Toward projects that create lasting, systemic change

MEDA deepens focus on agri-food market systems to achieve impact at scale

Agriculture and improving the lives of people who work in the sector has been a key part of MEDA’s mission of creating business solutions to poverty since its inception in 1953.

Shortly after MEDA was formed, a group of businessmen provided financial support to the Sarona Dairy. A breeding program at a Paraguayan farm led to higher milk production at farms throughout that South American nation, improving the livelihoods of many.

MEDA’s enhanced focus on agri-food market systems in its Towards an Equal World strategic plan is a natural evolution that builds on past efforts, says Millie Gadbois, country director for the organization’s Senegal projects.

With an overall goal to create or sustain decent work for 500,000 people over a decade, MEDA aims to achieve impact at scale and create systems-level change.

The new aspects of MEDA’s work involve moving from a value chain focus to looking at the entire economic and social environment, she said.

Integrating concerns about gender equality, environmental sus- tainability, and climate change miti- gation into all projects gives MEDA an edge, she said. “To put them all together in this (agri-food market systems) package, that’s new.”

MEDA’s competitive advantage is its entrepreneurial culture, Gadbois said. “MEDA has been working on market systems since the 1950s,” she said. “A lot of other NGOs haven’t always linked things to markets. MEDA has vast experience in that.”

Gadbois believes the idea of smart incentives, getting funds directly to small businesses or farmers to improve their processes “is brilliant.” “Not all organizations do that,” she said.

There are good reasons for MEDA to focus on entire agri-food market systems, she said. Early work in the broader development industry focused just on farmers and production, overlooking the demand side of the equation.

“Attention was not paid on how to deal with surplus production, how to sell at good prices,” she said.

More recently, the development industry has done value chain work. This involves “taking into account all the different aspects of being a farmer, being a successful farmer who can feed his or her family and hopefully have a surplus to sell at interesting prices.”

That broader focus is key to making the lasting change that MEDA seeks to help bring about, said Helal Ahsan-Ul-Haque, MEDA’s senior director for the Eastern, Central and Southern Africa regions.

Helal works to develop strategic partnerships with research institutions, donors, and peer organizations in order to collaborate for greater impact. He also supports country directors to further improve program capacity and quality.

He recalls one project that failed to consult all relevant players when he was working with a different organization in Ethiopia. A research group came up with high-yielding varieties of maize, a form of corn. But farmers didn’t accept the new variety, saying that the crop size was too small and didn’t provide the right fodder for their animals.

MEDA wants to avoid that sort of outcome by incorporating all perspectives, from production to packaging and sales to the end user, he said. “We are working throughout the value chain. That is our value proposition. That’s why we are a partner of choice.”

Agriculture is crucially important in Africa, a continent that is a major area of focus for MEDA, he said. “Not just for food, but also for poverty reduction. Everything is linked with this agri-food (market) system.”

Making change at a systems level requires a change in focus that goes beyond just farmers, he said. “You have to address the government priorities, you have to address policies, the procedures. When you are addressing those systems… basically you are going beyond farmers, or clients, or micro-entrepreneurs. You are opening up this opportunity for (helping) millions.”

Awa Leye is a member of a women’s group that receives support from MEDA’s IREM project in Senegal. | Photo by Attekh Ngom/MEDA Senegal

Taking this approach means that the organization’s reach and impact will be multiplied, he said. “That is the big shift. MEDA has embraced that shift very boldly.”

“This is very important from an institutional perspective.”

Governments cannot afford or replicate development projects that work just with farmers in a few areas, he said. In his view, a broader systems approach will help more people.

“Our role is to complement and supplement with government policies and priorities. Government is the prime entity, so we need to collaborate together.”

The majority of impact investing being done across the development sector is now in the agri-food market systems area. But many organizations are addressing only production, such as the development of new crop varieties, for example, he said.

“If you don’t parallelly work with the demand side, then basically you will be losing that opportunity (to create lasting change),” he said.

One of the areas where MEDA has seen success in applying a full value chain approach was with women producing pickles in Jordan, he said. Helal oversaw the Jordan Valley Links (JVL) project, which finished earlier this year.

The JVL project worked with 3,000 pickle producers, ensuring that women were using a consistent recipe, proper hygiene, and packaging. The project set up 12 kitchen hubs where some of these women could use well-outfitted kitchens and get advice from supervisors.

Women who canned pickles at home sold to their neighbors and local communities. But the women who worked through the hubs were able to sell to wider, retail buyers. That work helped to increase the women’s sales capacity and created additional employment.

In industry terminology, the JVL approach was an aggregation model. “That is the big success story,” he said.

Helping farmers or micro-entrepreneurs put together products of consistent quality in volume leads to greater interest from the private sector. That yields higher prices and greater profitability for the producers, he said.

Senegal project assists farmers with access to irrigation, better seeds and fertilizer

In Senegal, access to water is a key concern for farmers. The rainy season in the West African nation often runs from June or early July through October or November but has become less predictable in recent years. The dry season is the rest of the year.

“Obviously you have to have a supply of water ( to grow crops),” says Millie Gadbois, MEDA’s country director for Senegal.

A project funded by the Mastercard Foundation is helping with this situation. The Initiative for the Economic Resilience of Micro, Medium and Small Enterprises (IREM) is a partnership between Mastercard, MEDA and the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research. The IREM project is using solar-powered pumps to provide access to water 12 months of the year, “so you can plant in the off-season, or you can plant in times when there is not an over-abundance of certain vegetables,” Gadbois said.

The project is also providing fencing to keep animals away from crops as “the invasion of animals looking for something to eat is rampant. Needs that have been intensified by the pandemic mean that IREM is somewhat different than traditional MEDA projects. COVID-19 response is the focus of an initial two-year phase through 2022. 

A follow-on phase of an additional five years will intensify work to increase agricultural productivity, improve business performance and access to finance for people working in the sector in target regions, with a focus on women and youth.

“The project is a good one…because it alleviates the suffering of farmers,” said Saidou Ba, the mayor of Niani Toucoleur, a rural community in the east of Senegal. “The (pandemic) health situation has had a negative impact on all sectors, and agriculture has not been spared.”

MEDA has helped to distribute masks, gels, and flyers to raise awareness and combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It has also distributed high-quality seeds and fertilizer to farmers, in areas where most cannot afford to purchase fertilizer.

For some, this assistance has made all the difference. Ousmane Manga, a farmer and chief of the village of Bissine, spoke of returning last year to an area that had been abandoned since 1992 due to conflict related to a separatist movement. Receiving seeds and fertilizer to resume farming “already gives us a lot of hope,” he said.

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