A hero has left us

A hero has left us

…a tribute to Yasuo Konishi

MASERU – IN both professional and social life, there are people who leave an indelible impression on you.
I first met Yasuo Konishi 2005, by chance. Little did I know that would be the beginning of our 14-year interaction as both professional and social beings. Ours was an improbable of meetings.

Two years earlier I had joined the Ministry of Tourism and Environment as coordinator of a bilateral project between Lesotho and South Africa on the protection of biodiversity in the Drakensberg Mountains. Funded by the World Bank through the Global Environment Facility, the project’s focus was biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihood support for communities in the mountains.

In early 2005 the World Bank had approached me to help with another project they were starting under what was then known as the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing.
It was a daunting request in that it came with a curious caveat and what it entailed was completely incongruent to my expertise at that time. First, they wanted me to help facilitate the design of the project as a volunteer. That meant this was not a paid assignment and there was no promise that I would eventually get any role in the project.

Second, the main thrust of the project was to improve Lesotho’s business environment and enhance economic diversification. So I was being asked to donate my time to design a project whose areas of focus were far removed from something I had done and was doing.

Despite my anxiety I plunged into the assignment with zeal, doing my real job by day and moonlighting on the new project at night.
Just as I was about to complete my assignment on the new project I was called to a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security which was then led by the now late Minister Daniel Rakoro Phororo. I walked into an office at the ministry’s department of crops to find a ‘short’ and intense man chairing the meeting of three officers and four farmers. He was later introduced to me as Yasuo Konishi.

The meeting’s agenda was to discuss the possibility of launching commercial vegetable and deciduous fruit farms in Lesotho.
What immediately struck me about Konishi was that he looked Japanese but had a distinctly American accent (He later told me he was an American of Japanese descent).

While I was still trying to wrap my head around that paradox, I was immediately captivated by his passion and ability to articulate complex issues in simple language.
Then came what I thought was amazing generosity. He was suggesting that the government supports the farmers with seedlings, netting, initial operational costs and irrigation equipment.

At the end of the pilot project, Konishi proposed, the farmers would be allowed buy the irrigation pumps and generators at hugely discounted prices.
“And what were the farmers to put in,” someone asked. “Time and land,” Konishi said.

That to me was a great deal for Basotho farmers who I knew to be pressed for cash to start such capital-intensive projects.
At the end of the meeting I was assigned to come up with a sort of contract between the farmers, funders and the government. A prominent lawyer helped with me with that.

For the next few months Konishi would occasionally visit Lesotho while I went back to my project at the Ministry of Tourism and Environment. I thought my interaction with him had ended but I was wrong.
Towards the end of 2006 World Bank officials told me that the implementation of the project I had helped design had been delayed and they were concerned that it might not take off.

Their suggestion that I join the project came as a complete surprise to me but by that time my fears had somewhat eased because I had come to fully understand the project’s mandate.

I officially joined the project at the end of 2006. And as I began my new role, so did my 14-year journey with Konishi. He would become the cornerstone of the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP), a World Bank-funded project of the Government of Lesotho under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing.

Over the years, Konishi contributed to the development of horticulture value chains, the codification of agriculture land leases, Lesotho’s first official cherry exports, our first GlobalGAP certification and up-scaling of commercial horticulture.

Together with Konishi, the immensely dedicated Ministry of Agriculture officers, the Project Management Unit and communities, we set out to work on the fruit farms. Our first assignment was to establish three pilot projects to understand which areas were ideal for which fruits.
At one point the project was stuck and donors were concerned that the implementation was too slow. Konishi worked with us to restructure the project to address the donor’s concerns.

That is how the Mahobong fruit project came alive. Thanks to him, the three pilot projects are still working and the subsequent three farms thriving.
Today, the pilot projects and the farms employ nearly a hundred people. They have transformed the lives of nearly 50 rural farmers who are shareholders in the companies that own the farms. Their families are better off.

Meanwhile their production of apricots, plums, apples and peaches is growing year on year. They are supplying to local shops, vendors and communities. Some have supplied South African supermarkets. The impact of the farms on livelihoods and the local economy has been enormous. Konishi has been an integral part of this process, diligently providing expertise and guidance.
He had a unique ability to combine theory and practice. One day he would be working on a concept and the next he would be driving its implementation.

Often, those who have the theoretical grounding are wanting when it comes to implementation. Not Konishi. A pragmatic intellectual, he could hash out a concept and seamlessly move on to the practical side.
Konishi was one of those rare bureaucrats with a knack for doing things the private sector way. He was always eager for things to happen fast and would sometimes be fazed when some insisted on sticking to the bureaucratic etiquettes. Incidentally, that was the main source of our occasional points of departure but eventually we always found each other and got the job done.
Konishi was a driven and spontaneous man. I recall how we would conceptualise an idea during our occasional dinners and instantly come up with the terms of reference.

By the next morning, Konishi would be ready with the whole concept of the project and clear implementation guidelines.
That is how the idea to commercialise herb and spice production in Lesotho came about. The African Development Bank (AfDB) agreed to fund the feasibility study which is currently being finalised.

On November 7 this year, Konishi submitted the business plan that would guide the process of bringing private investors to partner with the farmers in the three fruit farms.  He did this as the transactional advisor to the tripartite of the Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC), the farmers and the investors.

Over the years Konishi supported sectors ranging from agriculture to industry. He was instrumental in strengthening Lesotho’s business environment, diversifying its economy, attracting investment, promoting exports and improving income opportunities, especially to farmers. Indeed, he laid a strong foundation for commercial agriculture in Lesotho.
He conducted the skins, leather and footwear value-chain study for Economic Diversification Project which was financed by the AfDB. The assignment identified investment opportunities and proposed ways to manage the environmental impact in the leather value chain while creating income opportunities for Lesotho livestock farmers.

That study coincided with Lesotho’s development of a red meat industry. Konishi also helped with the sustainable commercialized production of poultry and piggeries which, until then, were small operations mainly at subsistence level.

His is recognised internationally for his innovations and pioneering work in the field of development, particularly in bringing together corporations with international organisations to tackle market and supply systems challenges in developing and emerging markets.

Konishi had over 34 years of professional experience in private business, think tanks, and advising major international organisations like the World Bank/IFC, United Nations, EBRD and the Inter-American Development Bank.

His negotiation skills combined with technical expertise in small business development and foreign direct investments have proven beneficial to major corporations as well as local businesses in developing countries seeking market opportunities.

Konishi suffered a stroke and heart attack in Washington DC on November 28 and was recovering well when he suddenly died on December 1.
It’s a great loss to the entire world and leaves a huge gap in the field of development practice. We at the PSCEDP are greatly saddened by his passing. We grieve with his family, friends and colleagues.

Apart for this contribution to Lesotho, his intellect, passion and efficiency, I will remember Konishi for his rich sense of humour. Our nights in Maseru were filled with roaring laughter as he joked about his life, height, work and travels. He would fit in instantly and had come to be an integral part of the PSCED project. One day he would be enjoying his wine in a restaurant and the next afternoon he would be at a chisanyama.

Chaba Mokuku is Project Manager of the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification Project (PSCEDP).

 

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