02 Mar 2015

To Market, To Market

Heifer International’s CEO is turning smallholder farmers into small business owners whose success transforms one village at a time.
by Margie Kelley

Pierre Ferrari

Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee/Heifer International

Ending poverty and hunger for millions of people around the world may sound like an insurmountable goal, but that hasn’t stopped Pierre Ferrari (MBA 1976) from taking it on—and finding success.

“By 2020, we will end poverty for 4 million families,” says Ferrari, now in his fifth year as CEO at Heifer International, the anti-poverty organization perhaps best known for its livestock donation program. “We can do this by building businesses. We are putting families in commerce. They are not just growing vegetables in a garden. They are growing produce with surpluses to sell at market. We’re looking to transform lives by moving primarily smallholder farmers out of hunger and poverty, toward resilience.”

These farmers, in more than 30 countries worldwide, says Ferrari, have the potential to effectively feed about 100 million people. That’s a lot of food, and making it a reality requires building an agricultural and market infrastructure in places—like parts of Nepal, Romania, Haiti, and Guatemala—where little or none has previously existed.

“The way we do this is through value-based development, where we engage farmers in wealth-creating value chains and market-oriented food production that integrates livestock and sustainable agriculture,” says Ferrari. “We come at it from a community development perspective. We do a lot of work preparing villages to engage in the relatively harsh world of markets. It’s hard for them. They can barely make a living, and we come in and say, ‘Now you’re going to sell to a market.’”

To ease the transition, Heifer provides far more than just healthy livestock. Nearly a thousand professionals in the field provide education and training in a range of technical areas. For instance, in Haiti, Heifer is teaching farmers to launch and efficiently operate livestock breeding centers, improve soil systems, and create opportunities for a younger generation to take on farming. In Armenia, Heifer has been teaching farmers about pasture management as well as helping to develop an infrastructure of roads, irrigation, and equipment that is already boosting the quality of life in close to 50 communities. In Nepal, Heifer’s guidance is bringing several villages out of economic distress.

“We are 20 months into a new operation of goat farming there,” says Ferrari. “They’ve made $2.5 million in sales. When they get to $5 million, it will make a huge difference to the entire region. You can see the prosperity returning to the villages.”

The impacts of this prosperity have been significant. A local credit union has replaced an abusive loan-shark system; farmers (mostly women) have learned how to buy supplies in bulk to save money; and many of the men—who had gone abroad in search of work—are now reuniting with their families.

“This is changing lives, and I love it, “says Ferrari, a former Coca Cola marketing executive who also spent several years leading development projects in Africa for CARE, before joining Heifer in 2010.

Though he attended HBS in the mid-1970s—long before the dawn of social enterprise courses—Ferrari says he learned to think in a way that still serves him well in the nonprofit sector, where he’s seeking to make a major social and economic impact.

“When I interviewed for this job, I’d never led a nonprofit,” he recalls. “We have a thousand employees, dispersed around the world. It’s a very different set of challenges. But because of my HBS experience, and the belief that with analytical skill and commitment you can actually get stuff done, I felt I could succeed. That is what HBS gave me.”

Since taking the helm at Heifer, Ferrari has helped the organization set and reach a number of internal goals that he says are critical to its mission to end poverty. From revising its global systems—for accounting, project and data management, and knowledge gathering—to reducing the number of projects and countries where it works, Heifer has been able to boost its impacts on the ground significantly.

“In the countries where we operate, the scale of each project has gone from an average of 150 families served per project, to up to 6,000 families served per project. Scale effects and multiplier effects have led to substantially lower costs, so we’re having a much greater impact, at a much lower cost.”

Ferrari has also spearheaded Heifer’s efforts to diversify its revenue sources beyond the livestock gift catalog, through partnerships with foundations and international aid agencies.

“Harvard definitely helped me develop my ‘systems thinking’: understanding, from beginning to end, how a system works and how it can be adapted to perform better. That was the focus,” recalls Ferrari. “It leads to a greater impact, which is of great importance in the social sector when you’re hoping to elevate the human condition.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1976, Section B
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