The concept of ‘innovation’ has been around since the beginning of time. When humans first learnt how to use fire to cook food, this was an innovative revolutionary step. When farmers first started rotating crops, it was an innovative new farming practice. When the Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) in Kenya was formed as a holistic, market-driven model to improve the commercial viability of the smallholder food sector, it too marked the development of an innovation. Yet FtMA is unique in that innovation continues to be at the core of its business model – it carefully selects innovative companies in the agricultural space to partner and co-innovate solutions with or leverage upon their existing innovations. FtMA works with partners through a network of rural agrientrepreneurs known as Farmer Service Centres (FSCs) which act as the missing link between private sector partners and smallholders.
FtMA aims to achieve transformational rather than an incremental change in the smallholder food system – shifting attitudes, behaviours, policies and resource flows so that the sector is perceived as less risky and more opportunistic for the private sector to invest in.
But how does FtMA approach innovation?
When a problem has been identified the team spends extensive time sensing, questioning and gathering information to ensure that the root cause of the problem is truly understood. One of the biggest reasons as to why innovations fail is because the true complexities of the problem are not fully appreciated. Conducting surveys, interviews, observing and reading literature all help FtMA to build up the layers and dynamics influencing the problem at play. Simple tools like the ‘problem-tree’, ‘100 questions’ and ‘5-why analysis’ help guide thinking, forcing the team to go deeper and throw away assumptions.
At this stage, FtMA draws upon the expertise of the Innovation Unit in WFP’s Kenya Country Office to bounce and associate ideas, gain opinions and different perspectives. Asking others to challenge FtMA’s understanding of the problem is critical to ensure all aspects have been considered. Deeper creativity is encouraged through the ‘SCAMPER’ tool:
After sensing, questioning and associating, FtMA, in partnership with the WFP Innovation Unit and other organizations, begins to generate ideas around how the problem can be solved. Rapid prototyping enables the idea to be experimented in the field and refined based on the learnings that are unearthed; each prototype cycle is focused to better understanding an element of the idea which means the test has to be carefully planned:
- What do I want to test?
- How does the user interact with the prototype?
- What is the experience of using the prototype like?
- What does the user think of the prototype’s
- Does the prototype work at all?
Simultaneously, the idea is shared with a diverse range of respected actors to gain their feedback – here new assumptions often arise which need further testing in the field; after each test a learning is generated which is fed back into the prototyping process.
How does the Innovation Unit within the Kenya Country Office support teams such as FtMA?
How about a safe space where new approaches and ideas can be designed, piloted, implemented and taken to scale? That is exactly what the Kenya Country Office Innovations team aims to provide. As an incubation hub for new ideas and through working with various teams in the country office, the team creates an eco-system that allows the interrogation of innovative ideas, facilitate their incubation based on informed risk taking and ingraining those ideas within the regular operations while providing technical support for ideas ready to scale.
The Innovations Team in Kenya recognises that innovation can take various forms, and as such scouts for and applies new approaches to either address existing problems or opportunities to address unmet needs that would go a long way towards enhancing the effectiveness of its operations. Through structured processes, the team develops new projects from inception, determines user requirements, defines milestones, reviews processes and timelines and importantly also, documents these results for replicability purposes.
To achieve its vision and drive its agenda, the Innovations team not only collaborates internally with the functional units but also draws some of its ideas from collaboration with the WFP Accelerator team in Munich, Germany, co-creating and turning those into ideas that can be contextualised to suit the needs of the country office or the region as a whole.
What does the partnership with WFP’s Innovation Accelerator look like?
FtMA often supports the WFP Innovation Accelerator across the boot camp, sprint and scale-up stages of the programme, coordinated by the innovation team in Munich.
Earlier this year, FtMA’s Kenya Country Coordinator attended an innovation boot camp to facilitate sessions with the shortlisted candidates, challenge thinking and generate new ideas. In fact, FtMA is a great example of an innovation success story – the team themselves went through a boot camp curriculum and sprint phase, and is now considered an exemplary scale-up project!
Other agricultural-related innovations with a Kenyan footprint that successfully reached the sprint stage of the accelerator programme have the opportunity to work with FtMA during their scale up. For example in 2019-20, FtMA supported Hello Tractor to pilot their route scheduling and optimization solution that optimizes smallholder farmer tractor demand. Their digital route planning solution ensures tractors are maximised in their use and helps improve farmers’ access to mechanization. A key goal was also to ensure reliability between farmers and tractor providers, building trust, enhancing efficiency and increasing profitability for both smallholders and service providers.
Looking ahead over the coming quarter, FtMA will be partnering with Agri-wallet, an innovative fintech platform providing easy and affordable agri-finance to multiple actors in smallholder crop value chains. Farmers, Off-takers, Agrovets and other Service Providers with a mobile phone receive a digital Agri-wallet account that provides them with access to affordable and restricted loans.
The loans intend on increasing production as they have to be spent on agricultural inputs and produce, and in doing so the diversion of agri-finance out of the value chain is stopped. The solution makes agri-finance simple and profitable for banks so they can offer their clients affordable access to finance through Agri-wallet, helping all actors to benefit from an improved cash conversion cycle in a transparent, digital way.
FtMA will mobilize smallholder farmers, agri-SMEs and agro-dealers in Nakuru County, Kenya to help Agri-wallet learn and iterate from its failures/successes on the ground so that in the long run, the innovation will achieve its vision of serving 3.3 million farmers, 14,000 aggregators and 12,000 input providers whilst unlocking USD $1 billion of investment in affordable agri-finance by 2025
The pilot ultimately aims to test whether the creation of value chain transparency has a positive effect on credit ratings and access to affordable finance for smallholders.
Why does FtMA sees innovation as important?
There is still a long way to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, collaboration of public and private sectors is essential, both in funding, the generation of innovations and their implementation in practice. Disruptive thinking needs to consider all the different levers of the system in which the problem manifests and doing so needs the collective experience of diverse actors. This will help generate the transformational change that is needed to put an end to hunger, make the smallholder sector more attractive for private sector investment and make sure that the path to doing so happens without negative trade-offs to biodiversity and the environment.