Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Agriculture As a Business

This is a bit of a monster post, sorry! But I haven’t posted for a few weeks (which was how long it me took to write this whopper) so I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m especially looking for lots of comments, questions and feedback on this one. So find a quiet space, a few minutes, and dive in!

Update: quick acronym check!

EWB = Engineers Without Borders Canada (the organization I’m working for)

AAB = Agriculture As a Business (the tool EWB has developed)

MoFA = Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ghanaian government)

AEA = Agricultural Extension Agent (the field staff for MoFA)

FBO = Farmer-Based Organization (a group of farmers who work together, like a co-op)

The main product of EWB’s last few years of work with MoFA is the Agriculture As a Business curriculum. As I mentioned in a previous post, AAB is a field tool for AEAs (Agricultural Extension Agents) to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:

  1. Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
  2. Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
  3. Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
  4. Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
  5. Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
  6. Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
  7. Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
  8. Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
  9. Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
  10. Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.

The Cheshei Suhiyini Women's Group

Building strong FBOs is a big trend in agricultural development these days. For one thing, it’s easier for businesses and extension agents to reach all farmers if they’re organized into groups. For another, FBOs are more likely to undertake semi-commercial or commercial farming, which contributes more productively to national food security – another big concern. Finally, NGOs and donor projects love to work with FBOs because they can reach more farmers and count them as beneficiaries of their projects. All in all, there’s a big push for districts right now to build lots of strong FBOs.

Aside from the “trendiness” of FBOs, farmers can actually gain huge benefits by working together in a group. First, farmers are more likely to share their problems and solutions with each other in an atmosphere of collective knowledge and learning. Second, farmers can do many things more effectively as a group, like buy inputs or market their produce in bulk. In particular, they can save tons of money on transportation costs when getting goods to and from the farm and market. Third, it’s way easier to get credit for an investment to expand your farm business if you apply as a group. Banks are way more comfortable giving a loan to a group, where members can hold each other accountable for repayment, than to an individual farmer. Fourth, illiterate farmers can reap huge benefits by banding together with a literate friend who can read, write and keep records for the group. Finally, as I mentioned above, groups are far more likely to get regular visits from an AEA than individual farmers, simply due to time constraints and the number of farmers each AEA is responsible for (which is around 3000).

The AAB curriculum addresses all of these benefits and encourages the group to take advantage of them. AAB starts by building the strength of the FBO itself, encouraging members to meet regularly and contribute dues to their bank account. Then it moves on to the more technical business training, including budgeting, planning, marketing and record-keeping. Throughout the program, the AEA is seen as a “facilitator” rather than a “trainer” – the group is encouraged to discuss issues and come to their own conclusions. There is no “right answer” that the AEA is leading the group towards; rather, the group is in charge of making a plan that best suits their strengths and weaknesses.

Each card takes the group through what is called the “Action-Learning Cycle”:

  • Reflection on a story, proverb or photo about the topic.
  • Analysis of the topic. ie. What is the benefit of keeping good records?
  • Planning based on the group’s analysis. ie. who will keep the records, what will be recorded, where will the records book be kept
  • Actions to carry out the plan.

This process allows the group members to engage with the topic and internalize the learning through taking immediate action.

A participatory budgeting exercise using local materials

So, AAB is awesome. Right?

There are still 3 main issues that our team is grappling with around AAB: Quality, Sustainability and Scale. I’ll tell you a bit about each one.

Quality

One of the biggest concerns of most EWB volunteers who are implementing AAB in a district is quality. Are field staff using the tool correctly? Are they giving the group enough time to answer questions and create plans? Are the group members really getting the concepts, and are they going to change their behaviour as a result? These are all important questions if we truly want to have impact with this tool. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ensure quality at any level. The MoFA field staff all have varying capacities: some are master facilitators, while others can barely read English. It also depends on their motivation and desire to help their farmers. Are they carrying out the activities because someone told them they’d be docked pay if they didn’t, or do they truly see the value in the program and want their farmers to get the most out of it? Usually the answer is somewhere in the middle. EWB can’t go to the field with every single AEA to every single AAB meeting; if that was our plan, we should just be implementing the program on our own. Instead, we have to face a certain loss of quality when we hand the program over to MoFA and believe that they can continue to understand and improve the program.

That said, while the team has temporarily put a hold on changing any of the content in the tool, the quality can still be improved. Would this question on this card be more impactful if we asked it a different way? What if we rearrange the order of the cards? Should we bring outside actors in to meet the group, such as banks and input suppliers, or rely on them to take initiative? What if we added a card on Managing Assets, or Value Chains? The quality of the tool itself has reached a point where it’s “good enough” – we are willing to spread it widely and believe it will have good results – but there is always room for improvement.

An AEA facilitating an AAB meeting

Sustainability

The second biggest challenge of AAB is sustainability. Right now we are concerned with sustainability on a district-by-district level. Most NGO projects will come into a district, use field staff to implement a project, then finish the project and get out, hoping the impact has taken place. But EWB wants the AAB tool to be used in the long-term by district staff, even after we leave. This requires a fundamental shift in the way districts normally interact with NGOs. We are trying to get district staff to take over the AAB program themselves, filling the role of the EWB volunteer to support the tool.

At first, we tried to attain sustainability by simply leaving the district and seeing whether AAB continued without us. The result was that most districts stopped using AAB after a certain amount of time. Without EWB there to encourage and support the program, districts were unable to sustain AAB. Why was this happening? In some cases, there just wasn’t enough will in the district to sustain AAB. But in other cases, even though the staff wanted to continue the program, they didn’t exactly know how. So EWB volunteers looked objectively at the roles they themselves were playing in the district, and externalized these roles. By clearly articulating what is necessary to support AAB, it makes it easier for the district to take on these roles and sustain the program. There are four main roles:

  • Leadership: provide a vision and maintain a focus on FBO development while holding staff accountable
  • Scheduling: plan, schedule and set goals with AEAs to achieve their AAB targets
  • Backstopping: monitor AEAs in the field, provide useful feedback and invest in their professional development
  • Reporting: track AAB progress, collect data on present and past AAB groups and feed back data for AEAs’ learning

Now we are trying to encourage officers in the district to fill all of these roles and hoping it will lead to AAB sustainability in that district. But we are already running into some management and logistical barriers that reach beyond the decision-making power of the district, so we’ll have to wait to see whether this model can be successful!

A woman drying parboiled rice in her compound

Scale

The final challenge is to build a successful scale model for AAB. At first, the vision was to have a copy of the AAB tool in the hands of every field staff in Ghana. But after some time, it became clear that this approach won’t work. AEAs need proper training and support to successfully implement AAB. The scale-up plan would have to be a bit more realistic. Next, we moved on to the idea that the “principles” behind AAB could be scaled to every district in Ghana. The principles were summed up as the following:

  • AEAs are regularly developing groups (beyond formation) – this means letting the group drive their own development by having the group take decisions and act on them;
  • AEAs find ways to get the group analyze their farms as businesses (budgeting, marketing, record-keeping, etc.);
  • AEA learns about promoting agric as a business and is able to refer to decisions in their regular work.

However, it was difficult to imagine just what this scale-up might look like. We are still working on this at a National level, but don’t yet have enough traction to bring it to every district in Ghana.

Finally, our current sort-of scale-up model is the idea of creating “model districts” that can be learning centres for other districts in Ghana. The vision is to make some districts kick-ass, including a whole host of changes beyond AAB, then get other districts to come and learn from them, thus spreading AAB all over Ghana. This model still has to be really worked out, but this is a great chance for input! What do you think of this idea? What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that we could face? Is this a good way to invest our resources, or should we focus on hitting more districts at once?

The Kpanman Kawuni Song Women's Group

The tricky part is that even though the AAB curriculum is finalized (to a certain degree), there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Let’s think of the AAB curriculum as a “product” that EWB has developed. We’ve spent a lot of time doing research and field trials, revising and refining that product. It’s still not perfect, but we think it’s at a stage where it’s “good enough”, meaning that we’re pretty confident that the delivery of this product will benefit farmer groups. We can call this stage “product development”. However, now that our product is finished and we’ve offered it up on the “market” (telling MoFA districts about it), we’re finding something startling: no one wants to buy our product! That is, no one is knocking on our office door asking for AAB (with the exception of one district in the Upper East). So what happened??

Ben has been reading a lot about the idea of “customer development” lately, and thus I’ve been hearing a lot about it. It’s an interesting idea. In a start-up, instead of just doing product development, you have to do customer development. This means taking your product to customers early on, asking them whether or not they would buy it, and if they wouldn’t, what features would make them buy it. It’s an iterative cycle of product and customer development, with the two going hand in hand to provide lots of feedback along the way. By the end, you should have a product with a ready market that is desired by your customer base (or maybe even beyond). What you DON’T want is to CONVINCE your customer that they want to buy your product, or tailor your “sell” to each different customer. This is shooting yourself in the foot, because unless you have time to handhold each customer through the sales process, you won’t be able to sell your product on a wide scale.

This seems to be the case with AAB. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely excitement around AAB at the district level – my Director can’t stop raving about how important and useful it is for his staff. He’s made it his AEAs’ “number 1 priority because developing strong FBOs is our core MoFA work” (at least until he gets an urgent call from the Regional Director). AEAs rave about how they used to hear the phrase “agriculture as a business” and didn’t know what it meant until EWB put a tool in their hands. Farmers love the interactive meeting style and are dedicated to implementing their projects. The more they use AAB, the more bought-in they become to the impact of the program. But are they willing to “buy” the product? – put their own brains, money, time and other resources toward making it work?

We did consult our customers along the way (MoFA staff and farmers), but I think at a more select level (only the ones that were easy to work with). We handheld every district we’ve worked in so far through the process of adapting AAB, convincing them to take it up, tailoring the program to suit their needs and filling gaps until they were willing to make the commitment themselves. As a result, we have a product that doesn’t have a strong pull from the market, and we find ourselves pushing it instead. (Who is our market anyway, farmers or MoFA? And do market mechanisms really exist in this environment?) If we were a company with profit as our bottom line, we might take one of a few options: keep iterating, put more resources into marketing, or scrap the product. Patent archives are full of great products that never “made it”, even if they’re brilliant. But we’ve seen AAB work, if only AEAs would use it. We’ve put lots of resources, both human and financial, into the program so far over the past 3 years. And really, it hasn’t been that long yet, only a few years; we know real change takes time. But what are the go/no-go criteria for a program like this? How long do we keep refining and marketing our original product? When do we decide to move on to something else, something possibly more (or less) impactful? How (and when) do we take that decision?

So help me out: where should we go from here??

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14 responses

  1. Erin, I’m Jenny Danahy’s dad, Jim. She asked me to have a look at your exciting project. It has been a very long time since I saw you as teen, and my, what a long way you’ve come! I know you’re an engineer and clearly a great aid worker but you’re also a gifted writer. You have described the situation very well. So delighted to see you making the world a better place.

    I don’t know if my experience will help, but suggest it isn’t about the product at all. You could also say, It’s not the goods, it’s the guarantor that is at the heart of every successful brand! If you accept that notion, is the brand yours or theirs?

    Quality and sustainability of business and operating practices are about creating “movements” among people who perceive they have common interests and a common mission. Once established, movements become living, human flywheels whose momentum is sustained by stakeholders not by external overseers (however well-meaning). In order for your 10 cards to work, you may have to give them away, not enforce their use on resistant workers and farmers. Until it is “theirs” to use, change or even ignore, it will remain yours. For their use to spread, the cards must be like the key signature and tempo that jazz musicians use as the starting point of improvisation, not the mandatory notes of the legit player. To become a movement the farmers must create, not just comply. Your 10 sets of operating principles are all reasonable, but I’d wager any western business person would say they wouldn’t follow them slavishly. I suspect the same is true among the best practitioners in your most successful model districts.

    There may not be any direct parallels with your situation in Canada but co-ops for farmers, fishers and first nations may be the closest thing to compare. Co-ops have existed for 300 yrs + when literacy was an issue, language and religious differences often separated adjacent communities and when farmers, fishers, forestry workers and aboriginals struggled to gain access to credit, grain elevators, shipping, railway service, general supplies, fuel and even insurance. Of course in a co-op, each member always retains ownership and control of their own farm and an equal share of the co-op and any resources or assets they agree to invest in the co-op…and an equal vote on decisions. Independence of the individual is the foundation of and is a key to the success of the co-operative.

    I have worked with a number of co-ops from the big city to the high arctic and the key to sustained participation rates with all of them lies in collective responsibility and sense of shared ownership by every member. Trying to enforce compliance is like herding cats! The CEO of world vision Canada once told me their operations are only successful when they plan carefully but then hold their plans loosely to allow adjustments to time and place.

    I was very impressed with your “model districts” concept and am certain you’ll find lots of literature to support its use. It generates quality circles at production level which requires no QC to catch errors; it is sustainable because it is born of success; and peer-to-peer is the most credible, most rapidly deployed and scalable of all process improvement methods. I think that is your secret sauce. If success is defined by measurable improvement in individual and collective wealth and, I presume social status and other non-monetary benefits of prosperity (including better cooperation and maintenance of community property like a water supply in a Ghanaian village…or a community Wharf in New Brunswick or a co-operative grain elevator in Saskatchewan or an art distribution centre in Inuvik NWT ). Nurture a few model districts and allow them to spread the movement like a happy virus with peer-to-peer methods. This completely eliminates the weaning or transition required by facilitated processes and may help ensure that the program “belongs” to each FBO from day one. The challenge your bosses may have to grapple with is that the more successful the model districts become, the less they will be owned by or associated with you or the NGO’s or even the local employees who currently have an interest in maintaining control. Movements can’t be controlled. They roll! And because they are owned by their stakeholders, they will modify and change the process to suit themselves. Even in Canada characteristics, best practices…and success rates of different co-ops vary widely, yet they persist and flourish in an age of global corporations.

    You have a very exciting venture under way Erin. Beware, wisdom “from away” can be good from from far,then turn out to be far from good! You’ll have to judge whether any of this applies to your needs.
    Happy to discuss any time.

    Good luck and sincere best,
    Jim Danahy
    skype: jim.danahy

    http://twitter.com/jimdanahy

    905-278-3824

    November 4, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    • Wow, hi Jim! It has indeed been a very long time. But I’m happy Jenny sent you my way!

      You have tons of useful advice in this comment, I just wanted to reply quickly. I think one of the keys to our program is that we are trying to get MoFA to own the product, not EWB. We have even gone as far as removing our name from the cards, certificates, all materials, so that MoFA won’t associate it automatically with EWB. Each district is encouraged to “make AAB their own”, and some have done so with varying degrees of success. But still, we don’t have the demand we want. The incentives are just too skewed – there is no fuel money or resources for AEAs who complete this program, only the satisfaction of developing an FBO (which only caters to the motivations of a few special AEAs). The barriers are too high – the skewed incentives, priorities, lack of resources, push from above instead of bottom-up – it all lines up to prevent AAB success. Only the most dedicated AEAs or Directors are able to run with the program and truly “make it their own”.

      I’m glad you support the idea of model DADUs. It is usually an effective means of spreading learning, but I’m worried about a competitive atmosphere in MoFA that will prevent districts from collaborating. Have you seen any examples of this among competitors?

      Anyway, again, really happy to hear from you. I hope you’ll keep reading the blog and providing your insightful comments!

      Cheers,
      Erin

      November 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      • Very glad EWB has de-branded the process. Suggest you even avoid calling it a “product”. It is really a loose collection of best practices, a recipe if you like, which can only be owned by MoFA if they can adapt it. Business schools still study the success of Betty Crocker cake mixes which avoided undermining the pride of 1950′s house wives by suggesting that they “add an egg”! You will need to figure out which elements are crucial to success and which represent each MoFA’s “egg”.

        As to offsetting potential resistance by DADUs to charing best practices, it is usually competitiveness between the trainers and administrators rather than farmers who rarely see each other as competitors. I work with many COOPs but suggest connecting with CIDA or others who can connect you with the global COOP movement which has a wealth of first and developing world experience. Or try the Canadian COOP Assoc which includes the aboriginal cooperatives http://www.coopscanada.coop . COOPs are especially successful in South and Central America too.

        Cheers & best,
        Jim

        November 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

  2. Aileen

    Hey Erin!

    Great post, definitely very informative. I think you presented the challenges really well, and it was interesting to hear about the implementation of AAB. ‘Field fitting’ something like AAB is no easy task, and I think Ben’s thoughts on customer development is something interesting to think about.

    Thanks for sending that video to the chapter, it was good to see you guys!

    Take care!

    November 5, 2010 at 1:44 am

    • Hey Aileen,
      Thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed the post, and you got through the whole thing :P
      I’m really happy to hear you thinking about and engaging in the things we’re also thinking about – customer dev’t and all. It’s awesome to have people chiming in on strategy development from the chapter!
      And of course I’m glad you enjoyed the video. Think you guys could send one back?? I’d love love LOVE it!!
      Erin

      November 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  3. Cathy

    Hi Erin,

    I think we also need to find more accessible names than AAB and AEA! Who will see the ‘us’ and ‘benefits us’ in such acronyms?

    Great learning for all. Thanks for sharing.

    November 5, 2010 at 3:56 am

    • That’s true, I added a glossary at the top but I definitely have trouble talking about all of this without acronyms! It’s a problem. Attempting to humanize it more when we talk to MoFA, but strategy development is so think-y. Anyway, thanks for the reminder!
      And thanks for reading :)
      Hope you’re enjoying Bangladesh!
      Erin

      November 10, 2010 at 2:44 pm

  4. Mark

    I think weighing the options may be helpful. 1) Change management and program to be equal priority with other programs in MOFA 2) Create postive deviant AEAs who will do program no matter what MOFA mandate is and are great at educating farmers and thus the customer base 3) Educating customer base/farmers directly

    November 5, 2010 at 10:44 am

    • Good point Mark. I think our options really lie between 1 and 2. Option 3 is never going to be possible on the scale we want with the resources we have right now. That said, I guess it’s an option to consider – we could hire a bunch of field staff, train them, and have them go implement AAB. Interesting…
      The challenge with 2 is giving AEAs the autonomy to do this work, even if they want to. I believe there’s space in MoFA right now, but less and less depending on how busy the district is with other projects. I’d like to believe there are AEAs who’ll use AAB no matter what, but I wonder how many that is actually true for?
      And option 1 is the dream, but how to get there? We need to gain more influence if we actually want to put this on the map.
      So what do you think we should choose as the way forward?

      November 10, 2010 at 2:46 pm

  5. Margot McCurry

    Yes, you really have to go with some successful models and hope the news of success motivates others to investigate/adopt/organize. A universal motivator seems to be “what’s in it for me?” It’s great that you are questioning and welcoming input. You don’t want to fall into the “that’s how it’s always been done” kind of thinking.

    November 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

    • Hi Mom,
      Thanks for the comment! Yes “what’s in it for me” is a question we’re trying to answer, but it doesn’t seem satisfactory so far – thus the low up-take. Maybe we need to sweeten the deal?
      As I said to Jim, I hope news of success will indeed spur others to adopt, rather than spurring negative competitive feelings. I’m worried about it, given the current environment. Any thoughts?
      Yeah I’m happy that people are engaging so much with this post and getting into the strategy. I hope it will make our thinking stronger!
      Erin

      November 10, 2010 at 2:48 pm

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