Ian Agnew with colleagues from the Lorna Young foundation and members of one of the youth enterprise groups they have set up
Ian, who is British, was a Progressio development worker with the Omaheke San Trust in Namibia from 2002 to 2005. Here he describes what he learned – and what he went on to do afterward.
Did your experience as a development worker change you as a person?
Absolutely. It opened up so many new horizons me. When I left for Namibia I sold everything I had and went with a single suitcase. I learned to live very simply with very little and this is something I still aspire to do (although it’s hard in this country where we are expected to want and to have everything).
I know it’s a cliché, but when you live and work with people who have so little in terms of material possessions, choices, self-esteem; who don’t talk about or plan for the future because they don’t know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from; it would be an insult to just come back to the UK, surround myself with stuff, moan about the weather, traffic, etc, and put on a grey suit every day ready to join the commute to an office.
When my wife and I made the decision to return to the UK after four years in Namibia, we agreed some ground rules for our return. One of them was that, as much as we could, we would maintain the simple lifestyle, mobility and choices we had created in Namibia; this is more a statement about how we approach life, as opposed to where we live. We also agreed that we would do work that mattered to us.
Did your experience influence your career/ future direction, and help you to get to where you are today?
Despite its challenges, in the Kalahari, I felt a sense of total freedom – it is such a huge place in every way and is so far removed from the everyday limitations and bureaucracy that seem to stifle creativity in this country.
It taught me that I don’t have to conform and do things a certain way “just because”. I will never do a job again just to have a job. We live within our means and that gives me so many options. It taught me to take risks and to have a go at anything. I’ve since set up several enterprises and have also evolved the charity I run into more of a social business. I’ve learned about living and working with various cultures and how culture matters to people (as someone who comes from a background pretty culture-less). I have since gone on to be accepted as a Fellow of the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship – for social entrepreneurs doing cross cultural enterprises. I’ve been working with Muslim and Jewish social entrepreneurs from the USA, UK and France.
Working on the community tourism, crafts and livestock programmes with the San helped me to learn how enterprise can provide sustainable (that word again) routes out of poverty for people. This is something I have taken to heart in all the work I do now. All of the social enterprises I run now are based on the principle that ethically trading businesses and entrepreneurs can make a real difference to society, whilst also protecting social values and making a decent living.
What have you done since leaving Progressio and what do you do currently?
When my wife and I decided it was time to think about returning to the UK, at the end of 2005, I started looking for work opportunities back in the UK that would continue the kind of work I’d been doing. On a visit home during Christmas 2005 I saw a job advertised for a new, small charity called the Lorna Young Foundation (LYF) who support smallholder producer cooperatives to gain business capacity and create more value from what they grow.
Five years on I am now the Executive Director of the Lorna Young Foundation (www.lyf.org.uk). After a lot of struggle to get funding and establish ourselves, we now have five staff and we are delivering some really innovative and ground-breaking programmes with farmer organisations, mostly in East Africa; we’re also delivering projects in the UK, working with marginalised communities to link them (as consumers) more directly with producer groups. I’ve just been out to evaluate one of our projects in Ethiopia and Kenya where we are supporting coffee farmers to get extension information through local radio and linking them to local colleges.
I have a very varied portfolio of work now, but all focussed on enterprise and trade – something I picked up in Namibia. In addition to running the LYF (my co-director is my wife Christina), I also run a social marketing company (Digital Outreach Ltd www.digitaloutreach.org.uk) for two major UK charities. Through the LYF I set up the Oromo Coffee Company Ltd (www.oromocoffee.org) in 2009, a social enterprise coffee company owned by Ethiopian refugees in the UK. It’s the first and still the only one of its kind – a community (refugee) owned Fairtrade company trading directly with producers. We’re really proud of everyone involved in keeping it going.
Our latest venture is a major youth social enterprise which has grown out of a DFID-funded project we have been running. We take groups of marginalised young people in the UK, train and support them to set up social businesses and how to develop products sourced from developing country producers. We’re now about to roll this out nationally and set up a UK-wide network of youth and community businesses and groups all gaining enterprise skills and experience and making a living through creating and selling ethical products. We’ve set up a trading company, built a learning and skills website, sorted warehousing, distribution, branding, etc, and will be launching a whole range of ethical products this year.
I try to support small social enterprises, so I also help run and sit on the board of a small community-owned, not for profit translation and interpreter company called NWI (www.nwi.org.uk). It’s hard work on this one because we have no marketing budget and struggle to get sales, but we’re plugging away – and we always welcome new business!