Experimentation in smallholder agriculture: A key takeaway from ‘lean impact for Ag’

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How can we leverage learning and experimentation to better design agricultural innovations for smallholders? A ‘lean approach’ to testing and learning from pilots, demos, and other experimental methods can help validate assumptions with potential users before committing to costly interventions with low adoption or unintended consequences.

MEDA INNOVATE (3-year project funded by IDRC), in partnership with ANDE’s Agribusiness Learning Lab, hosted a learning event on Lean Impact for Ag: Transforming how we approach, design, and fund solutions for smallholders to reflect on these lean principles.

The event builds on INNOVATE’s learning agenda and goal of engaging with and influencing stakeholders in the agriculture sector. The speakers were Ann Mei Chang, author of the book Lean Impact; Rocío Pérez Ochoa, Co-Founder and Director of Bidhaa Sasa; and Colin Christensen, Global Policy Director at One Acre Fund.

Speakers shared perspectives, examples of learning, and questions around systems change that are pertinent across the global development sector, and especially relevant for smallholder agriculture programs and policies.

This blog is the first in a three-part series highlighting key takeaways from the event. You can also watch a full recording of the event here (password: andeag).

Lean principles and experimention are relevant to smallholders and farming, not just tech.

Crop calendars, climate change, and volatile market prices pose unique challenges to using experiments (small and incremental tests over a short period of time, lean budget, and minimal reach) to accelerate learning in agriculture. To experiment with a mobile application or e-commerce website, you can measure and track clicks, visitors, downloads and purchases. How do we translate lean approaches to smallholder agriculture?

Trust, but validate (Your Assumptions!)

Chang used mobile layaway payment platform MyAgro as an example of how lean principles are still relevant in agriculture — they just look different. MyAgro has the ambitious goal to increase the incomes of 1 million smallholders by $1.50 a day by 2025. MyAgro heard from their customers that loans often cause stress to farming families, so they implemented a simple pilot to explore savings options for these farmers. With a single agent, they hoped to reach 30 farmers; to their surprise, close to 250 farmers signed up. These results validated that they were on the right path before making a big investment. The culture and practice of testing and iterating at a small scale continues for MyAgro today as new ideas emerge.

A beginner’s mindset to learning from customer experience

Another example comes from Bidhaa Sasa, a distribution and finance company serving rural clients in Kenya by enabling access to quality household goods that improve quality of life. The company was founded and inspired by the Lean Startup framework and movement, and is dedicated to experimentation and learning from their customers. Through Bidhaa Sasa’s partnership with MEDA INNOVATE, they are testing and experimenting with agricultural tools and products based on their customers’ input and feedback.

One of the first products Bidhaa Sasa tested was a portable grain silo. Rather than rolling out the product at all branches, they started with one. They purchased a demo product, conducted a few product demonstrations with their customers and monitored the demand, purchases and usage behaviors. Agricultural tools are still new for Bidhaa Sasa. But with an experimentation mindset and approach, the company is testing and exploring what products will serve their clients best and work within their business model.

Initial results for grain silo uptake reveal that mostly women are interested and purchase the product. We heard earlier this year repeated feedback that the features of the grain silo are valued by women customers (protects from rodents/weevils; convenience; airtight seal to protect grain quality etc.). However, larger products like the grain silo (storage space for 4x 90kg bags of maize) require modified logistics and distribution which the company plans to further experiment and test what works best, as they take up more space and are more costly than Bidhaa Sasa’s typical products like efficient cook stoves or home solar systems.


Customer-centric Research and Development

By reading the Lean Impact book and moderating last week’s panel, I’ve appreciated learning more about how One Acre Fund’s research and development (R&D) process uncovers and deploys life-changing innovations. During the panel discussion, Christensen emphasized the importance of being close to your customers by going out every day and speaking to them about what’s working and what’s not. When there’s distance from your customer base, you can lose focus and get distracted from your overall mission. To learn more about One Acre Fund’s R&D process from research to pilot design to large-scale adoption, check out this blog post.

Our discussion made clear that companies like Bidhaa Sasa and One Acre Fund have organizational cultures that take a lean impact approach. They generate impact among the customers they serve because they embed processes of learning, experimentation and testing in everything they do; and learn from failures as much as from successes.

The next two posts in this series will cover measurement (innovation metrics vs. vanity metrics) and the systems change and reform we need in our industry to better understand and serve the world’s smallholder population. Stay tuned!

Check out the MEDA INNOVATE website and sign-up for our newsletter to stay tuned with MEDA INNOVATE’s upcoming learning series.

Post Author
  • Clara Yoon is a Project Manager for Global Programs at MEDA, her primary role is managing INNOVATE, an IDRC-funded initiative focused on testing and learning about the intersection of non-traditional finance and innovation adoption by smallholders. Her areas of focus include women’s financial inclusion, digital finance, and ICT for development. She is an advocate for leveraging user-centered research and design to tackle today's pressing global development challenges. Clara holds a MA in Global Governance from the University of Waterloo and BA in Global Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. She has prior experience in South Korea, working with a local human rights non-governmental organization that promotes and advocates for the North Korean human rights agenda.

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