Strategy Sidenote – Who is Our Customer?

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.

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6 Responses to Strategy Sidenote – Who is Our Customer?

  1. Janine says:

    Well, the only “heretical” part is the outward acknowledgement of farmers as not the “customer”. From the rest of the logical flow, your articulation really seems to match up with the general ideas that I have gotten from EWB’s overseas programs: that you have to work two or three levels up to get enough impact with our limited workforce, that we are working to strengthen local systems such as government in order to maximise long-term sustainability. Well done for coalescing this thought process, and I am seriously excited now about the prospect of being placed with a MoFA team.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for the comment! Great to know people are reading, understanding and enjoying. Assuming your comment means you’re applying/will be an APS in the near future? Feel free to get in touch with me or any of the team if you want to hear more!

      Also I too think it’s not THAT heretical – was trying to spur some controversy :)

  2. Lauren Dodds says:

    Hey Ben,

    Really interesting! I’m glad you dove a bit more into this after Anthony’s comment, because it definitely perked my interest also.

    I agree with you for the most part about considering MoFA the customer, but given that the farmer is the ultimate beneficiary, I see where Anthony is coming from. I think the problem arises because the model is adapted from business (which would see the company serving the customer – product beneficiary – directly) to impact (where EWB is looking at working *through* another organization to affect the beneficiaries). Thoughts?
    I like the idea of perhaps working through this model from MoFA’s perspective on what they offer to farmers. Maybe a triangulation of impact models from EWB’s perspective on MoFA, from MoFA’s perspective on farmers, and a hypothetical “EWB’s perspective on farmers” could point to where EWB can best support MoFA, and support this with evidence that it’s an area that will impact farmers?

    Keep it up Ben, I’m really liking these posts!

    • Ben says:

      Thanks Lauren.

      After writing the post that one thing I touched on but I could have emphasized a lot more is farmers as our bottom line. I think that’s the distinction that makes it fit together – MoFA is our customer but impact on farmers is still our bottom line and what we care about at the end of the day. I think this is pretty consistent with what you wrote about beneficiaries and impact as well.

      There are also some parallels in business when it comes to businesses selling to other businesses (B2B) who then serve customers. A B2B business serves another business on a day to day basis but at the end of the day they need to be relevant to the end customer in some way in order for the business they serve to stay profitable.

      I do like the triangulation thoughts as well. Maybe there are spaces where we (or other EWB teams even) need to fill in gaps that MoFA won’t fill. Very interesting as we also try and work our way into positions of higher influence with donors.

      Thanks for reading and for the comments! Have a bunch of writing to do tomorrow now :)

  3. Hey Ben,

    I do agree that MoFA is your direct customer, and working with them, we’re all hoping for the farmers to be our direct beneficiaries.

    This is where I still believe MoFA should be considered a partner+channel+customer hybrid. I think looking at MoFA through all these lenses will shape the discussions and ultimately the decisions when interacting them. Also, it’s best when making a strategy to ensure that all people in our scope are considered, which is driving my desire to keep farmers on the canvas.

    However, all that said, the Business Model Generation Canvas’ value, ultimately, is driving conversation amongst a group of collaborators. So, instead of debating who/ or what is our customer. It might be best placing MoFA, farmers, EWB’s resources at different places on the canvas and see how that brings up new ideas, opportunities, challenges that can add weight to discussion on strategy.

    Lastly, … one thing needs to be added to the customer mix: EWB’s donors. :)


  4. Strangeattractor says:

    Hmm, I have conflicting ideas about making MOFA the customer.

    On the one hand, making government more effective is a good goal, and something that often does not get enough focus and attention.

    On the other hand…as a former University of Waterloo student, how do you feel about Quest, the online course enrollment system?

    I have used Quest, and was quite frustrated with it. Everyone who I talked to who had to use Quest was unhappy about it. Students, staff, professors all didn’t like it.

    The people who made the decision to buy Quest for thousands of people at the university to use were in the upper management of the university, and never had to use it. Peoplesoft, the company that sold it to them, thought of the upper management as their customer. The students and staff and professors were the ultimate end-users, but not the ones who held the purse-strings and made the decisions about what to implement.

    It’s pretty easy to think of ways to improve Quest once you have used it. It is very difficult to get anything implemented, not because it is technologically difficult, but because of who controls the technology.

    So, if you make MOFA the customer, you risk alienating yourself from the end users. You risk joining the fantasy land of upper management.

    Canada’s agricultural policy suffers because our government implements programs that benefit agribusinesses rather than individual farmers. Making a middle layer a customer is also a problem there, in my opinion.

    But perhaps that is a risk worth taking. It is possible that the benefits outweigh the risks and problems with the approach.

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