Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 4:55pm

Illustration by Jocelyn Ruiz

posted by
Ben Tejes 
Co-founder and CEO of Ascend Finance


I knew that nonprofit work was right for me soon after joining the corporate world, when I realized that much of the work was just about making money and maximizing profit. But I had a unique consultant skill set which could be used in the nonprofit world.

Consulting and strategic planning skills have a critical place in the nonprofit sector. Sometimes it can be a place where people have the heart to serve, but do not have the business savviness to run a sustainable nonprofit. That’s changing (thanks to training and education from places like the ASU Lodestar Center), but it’s a place where I knew I could contribute.

My journey began with a nonprofit called TechnoServe where I began utilizing my consulting skills as a volunteer consultant in East Africa. My task in Uganda was to develop strategies for the maize and dry bean industries, in order to increase the income of smallholder farmers.

I never realized how challenging my task would be, as my initial research showed unfamiliar constraints and data that was lacking and sometimes unreliable. Uganda is an interesting country and has been referred to as the “bread basket” of East Africa, with extremely fertile soils and two harvests per season in most regions. It is said to have the potential of feeding all of East Africa. Despite such great potential, Ugandan maize and bean farmers are plagued with poor input supply, inefficient agronomic practices and a lack of market linkages.

The farmers maintained beliefs that home-saved seed was best to use for planting instead of higher yielding varieties. They depended on price as the chief stimulant for planting--producing large fluctuations of prices and resulting in lower prices to the farmers.The farmers had little to no access to markets, making them targets for exploitation from traders and brokers.

Although these issues were major restraints on farmers, I soon realized that the chief constraint stemmed from the farmers’ mindset of extreme risk aversion and an overwhelming need to supply their daily needs. As such, my strategy encompassed utilizing demonstration plots, so the farmers could see the success of increased production and believe they also could attain it. I developed relationships with successful farming communities so that other farmers could see efficient agronomic techniques in practice and learn from them. Further, I built working relationships with key stakeholders in the warehouse receipts system (commodity-backed credit) for farmers to receive access to needed credit while still maintaining ownership of their commodities to obtain higher selling prices during the dryseason. Although the farmer’s fate rests in their own hands, I rest assured that my work has been impactful and that it has the potential of making a small dent in eradicating poverty in East Africa.

When I was not expanding my love for maize and beans, I had the opportunity to fish for Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, play soccer and ultimate Frisbee with local Ugandans, attempt to cook East African food and travel to places such as Lake Bunyonyi and Queen Elizabeth National Park. Thankfully, my journey with nonprofit consulting did not end in Uganda, as I embarked on another project to Kenya where I devised marketing strategies for mango and passion fruit.

The nonprofit experience has actually helped me take a much different approach in the corporate world. When I started Ascend to help people with their personal finances, I was able to draw upon many of the foundational experiences from my nonprofit work to help people and make a positive impact, instead of looking at everything from the lens of profit and loss.

What I really appreciate about my nonprofit experience is that both myself and the nonprofit I worked with really cared about the best interests of the farmers. When you really care for an individual, economic and socially impactful change is inevitable.

Ben Tejes was a nonprofit consultant in East Africa, working with local mango, maize and dry bean farmers. After consulting, Ben worked at Google and held various executive roles at finance technology startups aimed to use finances as a force of positive change in the world. He is the co-founder and CEO of Ascend Finance. In his free time, Ben likes to go on adventures with his wife and two young daughters.

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