15 October 2012

Training, Trust and TBEC

TBEC's services are bilingually English and Tongan
When the training centre started, it was met with skepticism. "Will it really help to send my staff to these trainings? It might reflect badly on my ability as a manager if they need it." "Isn't that the centre that helps palangi (foreign) businesses?" people asked. "I'm doing alright right now. I don't want to risk meddling with some new idea," others said. At the time, I was working at Tonga Development Bank, and heard about it through the grapevine. The hope people had, like almost all hope for new projects in Tonga, was cautious. This was the humble beginning of TBEC, or Tonga Business Enterprise Centre.

TBEC's mandate, contrary to some of the initial skepticism, is to increase the survival rate and profitability of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) across Tonga. They offer courses like Book Keeping, Customer Service, and Tax Training, as well as a range of other services, but two years ago when it started, no one came! Paraphrased from the first TBEC Manager, he told me "you know, I just thought we could throw open the doors and people would come streaming in," but that wasn't the case.

Talking once to a long-time middle eastern businessperson who has made his home in Tonga, I was interested to hear him talk about the first few years of business. Right after arriving, he opened a retail store, and had done his research; his goods were cheaper and better quality than most of his competitors, but for the first year, no one came. Potential customers kept on going to the person they knew, even though the other goods were more expensive and harder to get. This happens with almost everything. Part of this hesitance was as the operation is still figuring out how to do well in Tonga; part of it was people waiting to see whether it will last; and perhaps part of it was also lack of trust of someone new running something new in a small community where everyone knows each other.

TBEC has finally reached that year-and-a-half-trust-mark, as I like to think of it. Although there are still some with misconceptions, more and more people are trusting TBEC to provide them with advising, and seeing it as a viable resource they can rely on. Started in late 2010, it is a facility of the Tonga Chamber of Commerce and fully funded by my employer, the New Zealand Aid Programme. And, it is one of the more fun areas of funding that I take care of.

Working together, the 6 staff and variable number of volunteers have delivered business training to over 1000 individuals in this year alone, and they keep getting more. The training is linked with a mentorship programme, feasibility studies funding, an entrepreneurial think-tank, individual advising, and several other services. Some of TBEC's biggest business successes are the ones you wouldn't think of: resolving a long-term conflict between two types of services that resulted in more customers for both, increasing a manager's confidence in guiding her staff, convincing a small businessperson that he needed to keep money aside for maintenance.

But as random as some of their assitance is, it is slowly making a difference in Tonga's tough private sector. TBEC still has plenty of kinks to work out, but you only need to meet an inspired employee being twice as productive after a course, or a manager that sees her staff still using their teamwork training months after the session to know that they're getting there. In a business environment made difficult by remoteness, expensive imports, a shaky global economy, and plenty of infighting, TBEC's services aren't everything, but they certainly have made a difference in many lives.

I wrote this post to participate in Blog Action Day. In their words, "Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one important global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. This year our theme is the Power of We."

Last year, I wrote about cement water.

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