Karen Smith

Podcast Interview

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BFP: What do you do?

KS:I work for Imani Development, a private economic and development consultancy firm rooted in the developing world that facilitates the process of economic growth and poverty reduction.

I am currently managing the Business Innovation Facility (BIF) project, a DFID funded inclusive business pilot initiative in Malawi. My role as Country Manager is to identify IB opportunities and set up technical support projects to move these initiatives forward. We are two thirds of the way through the project and have found and instigated eighteen projects with a broad range of clients including the private sector, NGOs and social enterprises. There is inevitably a strong focus on agro-processing, given that Malawi’s economy is dominated by agriculture, and there are also several renewable energy / climate change projects.

BFP: What is the best part about your job?

KS:I am constantly meeting new organisations and inspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are full of ideas and enthusiasm to grow businesses in Malawi that incorporate the poor in their value chain. The variety is really stimulating and I get a real buzz from being able to link people to information, markets or potential customers or partners.

BFP: What have been your greatest challenges?

KS: The greatest challenge to the project has been the extremely difficult economic conditions in Malawi over the past two years. The international aid community pulled away as the government became more autocratic and the over-valued currency lead to the instigation of an impossible “zero-deficit” budget. The result has been crippling to the private sector with increased taxes, a lengthy fuel crisis and limited access to FOREX. The problems lead to one of our projects being aborted and several others have been severely challenged as companies have been operating in survival mode.

BFP: How have you overcome these challenges?

KS: Fortunately recent events have lead to the appointment of a new president who has taken immediate action to rectify the underlying issues, such as devaluing the Malawi Kwacha and welcoming back donors. In the interim, I have been inspired by the stamina and determination of our project clients to push forwards with their innovative ideas. In fact it could be argued that the lack of FOREX in particular has forced companies to focus their energy on import substitution and export product innovations, many of which involve smallholders in the supply chain.

BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?

KS: I came into development late in my career from a more general management background. I think that the understanding of business that I gained from my MBA, my project management experience and analytical skills have been key to delivering a private sector focused donor programme such as BIF. I would advocate private sector experience as a start point and then experience on the ground in a developing country to see how development does (and doesn’t!) work firsthand.

BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of the BFP community?

KS: As BIF comes into its final year as a pilot project we are looking to the future and hoping that DFID sees the benefits of engaging the private sector to achieve development goals. I hope to be able to both share lessons that we have learnt with a wider audience and also network with those doing similar work to continue being able to link social entrepreneurs and projects between countries.

Editor’s Note:

Thank you to Karen Smith for taking the time to do this interview.

We’re always looking out for members to feature. Help us by taking two-minutes to update your profile, or by nominating someone for Business Fights Poverty Member of the Week.

This Member of the Week interview was conducted by Natasha Ncube BFP Community Manager. Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.

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