Jacob Foss: Eradicating Rural Poverty in Africa – Ep. 152

About This Episode:

How do we eradicate extreme rural poverty? What can we do to build up communities?

Jacob Foss asked this question when traveling in Africa, and his answer was to co-found Agricycle—a brilliant start-up that connects women, smallholders, and youth in East Africa with global markets.

Don’t know what a smallholder is? I didn’t either, but we’re both about to find out!

Jacob’s been on Forbes 30 Under 30, he’s received millions in funding for his work, and Agricycle is an official partner of the United Nations FAO. We’re going to talk about taking the road less traveled

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4:43 – (Jacob) “They have resources, contrary to some messaging the media might show of this impoverished Africa that’s helpless, that misguided media-” 

(Ross) “Right. Donate a dollar and that’s the end of that.”

(Jacob) “Donate a dollar, yeah. Give your shoes, all of that. And so just how many stories of you dump five tons of rice in the community thinking you’re feeding this village now? But those rice farmers now are competing with a product that they make that’s literally $0. So, why would someone continue to buy from them and feed their family if they just had it for free? If you have a pizza that’s $10 or pizza that’s free you’re going to choose the free pizza. So it puts rice farmers out of work. So it was just kind of a deeper understanding of, ‘Wow, we really mess a lot of stuff up without realizing it because we’re so disconnected.’” 

(Ross) “You don’t say.”

6:36 – “Some things that just dawned on me through the experience was, kind of started it just looking at the youth, just interacting with the youth there. The creativity was just off the charts. They would come take a couple like cans, maybe some rubber-something, and just like what we would view as trash and then collaborate with each other, they didn’t have an iPad to turn to and would create a usable car that rolled and they could rig it with like a trajectory, they would rig it with a spring and then shoot it out. And so they made this working car out of what we would think is trash. So starting at kind of the base of children, it was just a different culture and showed how much like electronics can really just numb our mind. So that was just like an interesting thing for me.”

7:28 – “There’s so many resources there, that was one of the biggest things I was just totally misconstrued on. And the labor force, like obviously they’re super hard working and not like some helpless people outside of Milwaukee, right? Going with both of those, it’s just there’s just so many things over and over that they’re so ingenious. From their farming adaptations to their irrigation systems they make, which is basically watering farms in dry season or watering farms in any season. And so just over and over, these people are brilliant. And so, not that I would have thought anyone else is smarter or dumber, I was at least aware enough to know that people are people. But seeing the ingenuity over here was incredible. It’s just literally just the resources lacking. But the business mindset is incredible. So I got into like jewelry making with women. They wanted to make bracelets, necklaces so I just connected them with some materials. And then they took off from there.” 

11:57 – “They take the mango slices and put them through a dehydrator that we engineered and this dehydrator is mobile and, kind of back to our conversation of just assuming we know what’s best, the world revolves around America, and USAID would give a large dehydrator that are great in capacity, but it’d be stagnant. And so it’s put on this land who is owned by a man almost always. And then the women who were the target beneficiaries say like, ‘Oh, great, thank you so much.’ USAID leaves, pat themselves on the back and then the man comes out of the shadows and goes, ‘Great, thank you. You can get off my land. Thanks for the prize.’ And legally, he’s right, so everyone else is screwed. So we made, we figured that out and made, these single-person size dehydrators that can scale through sheer numbers of workforce and can be mobile. So there’s no land claims.”

14:06 – “A friend of my co-founder came to us and said, ‘Hey, you know, coconut shells burn really well. Maybe you should turn it into a grilling briquette.’ Like, all right. As founders, like young founders was like, ‘Yeah, of course, it’s brilliant. Let’s do it.’ So we worked on the R&D bit of that, did some university testing with the claims of how much better it burns in terms of temperature and duration than Kingsford per se, and how much cleaner it is too, because you know, the charges of chemicals, it’s just coconut shells and cassava starch. And so then we launch that brand and that’s called Tropical Ignition selling an ROI for that and growing that distribution. So that’s just a really cool one that I just would never have, I wouldn’t have thought of any of this right away, ten years ago, whatever.”

17:06 – “One of the coolest things I think about that was that that came from the ‘helpless people who don’t know what’s best for them,’ right? Like they literally dictated the direction of our business and it went so much for the better. So that’s just a really, I love that brand specifically for that. And you know, I love all of it. But that was, that’s just a really cool like, ‘listen to who you’re trying to work with.’ Like people are going to be intelligent wherever you are and they’re going to have good feedback, especially when it’s their lives that you think you can like – it’s just, it’s ridiculous to not.”

26:33 – “I’m personally not really one for just sending money towards an organization and hope it does well. If you want to, great. It’s better than doing nothing probably but I think getting involved in, if it’s got to be a local community, great. Go get involved and meet people and I think people are going to, the network of people will be the driving force so maybe it’s, you go to a network of, even that does community clean-up and then you meet a couple people who inspire you to go do a little more, they inspire you to compost and then you like spread that word. I think it’s got to be personally grassroots starting. It’s going to take a lot longer. And there’s obviously the whole, government’s got to make the big change and policies and structures. But in terms of people day to day, join organizations, volunteer a little bit, inform yourself as much as you can, follow, listen to podcasts like these and just try to find an inspiration.”

29:34 – (Ross) “My life completely changed. I went on a study abroad trip to Europe, and then I just stayed and I met my wife and my wife is Dutch and I lived there for nine years. And I think my dad joked when I went on the study abroad trip that he’s like, ‘Oh, you’ll just stay. You’ll never come back.’ I never took him seriously. But that is exactly what happened. I did just stay for almost a decade, and that’s the kind of power that travel has. And opening up your mind and seeing other cultures and other people and other experiences which, like I’m the biggest advocate for just in general.” 

31:29 – “If you’re fortunate enough to have a means, try to travel, I think that just does wonders for, I always think about a cultural exchange in high school or college when you’re still impressionable and you haven’t been like molded by whatever force and shaping factors. Just meet someone different than you. Live with them and see what life is like and I think the world would be so much more peaceful. It’s like Kumbaya, but I really think it’s true.”

35:04 – (Ross) “That’s one of the lessons you learn when you global travel, people will be so generous who have so, so little, with their food, with their time. I’ve experienced that in every country I’ve ever traveled to my entire life. People will give you stuff and you – and there is sometimes times where you say like, ‘Should you be? Are you really in a position to be giving me this thing?’ – but that, it’s a value that humans have. Whereas social media can make us feel so bad about the state of humanity and the toxicity of the psyche of the human spirit, I think travel is the most affirming and loving – that makes you feel the amount of compassion and empathy and love that exists in the world in a way that is just it’s a beautiful thing. I mean, who are we kidding, right? It’s the best.” 

41:51 – “I think people get so intimidated by the failure piece. Like a no is the biggest deal in the world to people. A No is, to me, it’s literally nothing. I asked for something. I didn’t have it. I asked for it. I got a No, I still don’t have it. It’s not like I don’t have less of it, I’m still in the same spot. And so I’ve always taken that mindset and it’s just been reinforced through building a company. But like reach out to – oh, I would definitely say get a co-founder. Building something on your own regardless of the magnitude it’s just, it’s not as inspiring. You don’t have that person to hold you accountable, you’re going to wake up one day and not want to do it for that day and you’re not going to get anyone to hold you accountable there.” 

42:36 – “Reach out, make connections. Go explore any group you can. I think the network aspect, people say it all the time, but cannot be undervalued…If networking is not your thing, like you’re more comfortable behind a screen, like type in LinkedIn, try to get on a call, just like meet people, form, get a group going like a Slack channel, I don’t know. Get into a group, a community and then meet with co-founders. Lunch Club is a great app. You know, you literally just type in your information: who are you looking for? Who are you? And they schedule up to three meetings per week or so, maybe even more. You can meet cool people. Yeah, really cool Lunch Club, I think just dot com. And so I’ve used that to meet some cool people.” 

45:58 – (Ross) “I think there’s a sort of calibration that happens or recalibration that happens when you talk to like-minded people. And that’s probably been the biggest benefit for me doing this is talking to people such as yourself. It’s a reminder of a certain set of values that exist in the world. It’s a reminder of a certain type of person that exists in the world. And I do think, I mean, speaking just for myself here, it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t go and seek it out. And obviously it takes effort to go and seek it out. It takes effort to make stuff like this happen or to network in any form. You said, it takes some form of you putting out a line into the world and saying, ‘okay, I need to meet other people.’ Because I know for myself, especially with the Internet and all of the social media, it’s these kinds of conversations remind me of, ‘Oh, yes, yes, this is what you’re doing it, this is why you’re doing, this is what you care about, this is what you value.’” 

47:51 – (Ross) “It seems to me, based on these kinds of conversations, that there’s no real two ways about it that beating the often path as it were, is tougher. Let’s say it’s more effort, it’s more work, it’s deliberately choosing to take on something that’s difficult when it probably would have been easier if you’d stay at home and just collected the salary and never attempted to do any of this, right? Just followed the standard path. But what we hear time and again is that as tough as it is, there is something else that makes that toughness worth it. And it also seems to illustrate the idea that things being easy isn’t necessarily the goal of a happy or healthy human, that easiness is not necessarily a good target. Contrary to books like the Four-Hour Work Week, which have sold everybody on the idea that the less you work, the better. It’s like, ‘Well, that depends on what you’re working on.’” 

49:50 – “I grew up in a very, just a strictly like 90+ percent white, everyone looked the same, everyone was kind of cookie-cutter upbringing. Everything was the same and didn’t realize, you know, as much as you can, didn’t realize what was out there. And so with that experience, there’s, you see suffering, you see positives, you see this hospitality, you see poverty, there’s all these different avenues. So it’s a different type of happiness. It’s not the happy go lucky, but I would prefer this, you know, even with some sadness that comes with it and some downtimes and you go through bouts of depression, you know, whatever you go through. But that’s okay. Just that’s part of life. But I used to just always wake up. ‘Oh, life’s great. Happy go lucky. I’m gonna go eat my little silver spoon. And life is good.’ But yeah, just different, different types of happiness, which is interesting.” 

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