This is a quick sidestep that is a bit a segue into my next strategy post. It’s a response to a great comment from Anthony, one of EWB’s staff working in Zambia on my post about our strategy and Customer Development. You may want to read my previous post on Impact Models (at the very least) for the context.
The question being asked is who should be the primary customer of our work? EWB ultimately works to serve smallholder farmers, but we do so through partners. In my case that partner is the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). So who should we consider as our customer? I’m going to take a (slightly controversial) stance that in the context of the Impact Model framework that I introduced yesterday it should be MoFA, and not farmers as our customer. This means that our Value Proposition is written with MoFA as the beneficiary.
To understand why I think this is a better approach, let’s take a look at the implicit scale model of my team’s work. EWB is a small organization – we have a limited number of staff and don’t expect to be able to take our programs to scale with those staff alone. We work with MoFA for a reason – they’re a large, public sector institution which will be around in the long term. We’ve chosen to work with MoFA because of the relative permanency compared to NGOs who come and go, even if it generally means taking a hit on staff capacity and motivation. Success for us means a roll-out across MoFA to whatever scale is appropriate for a particular Impact Model. Any ideas we bring forward have to provide value for MoFA if they have a hope of being effective without EWB’s continued support. Putting farmers first may generate fantastic ideas that make huge differences to farmers, but our bottom line is improving public sector agriculture. If MoFA can’t pick up the idea and run with it, then at the end of the day it won’t benefit farmers. If we don’t make MoFA our explicit customer then we are disadvantaging ourselves for no reason – it would be much easier to find ideas that impact farmers in other higher capacity environments.
As engineers it is especially easy to get caught up in the ‘product’ development side, which is usually more fun than navigating politics and power structures. In EWB we’re (mostly) engineers, and we like to build things that work! That’s what we’ve spent a long time doing with AAB. At the end of the day, we certainly need to have a good product that ultimately provides value to smallholder farmers, but on a day-to-day basis, our focus needs to be on providing value to MoFA so our program will be sustainable at scale in the long term.
For ideas that impact farmers immediately, we are providing value to MoFA, who in turn needs to provide value to farmers. We can eventually show the full effect of our work by writing out an Impact Model for each level – one from our perspective providing value to MoFA, and one from MoFA’s perspective providing value to farmers. By showing that our program provides a key piece in the model where MoFA is benefiting farmers, the impact of our work on farmers can be illustrated. So despite MoFA being our immediate customers, farmers are the ultimate beneficiary, and we should also be rigorous about showing that the work we are doing impacts farmers at the end of the day.
On top of being a more accurate representation of how our work will scale, the ability to draw out an Impact Model for MoFA from their perspective might be a great way to better communicate our understanding of their role and how we can support weak or missing pieces. We haven’t tried this yet but we’ll see if it proves to be useful or not as we go forward. Having a strongly articulated value-add with evidence to back that up should also make it easier to gain influence at a higher level within MoFA or within other development partners who support MoFA. Although it would be great if programs and initiatives that benefit farmers would spread easily through MoFA, the world is unfortunately not that simple.
There are also some changes we are investing in that do not have impact on farmers at a timescale that makes sense to manage or measure. One of the core beliefs on our team is that further decentralization is necessary in order for MoFA to serve farmers better. In brief, district offices should have control over managing their budget, the programs they implement, and should be responsible for the results. This is not a one-year change. This likely not even a five-year change. Decentralization is a chicken-and-egg problem because districts currently aren’t structured to perform as decentralized units with full control over planning and budgeting, and there is not a strong accountability system for results. Fully decentralizing tomorrow would be a disaster. At the same time, without the responsibility (and thus incentive) to do so, districts will never have the opportunity to build the skills required to succeed and will never be ready to take that step.
We are trying to support the long-term goal of decentralization with small steps by increasing operational capacity in district offices, as well as leadership and management capacity building programs like the DDA Fellowship. Farmers should ultimately benefit from this work, but the timeline for decentralization is long and uncertain. Despite this, the work is important, so we need to invest in it now. Thus we make MoFA, not farmers, the “customer” of our Value Proposition. This allows us to measure results and make management decisions on a day-to-day basis. If we took farmers as our primary customer, we would never invest in this type of work, which we believe is very important to the role of MoFA in the long term.
If the programs we support or the services we offer do not provide value to MoFA then we will never drive sustainable change. For a program to continue without EWB’s ongoing support, the value to MoFA needs to be clear, along with all of the systems in place to make it work. Programs that benefit farmers will not spread throughout MoFA without incentives and benefits that in line with the needs district offices and other decision makers within MoFA.
Making farmers our primary customer is dangerous not only because a program that isn’t in line with MoFA’s needs will not scale, but it also leads to a general frustration with MoFA if they are unable to implement those programs. If our focus is farmers and we create a program that MoFA doesn’t have the skills or motivation to implement, then the program has failed, EWB staff become demotivated and our relationship with MoFA suffers. Our perspective should instead be on adapting the program to make sense for all involved, which right now means a stronger emphasis on MoFA’s needs. While our values will always put impact on smallholder farmers as our bottom line, I believe MoFA needs to be seen as our primary customer in order to manage our programs effectively on a day to day basis.
What do you think? What are your reactions to this (slightly heretical?) departure from the usual? Would love to hear your thoughts on what makes sense and what doesn’t, as well as how to appropriately connect the dots to impact on farmers at the end of the day.