A new business owner typically faces a variety of legal issues involving distribution to targeted consumers. Now imagine that owner is seeking to hire an operator of agricultural processing facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, having never before negotiated a commercial agreement and lacking both the financial resources and readily available legal support to handle the tangle of operational issues inherent in such an arrangement.
“These businesses typically can have a hard time expanding their operations and navigating contract, investment and trade barriers because of lack of access to lawyers who are used to dealing with international agreements and best legal practices,” said senior counsel Scott Andersen, co-founder and manager of the firm’s Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program.
Such contract talks recently played a major role in the program’s services for two Nigerian cooperatives, Beniseed Apex and Idera Olori Women Co-operative & Credit Society, which sought out Sidley to represent them in tough negotiations with an investor and representatives of the local and federal governments.
Neil Horner, an associate in Sidley’s New York office, traveled to remote areas in Nigeria to represent members of the cooperatives in the lengthy meetings vital to their business operations in the sesame and shea industries. Neil was supported by two Nigerian-qualified lawyers who were part of Sidley’s NYU Law School program where students participate in the Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program.
“Our clients did not know what they should be worried about in the negotiations,” Horner recalled. “We were able to get their input, raise issues and anticipate operational problems and push to have the investors address the key issues.”
Horner of Sidley’s New York office, and the two students from NYU, helped ensure the cooperatives would receive fair payment and a share of profits from the operation of shea and sesame seed processing facilities. The facilities were developed under the WTO’s Standards and Trade Development Facility program, and will be owned by the cooperatives and operated by private sector operators. The team also established a framework agreement for future private-sector investment in facilities of this type that can be used by future Sidley pro bono clients.
Teamwork in Tough Negotiations
Having a lawyer from the firm on the ground was crucial. “It was a challenging working dynamic. On one site, we had to use an English-Yoruba interpreter to moderate negotiations among many stakeholders with diverse interests,” said Horner. “This was clearly not something that could be done by videoconference.”
He was moved by the immediate response his work elicited at the close of the talks. “There was a very direct connection between the work and the people in the room,” he said. “The cooperatives were very welcoming and seemed genuinely grateful to have someone to advocate on their behalf.”
Ronalee Biasca, director of the Africa-Asia pro bono program, said many lawyers who participate in the project have come away feeling they have played a role in improving lives.
“Our lawyers have the opportunity to do work that focuses on social enterprises that work directly with poorer farmers. Our mission is typically to make sure we are helping smaller, poorer farmers—most of whom are women—to expand their operations and make them sustainable.”
Among other efforts, Sidley is currently working with Sidai Africa Ltd., which aims to revolutionize the way livestock and veterinary services are offered in Kenya, creating a more sustainable model of livestock service delivery. A team consisting of partner James Stansel and associate Lisa Taylor of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, and a local Kenyan lawyer, is providing advice for the negotiation of necessary documentation to enter into contracts for the manufacture of Sidai-branded pharmaceuticals and feed supplements with a local manufacturer.
Andersen, co-manager of the firm’s office in Geneva, was moved to help launch the Africa-Asia program after serving as chief lawyer on the Cotton case, the first successful challenge to highly trade-distorting, actionable, and prohibited agricultural subsidies under the World Trade Organization. In that work, he witnessed firsthand how the suppression of prices had led to severe revenue losses by Brazilian, African, and other world cotton producers.
“There is a huge need for high-quality legal services that can help address a variety of companies and organizations working in the agricultural supply chain and which can improve the incomes and livelihoods of poor rural African, mostly women, farmers,” said Andersen.
He recalls taking the concept of the project to Carter Phillips, Chair of the firm’s Executive Committee, back in 2012. The response was immediate and unequivocal.
“Carter said, ‘I get it; let’s do it!’” Andersen recalled.
Recognition for Results
Such wholehearted support and belief in the program has led to our success on behalf of many clients, and, ultimately, to recognition for our pro bono efforts. Biasca’s and Andersen’s work— together with the work of the more than 200 Sidley lawyers who have worked so hard over the past several years—will soon be highlighted when the firm receives the ABA Business Law Section’s annual Public Service Award at the Section’s annual luncheon in Los Angeles on April 11, 2014.
In selecting Sidley, Pro Bono Committee Chair William Woodward specifically cited the firm’s Africa-Asia Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program. “The unique structure and the international scope of this project, in addition to the variety of other pro bono projects in which the firm participates, are an outstanding model that the Section is excited to recognize,” Woodward said.
Andersen is honored to work at a firm that has created a platform for such worthy work. “I am really proud of my Sidley colleagues and the support we have received at all levels of the firm. I walk around with a smile on my face knowing that our lawyers are adding real value and becoming strategic partners with needy clients who would ordinarily be unable to afford quality legal services.”