Finding high-tech solutions to age-old problems in countries with limited resources presents some interesting challenges—and opportunities to transform lives.
Leading this charge to build digital bridges into the global economy is Janice Z. Brodman, who works with business leaders, entrepreneurs, technology developer, and local governments “to create solutions that are user-driven, not technology-driven.”
She has led successful projects to improve irrigation systems in India; promote family planning in Indonesia; provide training for HIV/AIDS screening in the Philippines; and to strengthen the competitiveness of the apparel, tool-and-die, footwear, and tourism industries in Macedonia.
Brodman’s love for international cultures was born in the 1970s when, as a student, she traveled overland from Greece to India via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. She has since lived, traveled, or worked in more than 30 countries and has a current project underway in Bosnia helping industries compete in European markets through the use of new technologies.
Her journey began in New Jersey.
What inspired you to work with people in developing countries?
I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, on the border of Newark, in a low-income community that suffered from a lot of violence. I was very lucky to get the kind of education I got, so I wanted to work with people who didn’t have those opportunities. As a graduate student at Harvard, I won a fellowship that let me go to any country in the world for a year. I chose India. I found that even the little money I had at the time could go a long way to helping people there. I also realized that people in developing countries face problems very similar to the ones I experienced in a low-income family, but it’s even harder for them because their opportunities are so limited.
Tell us about your current project in Bosnia.
Our project aims to increase jobs and incomes in four industries: wood products, tourism, machine tools, and agriculture. It’s a very exciting project because it’s based on a new model we created in Macedonia, which was hugely successful, with major, concrete, lasting outcomes—thousands of jobs saved, and new and better paying jobs created, new companies, and more export opportunities. In Macedonia, it was wonderful because the project helped revitalize and restructure dying industries. Now those small companies are competing successfully in new markets in Europe.
We expect to have the same kind of impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which today suffers from an unemployment rate of 45 percent. We will partner with local entrepreneurs to create third party service providers, called “e-BIZ Enterprises,” that provide technology-based services to small and medium enterprises. Those “high impact” technology services have a quick and significant effect on improving the competitiveness of whole industry sectors, so they can compete in higher end markets, with better jobs and higher incomes. The e-BIZ Enterprises are created as for-profit companies, and we make sure they have a strong business plan, so they turn a profit within a relatively short time (say three years). As a result, they continue providing these high impact services long after the project ends, with lasting effects.
For agribusinesses, we want to help them improve quality and reliability, as well as use ecologically sound production practices, to increase their international sales. But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, farmers can’t afford laptops or access to the Internet so we’re looking into developing a system that will be cheap and easy for them to use. We’re assessing the market to be sure the system will have enough market demand to become sustainable. Once it’s running, it could offer a model to improve export opportunities for other developing countries as well. It’s very exciting.
We’re also focusing on the tool-and-die industry, as we did in Macedonia, as well as the furniture-making industry, as many wood products are made in Bosnia. We’re setting up computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD-CAM) technology centers that will help companies compete in high-end European markets and promote “clean” production practices. These centers will also encourage people from different ethnic groups to collaborate.
What’s the most satisfying aspect of your work?
In recent years, I’ve focused on job creation—not just more jobs, but better jobs that pull people out of poverty. I really enjoy helping people build new businesses that generate enough income so that they can provide comfortable lives for their families.
It’s also exciting to see how creative people are when they own something. The problem with many donor projects is they give training and equipment for free, without realizing they are destroying the market for local entrepreneurs who can and want to offer the same things at affordable prices. When people invest their own money and ideas in a business, as the entrepreneurs we worked with did in Macedonia and are doing in Bosnia, they have a different mindset. They can be very creative about how to spot a need, communicate their solution to their local community, and come up with a realistic business plan. They come up with ideas I could never have imagined when they have a financial stake in the work we’re doing together.