TechnoServe – Making a Lasting Impact: Q&A with Rob Johnson, Former TechnoServe Fellow and Social Enterprise Entrepreneur

Original article appeared in TechnoServe Blog on Thursday November 11th 2021

Rob Johnson is a former TechnoServe Fellow who worked in Haiti in 2011 performing a poultry value chain assessment. After his time as a Fellow, Rob returned to serve as a program manager in the TechnoServe Haiti Office. He then launched a social enterprise in Haiti called Acceso, which works to improve smallholder farmer income through inclusive value chains. In this Q&A, Rob shares how TechnoServe played a foundational role in his life and social enterprise career.

Rob is currently Chief Operating Officer at Acceso, overseeing Acceso’s portfolio of social enterprises in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since starting Acceso, Rob has built and scaled numerous smallholder-focused agribusinesses in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean – and also led Acceso’s acquisition of Extensio, a digital field agent. In this Q&A, Rob shares how TechnoServe played a foundational role in his life and social enterprise career.

Q: What inspired you to become a Fellow?

I was in business school, and a good friend of mine told me about the TechnoServe program. I initially went back to school planning to go into management consulting or a corporate leadership rotation program, but had a small voice inside me pushing me towards a career using business to help those less fortunate.

The TechnoServe fellowship seemed to be a “sweet spot” opportunity that married business consulting with international development. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summer in between terms, before heading on to a typical post-MBA job in Europe or the U.S. It was also right after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and at the time, you listed the countries and languages that you were interested in, so I listed Haiti. Eventually, I got a call from Katarina Kalhmann [currently TechnoServe’s chief program officer], who was the Haiti country director at the time. Next thing I knew, I was on my way to Haiti for the summer.

Q: What was the project you worked on?

I led an assessment of the poultry sector in Haiti with the TechnoServe team and other experts to identify opportunities for growth and impact. I worked on this project for about three months, visiting much of the country. Data is super hard to come by in Haiti, so I spent a lot of time interviewing farmers, SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises], program managers, and other experts. I would then run analyses on this info and compare it to other initiatives in other countries to develop tangible and actionable recommendations.

I then went back to business school to finish my degree – and at this point, this little voice in the back of my head became a very big voice. I was fully committed to continuing international development work post-MBA. After I graduated, I was lucky enough to join the TechnoServe Haiti office in a full-time program management role.

Q: What was your experience like working as a Fellow?

My experience as a Fellow was surprisingly entrepreneurial, despite being a part of the larger TechnoServe organization. I really appreciated this, and think it is pretty unusual compared to most volunteer experiences. There was support, structure, and expertise; however, it was up to me to really go out and make my project happen.

I also really liked the opportunity to see many different parts of Haiti – most of them well off the beaten path. I often joke with my Haitian friends and colleagues that I’ve visited more of Haiti than they have. Additionally, I didn’t have a farming background, so it was also a first-hand experience of seeing how food is really produced in much of the world: by smallholder farmers working to piece together a livelihood.

Q: What was it like returning to work with TechnoServe?

It was an interesting time in Haiti, as it was after the earthquake in 2010. There was a lot of interest and investment in value chains and other projects, and a lot of buzz around trying to build back better. I came back to TechnoServe to lead a peanut value chain assessment and strategy design. At the time there were two big new facilities being constructed to make ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) like Plumpy’Nut.

They were building these beautiful multimillion dollar facilities, but needed a plan to source locally and manage big issues that had prevented this in the past, such as huge pricing volatility and aflatoxin contamination. This strategic plan became the basis of TechnoServe’s Strengthening the Peanut Sector project, that I went on to lead while also doing other value chain assessments.

Q: Did your experience with the Fellows program inspire you to launch Acceso?

During the first couple years of the program, our training and market linkages work was going well, but we started to see a broader sustainability issue post-TechnoServe program. There were some gaps with private sector partners that didn’t close as we expected; the aggregators weren’t stepping up, and the financial institutions and input providers were charging way too much to farmers.

These issues pushed me to start thinking about the ideal private sector model to integrate with program activities to maximize impact as well as drive long-term sustainability when grant funding stopped. I envisioned a holistic and highly integrated approach that incorporated many services that were typically provided by different companies: training, provision of inputs, financing, and market access, all under one “hood.” I developed a business case, the numbers looked good, and I started sharing it around to a few impact investors with the support of central TechnoServe staff.

Next thing I knew, I was launching Acceso – which means “access” in Spanish. Acceso works from end-to-end in value chains, providing targeted training, seed and inputs on credit along with aggregation, quality control, logistics, and market access. Although using a for-profit social enterprise model, Acceso’s goals were and remain very similar to those of TechnoServe: build market-driven value chains that are inclusive, competitive, and sustainable – and that heavily leverage and make existing players better while helping lift rural communities out of poverty.

Now over 10 years after my fellowship, I still use the fundamentals that I learned during my fellowship at TechnoServe: does the producer make money, is the business profitable, and is the value chain viable?

Q: Can you tell us more about Acceso and some of your products?

In most developing countries like Haiti, producers don’t have access to the basics such as cost-effective credit and financing, results-driven technical assistance, quality inputs that increase yields, and access to stable markets. At Acceso, we try to provide all of these “basics,” reducing costs to Acceso to deliver each individual component, as well as increasing the value proposition to the farmer.

A farm in Haiti, where TechnoServe is working to better livelihoods for smallholder farmers

We currently operate a portfolio of three businesses — one in Haiti, one in Colombia, and one in El Salvador – that work with 15,000+ farmers on 100+ crops and have an annual revenue of $15 million. We have big plans to grow to support 100,000 farmers over the next five years, scale our existing operations, and add several new countries.

In Haiti, we still work with peanuts, and we recently launched a spicy peanut butter called Lavi. It’s a full circle back to where I started with TechnoServe, because we are working with the same facility that TechnoServe supported in the initial peanut value chain assessment. In addition to selling this facility peanuts to produce RUTF, we also now contract them to produce our peanut butter. This means more capacity utilization for this facility, and more importantly, more income for Haitian farmers.

We’ve recently expanded our product line, adding chocolate and cinnamon flavors, as well as targeting a launch in hundreds of grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada in early 2022. In places like Haiti, things take time, so working closely with partners and taking the long-game approach has been important to our staying power and ability to fight through the political instability, natural disasters, and other challenges the country has thrown at us.

Q: How has seeing TechnoServe’s work firsthand impacted your views on philanthropy?

My fellowship with TechnoServe was transformative, both personally and professionally. Not only did it launch my career working at the intersection of business and development, but also gave me a unique toolkit to help understand and find opportunity in some of the world’s most challenging places and value chains.

My time at TechnoServe, and later with Acceso, cemented and provided real-world proof that market-driven approaches using business principles and discipline result in some of the most sustainable and impactful uses of philanthropic money to help bring people out of poverty.

There is so much more to be done here – and more investment in NGOs like TechnoServe and social enterprises like Acceso is needed.

Q: What advice do you have for someone thinking about becoming a Fellow?

I’d say it’s an all-around great experience, whether you are looking to have a career in international development or are just looking for how to use your skill set in a super impactful way during a break from another type of career. You won’t look back and regret it in any way because it’s so rewarding, challenging, engaging, and just plain interesting from lots of perspectives.

Whether you are going to build your own social enterprise or work in international development, the fellowship program is an incredible and unique crash course that prepares you to tackle both the complexity and opportunity that’s out there at the intersection of poverty alleviation and business.

Now over 10 years after my fellowship, I still use the fundamentals that I learned during my fellowship at TechnoServe: does the producer make money, is the business profitable, and is the value chain viable?
– Rob Johnson, Former TechnoServe Fellow