February 6 – 7 Managua: New business models: Constructing inclusive commercial links between small-scale buyers and producers in Central America
From February 6 to 7, the Regional Learning Alliance of Central America (Alianza de Aprendizaje de Centroámerica), an initiative promoted by CIAT since 2003, met for the second installment of the one year 2013 – 2014 learning cycle in Managua, Nicaragua. The learning cycle’s topic, “New business models: Constructing inclusive commercial links between small-scale buyers and producers in Central America,” was central to the workshop, where participants built upon the September 23 – 26, 2013 meeting, also held in Managua. Participants continued to practice Learning Alliance methodology, which initially emerged due to a clear need for increased collaboration between research and development organizations.
Somewhere between the realms of research and development lies current field reality.[i] Organizations like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have attempted to close this gap by functioning as a bridge between upstream academic research and downstream development users.[ii] Starting in 2003, a group of actors in Central America, including International and local NGOs, an international agricultural research center, a national university and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) joined forces to explore how they could improve the links between research and development actors. The chosen thematic focus was rural enterprise development.
The Learning Alliances approach, implemented extensively in Central America and 35 additional countries globally by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), is an exemplary demonstration of how agricultural research organizations such as CIAT collaborate with development practitioners to jointly embrace learning as a tool to improve practice. By integrating cross-cutting activities on knowledge management and capacity development, the resulting data feeds improved capabilities, technologies and approaches – contributing directly to published articles and insights for policy-level dialog.[iii] The key principles of Learning Alliances are:
- Create clear objectives
- Promote shared responsibilities, costs and credit
- Outputs as inputs
- Utilize differentiated learning mechanisms
- Foster long-term, trust-based relationships
The learning cycle.
Since the initiative’s launch in 2003, evidence shows improved connectivity between organizations working on similar topics, better access to information and knowledge on rural enterprise development and access to improved methods and tools. Attitudes have shifted from competition to collaboration, leading to increased effectiveness in existing projects and more strategic new projects. The learning alliance has worked with a total of 25 direct partner agencies, influencing over 116 additional organizations, contributing to change among 33,000 rural families in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
2013 – 2014 Learning Cycles
The first meeting that took place in September 2013, where the CIAT Linking Farmers to Markets team facilitated a regional workshop. Participants worked to build a common understanding and language in order to promote the horizontal learning process. The three-day workshop produced several valuable steps in the right direction, which were revisited in this second workshop. Developments from the September workshop included:
- Designing a theory of change and common monitoring framework;
- Training on LINK Methodology;
- Identification of specific cases to test, adapt and improve LINK;
- Elaboration of work plans and supervision for the duration of the learning cycle;
- Budget of revision so as to co-finance specific activities for associates.
The double-loop learning cycle in a learning alliance.
The aim of the current learning cycle, funded by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), is two-fold:
- To improve regional capacity in Central America in evaluating, designing and optimizing business models in order to generate sustainable benefits for small-scale farmers.
- To test and adapt the LINK Methodology to the regional needs of Central America, as well as building a set of regional empirical data, case studies and lessons learned that connect key actors in rural development.
Workshop 2: Maintaining Momentum
The workshop was guided by CIAT‘s Linking Farmers to Markets team, and includes 12 representatives of four partner organizations of the Central American Learning Alliance:
The 2013 – 2014 learning cycle is focused on utilizing LINK Methodology to assess the state of current business models between a seller (who may be a first, second or third tier producer organization, either association, cooperative or informal group) and a buyer (which can be an intermediary, retailer or wholesaler) and aims to jointly develop more inclusive business models leading to measurable changes for producers and buyers in Central America.
With such productive strides made in September, participants returned in February to reflect on the advances made with LINK, focusing on Tool #4: Prototype Cycle.
The Prototype Cycle.
The first day began with a review of progress made and a group discussion of how LINK’s application in various situations was proceeding. Participants then reviewed LINK’s third tool, the Prototype Cycle, the goal of which is to design, test and continually evaluate the business model in order to constantly improve it. Key questions include:
- Where is our business model today?
- Where do we want to find our business model in the future?
- What has to change?
- How can we implement improvements and how do we measure them?
- What improvements work and don’t work, and how can we improve upon that?
Some suggestions rose during the afternoon discussion on possible improvements to be made on the Prototype Cycle, including:
- Increased follow-up and long-distance support to evaluate advances made among other participants;
- Propose more concrete definitions of indicators in order to monitor the prototype cycle;
- Seek to be pragmatic and simple.
Participants posted feedback on the Learning Alliance workshop and Prototype Cycle tool.
The second day of the workshop continued reviewing and working with LINK’s fourth tool, followed by planning sessions for the next phase of the Learning Cycle. Participants then engaged in an evaluation of the workshop as a whole.
The next step in the Learning Cycle is to continue applying the methodology in the field stepping into the prototype cycle. CIAT will engage in field visits to select project sites, followed by a writing workshop in September to document cases and reflect upon shared experiences.
Looking forward, the future of the Learning Alliance methodology is bright. Despite successes, there are important areas for further work which builds on gains made until now. Such areas include sustainable pro-poor value chains, information and knowledge management for innovation and increasing linkages to multi-stakeholder spaces and networks to influence attitudes and practices in the private sector, donor agencies and state agencies.[i] Efforts need to be made to develop effective linkages between the alliance and other key actors to leverage field based learning to influence private firms, donor agencies and state agencies. Identifying how to develop forays into the private sector more systemically is a critical area for future work.
Designing inclusive business models in Central America
CIAT. “Diversified livelihoods through effective agro-enterprise interventions: Creating a cumulative learning framework.” 7 September 2013.
Lundy, Mark. “Integrating research, development and learning to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor in LAC.”
Lundy, Mark. “Change through shared learning.” September 2006.
 Lundy, Mark. “Integrating research, development and learning to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor in LAC.”
 CIAT. “Diversified livelihoods through effective agro-enterprise interventions: Creating a cumulative learning framework.” 7 September 2013.