Heifer's Pierre Ferrari Says Ending World Hunger Could Depend on Climate Change

Pierre Ferrari joined Heifer, the global nonprofit based in Little Rock, in 2010, replacing long-time CEO Jo Luck.

Ferrari, who was born in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), has more than 40 years of experience at Coca-Cola USA as well as with the nonprofits CARE and the Small Enterprise Assistance Funds. Heifer’s mission is to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. It has helped more than 20.7 million families since 1944, the year of its founding.

Ferrari received a master’s degree in economics from the University of Cambridge and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School.

How has your previous experience in the private sector — as Coca Cola’s senior vice president for marketing, for example — affected the work you do at Heifer?

I brought with me core principles from the private sector: accountability, measurement, urgency and systems thinking. The private sector is more intensely entrepreneurial because of the laser focus on the bottom line. Nonprofits are so mission-driven, focused on social justice and ecological values. My role at Heifer is to integrate the energy, achievements and culture of performance with the longstanding values that have set Heifer apart.

When your hiring was announced, you said that you wanted to “develop more locally relevant projects that are sustainable and ignite people’s entrepreneurial spirit.” Have you accomplished these goals and how?

We are now focused on the Arkansas Delta and Appalachia, which suffer from deep, long-standing poverty. Small farming communities are major cradles of poverty and malnutrition, but by linking them to markets we can help them both end their poverty and fulfill nutritional needs in the area. To do this we are tapping into the intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit of our participants. They have ideas and the drive to improve their lives; they need access to resources and market systems that don’t take advantage of them.

What was the biggest mistake you’ve made during your career and how did it affect you?

Early in my career, I was CEO of a relatively small business. The warehousing/distributing component was being very badly handled by my existing supplier. Another supplier convinced me that it would provide me with far superior service and lower costs. I moved my inventory — $15 million worth — to the new supplier. It turned out that this new guy was a crook. I had been told by a couple of people, “This person that you’re talking to, who is offering you this deal, is a crook.” I didn’t listen. I didn’t do my due diligence. I didn’t pay attention. And that was a lesson I will never forget. It took me a year to get out of that. Listen to other people. They have opinions you may not agree with or may not understand, but it’s worth listening, and checking into. I have nightmares about that story. Finally I got a good lawyer, and I got myself out of it.

What will it take for Heifer to accomplish its goal of ending world hunger? Can it be done in the next 50 years?

Ending extreme hunger and extreme poverty is definitely possible. The Millennium Development Goals showed how we could halve that in 10 years, and we’ve basically achieved that. We can halve it again within the next 10 years, and we can end it in the next 20. But it’s extreme poverty and hunger, really the worst of it.

The fly in the ointment is population growth and climate change. Climate change is unpredictable and could generate the unthinkable, which is mass starvation and mass poverty. To really end extreme hunger and poverty, we must make more of the world’s small farmers less poor, less hungry and less vulnerable faster than ever before.