CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator: A unique six-month program building best practices in African agribusiness

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Agricultural researchers are working hand in hand with 14 promising agricultural businesses to help them grow their enterprises and maximize their benefits

The second cohort of CGIAR’s Food Systems Accelerator kicked off 25–27 March 2024 at the Nairobi, Kenya, campus of CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The three-day workshop was organized by two CGIAR Centers—the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT (ABC) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

The CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator (CFSA) was established by CGIAR’s Regional Ukama Ustawi Initiative to bring technical assistance to agribusinesses in East and Southern Africa, where poverty remains high. Most farmers here grow maize, which is at particular risk of climate change. And most of the agricultural value chains in the region remain fragmented and inefficient. Farmers here face serious hurdles, including lack of affordable farm inputs and machines as well as useful advisories, basic infrastructure, financial services, and links to markets. (See a report of the first cohort here.)

Participants in the CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator kick-off meeting in March 2024 at the ILRI-Nairobi campus. Credit: IWMI/Susan MacMillan

From a competition involving several hundred applicants, the Accelerator program earlier this year selected 14 promising agribusinesses to support over the next six months with specialized technical support in such areas as measuring and managing impacts, building investment readiness, and ensuring gender equity and social inclusion. The ultimate aims of the program are to improve the performance of these promising agribusinesses and to help them secure greater financing for their climate-smart and sustainable enterprises.

Day 1

Welcome remarks by Nathanial Peterson, program lead at the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT
Peterson’s remarks below, and those of others, have been edited here for clarity and brevity.

We spent the past several months evaluating more than 500 applications for this accelerator cohort for their scalability, their potential to promote climate-smart agriculture, and their potential to generate benefits and increase inclusivity in agriculture.

We’re excited to work with you and to better understand your companies. We see the private sector working with innovative agribusinesses as a main means of helping agricultural research scientists to be more relevant and to reach more farmers.

We very much need your agribusinesses to improve our relevance. We realize, as the CGIAR System, that building better relationships—especially with startups in the regions in which we work—is absolutely vital. We need you all. We need your insights.

Last year and this year, we focused on mechanization and irrigation, conservation agriculture, nutrition and agriculture, and risk management. This year, we’re proud to have partnered with the Tiger Ecology Initiative, which will bring in four more companies, focused on agroecology, in this second cohort. So we’ve expanded the Accelerator cohort this year from 10 to 14.

Slide show of the 14 agribusinesses taking part in the second CFSA cohort. (See attached ppt file.)

Opening remarks by Evan Girvetz, co-leader of the CGIAR Regional Integrated Initiative on Diversification in East and Southern Africa

It was a pleasure for me to be at the launch of the first cohort of the Accelerator in Kigali, Rwanda a year ago. It was inspiring to see the kind of partnerships that we’re making with small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are doing the real work to get research-based technologies to farmers.

We work to support the agribusiness ecosystem by bringing mechanization, diversification, and digital agricultural services to farmers. We also support agricultural policies that support small farmers. We have a strong focus on gender and social inclusion that we bring into everything that we do. And we have a big focus on taking innovations to scale.

As we embark on this journey, we want to understand your needs and to tailor our technical support, our research products, our partnerships to your needs to enhance your agribusinesses.

Remarks on the purpose of the CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator by Hauke Dahl, IWMI co-leader of the CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator project

With 60 to 80 percent of the African population depending in one way or another on agriculture for their livelihoods, the extended agribusiness ecosystem in Africa has huge potential to help us reach the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Our science-driven program aims to support agribusinesses and to bring innovations to scale. In the next 6 to 9 months, we’ll provide technical assistance across a few workstreams that we’ve developed and all of this work will culminate in a “demo day” toward the end of this year, where you’ll pitch your enhanced business models to a group of (real) investors.

In the next few weeks, we’ll conduct some simple interviews with you to understand what you want to work on, what’s interesting for you, and what you want to prioritize. Then we’ll think about what kinds of agendas and support we can provide to help you while not overburdening you. Working together, we’ll then develop action plans that can help improve your agribusinesses. In the last 4–5 months of the program, we’ll organize field visits complemented by regular virtual engagements, and throughout, we’ll match your businesses with other stakeholders that could be important to you.

Our teams will work with you on your gender and social inclusion performance to understand how you engage with women and young agribusiness people and other marginalized groups. We’ll work together to develop impact pathways—essentially a simple way for outsiders to understand your impact on food systems, e.g. how much CO2 are you saving?, how many small farmers are you influencing?, how many hectares of land are you irrigating sustainably?

We’ll walk you through this step by step. We’re very proactive about putting you in touch with the right people. We want to provide you with tangible things that can really help your agribusinesses to grow both profitably and sustainably.

Day 2

Provision of technical assistance in gender equality and social inclusion
This technical assistance offered by the CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator focuses on highlighting why GESI should matter to agribusinesses while illustrating why women and youth require additional support to participate fully in agricultural value chains. A business case was made by outlining what strategic benefits the Accelerator partners would enjoy by being more inclusive. A GESI Action Plan will guide the Accelerator partners in developing, adapting, implementing, and monitoring inclusive strategies and practices that will allow them to attain better performance, manage risk, retain good talent, implement business solutions more effectively and efficiently, and engage with aligned gender-lens investors effectively.

Remarks by Karen Nortje, a social anthropologist with IWMI and Ukama Ustawi
Both in research and in business, we tend to assume that we are making decisions on the behalf of women and youth that will be good for them. But the fact is that we don’t really know.

We do know that Kenyan women and youth face three key barriers to agribusiness: they have less access to land, infrastructure, and knowledge than men. And quite often, women in business face “exclusionary” norms that say that women can’t do business.

So what are gender equality and social inclusion approaches. And why do we want to support more women and youth in agriculture?

Key takeaway: You need to “future-proof” your business—and if you’re not thinking about gender, you’re not thinking about the future.

First, some compelling stats:

We need to get new blood, young blood, into agricultural businesses. We need new perspectives, new ideas, new skills, and new thinking.

So why should GESI matter to you as an agri-business? Because including women and youth, being more socially inclusive in your business, will improve your productivity and profitability. We’ll show you how to harness that part of your business to make it more profitable and productive.

Remarks by Carey Bohjanen: Founder of The Rallying Cry and managing director of Sustainable Finance Advisory
African men have access to US$15.6 billion in capital that African women do not have. And there’s a US$42-billion gap for Africa’s female entrepreneurs. Those huge gaps make no sense. Research shows that women on the whole are better borrowers and better savers than men, with fewer women holding non-performing loans. Women are thus better customers than men in our target markets.

You’re simply leaving money on the table if you’re not thinking about women in your businesses. We’ll collect a bit of baseline data to understand where your agribusinesses are regarding GESI. And then we’ll do some data analysis to see what are some GESI opportunities your companies might exploit. And then we’ll work with you to develop action plans that help you to integrate GESI into your operations.

Funders don’t just look at the financial bottom line of your businesses. You need to be able to tell a cohesive story about how your business is delivering environmental, climate, and gender returns on their investments as well as financial returns.

Key takeaway: Gender-smart business is smart business. “If by the end of this program you’re not thinking in gender-smart ways, you’re leaving money on the table.”

Provision of technical assistance in impact measurement and management
Understanding how to effectively measure and manage impact is critical to ensuring that agribusinesses have environmental and social as well as economic benefits. The agribusinesses in this program are encouraged to use impact measurement and management data to improve their business performance, identify areas where values can be created, and make informed decisions to maximize their positive—and minimize their negative—impacts.

Remarks by Hauke Dahl, co-leader of the CGIAR Food Systems Accelerator project
With this module, we want you to think about the impacts that you’re having beyond your financial returns. Your businesses are generating a range of impacts that you might not be aware of just yet. What we want to do is to pop these impacts out and to measure some of them.

You’re going to provide jobs and livelihoods. You’re going to impact value chains. You’re going to affect the local environment. For example, what are you doing for climate action? What should you do? What would you like to do? Who should you partner with?

Knowing these things can help you pitch your business to investors by clearly showing them the diverse impacts that you’re having and the strategies you’re developing for managing risks to your business.

It doesn’t make sense to measure everything. We’ll help you to determine what impacts are most closely connected to your business and which are easiest to quantify.

We’ll help you to set up a monitoring plan so that you can measure your impacts continuously and share these metrics with your investors and customers. We’ll help you identify indicators to measure and track your impact progress. We’ll hold two webinars to provide you with the concepts and tools for building both an impact pathway and the indicators of success. Then we’ll do hands-on work with you to ensure that each of you has an impact pathway tailored to your business.

Featured image: Factory Manager at Mount Meru Sunflower Seed Oil Processing Factory inspecting factory equipment with worker – Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Mitchell Maher/IFPRI

Author: Susan MacMillan, Emeritus Fellow and Communications Consultant, ILRI

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