Enterprising communities: bridging foreign and local realities

‘The challenge is to learn to see things the other way round, to appreciate and grasp that other reality, of local people’ – Robert Chambers.

Forming a bridge.
Isabel Brüggemann, PhD student, CJBS
Isabel Brüggemann, PhD student at Cambridge Judge Business School

Empowering others to drive their own change

This rationale has been at the forefront of community-based enterprise (CBE) initiatives around the globe. CBEs signal a move away from helping others through charitable giving towards enabling others to live sustainably on their own.

During a recent field trip to Indonesia, I became aware of the challenges that development practitioners face when attempting to develop enterprise structures in rural communities.

Foreign knowledge and practices

Earlier this year, I accompanied four Cambridge MBA students on their Global Consulting Project to two rural villages in the Kapuas Hulu region of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The aim of the project was to assess the potential of two recently formed CBEs in each of the villages and develop solutions for how the value for the communities of these businesses could be enhanced.

In one of the villages, a cluster of local NGOs together with Fauna and Flora International (the project’s main sponsor) had established an association for local forest honey farmers at the beginning of 2014. Members of the association had been trained in sustainable harvesting techniques and quality standards for honey production, and recently managed to sell their honey to large national buyers.

Talking to members of the Forest Honey Network Indonesia, one of the local NGOs, I found out about the challenges that had occurred during the training processes. Many of them were related to how knowledge that was foreign to the local communities could be translated on the ground. One NGO member reported that village structures are “sticky”, which means that outsiders conducting training in novel practices need to bridge the gap between their own perspectives and those of local community members. Merging foreign and local knowledge with traditions and ensuring comfort with new practices are two important themes.

Merging foreign and local knowledge and traditions

In Ujung Said, one of the two remotely located villages we visited, forest honey production has been one of the major livelihoods for people for several generations. When the honey farmers’ association was set up two years ago, the farmers were already engaging in established practices related to honey harvesting. One of them was the production of tenkawang, honey boards placed in trees for bees to build their hives on, typically hung low, where they can be reached easier than real branches.

The new standard of sustainable harvesting was brought in by the collective of NGOs by linking it to this existing local practice. Instead of cutting off the whole hive when harvesting from the boards, members of the association were trained to only cut off the head of the hive, which grows back quicker than the whole hive. External and local knowledge related to honey harvesting was thereby successfully merged.

Next, external experts were replaced by local experts. The association elected members of the community who were trained in sustainable harvesting standards and then given the role of local “inspector”. The inspectors are responsible for controlling the practices of the local honey farmers and ‘training their friends’, as one farmer described it.

The initiative takes consideration of villagers’ adherence to local hierarchies. The elected inspectors typically have a well-respected status in the village. A bureaucratic Western-style organisational governance would not match the structures community members are accustomed to.

Establishing comfort around new practices

Finally, as with every new idea, the novel harvesting practices carried a fear of the unknown. The honey farmers of Ujung Said used to harvest during night time, when they felt saver from attacks from the bees, but sustainable harvesting necessitates harvesting during day time, when bees are more likely to return to their hives and start producing honey again. Initially, this made the farmers feel very uncomfortable, until they started to engage in day-time harvesting ceremonies in which they asked bees to become their “friends” and allow them to take their honey. The ceremonies were a tradition passed on from their ancestors, which had previously been associated with night-time harvesting only. Introducing this established tradition to the new harvesting practices had a reassuring effect on the farmers.

As outsiders to the context, the NGOs were not aware of the traditions underlying existing harvesting practices initially. However, letting local farmers determine the manner of implementing the new harvesting practices meant that these traditions, providing a source of comfort, could be kept alive.

Participatory enterprise building

When it comes to supporting members of communities in developing countries to live sustainably on their own, what matters is not only the knowledge of those making recommendations for improving the viability of existing CBEs. What matters first and foremost is the reality of those who have been engaging in entrepreneurial activities during their lifetime in the way their ancestors have taught them.

Participatory CBE development takes account of what community members have to contribute to the process of enterprise development. It acknowledges their skills, traditions, beliefs and passions and develops solutions that align with both the advisements of external resource-givers and the customs of local people. Bridging foreign and local realities is at the forefront of this approach.

In response to the question ‘whose reality counts?’[1], which development practitioner Robert Chambers urged to think about, it is both the realities of outsiders and insiders that count but, as outsiders, we have the unique obligation to step back from our existing conceptions and consider another reality. Embarking upon this challenging journey is hugely important for the development of viable and empowering CBEs, as the case of the forest honey community business in Ujung Said vividly portrays.


This Cambridge Judge MBA Global Consulting Project was funded by Fauna & Flora International and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. The participating MBA students were Ian Nagle, Seon-Woo Ahn, Jocelyn Zhou and Chris Covey.


[1] Chambers, R. 1995. Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose Reality Counts? Environment and Urbanization, 7(1): 173-204.

Isabel Brueggemann

Isabel Brueggemann

  1. David Viney

    Found it fascinating reading this – and would love to interview you for my new book (out in 2025). The plan is to create a definitive work on Change Management, based on empirical analysis (to distinguish between methods that are thought to work and those which actually do work). It builds on some of the work I have done previously on “the J-Curve” of Change – and the innvoative approach you used to address the farmers’ change resistance is fascinating in that context. Please do reach out if you get this and are interested in helping. Yours, David.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.