Why harnessing local knowledge is best- a conversation among project staff from Kenya and the Philippines

To better explain MEDA’s transformational journey towards embracing a North-South equilibrium and developing partnerships that are based on delivering systems-level impacts in agri-food systems, Catherine Sobrevega (Country Director, Philippines) and Juma Ongera (Country Director, Kenya) sat down with Jessica Villanueva, Senior Director, Technical Areas of Practice to reflect in their own words how their work addresses current trends in international development and contributes to the goals espoused by MEDA’s Strategic Plan.

Jessica: Thank you both for joining me. To start off, can you please share a little bit about yourself and your journey thus far – what you have worked on, what you’re passionate about, and how does this translate into your work with MEDA?

Catherine: I am an international development professional who is most passionate about using economic development strategies to strengthen the capacity of marginalized communities to be self-sustaining. While I have worked with MEDA on several projects in a few geographies, I am thrilled to be MEDA’s first Country Director for the Philippines. Functionally, I like the challenges of leading MEDA’s Resilience and Inclusion through Investment for Sustainable Agrikultura (RIISA) project, because it has enabled me to design new systems and think through the complexities of running a start-up company. Personally, I feel very honored to have been given a leadership role that allows me to guide my team in building out new processes, as well as establishing meaningful connections with local communities in my home country. Working on a MEDA project in a business environment that I am very familiar with has also stretched my imagination to think through how sustainability considerations, particularly around the leadership of RIISA’s initiatives, can be mainstreamed throughout the project. I am confident that the integrated nature of RIISA’s efforts will enable the Mindanao communities to continue thriving after MEDA’s project ends.

Juma: I also have a strong background in international development and feel honored to be leading MEDA’s Leveraging Equality for Gender-Inclusive Economic Development (LEGEND) project in my home country, Kenya. I continue to love the work that we are doing at MEDA, because it strives to tackle the root causes of inequalities by applying a systems-led approach. I am encouraged by the positive results achieved by MEDA’s previous Kenya-based project, Maendaleo Sawa (M-SAWA), and am eager to see how LEGEND’s targeted focus on supporting women farmers to become more economically resilient can extend M-SAWA’s market system impacts to be more gender inclusive. My dream is for LEGEND to showcase women business leaders as being capable of economically and socially thriving despite their adverse circumstances. I see so many women entrepreneurs and operators in my country being overlooked as inferior or incapable business leaders. These gender stereotypes and the patriarchal systems which support them need to change. I also want LEGEND’s results to catalyze more locally driven interventions so that local service providers become the drivers of Kenya’s economic development efforts.

What keeps me excited about working with MEDA is its focus on being a project implementer. I am most engaged when I am actively doing systems work change. I enjoy testing different types of interventions to learn if or how playing with different supply and demand levers can evoke systemic changes. For instance, in LEGEND, I am curious to see whether financial support to financial intermediaries and fund managers causes differences in either party to take meaningful action. I also look forward to sharing the learnings from LEGEND with MEDA’s other Country Directors and likewise hearing about what project results have occurred so that we can support each other’s projects in becoming more responsive to the clients and communities that we are assisting. We are one MEDA team. I like the opportunity of being able to draw on the larger MEDA network to see how else we can apply MEDA’s technical approaches to reduce poverty in the communities we are operating in.

Jessica: In 2020, MEDA launched its new strategic plan, Towards an Equal World. One core tenet that was identified was the need for MEDA to embrace a North-South Equilibrium. How does MEDA’s North-South Equilibrium show up in your work?

Catherine: MEDA has always encouraged its staff – both at HQ and in those in-country – to be creative and to pilot new economic development techniques. Now that MEDA has this mandate to build a North-South equilibrium, I am seeing MEDA proactively experimenting with different ways of shifting power to the Global South. Now more than ever I am finding that I am better positioned to provide critical input and leadership about how MEDA’s project should create and maintain relationships with local partners and donors. It is very important for these players to see MEDA as being representative of the communities it is assisting as in-country teams are best placed to work alongside our neighbors and will be the ones who will continue building on MEDA’s efforts post-project. I am feeling very confident about MEDA’s shift towards having its Country Directors be strongly connected to the geographies in which their project(s) operate(s) in. Hence, why I am feeling very purposeful and grounded working in my native country.

Juma: I agree that I am now seeing MEDA leverage its in-country teams’ community linkages. I think this is the right approach as we are well-placed to leverage our understanding of local market factors and intersectional social norms to collect ground-level data and draw appropriate conclusions from our integrated market systems analysis. I am also very supportive of country-level teams managing relationships with important stakeholders, as we are the ones who will continue to do the work after the end of MEDA’s projects.

Jessica: Can you please tell me more about how MEDA’s desire to “put clients first” has been reflected in your project’s structure?

Catherine: In RIISA, we are aiming to put our clients first by strengthening the capacity of locally owned and operated businesses across several areas of the local investment ecosystem. For instance, we are looking to support in-country private equity fund managers and financial institutions that are looking to invest in locally owned and operated firms. We are also hoping to make connections between RIISA-affiliated private equity fund managers and local, regional, and diaspora investor networks. While it would have been easier to work with investment players that were already affiliated with each other, we wanted to build these localized linkages, because we want to put our clients’ needs first by ensuring the sustainability of our project’s efforts. We also want to ensure that we are sharing these learnings about network building back to our donor, Global Affairs Canada so that more linkages between the worlds of development and investment are created.

Juma: In the early stages of LEGEND, we collected some critical market landscaping data to better understand the unique political, social, economic, and technological contexts of the sectors where we work . While MEDA’s HQ provided some guidance on the data collection methodology, LEGEND’s local project team led the interviewing and analysis effort. Sending our local teams to be “the face of the project” assisted our clients to feel much more comfortable in sharing their lived experiences, particularly as it related to talking about sensitive topics, like gender-based violence. We also understand the cultural nuances of the information that we gathered and could use our translation skills to piece together information to gather a clearer picture of the state of our selected sectors. I am feeling very confident in our ability to leverage this knowledge towards the design of matching grants that will intervene in our target sectors in ways that are most appropriate for clients’ needs.

Jessica: How is your project encouraging more North-South and South-South linkages? How will these connections be forged and sustained?

Catherine: To ensure that both capital and investment information freely flow between the Global North and Global South, as well as within the Global South itself, RIISA is looking to facilitate new business connections amongst local investors, investees, and investment networks. Our goal is to have each of these players understand and see each other as viable business partners so that they carry on these relationships long after RIISA has ended. To do this, RIISA is looking to tap into the existing investment sector ecosystem infrastructure by leaning into our memberships with the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) and trade association groups to encourage others to understand the opportunity of working in the Mindanao cocoa sector.

Juma: In LEGEND, we are looking to build off the legacy of MEDA’s existing relationships from MEDA’s previous M-SAWA project by supporting local business development providers to help us strengthen the capacities of our affiliated SMEs. Internally amongst our LEGEND HQ and in-country project team, we have also developed a culture of openly sharing and receiving critical information in a timely manner so that everyone is well-informed of both the project’s day-to-day challenges and opportunities. We want our whole project team to become accustomed to working closely together as we think this is the future of MEDA’s working culture.

Jessica: Since we have already touched on how your respective projects intersect with market systems development activities, what are the ways that MEDA’s other technical approaches show up in your project?

Catherine: It will take the integration of many technical approaches to see the changes that we want to see in the world. I am glad to be a part of the team which is piloting MEDA’s new E-GEM [Gender Equality Mainstreaming] approach whereby we will ask businesses to think of themselves as being both community and environmental stewards, rather than [being] purely profit-driven. Additionally, we are looking to use innovative finance as a tool to shift what is considered valuable and incentivize the uptake of ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance]-informed policies and practices.

Juma: In LEGEND, we are working across a number of fronts to improve the socioeconomic prospects of youth, women, and other socially marginalized actors. Yes, we would like them to be connected to formalized value chains. However, we also want to encourage their communities to respect their contributions and see them as important players in the value chain. As such, we will be focusing a lot of our efforts on providing training which emphasizes the importance of gender and social inclusion, as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation, so that these practices become common workplace norms. We want to see these practices be applied by the entire ecosystem, which is why we are providing trainings at different levels of the value chain to ensure that the information is widely dispersed and adopted.

Jessica: What is the future of MEDA’s programming?

Catherine: MEDA’s projects will have their greatest impacts when they are driven by country-level teams. I am really excited to be a part of the early stages of MEDA’s cultural transformation and to be using my talents to help build out these new communication processes and norms.

Juma: I want to see more co-creation exercises between MEDA’s HQ and local teams. As mentioned, we have started piloting this approach in LEGEND with how we collect primary research. I want to expand this “one team” mindset to other workflows like proposal development where it is very helpful to combine local contextual knowledge with seasoned technical market landscaping skills. I keep hearing from my conversations with donors that they want to know more about how INGOs are strengthening the capacities of their local partners so that international assistance becomes more localized. I am glad to see that MEDA’s Strategic Plan calls for MEDA to adopt a highly collaborative culture and again, a shift towards greater empowerment of in-country teams. I am keen to lean deeper into our networks to develop highly aligned, locally driven partnerships and to then use these relations’ lived experiences to test and validate our new business development ideas. I am seeing more donors ask for consortium-driven proposals, so we also need to be ready to respond to new opportunities with partners already organized. As such, we need to be working now to identify the right organizations to work with and to sort out ways to help each other to deliver our best work.

Catherine: I also think that MEDA’s desire to double down on its use of project-linked investments to further its strategic plan’s goals will only continue. I agree that we need to be activating the full strength of our resources by coordinating our impact investment approach with our technical assistance efforts so that our projects access both donor and investor financing and networks. For instance, with RIISA, I am thrilled at the opportunity to [work] with different types of investors, as well as Global Affairs Canada, because it will take [an] awareness on players’ end for more capital and knowledge to freely flow to the historically underserved Mindanao cocoa sector.

Juma: Another thought here – the future of MEDA’s programming is a shift towards working in a select number of countries for a longer period of time. Again, I am deeply appreciative of the relationships and knowledge that LEGEND has been able to build from M-SAWA. Leveraging these resources better positioned us to identify and understand the market gaps and apply the appropriate solutions to solve them.

Jessica: Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share?

Catherine: I continue to believe in the importance of MEDA’s shift towards embracing a North-South Equilibrium so that more “home-grown” ideas can flourish. I have seen first-hand in RIISA, as well as my other MEDA project that those who are based in-country are best placed to structure a project and monitor the results to ensure that it is getting all [the] resources it needs to succeed. I am, therefore, very excited about the opportunity for RIISA to create an enabling business environment in the cocoa sector that is self-sustaining, inclusive, and locally driven.

Juma: By experimenting and testing different combinations and sequencing of integrated interventions, we are able to show what’s possible and inspire others to collaborate with us and follow up on our piloting efforts. It is only when we are all applying our talents towards a unified goal that we will evoke meaningful changes at scale and will be able to deliver on our goal to create or sustain jobs for a half million people in emerging economies by 2030. I am thrilled to be a part of the leadership team that is reimagining MEDA’s identity as an agri-food system-change enabler by saying “yes” to new possibilities and “more” to local project ownership. I continue to feel that these efforts will yield a brighter future for MEDA’s clients ahead.

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