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Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies by Ernesto Sirolli

Many people wish to strengthen their local economies, reduce dependence on multinational corporations, build community by doing things, or achieve self-fulfilment through meaningful work. Yet these results are not coming easily or economically from the top-down, programmatic, and strategic approaches typically used by governments, economic development districts, and even by community groups, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations.

As E. F. Schumacher observed in Good Work, we cannot expect to raise the wind that will push us to a better world. What we can do is hoist a sail to catch the wind when it does come. Ripples from the Zambezi tells the gripping story of how Ernesto Sirolli learned to catch the wind of passionate, skillful, creative, intelligent, and self-motivated entrepreneurs--the acknowledged powerhouse of the economy as well as of social change.

Sirolli's experiences as a volunteer for the Italian government in Africa during the 1970s convinced him that "development" schemes were anything but. After absorbing Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered and the person-centered psychology of Carl Rogers, Sirolli put his radical, antidogmatic ideas to the test in rural Western Australia. Instead of trying to motivate people, he made himself available as coach and advocate for anyone who was serious about starting or expanding a business enterprise.

By treating economic development as a byproduct of personal growth and self-actualization, Sirolli was able to make a quantum leap in the effectiveness of business coaching, as well as create local miracles of economic development. He has devoted himself since to teaching committed civic leaders how to do what he has done.

"In every community, no matter how small, remote, or depressed, there is somebody who is scribbling figures on a kitchen table. If we can be available, for free and in confidence, to help that person go from the dream to establish an enterprise that can sustain that person and his or her family, we can begin to change the economic fortunes of the entire community."

The strategy that Sirolli teaches to communities often involves a committed volunteer local board, who hires an "Enterprise Facilitator" who is then trained by Sirolli. The facilitator does not initiate projects or promote "good ideas." He or she responds to the interests and passions of self-motivated people. Because no one has equal passion for production, marketing, and financial management, all of which are necessary for business success, and because people only do well what they care about doing, the secret of success and survival for a business of any size is to find people who love to do what you hate. "The death of the entrepreneur is solitude." The facilitator and the board, with networking, help people form teams to advance their idea.

This is a strategy that is always followed in large business, but remains unusual in small business, where most people are still advised to write business plans singlehandedly, and to get better at what they hate. For example, farmers and ranchers whose inclinations and personalities do not lend themselves to marketing are often told that they must learn marketing skills to get off the commodity roller coaster.

Sirolli's ideas are not just good. They are inspiring, inflammatory, they resonate--and they are based on 15 colorful years of failing and succeeding at hoisting the sail in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S.

The underlying philosophy has to do with empowerment rather than control. "A shift from strategic to responsive development can only occur," Sirolli writes, "if we are capable of believing that people are intrinsically good and that the diversity, variety, and apparent randomness of their passions is like the chaotic yet ecologically sound life manifestations in an old-growth forest."

The message is that bottom-up, person-centered, responsive economic development works--and if well understood and led at the community level, it works better than anything else. When a community can help motivated people succeed, the motivation spreads. "The future of every community," Sirolli writes, "lies in capturing the energy, imagination, intelligence, and passion of its people."

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Updated 21 April 2003