What We've Learned
Lessons from our Projects
TechnoServe’s projects yield a wealth of lessons that can help us – and others – improve our work. Through this interactive platform, we share succinct insights from our projects every year, in order to build on this knowledge for even greater impact in the future.
Select a technical field below to see the lessons we have learned from our work, and click the links to learn more.
Farmers need to see short-term payoffs, so it is important to balance the planting of crops that take years to bear fruit with more short-term wins, such as rejuvenating existing plants.
Messaging technology like WhatsApp can be an efficient way to aggregate demand for inputs among smallholder farmers and communicate with dealers.
When working with food processors, it’s important to identify “quick wins” that can be easily implemented, winning the trust of the processor for longer, more involved interventions.
Providing business training to large, influential “anchor” firms that purchase large amounts of crops from smallholder farmers can help the businesses forge stronger market linkages and develop better financial management, ultimately benefiting smallholders.
Production timelines and crop suitability can vary significantly even within the same state, so it is important to understand local microclimates and conduct localized soil testing.
A mix of both financial and non-financial support is important for agribusinesses at the early stage of the business life-cycle. While applicants are often drawn to the program by seed capital, the technical assistance they then receive plays a vital role in strengthening their business models.
When a project's strategy for reaching smallholders relies on working with agribusinesses that source their crops, it is helpful to identify a pipeline of other potential partner firms. Relying on just a handful of firms exposes the project to risk.
Because hired farm laborers perform many of the tasks that most impact productivity, inviting them to attend training alongside farmers can lead to higher yields.
Since businesses in different stages of growth and sophistication have different needs, segmenting the enterprises from the beginning helps ensure more tailored support and better results.
Complementing bank credit with grant funding encourages banks to lend to smaller businesses than they usually work with, as credit risk is reduced. For borrowers, this blended finance approach defrays the cost of traditional credit and enables access to collateral previously not available.
Many successful agribusiness innovations address bottlenecks across the value chain (e.g. from production to market) with very clear, meaningful returns to the farmer and the business. For example, when a firm invested in innovative new dryers that reduced post-harvest loss and allowed crops to be continuously harvested during the rainy season, both farmers and the business benefitted.
Since financial institutions are often risk-averse, it can be helpful to pilot new financial products with small numbers of farmers to prove the concept, before scaling up.
It takes time for small and growing businesses to become attractive investments for private equity and commercial funding. The agribusiness supported by this project in Zimbabwe took 24 to 36 months, on average, to commercialize their ideas and begin to demonstrate viable impact.
Since smallholder farmers are influenced by the behavior of larger farmers, it’s important to first to get commercial farmers to adopt good agricultural practices, in order to improve subsequent uptake by smallholders.
Improving farmers’ access to inputs requires a supply-and-demand approach that simultaneously:
- Develops better distribution channels
- Builds commercial demand for the products among farmers by clearly explaining their benefits.
To encourage adoption of best practices at processing facilities, an early investment of time getting senior management on board is critical for driving uptake of the new approaches.
Because processing is a high-volume, low-margin industry, firms are reluctant to make investments that increase costs or slows production. Therefore, if purchasers want to encourage certified, traceable production, they need to commit to paying premiums.
In brokering deals in the cashew value chain in Mozambique, it’s important for the project not to be driving the process too much, as that would threaten the sustainability of the business relationships after the project.
Access to finance from cooperative societies needs sufficient guarantees to support claims. A guarantee fund could be set up to facilitate the financing requested by the cooperatives involved in the project.
Cocoa cooperatives have difficulty accessing conventional bank financing for several reasons:
- The quality of their accounting and financial management often does not allow them to access other sources of funding.
- The cooperatives are not always informed about the sources of funding available.
- Banks do not develop enough financial products and services adapted to the needs of cooperatives.
To be sustainable, it's not enough for producer organizations to be profitable. They also need to develop their organizational and leadership capacity.
Farmer cooperative leaders benefit more from the advice and adopt more recommendations when they are provided during the crop sales season.
Participation in trade events can dramatically accelerate the sales growth of SMEs.
Planting new areas in recently eradicated coca-growing zones requires careful selection of beneficiaries and the provision of alternative incomes while crops are being established.
Cooperatives should receive coaching in order to offer members better social and agricultural services without incurring a loss.
Programs should provide training on handling coffee seedlings, because poor nursery practices often lead to defective roots, limiting the productivity of trees.
Farmers who rent land from others are reluctant to make investments for soil conservation and other climate-smart practices, as they don't know how long they will be able to rent that land. Helping farmers negotiate longer lease terms from landowners can help mitigate this problem.
For the majority of farmers to adopt a technique, they need to see a few early adopters do so first. It is therefore useful to identify a few community leaders willing to try new techniques.
Engaging large buyers to provide low-cost credit to farmers and producer organizations in their supply chain can sustainably improve farmer productivity. Cash loans for farm maintenance, credit lines for working capital, and in-kind loans of inputs help farmers improve yields and ensure that buyers receive a stable supply of crops.
To engage youth in training, it is helpful to involve their parents by showing them why it's important to empower the next generation of farmers.
Community seed banks are more likely to succeed and continue operating when they are linked to a producer organization and have access to an irrigation system.
Farmers are more likely to adopt new practices during a crisis, when their traditional practices aren't working.
Because they are quicker to take up new technologies and methods, youth can be enlisted to help their parents and other older farmers adopt new agricultural approaches. Youth outreach is therefore an important component of agricultural training programs.
As climate change makes rainfall more erratic, training on soil conservation, shade management, and rainwater capture become increasingly important.
Often, farmers don't track how much they feed their animals, so underfeeding and overfeeding are rampant. Bringing a scale to training so farmers can see if they are deviating from the recommended amounts is an effective tool to combat this.
Because soils often lose minerals due to intensive cropping, cattle fodder needs to be supplemented with mineral mixtures. While this represents an extra expense, the return on investment is high.
Livestock sector interventions should incorporate more gender-based approaches, because while men control most transactions, women provide much of the labor.
One of the major drags on milk productivity is the poor quality of artificial cattle insemination services provided by private firms. Training farmers to ask the right questions of these providers and check their work leads to better services and improved yields.
While farmers will eventually see that more carefully tending to their livestock results in the animals' improved health and greater profits, it is helpful for buyers in the value chain to initially provide a small incentive for clean milk, to convince farmers to adopt improved practices.
Dairy farmers are often motivated to improve productivity when they see local businesses investing in supply chain improvements, like cooling tanks; projects can therefore encourage this investment as a way of ultimately enhancing dairy farmer livelihoods.
It is most effective to work simultaneously with livestock producer organizations and their members, because many outcomes, like improved milk quality, require the adoption of new practices by both farmers and the organizations they supply.
Small shop owners often need to spend most of their time at their stall. In order to enhance attendance, trainings should be conducted near the markets themselves.
A rotating funds initiative, in which a group of entrepreneurs regularly pool small amounts of money in order to provide loans to group members on a rotating basis, can expand access to finance for small shop owners and help to accelerate their business growth.
While our research shows that male and female advisors/mentors are equally effective, the heightened affinity that comes from same-gender pairings generally results in greater revenue growth for the entrepreneur’s business.
When supporting female entrepreneurs, programs must consider how to engage male stakeholders, including husbands. This may include inviting husbands to trainings and helping the women to seek the support of their husbands in making their business a success.
Since many young entrepreneurs tend to struggle with time management skills, specific training in this area is helpful for business success.
The adoption by SMEs of basic communications and back-office technology like email and spreadsheets, rather than the use of advanced production technology, is correlated with a higher likelihood of growth.
Training specifically on business financial literacy (even when shopkeepers have experience handling their personal finances) helps shops improve their profitability.
Indirect-training partners, especially early on, need channels for quick feedback and advice to enable them to course-correct and overcome challenges. Connecting partners to program staff and to each other through various social media platforms can be very successful.
Important, but often overlooked, areas to assess when selecting entrepreneurs for an accelerator include their levels of commitment, motivation, and time availability.
Community members such as market-level leaders and other businesses serve as some of the best recruiters for participants in entrepreneurship training; programs should engage them early on.
While digital training tools can help to achieve scale, not everyone can access them easily. Offering printed materials as an alternative can help to ensure inclusivity.
Joining official business groups helps shop owners to improve coordination and collaboration among themselves and key market actors, while also increasing collective bargaining power with manufacturers and suppliers.
The quality and depth of entrepreneurs’ professional and social networks, rather than their breadth, helps these businesses to grow.
A training program graduation ceremony for female entrepreneurs can help to motivate attendance and boost participants’ confidence, while also helping market the program to future potential participants.
To encourage local uptake of training methods, top management at partner institutions (vocational schools, etc.) need to be involved firsthand, as early as possible. Once decision-makers see a new methodology in practice, they are more willing to provide resources to ensure trainings are conducted effectively.
For small- and medium-sized enterprises, business training focused on strategy, planning, and marketing is especially impactful for business growth.
The young, early-stage entrepreneur needs more motivation to persevere in spite of obstacles and risks. In addition to providing advice on technical and strategic issues, advisors can also provide support and motivation on this front. Linking young businesspeople to older, more established entrepreneurs can help.
Since location/environment plays a major role in a shop's success, it is critical for the stores to conduct a location scan and simple needs assessment before selecting a product range.