In global markets, helping the local economy is good business

PCoffee farmers working at drying tables on hillside (Courtesy Westrock Coffee Co.)
Leokadia, a Rwandan farmer, at a washing station where she washes and dries her premium beans for sale to a U.S. export company. (Courtesy Westrock Coffee Co.)

When Westrock Coffee Company, a small Arkansas business, opened an export operation in Rwanda, its manager got calls from rivals telling him Westrock was paying farmers too much for their beans.

“So we raised what we pay farmers again,” said Todd Brogdon. “We wanted to prove that we’re here to run a profitable operation, but not take advantage of these people.”

Westrock helps farmers produce higher quality beans so they can command premium prices. It has opened washing stations in villages so farmers can deliver “fully washed” beans.

Today Westrock buys beans from 50,000 small farmers, boasts a 30 percent market share and exports 4.5 million kilograms of beans a year from Rwanda and Tanzania. Its approach to doing business in Africa is one that many U.S. companies take in investing overseas: trying to turn a profit while helping local communities.

Often these firms get loan guarantees and other help from U.S. government agencies to start doing business in developing countries. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation provided risk insurance to Westrock, whose founder, former telecom executive Scott Ford, has advised Rwandan President Paul Kagame on development.

Bridge building for developing countries

Acrow Bridge, a New Jersey firm, sells prefabricated, modular bridges in 80 countries, many in dire need of infrastructure. Loan guarantees from the U.S. Export-Import Bank make it possible for developing countries to secure financing from investment banks.

The Ex-Im Bank recently honored Acrow for arranging a $50 million deal to supply 55 bridges to Cameroon. Earlier Acrow inked a similar $73 million deal to supply 144 bridges to Zambia.

Bridge over river in rural hamlet (Courtesy of Acrow Bridge)
An Acrow bridge in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (Courtesy of Acrow Bridge)

“Our competitors are from China and Europe,” said Paul Sullivan, an Acrow vice president. He said his company has an edge because it provides “extensive training of local engineers and technicians in the assembly and installation of these bridges.”

“We don’t move into international markets thinking, ‘We have a great product and we’re just going to sell it,'” Sullivan said. “We’re interested in becoming integral partners in the development of the national infrastructure plan.”

Acrow’s bridges offer relief to places dealing with unexpected problems. They are shipped in 3-meter sections, can be assembled in days and last up to 75 years, Sullivan said. No cranes or heavy construction equipment is required.

Chile is still using a 1.4-kilometer Acrow bridge installed after a 2010 earthquake. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed highway bridges outside New Orleans in 2005, Acrow provided bridges to span Lake Pontchartrain.

Why stewardship matters

When Coca-Cola Company, which operates in 200 countries, builds water-purification plants to supply clean water for its own drinks, it often cleans and recycles enough clean water for entire communities.

Coca-Cola also spearheads a public-private partnership that has placed more than 100 solar-powered kiosks called Ekocenters that furnish not only safe water but internet access to rural villages in Africa and Vietnam.

“It’s always good business if you can help the people who are your customers,” said Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa, which promotes U.S.-Africa trade.

“When more countries invest responsibly in Africa, it creates more jobs and prosperity for us all,” President Obama told the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 2015. Economic relationships “can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor” or extracting natural resources.