Ripples from the Zambezi – Economic Development from the Bottom Up

This post is the first in a series of book reviews designed to share some of my better finds with readers (and motivate me to reflect on some of the books I have read and to read the ones that have been languishing on my book shelf!). I bought Ripples from the Zambezi thinking it would be about development in Africa. It’s not.

In Ripples from the Zambezi, the author, Ernesto Sirolli, turns the top down model of grand economic development on its head. Instead, his focus is on nurturing the passion and creativity of individuals.

The title comes from Sirolli’s early experiments in economic development in rural Africa, where he worked as a foreign aid worker for the Italian government. The beginning of the book details his experiences in Africa and the ideas that those failed experiments planted in his mind.

From that experience, he learned firsthand the damage traditional top down development models could do and made it his life’s work to find a better way to build local economies. He later discovered that the ideas that germinated in Africa applied to Western economies too.

Sirolli’s approach builds on the theories of E.F. Schumacher, A.H. Maslow, Carl Rogers and others. The fundamental concepts underpinning Sirolli’s work include:

–      A belief in the intrinsic goodness of human nature.

–      If people don’t ask for help, leave them alone.

–      There is no good or bad technology to carry out a task – only an appropriate or inappropriate one. Something big, modern, and expensive is not necessarily best; it all depends on the circumstances.

However, this is not just a book of theory. Sirolli goes on to tell stories about the enterprises he ‘facilitated’ under austere economic conditions. Sirolli’s first success came in a small rural community called Esperance in Western Australia. In Esperance, Sirolli helped fishermen sell fish to the Japanese sushi market for six times what the local cannery was paying for their catch. Another business was started smoking the fish for gourmet markets. Another new business made quality sandals from local kangaroo hides. Sheep farmers developed a processing business that turned worthless old ewes into valuable hides, wool and mutton kebabs.

In rural Minnesota, Sirolli was hired to work in one of the poorest counties in the state with a workforce of only 3,000. Within four years, his effort had resulted in 30 new businesses, assisted 127 existing ones, retained 55 jobs and created 71 new ones.

In rural South Dakota, a penniless cattleman developed a welding repair business in a small town. Within two years, it employed 27 people who processed $90,000 worth of orders a month.

The success of Sirolli’s model depends upon empowering people rather planners and policy makers.  “The future of every community,” Sirolli writes, “lies in capturing the energy, imagination, intelligence, and passion of its people.”

For more information on Sirolli’s methods, check out the Sirolli Institute’s website at

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