Sir Ian and Lady Helen Wood

Helping people to help themselves is the driving force of Sir Ian and Lady Helen Wood’s venture philanthropy. Describing himself as a ‘dyed in the wool businessman’ with ‘a truly global mind set’ – the legacy of a globetrotting career leading The John Wood Group’s worldwide oil and gas business – Sir Ian is in the process of creating a sustainable tea business in two areas of Africa, partnered by the Sainsbury family’s Gatsby Trust.

The project now involves 45,000 smallholders and estate workers (around 11,000 in Rwanda and 35,000 in Tanzania including 2,000 factory workers) who have so far doubled their income as a direct result of the many-faceted and multi-layered support they receive. It includes providing smallholders with fertiliser and agronomists to improve the quality, yield and price of tea crops; creating Farm Field schools to educate them about business and farming; investment in tea factories, planting green field sites and embedding onsite management teams to co-ordinate the support.

Sir Ian says: “I saw this as much a business challenge as anything else. We did the research and chose something we could be effective at and measure. Then we put the plan into action.” The initial plan was to support existing projects but Sir Ian says he was “surprised and disappointed by the lack of existing implementable agricultural projects in Africa to which we could add our money. So we created them ourselves.”

Sir Ian, who also describes himself as a ‘pessimist’, is only now, after six years, allowing himself to feel a modicum of satisfaction. “Generally, I don’t feel good because it is not going fast enough and there is still a lot more to do but we are starting to see some improvement. Farmers are just starting to display entrepreneurial behaviour and be more hopeful. That does make me feel good.”

Closer to home The Wood Foundation (TWF) is funding a project in the family’s native Scotland that encourages philanthropy among schoolchildren. The Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI), set up in Canada by MAC Cosmetics founder Julie Toskan-Casale, was brought to Scotland by TWF in 2008. Now in 150 secondary schools, year groups are split into teams to research need in their communities and select charities they feel best serve them. They then make presentations to judging panels, on which Lady Helen Wood often sits, and winning charities are given £3000. The aim is to extend the project across all 300 of Scotland’s secondary schools to involve 30,000 children and turn it into a sustainable venture. “YPI is having a great impact and we see children really fired up and continuing to work with their chosen charities. They get a taste of charity and realise they can do something to help,” says Sir Ian.

Another TWF initiative, the Global Learning Project, brings Africa and Scottish education together to create new understanding and tolerance. It funds Scottish teachers to visit African schools to teach and return with new insights to impart to their own classes.

“If you can increase the knowledge and experience of people across the globe and help them help themselves, then you can say you have contributed,” says Sir Ian.