Ernesto Sirolli has spent 30 years helping people find the resources they need to start businesses and make them thrive. He and the people he’s trained have been instrumental in launching more than 40,000 enterprises in 250 communities and 25 countries. Curiosity, commitment, and the willingness to spend time in some of the most remote locations on earth have given him unusual insight into what successful entrepreneurs do well. Above all, he advises business leaders to shut up and listen.
In fact, “Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen” was the title of Sirolli’s TED Talk in 2012. Originally delivered at a regional TEDx in rural New Zealand, his presentation was posted to the main TED website and garnered nearly 2 million views, bringing worldwide attention to his work. Speaking in heavily accented Italian, and in his characteristic tone of wry simplicity, Sirolli recounted his early experiences working for an Italian NGO that specialized in economic development. After earning his laurea di dottore in political science from the University of Rome—the highest graduate degree offered in Italy at the time—he set off in the early 1970s full of idealism to work in impoverished communities in Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Somalia, and Zambia.
“Everything we touched, we killed,” he says, evoking slightly nervous laughter from the TED audience. “Every project we did, every single one of them, failed.” He describes, for example, how his team decided to teach Zambians how to grow food in the beautiful fertile valley where they had always lived as pastoralists, shepherding animals but planting nothing. The team imported seeds from Italy—tomatoes and zucchini—but the locals didn’t seem interested. The team tried to pay them money, but there was little in the valley available to buy. Finally, the NGO started importing whiskey and beer in order to coax the men into the fields. “We kept thinking, what is wrong with these people?”
It soon became apparent. The tomatoes appeared on the vines, huge bursting fruits that put the most bountiful Italian crops to shame. The team members were joyful, but the next morning they awoke to find every single one of the plants gone. Hippos had swarmed up from the river and begun gorging. The Italians ran to tell the Zambians what had happened. “Of course,” said the people. “That’s why we don’t plant in the valley.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” asked the Italians.
“Because you never asked,” came the response.
The experience was painful. “I thought we Italians were good people, and I wondered how we could fail so badly,” says Sirolli. “Was it for these ‘results’ that we had hooked the community on whiskey and beer? So I began looking around at other projects that had been done in Africa—by the English, the Americans, the French—hoping to get ideas. And I realized, at least we fed the hippos. Other million-dollar projects just left rubbish behind. Everywhere I saw the same problem: Our well-intentioned efforts failed because we didn’t listen to the people we were trying to help.”
Challenging Entrepreneurs to Succeed
The story of Sirolli’s experiences in Africa is told in his book, Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies (New Society Publishers, 1999). Now used as a text in many community and economic development courses, Ripples offers three essential messages about economic development. First, all effective development ideas need to come from local people rather than “experts,” no matter how well-meaning or informed these experts might be. Second, most efforts to motivate people are fruitless; rather, those trying to help local enterprise must wait until entrepreneurs ask for help, then connect them with the resources they need. And third, entrepreneurs should never be encouraged to act in isolation on their dreams, because doing so will increase their chances of failure and cause them to question their own capacities.