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October 24, 2012


by Erin Wilkinson Hartung


When I first started my small business research, I asked village micro-entrepreneurs about how they measured business growth and profit. I learned quickly this did not translate well. Basic business concepts were not taught in school and the Swahili culture is less about long term planning. The local fishermen measured business success by the number of fish caught in a day. I realized I had to change my interview questions to more about basic needs and immediacy. For instance, how many more bags of rice or food does your business bring into the household per month? What do you spend the extra money on?

Many times entrepreneurs were organized into co-operatives. So when requesting interviews with business leaders the entire co-op wanted to be present or all members interviewed. Everyone in the group needed to feel important and included. This became tricky when interviewing a group of 40 people. Sometimes they would all chat at once and at other times there might be competing factions among the group. In these situations, I would sift through the conversations listening for key business people and direct questions to them. This could at times take several hours.


Asking about household income is always a sensitive topic no matter what the culture. This is compounded when up to one-third of the men in Tanzania have more than one wife. This is a normal part of the local culture and religious beliefs. In these situations income inquiries became complicated and the answers convoluted. So it was important to get a clear picture of the number of households, co-wives, children and extended family members involved in income generation. Asking politely about the number of sister-wives helped immensely. I learned this tip from a colleague in the field.

Developing interview questions and procedures based on definitions of micro-enterprises in the U.S. was one thing. It was quite another process to interview an entire village co-op while sitting on the ground barefoot with a translator in the African bush. I learned real-time, and the hard way about the challenges that can occur with interview protocols across cultures, religions, languages and group dynamics.

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