Can we be smarter about how we learn from inclusive agribusiness initiatives?

As this month’s theme demonstrates, there’s a hell of a lot going on in the inclusive business space. That was abundantly evident during a recent workshop looking what a global research and learning agenda for inclusive agribusiness should focus on. Some 35 experienced practitioners got together at the Institute for Development Studies in the UK to consider the potential priorities for such an agenda, and how to collaborate more deliberately to implement such an agenda.

Why bother trying to create a coherent research and learning agenda? And why bother to try to collaborate more effectively? Isn’t the fact that there is so much happening proof enough that inclusive agribusiness is worth putting time and money in? Well, not entirely. A lot of work around inclusive agribusiness is driven by the hope for social and business impacts, but there are major gaps in the evidence of what works and what doesn’t. And the majority of what is undertaken takes place in a silo and doesn’t really help others facing similar challenges or opportunities.

Over the past 10 years many agribusiness and agricultural value chain initiatives have emerged that aim to combine business opportunities with deliberate greater opportunities for low-income groups, generating a social impact from the local to the global levels. Many initiatives have emerged from business imperatives to secure supply bases and reduce risk to company reputation and core business parameters and attempts to capture new market opportunities. They have equally been driven by public investments hoping to harness business mechanisms to generate more public value.

However, major investments in publicly funded programming and individual initiatives by businesses and donors have regrettably had very little investment in synthesised evidence gathering, knowledge sharing and deliberate learning. As a result, overall the evidence base on the scale of impact on poverty or on benefits for business is weak and fragmented. Numerous conferences, fora and other events lack the information and insights that can help take discussions to a more strategic level about progress and what is needed to achieve impact at scale. And while there is extensive individual collaboration between multiple active players, there is limited overall coordination along key priorities or using common research and analytical methodologies.

So we have there situation where there is much happening, high expectations for inclusive agribusiness, yet serious questions on where it does and does not make sense and how to make it work. This potentially undermines longer term investment/interest by both business and donors and limits the potential depth and breadth of business and social impact.

Regarding the agenda, the workshop boiled six key themes down to four priority areas for collective action that would add value to the work being done by individual organisations.

  1. Synthesizing what’s been written up

The general feeling that there is a lot going on and a lot of individual cases written up was matched by a strong shared desire for someone (who?) to synthesise work in a structured way and distil general impressions for the wider practitioner group. This implies common frameworks for analysing a wide range of reports, studies, cases, etc. in a structured way. As someone said, “What are the known knowns we can say something plausible about, so we can work with that and focus research on what we really don’t understand?”

  1. Using big data to assess effectiveness of inclusive agribusiness

A number of databases on inclusive agribusiness (loosely defined) projects and business initiatives could be readily pointed out to. Would it be possible to sort through this from a big data angle and see what can be said about the effectiveness of inclusive agribusiness regarding different parameters, such as investment costs per farmer, greater inclusion of women, poverty reduction or net income increases? And could a mechanism for data sharing be set up to do this structurally, such as GALI?

  1. Cost-benefit analysis of inclusive business models

A subset of both 1 and 2, or the priority within those priorities, is to start with structured cost-benefit analysis of the business case that is supposed to be embedded lie in many initiatives. Inclusive agribusiness is meant to be a business proposition: what’s the evidence that it makes business sense?

  1. Feeding system change makers

If inclusive agribusiness is about a fundamentally different way to design business, then it needs a paradigm shift in focus and methods towards a systemic approach for inclusive agribusiness. This requires stories, evidence and leadership that will take inclusiveness from a side issue to standard business operation. Work here needs to identify who such change makers are, probably very small in number, and what they need to drive a shift to greater inclusion.

While we did manage to distill clear research and implementation priorities, as well as key questions per theme (to be shared in the workshop report in the coming weeks), we did not come to a clear position on how to collaborate to take our priorities forward. An odd paradox ran throughout the two days. On the one hand, everyone valued the well-prepared face-to-face co-creative design process. This, all agreed, was how we really learnt the most from others. On the other hand, there was an underlying resistance to the idea of an explicit network or other structure that could play a number of crucial roles, such as facilitate synthesis of all the work going on, ensure high-quality face to face events, make on-going work much more accessible or helping research processes work at the pace with which investments and change takes place.

So: we value and want the outcomes of activities that aim to serve the larger whole, but we don’t want to commit to a network that can deliver such outcomes. Go figure.

Where does that leave us? Well, there is motivation to continue sharing all the good stuff as possible. Hence this month’s theme, which was directly inspired by the workshop. A number of people walked away with new contacts and plans for new collaborative work. Propositions are being developed for the four priority areas. And some of us will continue to network as and when we can, and invite others to the party.

Note: This month Seas of Change have teamed up with the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business to curate a series on ‘What’s new in inclusive agribusiness?’