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Hilarious lessons in stakeholder engagement: The Tanganyika groundnut scheme

“Stakeholder engagement” is a really terrible term. I mean that in the sense that it sounds so wishy-washy to to the uninitiated, when actually the right degree of its use is essential risk management.

Too much of course, and one ends up with paralysis, or lowest common denominator decision making.

More on that in another post.

History, as the cliche goes, has much to teach us.

One of the great things about Wikipedia is the easy-to-read case studies of corporate and government mishap through the ages. 

(This is provided, of course, that a dodgy PR company or communications manager hasn’t edited it out temporarily)

Many of these are well known, and often caused by a lack of understanding of local conditions at the time.

Some are less well understood. This one, the Tanganyika groundnut scheme, I knew less about than say, Fordlandia. Both are absurd, but both happened, and cost a fortune.

The Tanganyika groundnut scheme is possibly the funniest film plot never yet made. Here’s a bit of it;

“The Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme was a plan to cultivate tracts of what is now Tanzania with peanuts. It was a project of the British Labour government of Clement Attlee. It was abandoned in 1951 at considerable cost to the taxpayers when it did not become profitable. Ground nuts require at least 500 mm (20 inches) of rainfall per year; the area chosen was subject to drought.”

And it just gets better:

“Next, the equipment had to be transported from the port of Dar-es-Salaam to the inland site using the only available transport—a single-track railway with a steam locomotive. Unfortunately, a sudden flood of the Kinyansungwe River wiped out the rail tracks, leaving a dirt road as the only means of transport. African workers went on strike and the British advance team was left with just one cook. They decided to settle in Sagara with George Nestle, a local hunter.

At this stage, the British team decided finally to test the soil. They deemed it suitable despite the large amount of clay. Managers moved to the site in Kongwa and started to build a village, complete with prefabricated buildings. There was no suitable water source nearby.

When the British began to transfer equipment to the site from Dar-es-Salaam on the dirt road, they pushed through the Ruvu River and encountered large numbers of dangerous wildlife, including lions and crocodiles. Tractors were scheduled to arrive by February 1947, but only 16 smaller tractors had reached the site by April. They were not entirely suitable for clearing the local brush and bamboo.

Local large baobab trees were also hard to remove and the task was made more difficult by the fact that one of them was a local tribal jail, another was a site of ancestor worship, and many had bees’ nests in their hollow trunks. Some of the workers had to be hospitalised for numerous bee stings. On other occasions, workers had to face angry elephants and rhinos.

The fact that the site was far from easily accessible water sources caused further problems. The water had to be ferried in and poured into a concrete-lined pool. Locals insisted on using it for swimming, despite protests by the European workers.

Eventually, local managers decided to train local workers for the job. Enthusiastic but inexperienced drivers wrecked many of the tractors. When the Colonial Office sent two men to help the locals form their own trade union, the locals decided to go on strike in support of the dockworkers at Dar-es-Salaam and demanded better pay and more food. Increased wages of the workers also contributed to local inflation and villagers did not find enough money for food.”

There’s more, here.

The lessons here are clear and worth remembering. Companies get into trouble all the time because they don’t take the time to understand their local environment. It’s just that usually the story is not as funny as this one above.

I think I’ve just found the plot for my second comic novel, provided I one day finish the first one.