September 29, 2020
Member Spotlight: Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation

From its global newsletter to its major annual events, ANDE members have access to a multitude of platforms for promoting their work and co-creating knowledge with other members. The ANDE Member Spotlight Blog is a series of short, interview-based blog posts highlighting an ANDE member organization and any new projects, recent investments, or ongoing research with interesting learnings that add value to the ANDE community.

Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation is a USAID-funded program that works to build partnerships with agribusinesses to help them sell new products and services to smallholder farmers, who represent a potential market of 500 million customers. Through this program, partner businesses are provided with investment assistance, expert guidance and the technical support they need to expand in emerging markets and create a growing customer base for their agricultural innovations. Since 2012, Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation has worked with 65 private sector partners in 24 countries, which have introduced 132 new agricultural technologies to over 1.4 million smallholder farmers.

ANDE spoke with Laura Harwig, Program Director, about Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and its COVID-19 partner survey and pandemic response.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us how you and your partner network have pivoted to address the impacts of COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, the development sector was eager to understand how COVID-19 impacted agribusinesses in emerging markets. With our global network of private sector partners, we were well-positioned to help explore that question. In April, we surveyed our partners in order to gather data on how the pandemic has impacted them, what it means for them as a business, and how it affects the ability of smallholder farmers — their customers — to succeed in the agricultural sector. This was the first pivot point we took — launching the survey and receiving feedback from our partners, and then moving forward to provide tailored support based on that information. Forty-four of our private sector partners operating in 19 countries across four agribusiness sectors responded, providing invaluable on-the-ground insights that helped us — thousands of miles away in Washington — identify the constraints and opportunities they faced and help guide our COVID-19 response.

Beyond surviving the pandemic, we wanted to identify ways our partners could thrive. The second part of our COVID-19 response was to create partnerships specifically focused on offering support businesses need to pivot their own business models, so that they can continue providing access to technologies and services to smallholder farmers. We identified ten partners that previously thrived with funding from Partnering for Innovation and were now facing unprecedented challenges which, without a new boost of investment, threatened to undue their hard-earned success.

What was a surprising or interesting finding from the survey?

It is interesting to conduct the survey from an American perspective, because of the inaccurate assumption that what is happening in the United States is happening everywhere else. We thought that COVID-19 was going to have a significant impact on workforces. We expected to hear that companies were laying off 50% of their staff. That did not happen — the impact on the workforce globally ended up being a lot less significant than we originally thought. When we talked to our partners, we found that the main reason for that was because these businesses’ first priority was to protect their workforce. Only 36% of the firms we surveyed had laid off or furloughed any employees. This was data collected in May, so we are interested to see if this number has changed significantly or not when we follow-up with survey respondents later this year. Nevertheless, it was surprising that COVID-19 had no drastic impact on the workforce during the initial phase of the pandemic.

What trends are you noticing in your COVID-19 focused partnerships compared to others?

The survey we conducted shows that across the board, COVID-19 has severely impacted the agribusiness industry by restricting their sales, production ability, and workforce mobilization. What made the COVID-19 partnerships stand out was not only their desire to change their business models in the short term in response to the pandemic, but that they were also considering how to become more resilient in the long term. Many of the partners we funded also wanted to think differently about their distribution models.

A common example in the agribusiness world is the in-person distribution and sale of products. Many suppliers attend and host farmer field days to sell seed — something that obviously cannot be done in the COVID-19 context. If your sales and distribution model relied exclusively on in-person exchanges, what can you do now? We are seeing partners who want to pivot to different types of sales and distribution models, both to overcome COVID-19 and to rethink their long-term business models. We are also seeing companies that want to better understand their own internal supply chain and logistics, as well as to identify bottlenecks and constraints. These are the main models we are funding.

We are also funding a third model our partners are pursuing — introducing new product lines, especially in the processing industry. The market has responded to COVID-19 with a demand for less perishable goods, so we are helping our partners introduce processed product lines in response to this shift in market demand.

What are some takeaways that might be helpful to the rest of the ANDE community?

What Partnering for Innovation adds to the ANDE community is insight into how donors can best interact with enterprises. USAID is constantly finding new ways to effectively work with businesses around the world, and Partnering for Innovation is an interesting model of how it can be done well. We leverage businesses for development gains, resulting in a network of great businesses and impact investors. Of all the people involved, some are businesses wanting to better engage with the US government, while some are US government actors who want to more effectively engage with businesses.

After nearly a decade since its inception, one of the reasons why I think Partnering for Innovation is particularly successful is because instead of speaking to the international development context, we speak in the language of business. For example, when we set up partnerships with agribusinesses, we do not ask them to conduct “monitoring and evaluation” to measure the impact of our work on farmers and their communities. Instead, we ask businesses to track sales, revenue and output because that is what businesses focus on. We design these grants around metrics that businesses find important, which in turn, makes it easier for businesses to work with us. This gives us a different insight into what impact looks like when partnering with the private sector.

What are some best practices the ANDE community could incorporate into their strategic initiatives?

One of the best practices is responding to what businesses need instead of what your organization needs. Partnering for Innovation has been in the lead of what we call pay-for-results programming, where we create partnerships with agribusinesses, and pay them based on milestones achieved against key sales targets. That keeps the work results-driven, which is both great for us and the businesses involved. Another key takeaway is to leverage the network you have to understand impact and partner needs, which is something we utilized for our COVID-19 survey.

What are specific ways that ANDE members can get involved with Partnering for Innovation?

If you’d like to learn more about our model of establishing pay-for-results and shared-value partnerships with private sector agribusinesses, we’d encourage you to visit our website where we’ve documented nearly ten years’ worth of learning, tools, and best practices. We’re also always looking for other partners (donors, impact investors, business development service providers) who can further add value and work with our network of 65 private sector agribusinesses around the world. If you’re looking for funding or investment opportunities in the agribusinesses sector or if you provide services to agribusinesses in emerging markets and think you’d be a good resource, we’d love to learn more about your work and possibly connect you with our partners. Reach out to to get in touch!