9 April 2013.

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CSR in Nigeria

CSR in Nigeria

Blog by Wayne Visser

A few thoughts after my trip to Lagos last month …

I am not naive enough to believe that CSR heralds a new dawn for Nigeria. The general consensus was that most companies are stuck in the Ages of Philanthropy and Marketing. Nevertheless, CSR has the potential to advance transparency and to create a platform to discuss the ethics of business and government. It also has the potential to be corrupted, which sadly is already happening in some instances where corporate sponsorship of government ‘CSR projects’ is practiced as an indirect form of bribery.

Shell Nigeria’s reputation seems as sullied as ever, 15 years after the Ken Saro Wiwa fiasco. It seems like a viscous cycle of destructive relations. According to Tony Attah, Manager of Sustainable Development and Community Relations, 90% of the oil spills in 2009/10 were as a result of saboteurs, vandals and those trying to steal oil from the pipelines. Also, the Nigerian government takes more than 90% of the earnings of the business through taxes, royalties and their own equities (it has a 55% equity stake in the company).

Of course, there are examples of good practice, such as the Global MOUs between companies and communities, and conservation projects like the Chevron preserved urban forest which I visited. Yet even here, one senses that these are fragile fortifications against a relentless tide of oil-slicked growth and car-jammed urbanisation. I was there during the scheduled first weekend of elections, but these were postponed due to printed ballot papers not arriving in time. The Nigerians take it all in their stride, as if fighting the behemoth of inefficiency is as futile as cursing the manic traffic.

One encouraging initiative is the Social Enterprise Reporting Awards (SERA), run by Trucontact …

Continue reading

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] CSR in Nigeria (blog)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2011) CSR in Nigeria, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 26 April 2011.

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Nigeria 2011 Notes

08 April 2011

Finally, I made it to Nigeria, a country I expected to visit much sooner than now, given its strategic importance in Africa and CSR. I got back from Lagos via Paris this morning. The CSR training for Trucontact went well and seemed appreciated. My hosts, Ken Egbas and colleagues, were gracious and generous. As it turned out, I saw very little on this first trip, beyond the training venue, my hotel and the crazy traffic in between.

I come away with mixed feelings. Certainly, the raw vitality and aggressive ambition (or is it just survival instinct?) is palatable. And as in so much of Africa, the culture and its people are colourful, hopeful and friendly. But there is also the malaise of powerlessness in the face of endemic corruption and greed among politicians, not to mention the inertia of crumbling state apparatus and economic injustice.

The greatest hope being clung to is rediscovering good, public-serving leaders, who remain a fantasy. The greatest source of faith is a Pentecostal brand of Christianity that gives its followers strength in knowing that God is on the side of the oppressed. What is somewhat depressing is knowing that Nigeria’s hardships are largely self-imposed, inflicted by the power-hungry on the opportunity-starved. The society is culturally robust, but morally and economically weakened by the cancers of raw greed and desperate need.

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