Harvest! – Friday Flims #10

Dery hired a group of women to help harvest maize this year. Here they are in action. Unbelievable how well they can balance those bowls of maize! Daily wage for women: 2GhC or about $1.50 plus lunch.


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The Farm This Year – Friday Flims #9

In this installment, Dery talks about some of the ups and downs on the farm this year.


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Monkeys! – Friday Flims #8

The troublesome monkeys got into the maize. Here’s a quick shot showing the kind of damage that monkeys will do if you can’t scare them away.


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Goin’ on a Parrot Hunt – Friday Flims # 7

After all that talk of the pesky parrots a couple of weeks ago, here’s Dery trying to do something about it. Catapult (slingshot) in hand, we head to the field.


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If the Rains Rain Well – Friday Flims #6

This week Dery’s going to talk about what he’ll do if the farm does well this year. Set in his beautiful yam farm.


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Monkeys and Parrots – Troublesome! – Friday Flims #5

This week Dery talks about some of the troublesome animals you’ll find in Bole district. Monkeys and parrots are some of the worst! I’ll let him explain:


Seriously Troublesome!

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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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Philip and Winnie Planting Maize – Friday Flims #4

Welcome to another edition of Friday Flims. This week we’ve got Philip and Winnie, Dery’s children, planting maize just behind the compound house. These guys are the experts. Tough work if you’re not accustomed to spending most of the day bent at the waist. Even worse when (like me) you miss and have to constantly be picking seeds up off the ground.


Thanks for watching!

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The Impact Model Canvas – Intro and Value Propositions

If you haven’t read my previous post introducing our strategy process, you may want to check out Part 1 and Part 2 before reading this.

Today I want to introduce you to one of the frameworks we’re using for articulation and analysis of the different options we’re going to explore in our strategy development. It’s called the Business Model Canvas (although we call it an Impact Model Canvas). I’m borrowing it from a fantastic book called Business Model Generation that I’d highly recommend. You can check out the first seventy pages or so for free on their website, as well as some tools such as a high quality version of the canvas for download.

The idea behind using something like an Impact Model Canvas is to have a more structured way of writing down all of the assumptions we have in our models. This is how we are explicitly recording our solution hypotheses, which is a key take-away principle from Customer Development as I discussed in my previous post. The canvas also provides common language to compare, evaluate and look for beneficial overlap between different models. Finally it is a great place to start when looking for inspiration on how to modify a model to increase its effectiveness. I’ll discuss this in a later post on Innovations on Impact Models.

The Impact Model framework has nine building blocks, drawn on canvas roughly split into a left and right side. I’m going to take the next three posts to discuss each of the elements of the canvas and illustrate how to use it by stepping through our Agriculture as a Business (AAB) program. As is the case with any framework, it’s not perfect, but I believe it’s an improvement over having no structure at all.

Here’s a quick picture of the blank canvas. Don’t worry about all the acronyms in the corners just yet, we’ll go through them one-by-one as we fill in the canvas.

Blank Impact Model Canvas

Blank Impact Model Canvas

The easiest place for us to start out is the Value Proposition (VP), right in the middle. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

  • Value Proposition: The products and services a business offers. Quoting Osterwalder (2004), a value proposition “is an overall view of .. products and services that together represent value for a specific customer segment. It describes the way a firm differentiates itself from its competitors and is the reason why customers buy from a certain firm and not from another.”

For the Agriculture as a Business Program, our (simplified for the sake of illustration) Value Proposition was to provide a strong Farmer-Based Organization (FBO) development process that would:

  • make the Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s (MoFA’s) core extension (providing technical assistance to farmers) work in the district easier, more efficient, adding structure and direction to make managing extension easier
  • increase the success of other agriculture programs (such as inputs on credit schemes or technology adoption promotion) in the district due to the presence of strong Farmer Based Organizations that will be able to capitalize on these opportunities
Value Proposition for AAB Model

Value Proposition for the AAB Impact Model

This was our goal in terms of value to MoFA. Notice that farmers are not the focus of the value proposition. This is a bit of a perspective change from our usual focus on farmers first. What we’re aiming to do as we compare Impact Models is to find ways that we can provide value to MoFA that ultimately serve farmers. I’ve alluded to this change in focus in past posts and got a great comment from Anthony, one of EWB’s staff working in Zambia, and I promised him I’d justify it. I’ve written a post on that but you’ll have to wait a day – it ended up dwarfing the rest of the content in this post and it was a bit of tangent so I thought I’d separate it out – stay tuned!

By explicitly identifying our Value Proposition, it becomes much easier to measure the effectiveness of the program and decide whether or not we are succeeding. A well articulated Value Proposition provides a strong guide on where to better focus our efforts in order to have a successful program. It allows us to manage our scarce resources effectively and avoid mission creep.

There are many different categories of Value Proposition as well. In this case we are creating a new tool that is designed to aid other existing responsibilities. Some of our work around Systems, Management and Leadership focuses less on bringing a new tool or process but on how to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of existing management processes. Robin’s work on the Agriculture and Entrepreneurship course provides value by increasing the skills that students acquire through a new teaching method not common in Ghana – a practical group project. It’s exciting (to me at least) to explicitly have these Value Propositions for the work we are doing, and allows us to give a one-liner for the results we are working towards when people ask what we actually do here in EWB.

Another key point to recognize about the Value Propositions that we provide is that they should not be ongoing services. At the end of the day we need to pass off any successful ideas that we develop with MoFA entirely over to MoFA. In this way were are like long-term consultants, but it is often difficult to position ourselves that way within the districts we work in. Districts are under resourced and it is difficult not to step in and pick up some of the slack if things aren’t running smoothly, which becomes a dependency. As we move forward with more explicitly articulated Value Propositions I hope it will be easier for MoFA to understand our role, what value we are providing, and how it fits into longer processes within MoFA itself.

Alright, this is a bit closer to the bite-sized posts I was hoping to write. Look out for my comments MoFA as our customer tomorrow, shortly followed by a post on the rest of the right side of the canvas. As always would love to hear your feedback and comments!

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Customer Development and Our Strategy Process

Welcome to the second post in my series on strategy development for EWB’s public sector agric team. Check out the first post in this series if you haven’t already at http://theborrowedbicycle.ca/2011/03/strategy-development-in-small-meal-sized-chunks/

This post will be an overview of some of the learnings we’ve taken from our recent experience trying to bring our Agriculture as a Business program to scale within the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), and what we’re doing differently as we go forward.

The Past

In the earlier days of AAB we focused and invested a lot of time and resources on ‘product’ development (the AAB curriculum), making sure it worked for developing effective farmer groups if the program was carried out by a well-trained Agriculture Extension Agent (AEA). We developed a curriculum that is an effective tool and started thinking strongly about the plan to spread (or scale) AAB only after we were satisfied with the quality we had reached. In this way I think we made a mistake that many other organizations have made in the past – investing in research and an idea we thought was exciting without a clear understanding of who would eventually need to own and run the program. We built a product that was great, but at the end of the day, MoFA (not farmers) is our customer and our product didn’t fit well enough with our market [1]. Fortunately we spend a lot of time directly on the ground with districts, have recognized this shortcoming and have been able to learn about what can be done differently.

Before I move I just thought I’d point out that I just said that MoFA and not farmers is our customer, and that might come as a bit of surprise. Don’t worry, the justification is in my next post and it will all come together.

Customer Development (to the Rescue?)

As we’ve been learning about what hasn’t worked about our approach to scaling AAB, I’ve seen a lot of useful ideas in the Customer Development methodology that Steve Blank writes about. Eric Ries gives a great introduction to some of the principles behind customer development at http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2008/11/what-is-customer-development.html. My copy of Steve’s book The Four Steps to the Epiphany is well worn, and I agree with Eric that it is sometimes a bit of a dense read but well worth it if you are interested validating a model before spending the money to take it to scale.

Five key takeaways from the principles of customer development that we are adopting are:

1. Form and validate problem hypotheses (for our customer segments within MoFA, not just farmers) before investing in a solution.

One of the more difficult and often discussed elements of doing development work is “ownership” or “sustainability”. When an outside organization brings a new idea, intervention or solution, it is almost guaranteed that the intended beneficiary will accept, unless the idea is truly atrocious. This makes perfect sense from the beneficiary’s perspective – free stuff! Why wouldn’t they accept? Especially if there is the possibility of a longer term relationship with more benefits in the future. Consequently it is very difficult to get honest feedback on whether an idea is valuable for a partner, or how much value it actually provides. Instead of simply presenting solution ideas, we are explicitly identifying problem hypotheses that our solutions address, and validating those before we even mention a solution. The intention is to first understand the value of solving a problem as opposed to the value of a solution. This may seem like two sides of the same coin, but it changes our approach significantly, as I’ll discuss in the upcoming post on Getting Out of the Building.

2. Explicitly write down all of our solution hypotheses.

In order to have an strong understanding of exactly what it will take to reproduce results at scale we need to be very explicit about every aspect of our impact model. Finding effective language and a solid framework to easily write down and categorize all of the important hypotheses has been a bottleneck in the past. We’re now using the Business (Impact) Model Canvas in order to do this. The next few posts will go through the basics of the Impact Model Canvas, analyzing AAB as a concrete example.

3. Test solution hypotheses as cheaply as possible without necessarily assembling the “whole product”.

In the past we have moved through iterations of our model by implementing and testing the entire thing as quickly as possible. As the end vision of our model evolved, our work on the ground tried to match that exactly. This is an expensive and difficult way to test small changes to parts of the model as it doesn’t isolate the different assumptions of what works and what doesn’t. As we move to a model that promotes explicit hypotheses for each component of our model, we can find creative ways to test individual components of our model without constructing the full thing. This will accelerate our learning and create knowledge about specific hypotheses that can be generalized outside of our current model. We will end up better understanding how the system we’re operating in actually functions all at a lower cost than a full model test. To me this is one of the most important changes in our approach and deserves at least one dedicated. I’ll defer that until I can build on a concrete example to add clarity over the theoretical babble that is this paragraph.

4. Pilot in true at-scale conditions before investing in a scale up.

Another oversight that can end up wasting dollars and generating disappointing results is a false pilot stage. In my opinion a pilot stage should include the whole model in the conditions as they will exist at scale. Pilot results often determine funding however, so it is no surprise that the highest quality staff and facilitators and sometimes additional resources will be given to pilots. The location of the pilot is often chosen to be more suitable than the average as well. This is dangerous as it means scaling the pilot model is a gamble; the conditions at scale will be quite different. This may lead to a slight decrease in quality which is not the end of the world, or a totally different outcome which does not meet expectations in the slightest.

This is why I’m wary of projects like the Millennium Villages. Unfortunately Jeffrey Sachs and the host of scientists and academics that are heavily involved in the handful of pilots across the world are not a scalable resource. While this set up can drive a lot of learning, I would expect to see a demonstration of the program working when villages receive resources that are more typical of those they would receive at scale before actually scaling. We could easily fall into this same trap with AAB by using the districts that are running AAB successfully (higher capacity districts with significant previous investment and continuing support from EWB staff) as evidence that we are ready to go to scale. We need to demonstrate first that districts with more typical capacity levels will be successful with the level of resources that we would be able to provide at scale.

5. Consider our “market type” when we evaluate expected timescales and investment for change.

One of the important insights in The Four Steps to the Epiphany is the understanding of the magnitude of investment required to enter different types of markets. As an example, we’ve had success in scaling several products in the realm of monitoring and evaluation and reporting within MoFA. In each case we built a product that was simply better than the existing system. It was easy to scale because our MoFA understood the purpose of our product and the existing alternative it was replacing. AAB on the other hand is a completely new market. While developing farmer-based organizations has always been part of MoFA’s mandate, in many cases there was little focus on long-term investment outside of the concept of creating groups to access development projects. A program to simply build strong groups for the groups’ sake is a foreign idea, and hence will take a much longer period of investment to see it catch on. When we evaluate the ideas we want to invest in it is important to have a strong understanding of the market type we are entering and hence the resources required to reach scale (in the best scenario). This one warrants it’s own post as well, or you can check out Steve’s blog post on market types at http://steveblank.com/2009/09/10/customer-development-manifesto-part-4/.

While all of this all still very theoretical and untested in this context, I’m optimistic about these principles being a further improvement to our processes.

What the Process Looks Like

We’re taking some ideas from the strategy process in Business Model Generation to actually articulate the different steps we are going through.

  • Mobilize: We went through this step in February – we agreed as a team that we wanted to go commit to this process and decided to take a first stab at articulating all of the possible problem and solution hypotheses that we were interested in investigating.
  • Learn: This is where we’re getting out of the building. We are first probing on our problem hypotheses – trying to understand MoFA’s current behaviour and what problems are actually valuable to solve from different perspectives within MoFA. We are also learning more and more about who within MoFA and in the donor community is interested in our different impact models and how to engage them. Our outputs from this step are clear validations (or refutations) of our problem hypotheses. Ideally this is accompanied with performance targets, or expectations for what a solution to these problems would provide. Best-case pure gold would be a statement from CIDA or the Ministry of Agriculture saying “sure, show us that you can build strong farmer-based organizations that are functioning a year after the end of the program in 80% of the cases, and we’ll fund it/scale it throughout MoFA”. This is analogous to the Search phase that I mentioned in my previous post.
  • Design: This is where we start actually testing elements of our model. This can be as simple as asking different people whether the model, or parts of the model make sense, or as complicated as doing real, on the ground tests with results that support or refute a hypothesis. This is the Prototype phase from my previous post, and we would hope to see strong evidence for each of the hypotheses in our model before moving to build the entire working product. Evidence against any part of our model requires a re-think. Once we’re comfortable that we’ve got a full model that is worth investing in, we’ll move into testing the entire model. This is the Pilot stage, and a successful pilot that meets the objectives identified in the Learn phase is what we’re aiming for. This is also the phase where we need to validate not only that our model works for MoFA, but also provides positive impact to farmers, or whoever our ultimate end beneficiary is.
  • Execute: Once we’ve validated we have a full model that works under scale conditions, it is time to execute and get implementation right. If we’ve done things well, we have buy-in from high-influence stakeholders with money or power that want to see us succeed, as we are solving a problem for them as well. This is the Scale stage.
  • Manage: What next? This cycle is iterative, our definition of Scale might change, we may want to move into a new context or simply evolve the model in a new direction. This will introduce a whole host of new hypotheses to test and validate before hitting scale again.

Development is a messy process, so I don’t expect for a moment that things will run through this process smoothly. We’re testing and adapting as we go, finding ways to manage the huge amount knowledge that come out of the learning and exploration phases. Part of that learning is feedback from others on things we’re overlooking or pitfalls to this process, so lets hear them!

Thanks for making it through another small (maybe medium sized?) meal of a post. Even so I feel like I’ve glossed over so many details and will try and find the time to flesh out some of the points from customer development. This has all been very theoretical up to this point, so next up we will be diving into the Impact Model Canvas with AAB as a real life example.


[1] We built a lot of ownership and interest at the ground level with AEAs that were excited about the program, but that wasn’t enough to see the program spread and run effectively It is important to recognize is that we had not yet built the strong relationships we now have with people in higher influence positions within donors and MoFA, so this was not necessarily an option from the beginning of AAB, so this is not necessarily a criticism of our past approach as running AAB has allowed us to build these relationships. Now that we have them however, I believe we should use them to validate our problem hypotheses early in the process.

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