Member Spotlight: Mennonite Economic Development Associates

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 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.

MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. For over 65 years, MEDA has been creating business solutions to poverty that are sustainable, scalable, measurable and replicable in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Currently, MEDA’s organizational strategy is focused on doing the organization is in a moment of fundamentally rethinking how they do business in this rapidly changing landscape, especially for entrepreneurs.

ANDE sat down with Vice President of Innovation and Impact Leah Katerberg to learn more about MEDA, its new strategic plan, and the theme of decent work.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about MEDA, the role it plays in the SGB ecosystem, and your new strategic plan.

MEDA is an international economic development organization focusing specifically on agri-food market systems. Last year we developed a new strategic plan which guides us in honing our niche — while we have been broadly working in agriculture since we began our work over 65 years ago, the plan has us focusing in on agri-food specifically and the systemic barriers that exist within the sector. There is still so much work to be done here, and agri-food will be a pivotal sector in the coming decades.

We will be working in the same space but with a different lens. Any new program we launch we will start with discovering the systemic barriers that various types of market actors face and designing programming to address those. This will mean stronger partnerships with South-based organizations, associations, and businesses who have the context and the connections to co-design with us and address some of those barriers. It’s a subtle but critical shift.

Another shift that we are making this year is to align our impact investing with our programming. In the past, we have been more likely to make one-off, or long-standing investments, which led to our capital not being availed sufficiently or adequately to catalyze impact in our programming. All of our work will now begin with a thorough market systems analysis which will identify, among other things, which market system barriers can be addressed through impact capital and therefore where we should deploy our MEDA Risk Capital Fund.

We want to use investment as a tool to catalyze change in the system where SGBs operate. We believe that investment can be truly impactful only if the factors that hold SGBs back are considered as central to the investment criteria, including gender equality and environmental sustainability.

What has your biggest learning from the process of shifting strategically? What are you most excited about going forward?

The biggest learning was that every strategic planning process should include a clear lens on what is going on in the industry broadly. We are only one player. MEDA has been seen as a technical leader in economic development and impact investing, but we need to do better at becoming part of the global conversation on where the agri-food sector is heading, what is most needed, and how we can best collaborate. We created the strategic plan just before COVID-19 hit, and we have had to begin operationalizing it within the context of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. These things have shifted our mindset to expand beyond MEDA and engage in conversations with others in the development arena. Convening organizations like Humentum and Cooperation Canada have been so helpful in moving these conversations forward among civil society, creating space for MEDA and others to think through the changes that we all need to make. We want do our part contributing to the sector and we think we can best add value by understanding where MEDA lies within these larger movements.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected MEDA’s operations?

We have made some immediate adjustments to our programming, mainly in shifting to leaner (and virtual) data collection and figuring out how to provide remote support to our clients to ensure their businesses are doing okay. The pandemic has highlighted to us the importance of resilience, and we have taken what we learned and developed some resources to help our clients maintain resilience for the next shock. I think the biggest shift for us as an organization, though, is more broadly how we approach our work. For example, we’re going to travel less. This shift has opened up the opportunity for us to work virtually with each other across the globe much more frequently. For example, we have our annual corporate meetings coming up in March, and for the first time we are able to invite all worldwide staff. Normally, this event has been based here in Canada, and we would fly in a small sample of our international staff.

I would say COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to rethink how we do many things — things we would have rethought eventually, but we’re fast-tracking all of it now. Everything is on the table — our internal structure, the role of HQ, the level of autonomy that international offices and partners have in designing and managing programs, how we partner and who we partner with. There is a movement among NGOs in Canada to bring to the government’s attention current laws that do not allow us to enter into an equitable relationship with our international counterparts — there is just so much oversight that’s required. We want to work with them as true partners in program design because they are the ones that are in the best position to bring in contextual knowledge and they know what is most impactful.

It seems like MEDA strongly aligns with the Decent Work focus of ANDE’s strategy. How can ANDE members get involved?

Decent Work is the big goal for our new strategic plan — helping to move 500,000 women, men, and youth into decent work in the agri-food sector by 2030. It’s a five-year strategic plan with a ten-year sightline. It is exciting that ANDE is working on decent work as well — it’s such an important lens to bring to market systems development right now.

Decent Work is one of the more challenging SDGs to measure — it lays out mainly macro-economic indicators, whereas we are working more at the micro-economic level. We have done some initial work to determine potential parameters of measurement and have been grateful to have the opportunity to put our heads together with the International Labor Organization (ILO) who are also tackling it. They have developed a number of indicators around decent work, primarily for employees (e.g. of SGBs), which has been a helpful start. We are learning, though, that it’s much easier to measure at the SGB level than it is at the smallholder level.

For now, we have narrowed in on quantitative measures like income, revenue, and productivity, as well as several qualitative measures that will be contextually selected within each country. Decent work is broader, conceptually, than a decent income. It’s about stability, knowing your job can take care of your family. It’s not about subsisting. For SGBs, we want to make sure employees are registered with their government’s social security departments, for example. Smallholders, though, do not have access to anything like that. What does social security look like for them?

In terms of collaboration, ANDE is in a perfect place to convene others grappling with these questions around decent work. MEDA is interested in participating in conversations that ANDE and/or the network is holding on decent work to share what we are doing and learning and hear from others as well.