SustainAbility’s January 2016 report Orchestrating Change explored challenges and opportunities for more fully realizing the promise of multi-stakeholder collaboration for sustainability. Below, we talk with Kavita Prakash-Mani, Executive Director of Grow Asia, about how large-scale collaboration is and isn’t evolving, and what’s needed to bring its impacts to scale. (Note: Kavita is also a former team member at SustainAbility and is currently part of the SustainAbility Council.)
Chris Gunther: Thanks for taking time to talk. Can you start by telling us more about Grow Asia?
Kavita Prakash-Mani: Grow Asia was set up as a program from the World Economic Forum last year, in partnership with the ASEAN secretariat. Its goal is to create multi-stakeholder partnerships for inclusive and sustainable agricultural development in South East Asia with a special focus on supporting smallholder farmers to increase productivity and profitability, and also ensuring environmental sustainability.
Our aim is to work with governments, companies, NGOs, civil society organizations, farmer organizations, and researchers to focus on priority crops and issues, and to work on how we can create value chain partnerships from end to end. This involves everyone from input providers, to farmers,, traders, financiers, mobile phone providers, and off-takers, to look at how the whole chain can work more effectively and efficiently to really meet the goals that we’ve set for ourselves. We are hoping to reach 10 million smallholder farmers by 2020 and support them to increase their productivity, profitability and sustainability by 20%.
Grow Asia itself acts as a partnership secretariat. We are supporting country partnerships currently in Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, and Cambodia, with the aim of getting another few countries from the ten ASEANstates. We’ve reached about half a million smallholder farmers so far. Currently, we have 26 value-chain projects and 194 members, including 60+ companies and 40+ NGOs. It is a loose collaboration framework, but works very specifically on action on the ground.
So Grow Asia acts as a kind of broker by connecting specific partners and resources to the on-the-ground projects you mentioned. Is that right?
Yes. Our primary role is convening and brokering. We start with convening a number of partners in countries, starting with the government – to make sure that any partnership we start in the country is led by and supported by the Ministry of Agriculture. Then we bring in a lot of others, especially companies, so it’s very much about identifying common interests and agreeing on how to take that forward to create market-led initiatives that are focusing on the country’s priorities.
We see such proliferation of collaborative initiatives nowadays. What do you think makes Grow Asia unique?
I think it’s unique in terms of the scale that we are trying to reach. The most common partnerships are of course one-on-one – a company working withNGO, a company working with another company or a company working with government. Then you might have a few that are broader, so industry-wide collaboration on getting plastics out of supply chain, or addressing human rights in the supply chain, or coming together for something like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.
What we’re trying to create is a network of collaborations. We’re looking at many countries having their own partnerships, then bringing together all the different players across the agriculture value chain, so there is good coordination, exchange and innovation across the whole chain. This requires looking at it much more systematically and holistically and then trying to scale up. I think that is very unique.
Another strength is that we’re working at the level of big-picture, international collaboration, but connecting that all the way down to specific, on-the-ground projects with local partners. So, there are cases where we might be looking at the bigger international or large national/regional companies, then when you get to the country-partnership level, we’re also able to bring in a lot of the local companies that you would not get at a World Economic Forum level, but those locally owned and locally driven activities then attract companies that are unusual suspects in these partnerships.
That’s a tall order, isn’t it, connecting all those different kind of players with different goals, contexts, etc.? How do you actually get everyone to the table?
It’s always a bit tricky at the start. We always begin with where we have the strongest relationships, either through the Forum or through existing partnerships, such as companies who are converts and are already seeing value in this partnership somewhere else. You start with that core and then you use that to attract other companies and other stakeholders to the post. The Ministry of Agriculture convening a meeting will bring a number of partners to the table.
Beyond that, I think what is really attractive to people is that it’s action-oriented and not fluff. It’s not an industry body, it’s not picking up one issue and advocating or lobbying for it. We might come back to say what policy requirements there are for these partnerships to work, but it’s really tapping into the core need of companies to take action and to create their own business case for this.
But beneath all that, what are the different interests at play? Where’s the common ground?
For the big international companies, the business case is clear, and it’s getting clearer with time. We are going to face shortages of some of the commodities that we all have come to love and want – everything from cocoa for chocolates to coffee or tea – but we are also seeing a big need to improve their productivity and profitability of staple crops, and be environmentally resilient. You’re seeing a lot of pressure on value chains right now and any solution that companies see as working is really welcome.
You also have the input companies, who provide a very strong base for the work we do, who see the potential to develop new markets. Tapping into smallholder farmers as a commercial market for inputs, mechanization, or technology is very hard. It really requires the full chain to work because they just don’t have the financing and the income to afford some of these technologies, which is a virtuous circle you need to get them onto. Having an off-take contract creates that pull. They absolutely get why partnerships with off-takers and traders and everyone else makes sense to pull the whole market up.
Then you have a lot of the non-business institutions as well – the donors or theNGOs – who are realizing that decades of putting money into development without the private sector is not working. They’re now looking for credible, reputable partners from the private sector to take some of this forward, so they’re interested in making this work.
You’re painting a good picture of why lots of different kinds of institutions are now prioritizing collaboration. Is it working? Is it really helping to create tipping points on all these critical issues? And can it scale?
Those are really interesting questions. I think what we are seeing on the ground is that systemic change is possible, but it takes a long time. The places where we’re seeing the most change are where a crop has been in the limelight and in focus of consumers and NGOs and governments for a long time.
It comes down to the lifecycle of issues. It just gets to a point where everyone says, “Okay we cannot do one-on-one, we cannot be competitive on this. This will drown the entire industry if we’re not solving it.” But these system-changing collaborations are difficult in all sorts of ways. The business case is difficult, the organization of the partnership is difficult, the timing is very slow, the outcomes people want are not always aligned. So, you don’t do it unless you really have to.
But when you have to do it, then who does it? Who has the capacity? Who understands how these systems work and how they must be changed? That’s why platforms like Grow Asia have a lot of value, because you need someone to coordinate it and whose full time job it is to push for these actions to happen, always convincing, convening, brokering, and moving forward.
Indeed, real change takes time, yet the issues are more and more urgent. Do you think, as systemic collaboration becomes more the norm, that we can all get a lot faster at it, especially translating it into impact?
It’s up to all of us to make the business case. If we put enough pressure, give enough incentives, put enough spotlight on it, and make it easier, then it will happen. If we all just sit back and say, “Well, you signed up, now go do it,” then it’s harder for companies to make it happen.
For example, we now have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and in some ways we seem to expect companies and other partners to suddenly know how to do it or invest in it or make it happen. It’s not that easy. It needs a little more than that. It needs someone to say the return you will get is more loyalty, higher sales, faster regulatory approval, etc. – something in it that actually makes the investment worthwhile.
Switching gears, can you talk about how you approach impact measurement, especially when you’re dealing with so many different layers of partnership between the international arena and what’s happening on the ground in different countries?
Yes, absolutely. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on this in the last few weeks so it’s very top of mind. Actually, measurement needs to happen at every layer. Where we are right now is that we’ve agreed, and this is based on work that the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative has also done, on a set of metrics that are project-based: How many farmers did you reach? What was the productivity gain? What kind of programs did you run? That’s data that we’ve collected over the last couple of years and we’re now trying to systematize and roll out a common framework.
We can then take a step forward and conduct impact assessments of a few projects that have run for a number of years, so we can look more holistically, beyond the numbers that we count, asking what are the intended and unintended consequences.
We can also go one level higher and ask how is the partnership doing? How do you measure our impact? And what can we, as Grow Asia, take attribution for? Are our measures simply number of partners we have, the number of country partners we’ve catalyzed, and so on? We will be developing a report on this over the next few months, so we are now thinking of what those metrics could be, from input to output, to outcome, to impact.
But it’s ongoing and we’re talking to some other folks around whether we create a framework for measuring partnership impact. Hopefully in the next year or so something might come out of that.
What do you hope to see happen – either with Grow Asia or with large-scale collaboration in general – over the next few years? What would it mean if that came to pass?
A big question for us at Grow Asia in the next few years is whether we will still be around. And if we aren’t, is it a win or is it a loss? You can see it both ways. If we are successful at what we do and if we’re able to create partnerships and help people have an impact, grow them, share best practice, help with scale-up and keep the momentum going, then is there a role for us to keep doing that? Or, is our role in terms of setting up these country partnerships, convening with people and saying, “Over to you now and you take it forward?”
I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s clear that without the capacity to support and run these programs, they will not work. And without the leadership of the partners who are committed even beyond the business case to take them forward, they will not work. So, at the very least, I hope we will get to a point where these partnerships have proven themselves to have value and we can get more and more people signing up and taking them forward. And if that happens, maybe building the business case and some of the continuous hand-holding becomes redundant and we have the capacity within companies, within organizations to take this forward, so the role of something like Grow Asia diminishes, but the power of partnerships strengthens.