What motivated the Managing Director of one of the Southern Hemisphere's largest logistics and agricultural organizations to give up his job and volunteer for WFP? As he completes a three-and-a-half year assignment with WFP, based mostly in Uganda, Simon Costa explains why he made such a drastic change, which involved being away from his family for three-and-a-half years, and how his work helped to produce unprecedented results in tackling food losses in Uganda.
What was your motivation for taking such a radical step in your life?
I reached a point in my personal and professional life where I was reflecting on the objectives of my life. I had been very fortunate to have achieved success at a reasonably young age, whether financial or otherwise.
Our organization was an industry leader and the question for me was: "What is my purpose?" "What is my motivation?" "When I reach the age of 60, 70, 80, what does "winning" look like for me?". I certainly didn't feel it would be reflected in the amount of money I had in my bank account or how many assets I owned.
"When I reach the age of 60, 70, 80, what does "winning" look like for me?". I certainly didn't feel it would be reflected in the amount of money I had in my bank account or how many assets I owned.
I started to explore ways in which I could use the gifts that I have been given for the benefit of others. My decision to step away from my corporate responsibilities and do a different thing was not sudden – it evolved over several years. Thankfully I have a very supportive family. I explained to them that I wanted to try and use my experience and my talents to help others.
Was it easier for you to make a life-changing decision like this, as opposed to other people, as you had presumably made yourself financially secure?
Having money may allow you some additional flexibility in your decision making, but it does not make life-changing decisions any easier. I am not able to comment on the motivation or capacity of other people. However I can assure you it was not an easy decision for me to leave my family and the work I was doing, to pursue an objective I knew very little about.
Also, it is important to note that volunteering does not have to mean changing one's life. Everyone has the ability to dedicate part of their time to supporting others. It is not a question of how much money you have – it is a question of desire. If you can only spare a small amount of your time, that is great. If you are in a position to contribute more of your time, even better.
Why did you want to volunteer for WFP?
I began researching. I knew about the United Nations and I'd heard about the World Food Programme but I didn't know the details.
I approached WFP and said: "I have specific skills in supply chain management. You move an enormous amount of food in many different countries. Let me come and assess your supply chain and identify ways that I may be able to assist you".
How did things develop from there?
I joined WFP on a handshake and an informal agreement that I would work for six months as a volunteer. I never expected this would become such a passion. Neither did I anticipate that I would be involved for over three-and-a-half years.
We don't often get the chance to change an individual's life, let alone the lives of tens of thousands of families. People say: "How can you volunteer? You are getting nothing to do this". What they don't understand is how richly I am rewarded in ways other than money. The past four days, spent in southwest Uganda, were some of the proudest experiences I have had in my life.
How did you try and improve the work already being done?
I didn't anticipate seeing such levels of post-harvest food losses in the developing regions where WFP was working. It was alarming to find out that everything that was causing these losses had nothing to do with agricultural inputs. It had everything to do with logistics following harvest.
The procedures for transporting crops, the way they were being cleaned and dried prior to storage, and, most importantly, traditional household storage, were not of the right standard.
So I worked with some senior managers on a proposal. I suggested: "Let me show you how, if WFP can apply its logistical infrastructure and deep field presence, it can address food losses in a way that no other organization in the world has been able to do in the past".
How would you summarize your achievements?
We supported 16,600 farmers last year. This year, we are involving 41,000 farmers. We will be providing 840 workshops and we will produce and distribute more than 100,000 new pieces of handling and storage equipment to farmers.
WFP and our partners have achieved every one of our project goals in reducing post-harvest losses. This has not been achieved before in Africa. I like to think of WFP as leading the agricultural revolution for all developing regions.
How did you find the work of your colleagues?
That was challenging. I came with the private-sector mindset of just running through the wall. I had to understand that, for very good reasons, there are procedures that you need to follow. So the first few months required some adjustment on my part to understand the procedures of the Country Office.
The Country Director once said to me: "Simon, you are leading a development initiative but working with the urgency of an emergency operation!". We are now at a stage where I am far more respectful of the rules, but in fairness to the Ugandan Country Office team, they have worked very hard to find ways of providing rapid support to our project.
I was very impressed with the motivation and focus shown by the Ugandan staff, both in Kampala and at each of our offices.
What was the big challenge you faced?
The biggest challenge was the mindset of some Ugandans that Africans cannot perform at the same level as non-Africans. If I had accepted that thinking, we would have never set goals so high and we would have never achieved all of them.
What impact are you seeing from the work you've done?
I have been privileged to visit various groups of farmers who have been explaining to me the positive influence that WFP has made to their lives. They have literally been singing and dancing with joy!
"Various groups of farmers explained to me the positive influence that WFP has made to their lives. They have literally been singing and dancing with joy!"
Many of the farmers have shared wonderful stories with me about the cleaner food they are now providing to their family, the extra food they have to eat or sell, the extra money they have made to pay for their children's education, buy medicine or increase the size of their farms.
Did you like Uganda?
I loved Uganda. I loved the people. I loved their joyfulness. If you go through my files you will see I have so many photos and videos of the happiness of the Ugandan people. I just love the culture. During our training, the people would sing and dance and I would often get up and dance with them. This is such a rich country, a place of enormous opportunity and potential.
What are you planning to do next?
I am leaving the Uganda office but I am not yet leaving WFP. I cannot walk away from our project. I just mentioned to you the scale of our work in 2015. Even though a new team of leaders has come in to take the project forward, I have offered to remain available – remotely or electronically – and to come back if need be, to support them over the coming months.
Then I will see in the New Year what the next challenge will be for me. In the interim, I need to re-acquaint myself with my family. It's over three years that we have been apart.
How do you see the future of Uganda and its people now, are you optimistic?
Agriculture is both the largest employer of people and the largest source of family income in Uganda, so the need to eliminate the current levels of post-harvest food loss is of paramount importance.
What WFP and partners have shown is the potential benefit of launching initiatives across all farming regions. The current problem has little to do with the capability of Ugandan farmers and everything to do with insufficient guidance and education. I am extremely confident in the ability of Uganda to become a net export nation of quality crops, rather than a nation reliant on importing food from other countries.