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