Ray Menard, executive director of Cheetah Development in Hastings, Minn., takes adage about teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish one step further. “Show him how to sell fish and he will eat steak”, says the Cheetah website.
When Menard visited Africa in 2008, he came to the realization that traditional aid to developing countries, while well intentioned, wasn’t working. He describes what he saw in Tanzania as “broken links in the economic chain” of that country. For example, small farmers were growing a lot of food, but there was a breakdown in the system of transporting it to market and selling it.
Originally educated as a biochemist, Menard has been involved in business development and consulting for nearly 30 years. After Sept. 11, 2001, he was instrumental in the effort to design a system for the logistics and security of hauling debris away from the World Trade Center site.
While in Africa, Menard realized that business development is the key to success for developing countries. “It’s Development 101,” he says. He started up Cheetah Development, a non-profit company here in Minnesota that invests in small- to mid-sized for-profit business ventures in Africa.
“There is a better way than handouts,” says Menard. “What we’re doing is helping them unlock their own resources, so they can feed themselves, clothe themselves and send their own kids to school.”
Discipline and profit
Cheetah Development is based on the premise that the discipline required to turn a profit will help these business owners develop the skills necessary for long-term success. Menard sees a gap between existing large-scale venture capital and microfinance in the developing world. He calls this “the missing middle” and believes this is where investment capital is most needed. Cheetah’s projects will focus on the $5,000 to $500,000 range of business size.
Cheetah has already begun a handful of projects in Tanzania, mostly involving transportation, preservation and distribution of foods. The most visible of these so far is the bicycle project.
In Tanzania, bikes are used for far more than transporting people – they are trucks for moving goods. Farmers add structure to the frame of an ordinary bike and pile on hundreds of pounds of food and other items to transport to market. Sometimes they get so heavy that they can’t even be ridden and are used as something like a wheelbarrow. Regular bicycles aren’t built for this kind of stress and often break.
In keeping with its philosophy, Cheetah Development is planning to build a bike factory in Tanzania that will build ultra-heavy duty bicycles, specifically designed for use by farmers that will bear loads up to 1,000 pounds.
Cheetah has put together a design team of Twin Cities engineers and marketing people from various fields that have volunteered their time and expertise to build a prototype bike as well as design the new factory in Tanzania.
Pam Saylor, a sales manager for Kurt Kinetic, a manufacturer of parts for the bicycle industry, will be in charge of sales. Design and construction of the prototype is being done by Bob Brown, owner of Bob Brown Cycles, a St. Paul custom-frame bike company, Lloyd Keleny, part of the original Rollerblade engineering team, Mark Stonich, owner of Bikesmith Design and Fabrication in Minneapolis, and John Hehre, president and CEO of Creative Processes, Inc. They’ve been working since last spring to build a prototype bike.
Menard hopes to have the first factory in Tanzania up and running in the first quarter of 2011. The factory will be sized based on pre-orders, but he hopes to build several thousand bikes in the first year of production. He’s currently raising money for that effort and for the other projects that are underway.
Menard uses the word catalyst from his biochemistry days — something that facilitates a reaction without getting used up by the reaction — to describe Cheetah Development’s role. He thinks the economic challenges of sub-Saharan Africa present enormous opportunities for investment in the people who live there. Cheetah Development is in the business of teaching fishing (business-building) to the people of Africa to give them the skills to change their own lives.