Ag Development…It’s Complicated.
Agricultural development is complicated.
All to often, those of us in the developed world hear of problems and want to help with a quick fix. Maybe through the donation of a building, some seed or fertilizer, or a piece of equipment. While every little bit helps, many of the problems persist, or even get worse. This is because many of the issues are symptoms of systemic problems that cannot be fixed with one project or donation.
I experienced some of the complexities firsthand.
In 2012 I was in Liberia interviewing farmers as part of a research project. The rainy season had just ended, so areas of the country that were largely inaccessible by vehicle due to impassable roads were supposed to be clear.
But, some late rains hit. We set out anyway to see if we could make it to our destination. On our route the traffic in front of us stopped.
We waited. And waited.
People behind us started to get out of their vehicles and walk to the front of the line to see what was happening.
We did the same.
Before arriving at the front of the traffic jam, I passed by people sleeping in the shade underneath their car. I passed by vendors selling food (keep in mind this was in the middle of the bush — nowhere near a city).
I finally reached the front of the traffic jam and saw the problem. The road had turned into a giant mud bog. There were vehicles stuck everywhere. There was no way around it. Cars were backed up as far as the eye could see in both directions, and I realized: these people were just going to wait for it to dry. However long that might take.
On the hike back to the car, we asked how long others had been parked there waiting for the road to dry.
We doubled-back to a hotel and tried the following two days to go back to the spot to see if it had cleared.
I have no idea how long some of those people sat there, sleeping under their vehicles, waiting to continue their journey.
This is unthinkable in the developed world. Driving from point A to point B is a given. These types of challenges are everywhere, and have major impacts on what can seem like straightforward problems.
To put this in an agricultural context: we can help boost yields, but what if the harvest spoils before getting to market? What about transportation, storage, logistics? What are they supposed to do when there is no local demand and farmers can’t access other markets?
World Food Bank acknowledges the complexities associated with agricultural development. They choose to take a systematic approach to address entire value chains, rather than one-off projects. I recently spoke with World Food Bank’s Chairman and CEO Richard Lackey on the Future of Agriculture podcast.
Richard’s company partners with governments, NGOs, and private investors to help farmers in developing countries adopt new technology and growing practices.
What’s interesting about World Food Bank is they go far beyond just educating farmers about new technology. They setup model farming operations to practice what they preach.
They then fund processing facilities and utilize new storage technology to make sure there is a market for the much larger harvest that they expect as a result of using improved technology and processes.
This is a for-profit approach that is designed to provide incentives to all market participants to produce more food at a higher quality.
Richard also mentions that through improved quality and better storage technology, food can become more of an asset class. This could theoretically bring in more investment interest to own stored food commodities in these developing countries.
I was struck by the World Food Bank’s commitment to improving both quality and yields while leveraging technology to provide stable markets for farmers.
Additionally exciting is the fact that they are doing this in a way that enlists the help of multiple stakeholders to unify efforts in a way that can actually make a difference. Richard estimates that their program in Uganda could impact 50,000 lives.
Ag development is complicated. One-off projects without cohesive collaboration that addresses the entire value chain are likely to not have a sustained impact.