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Driving Change through Communities Ownership in Development Projects

Interview - April 23, 2024

The interview delves into NTC International's approach to global development projects, highlighting their emphasis on sustainability and local capacity building. They address challenges like changing local mindsets by involving communities in projects and advocating for ownership. 

TAKU MORI, PRESIDENT OF NTC INTERNATIONAL CO., LTD.
TAKU MORI | PRESIDENT OF NTC INTERNATIONAL CO., LTD.

Japanese firms have a strong record of successfully executing global development projects, but despite their immense expertise, they are currently confronted with many domestic challenges. Of course, there is an aging demographic, but there is also an aging infrastructure to deal with. This has prompted Japan to explore international markets, however, they are often competing with players like China. From your point of view, what advantages do Japanese firms bring to the global market when it comes to development projects, and how do they leverage these advantages to secure projects abroad while facing competition from global players such as China?

I think that the first point that might differentiate the Japanese approach from some other countries is the fact that we put a lot of emphasis on sustainability, in terms of the responsibility to be borne by the local beneficiaries themselves. We render our service in both the infrastructure development and the technical transfer channels. In both cases, we do as much as we can and spare as many resources as we can for the component of the local human resource training. Speaking about the case of the irrigation project, which is our major field, construction or the rehabilitation of the infrastructure itself is the starting point. Still, it is not necessarily the end of the development and therefore there is a need for proper operation and maintenance of the facilities. Also, in case of necessity, we can spare a small amount of resources there for repairs or to tackle liabilities in the first two or three years.

After the completion period, I think the real fight starts for the local beneficiaries. In a lot of African countries, local farmers have been receiving government projects or international projects as a gift. They have a common understanding to take it for granted, and therefore it is a hard task for us to change that mindset. In the case of either boreholes for drinking water or reservoirs for irrigation, I believe that they should take part in that project itself and its maintenance. If they keep on believing that infrastructure is a gift, then they will just abandon it whenever faults appear.

Honestly, that change of mindset takes a long time according to our experience. In the case of our project in Rwanda, we had a project that covered the rehabilitation of two reservoirs and the construction of one new reservoir. China had intervened several decades ago with a similar project to build reservoirs but many of them had already been underutilized or abandoned. We saw with our own eyes the reality of the situation and understood that this kind of project should not continue in the same manner it was conducted decades ago. We are now trying to apply lessons learned in Japan with farming infrastructure and push the idea that a community should be responsible for the maintenance of irrigation facilities. Gradually and slowly, we are changing this mindset. They need to understand that the owner of the facilities is not the government, instead is the people of the community, so local leaders need to call on the community to bring the labor force and financial contribution necessary for repairs should they be needed. This sort of local leadership is not something that can easily be found so we are finding that we need to foster that sense of community, and the key resource there is time.


Workers in Rwanda


The big challenge you see in emerging countries such as African nations is that when countries, companies, or even associations give development aid, it is more often than not just a temporary fix. It is a vicious circle and there is a real need to change the mentality. How is your firm tackling this change in mentality that is needed?

There is not a 100% correct and unique answer to that question. Each consulting firm and project takes a different approach, but in our case, I think one of the effective approaches has been to invite local leaders and government officers to come to Japan and see for themselves. The farmers share a lot in common even though they live in different countries and different conditions. The way of life for farmers is very common and they are always concerned about the climate or the weather. From that point of view, we can invite them to see local rural communities in Japan and they can see different types of irrigation systems and the mechanisms of local community participation. Despite the short-term stay, we want to maximize their learning opportunities.

Honestly speaking I cannot say that this trip will change 100% of the participant's mindset, however, I would say confidently that around half will change the way they think. The hope is that they will take these experiences and share them with others when they get back home. I think this is quite an effective approach.  

I think this is a unique perspective since we put a lot of emphasis on the training here in Japan. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in particular is a good partner here since they have centers all around Japan and their courses are related to topics such as agriculture, rural development, and livestock farming. Some of their training projects have long been commissioned by our company.

 

When it comes to overseas projects in developing countries, many people forget that one of the key characteristics to take into account is the soil composition of different regions. There are elements to consider such as water holding capacity, and these elements can influence irrigation, water management, and even the efficiency of irrigation itself. We know that your firm has been involved in many projects in Africa and the Middle East, all of which have different types of soil compositions. How do you adapt your solutions and services to suit these different environmental factors?

I am very happy to hear a question like this and it suggests to me that you might have studied soil science in the past. I also studied pedology so I think I might be able to talk a lot about this subject. In summary, the base of the technologies developed in Japan are based on the humid monsoon climate and paddy rice farming. However, in international development projects, we have to adapt ourselves to different climates and different soil conditions. You mentioned some semi-arid regions there, but we also sometimes have to deal with tropical rainforest types of ecosystems. There they have much higher rainfall which is another factor you have to consider, and in any case, these conditions are very different from Japan.

In these cases, we cannot say that Japan is much more advanced than other donor countries. In the case of the Middle East, we see many projects supported by European countries which tend to have similar climates and soil conditions. In cases like this, we try to form partnerships with other local consulting companies as well as other international research institutions. They are the real experts in their regions. We know where the accumulation of the real research products and technologies for each region is. Then we try to seek possible solutions before trying to apply them to the development project.  Fortunately, we have staff members on our books who retired from international research organizations and we can utilize their network of contacts.

 

We saw in our research that you mainly participate in official development assistance (ODA) projects under the umbrella of the JICA Group, however, we also saw that you work directly in certain cases with local governments. Are you looking to do more of these direct, local government projects or initiatives? What is your future strategy in terms of the composition of your projects?

The projects under the umbrella of JICA will continue to be a central pillar of our business. There is no doubt about that, but we also see a need to widen our portfolio and our client structure. This will include entities such as local governments and international development organizations such as the World Bank. I think this can be considered the second pillar of our business alongside our work within JICA. The third pillar would be our business in the Japanese private sector. We are not talking about large firms like Sony or Panasonic, rather we are talking about smaller-scale SMEs. In particular, we are looking at SMEs that are seeking to go to developing countries like Southeast Asian and African nations.

In fact, since 2021, we have been engaged in a very interesting project that is still funded by JICA but it is quite a new scheme that can financially support private companies looking to develop their business in developing countries. The requirement for this aid is that the business should be related to solutions for social or economic problems in each recipient country. In this context, we render services using our expertise in consulting and engineering, and also in an advisory role including logistics advice. Unfortunately, I cannot give any specific names of companies or their products right now due to non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality.

However, I can give you one example of a company in Kyushu. They have patented a very innovative technology to tackle the problem of contamination of molten sediment on the seabed. This contamination in Japan mainly occurs in marine engineering projects such as when a local government makes a new port. But, in the case of Chile, the environmental contamination of the sea is becoming a big problem since they are the world’s second-largest exporter of salmon. The newly elected President banned the expansion of salmon grazing cages in the ocean until an innovative solution was introduced. This company in Kyushu sees this as a huge opportunity for them so we are now working with them to see if their business is feasible or not. The great aspect of this is that at the same time as making a feasible business, this company can also make significant contributions to solving an environmental issue that is hurting the whole country of Chile. It is not an easy task, but exciting as it is quite a departure from the typical operation style we have done in ODA-based projects for the past 40 years.

This third pillar should be nourished in my opinion and I intentionally allow the younger staff to integrate into these kinds of schemes rather than the veteran engineers. They are very interested and motivated by this kind of project. We are now contributing to more than 10 of these similar projects with Japanese companies.

 

Over the past 40 years, NTC International has participated in many projects. Personally, what project are you most fond of?

Each staff here at NTCI might have a completely different answer. Personally, before taking this position as president of the company I worked as an engineer so I would say that my answer probably reflects my own experiences. I can mention watershed protection projects in Panama and Honduras as the most proud ones. In the case of the Panama Canal, Japan was then the second largest user with cargo and equipment. , therefore the thought was to protect the watershed as it is a source of fresh water for the canal. When I was in my 30s, I participated in this project for six years. This was in collaboration with local communities who are practicing slash-and-burn type extensive farming. This causes the land to rapidly change with very rapid deforestation. This kind of dilemma had to be resolved, so the government of Panama created a national park. However, this did not solve the problem fully since the designation of a national park is limited and there were already communities living there that needed to be preserved. The challenge came from preserving those people’s rights and their ways of living, but in an environmentally friendly way. We tried to introduce a less intense method of crop farming and livestock farming using organic fertilizers and recycling local resources. We were creating something that could be sold at a higher value to local markets.

It is easy to tell the farmers to quit using agrochemicals and instead change to organic farming, but for those practices to stick they need to be associated with higher income. We found the best approach was to target oriental immigrants in Panama including Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and people from other Asian countries. They were consuming a lot of vegetable species that the people of Panama had never heard of. We might be familiar with oriental vegetables, but the Panamanian traditional culture is of Spanish descent, so they were only consuming carrots and cabbage. This is why we targeted high-value oriental vegetables and we found great success. It made it less necessary for locals to continue a slash-and-burn type of agriculture. I think they are now using less than half of their land with a great income.

What is interesting for me is that this successful formula developed in Panama was transferred over to Hondurans by the Panamanian government. Honduras is very reliant on hydropower generation and there is a dam called El Cajón which is the largest hydropower dam in Honduras. It produces more than 40% of all energy consumed, but its watershed was also very rapidly degrading. They were cutting down natural pine trees to plant coffee. They felt like coffee was the only crop that they could sell to locals that had value. I honestly think that the Panamanian engineers and the Honduran government officials did such a fantastic job.

JICA funded that part of the project so they were the ones that sent the consultants which included myself to Honduras, but the main part was carried out by the Panamanian officials. They are practically brother countries because they share so much culture and the way the people live. I was particularly proud of the triangular cooperation in this project and it is why it holds a fondness for me.


Honduran engineers’ visit to a rural village and farmers in Japan


We know that your company has a good number of employees with PhDs, registered professional engineers, and first-class architects as well. However, given Japan’s demographic situation, in the next 15 years, one in three people in Japan will be expected to exceed the age of 60. How are you ensuring that your know-how and technical prowess are maintained here at NTC International? Are you looking to hire foreign workers as well to maintain this knowledge that you possess?

I think that all consultancy firms in Japan are facing the issue of finding young and capable human resources. There is also the issue you mentioned which is how to preserve the knowledge level of the company. To that point, NTCI is not a stand-alone company but instead, we form a part of a larger group which is composed of four different companies. In 2008 two consulting firms merged which resulted in our company, but then we separated again into one for domestic projects and one for overseas projects. The company that is responsible for domestic projects is called NTC Consultants and is stationed in Nagoya. They have around 400 members and staff.

When we talk as a group about training and maintaining expertise levels our mind instantly goes to carrying out our joint training, not just keeping it internal here at NTC International. The whole group comes together for training and that is because technology is evolving at such a rapid pace these days. We as professional engineers and consultants have to keep pace with these new advancements. It goes beyond keeping up, and realistically we need to keep ahead of the pace and create newer techniques ourselves.

We also encourage mainly our younger staff to search and introduce newly developed technologies such as AI. One of our group companies, Suncoh Consultants,  recently developed a very interesting technology that allows the automatic detection of bears in the national parks of Japan. As you might know, with the rapidly aging population some rural areas are practically being abandoned and that is causing the front line between human society and the animal kingdom to shift. Animals are expanding their territories so we are starting to see animal versus human conflicts. 2023 saw the highest number of incidents where humans were harmed by bears on record in Japan. The need is there to detect bears at the entrance of the national parks. Before the rangers of the park would have to patrol the entrance every 2-3 hours and it was a little bit ineffective. Our group company developed an AI-based program that will take an automatic photograph of any living thing and then determine with very high reliability if it is a bear or not. If a bear is detected then the AI will alert the park rangers.

Although these sorts of developments are happening all the time within the NTC Group, I think specifically our role as NTC International is to find creative applications or trials of the newly developed technologies in the context of overseas projects.

 

In September 2023, NTC International participated in the ECFA booth and mini-seminar at the Global Fest Japan. What is the next event you plan on attending?

In 2024 we plan on participating in the Global Fest Japan again, which is held every year in October. In addition, I am a member of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), which is a non-governmental organization with members from all around the world. Members are made up of engineers, researchers, and government officials. Japan has been a member country since 1947 and therefore one of the oldest members.

One of the activities of the ICID is to recognize World Heritage irrigation structures (WHIS) that are more than 100 years old and are still used and maintained. This is the core criteria. We are currently carrying out a grant project in Nepal for the rehabilitation of a century-old irrigation canal system that is made of bricks and steel bars brought from England. The challenge for us is to modernize the irrigation system but at the same time preserve as much of the appearance as possible because of its historical significance. We are collaborating with Nepalese counterparts to nominate this canal to the WHIS candidate for 2024. We are not sure if it will be chosen but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

 

Imagine that we come back in five years and have this interview all over again. What goals or dreams would you like to have achieved by the time we come back for that new interview?

I would say that personally, I’m not that ambitious, but when talking about the future of the company my mind instantly goes to what I talked about before; the three pillars of our company. In terms of the second pillar of local government or international agencies’ projects, we have been trying for years to gain the World Bank-funded project but we’ve still yet to receive one.

I think in five years from now I want to take NTC International and make it an internationally recognized consultancy firm. Right now I think we are only visible in Japan, but I want to reach a point where anyone who wants an international consulting firm will first think of NTC International.


For more details, explore their website at https://www.ntc-i.co.jp/e/ 

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