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W&L Students' Business Plan Helps Amazon Villagers

Katie Harris, left, and Allie Long in Brazil
Katie Harris, left, and Allie Long in Brazil
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When Katie Harris and Allie Long, both students at Washington and Lee University, first visited the village of Nossa Senhora das Graças in the Amazon, they thought they had just the plan to help the villagers establish a thriving business.

Then reality set in.

"We found there were barriers such as lack of access to electricity, government regulations and social issues that needed to be overcome in order to make a tangible difference," said Harris.

The two undergraduates were in Brazil as part of W&L Student Consulting (WLSC), a student-managed organization created to provide pro bono consulting services to for-profit and not-for-profit business and community organizations. Their assignment was to create a comprehensive business plan to develop consumer products from malva and jute (both vegetable fibers) that the villagers grow and then market those products in the United States.

Rob Straughan, associate dean of W&L's Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics, sees the experience as a superb opportunity for the students - even when things don't start as planned. "They get their hands dirty and it's good for them to struggle to make business concepts and complex issues work at a grass roots level," he said.

Once the students saw the reality on the ground, they adapted their plan and presented it in April 2009 to their client, an NGO (non-government organization) called Piatam, comprised of faculty and students at the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus.

Phase one of the project concentrated on identifying products that could be made from the malva plant-bags, placemats and yoga mats-and identifying target markets. They also researched how to create demand for the products in order to increase orders for the raw product.

The students are currently working on the next phase, which is to get the malva plants-once they've been processed into large bales of fiber-directly to the factory, eliminating the middlemen who are certain to be resistant to change.

The middlemen give malva seeds to the villagers, but in return demand a large percentage of the processed plants, even if a particularly hard rainy season has flooded and ruined the crops. "The villagers are always indebted to the middlemen," said Long, "so it's going to be harder than we thought. We have to find a way to get around them."

They also need to deal with other complicating factors: getting the raw material to the factories; persuading those factories to eliminate the middlemen; getting access to electricity to run machines to process the malva plants; securing funding to maintain the machines; and providing seeds to the villages for at least one cycle.

"It's one thing to talk in class about distribution channels, structure and corporate social responsibility, said Straughan, "but until the students visit a village and see how dependent these people are on subsistence farming and fishing, day in and day out, they can't fully appreciate it."

Straughan visited the village with the students and described the experience as humbling. "The villagers are not looking to get rich off this. They just want an equitable portion. Whatever economic benefits come would be for the village as a whole-to buy generators or to buy seeds," he said.

"I think this has been the perfect opportunity to combine what we're learning in the classroom with our student consulting, and with increasing the quality of life of the villagers," said Harris, a senior business major, who was project manager for the first phase. "We're actually taking our business and marketing skills to try and make a difference in a small village in the Amazon. This has definitely changed the way I look at business as a whole. I'm much more interested now in taking into consideration environmental and social issues."

Long, a junior business administration major with a concentration in poverty studies, has recently taken over as project manager and will work with W&L senior George Morgan, and W&L junior Martin McLendon.

She said that for her "the greatest part about all this is that we've really been part of something international. I don't know of any other group of student consultants that has been able to work in a completely different culture, which was a real eye-opener for me. The villagers were really pleased and grateful for all the help we could give them."

Another experience for the students was being invited to rewrite phase one of the project as a chapter in a book on sustainable development in the region, to be published by Piatam. "Their work was very well received," said Straughan.

"This project has involved everything from traditional villagers in remote rain forests to retailers that would sell their product, such as Wal-Mart," said Straughan, who advises Student Consulting with Elizabeth Oliver, professor of accounting. For the last six years it has provided business students as consultants on a variety of international projects connected to the environment or sustainability.

Other invaluable help came from James Kahn, W&L John F. Herndon Professor of Economics and director of environmental studies, who teaches regularly in Brazil. Kahn has many connections there and made the original introduction to Piatam.

Straughan noted that this first project with Piatam has gone so well that Student Consulting is currently working on a second project related to reforestation of the rain forest using technology. "I think the expectation is that we'll be doing at least one project per year from now on," he said.