When the opportunity arose to apply for USAID’s New Partners in Value Chain Development grant, Lucho Osorio, International Market Systems Specialist with Practical Action, recognized the potential for his organization to benefit from USAID’s investment. “We could not believe that a donor was talking about iterative learning and value chain development,” Osorio said. “It was the perfect moment to engage.” Like many other grantees, Practical Action was facing a common challenge for organizations looking to bolster their capacity in value chain development programming: "How do we take staff that knows very little about facilitation or value chain development, and get them to the point where they can make a difference?" In addition to building staff capacity, these organizations also faced the institutional challenge of systematically integrating the value chain development approach into existing programming in a variety of technical areas. Three years later, the New Partners in Value Chain Development grantees, now under the banner of the Growing Organizational Value Chain Excellence (GROOVE) Learning Network, have broadened and enhanced their staff capacity to incorporate market-based approaches into their programming, built valuable professional relationships through a trusted network of practitioners with a broad range of expertise and perspectives on market facilitation, and developed new tools and insights to advance the broader field of value chain development.
History of the GROOVE Learning Network
USAID awarded the New Partners in Value Chain Development grant in June 2009 in an effort to support a growing cadre of non-governmental organization (NGO) and private voluntary organization (PVO) partners who are dedicated to improving their knowledge, skills, and abilities in the field of value chain development in collaboration with USAID and other major donors. Through a competitive selection process, four grantee organizations (CARE, CHF International, Conservation International and Practical Action) were selected on the strength of their proposals, specifically the unique perspectives they brought towards integrating the value chain development approach into their programming. The grant activities were implemented over a three-year period, with grants managed by USAID’s Knowledge-Driven Microenterprise Development (KDMD) project in partnership with USAID’s microenterprise development team.
The key objectives of this activity were to:
- Demonstrate advantages of the value chain approach to achieve sustained economic benefits for poor households.
- Identify and build champions within the NGO/PVO community to expand the application of and catalyze learning about the value chain approach and its potential benefits for poor households.
- Foster partnerships with implementing partners that demonstrate the interest and capacity to learn from and contribute to the USAID microenterprise development team’s growing knowledge of and experience with value chain development.
- Promote innovation, learning, and organizational change within partner institutions that are driven by a common vision for success, lessons learned in the field, and evidence-based decision-making.
A core feature of the grant program was the formation of a learning network to generate knowledge targeted at key industry constraints and to capture and disseminate learning to the wider enterprise development and related communities. Two areas of interest were identified: 1) the need to improve monitoring and evaluation systems applicable to the value chain approach, and 2) the importance of building staff capacity to implement value chain programs. The grantees collectively named the learning network, “Growing Organizational Value Chain Excellence,” or “The GROOVE Network.”
The challenge of encouraging open and honest knowledge sharing among participating organizations – and with USAID – was evident: “There was a clear need to break organizational boundaries between individual organizations and others in the field who were doing more or less the same thing. We were neighbors physically, but poles apart in terms of relationships and knowledge sharing because, to some extent, we are all competitors,” Osorio noted, reflecting on the early stages of the GROOVE Learning Network. “The idea of a donor creating incentives for us to come together, to learn from one another and create things that are bigger than us and benefit the industry is huge." In addition to competing as implementers of value chain development projects, each of the GROOVE members also brought a different perspective towards integrating the value chain approach into their existing programming, ranging from a focus on gender to ecosystems integration. Despite this challenge of sharing among competitors and the diversity of approaches, the potential for the grantee organizations to benefit from this learning network approach was clear from the outset. Scott Yetter, Senior Knowledge Management Advisor with CHF International, reflected on the August kickoff event in August 2009 explaining, “What really excites me about this GROOVE initiative is the opportunity for inter-organization learning with the other partners of this learning network. Having a common focus on value chain programs is going to help this crystallize these efforts in both our field and headquarters around this important technical area.” Christian Pennotti, Senior Learning and Impact Technical Advisor with CARE, echoed that sentiment. “Everyone came out of that first meeting realizing how much potential there was. We each had so much to gain by collaborating.”
Applying the learning network approach
USAID’s learning network approach places an emphasis on knowledge sharing and collaboration at three tiers: organization, network and industry. As members of the GROOVE Learning Network, the four grantee organizations not only pursued their individual initiatives, but were encouraged to coordinate efforts with input from each other, to collaborate as a network on group deliverables, and to seek input from other industry and practitioner networks focusing on value chain and market systems development. The results of these collaborative efforts were evident throughout the initiatives implemented by all members of the learning network.
Conservation International (CI) set out to explore and expand knowledge around value chains with a common natural resources theme, and to broaden their employment of value chain development across multiple sectors and geographies. Throughout the duration of the GROOVE Learning Network, CI worked with partners in Madagascar and Liberia to include value chain approaches in “Green Economy” development, as well as in Cambodia by integrating an ecosystems approach with value chain development in aquaculture projects. By utilizing a value chain approach to payments for ecosystem services, CI has worked with partners to amplify the benefits to human well-being generated by healthy ecosystems.
CARE launched a new Market Engagement Strategy in 2008 with a goal of helping 10 million women and girls to escape poverty by 2015. Participation in the GROOVE learning network represented a central component of CARE's effort to achieve these goals by building staff capacity in value chain program design and monitoring and evaluation, with a specific focus on impact measurement. CARE worked to develop a universal monitoring and evaluation system to track progress across the organization's value chain projects; established an internal community of practice to enhance information flows and knowledge transfer (notably, informed by input from Practical Action’s GROOVE participation); and, in collaboration with MEDA, developed an online, publicly available e-learning course on market assessment and value chain program design. These tools serve as building blocks upon which CARE continues to expand as it seeks to improve the lives of women, girls and the extreme poor by scaling value chain programming.
CHF International’s goal for engagement in the GROOVE Learning Network was to design, deploy and document organizational procedures and tools that infuse value chain considerations and approaches throughout the organization. Over the life of the learning network, this included efforts to:
- Assess the current usage levels of the value chain approach, the process for managing knowledge around value chain learning, and current levels of institutionalization.
- Expand the knowledge and understanding of the value chain framework by training key staff members and integrating this knowledge into new staff orientation.
- Develop a set of standards for integrating the value chain approach into CHF programs, and infuse those standards into specific processes at different points of the program life cycle.
- Apply these standards to a select number of programs, and document them in case studies that generate learning about new application of value chain interventions.
- Capture CHF’s value chain learning in a CHF Guidebook for Value Chain Integration.
In addition to offering expertise to the development of a series of GROOVE collaborative briefs on monitoring and evaluation for value chain development projects, CHF’s institutional baselines served as a foundation for assessing the impact of the broader learning network.
Practical Action is working to build more effective and sustainable learning systems to have sustainable impact at scale on the lives of marginalized producers, and to generate knowledge that is useful to other development agents such as donors, policy-makers, and other NGOs. Through the GROOVE Learning Network, Practical Action sought to facilitate processes to select and understand useful knowledge, produce robust evidence of impact, and expand the outreach and influence of this evidence and promising practices to achieve impact. Practical Action's strategy focused on three core solutions: capacity building, knowledge products, and Impact Awards. These core solutions were implemented by country and regional teams, and through the promotion of “local learning groups” to promote face-to-face, contextualized learning. Practical Action has also benefitted through participation in the GROOVE Learning Network’s mentoring program for value chain development practitioners and is incorporating lessons learned into the capacity building efforts around its Participatory Market System Development (PMSD) approach and PMSD Roadmap tool.
The value (and challenges) of integrated programming and the learning network approach
The diverse range of activities and approaches implemented by the GROOVE organizations proved to be incredibly valuable for not only the individual organizations, but also for the broader network and their collaborative efforts. GROOVE members had common expertise and spoke the same “language” of value chain development, but the differences in their organizational approaches made them a valuable sounding board for one another and increased the significance of their contributions to the broader field of market systems development. “Integrated programming is a fundamental challenge,” explained Christian Pennotti, recognizing the industry gap focused on integrated approaches to value chain programming. “So much of the prevailing literature was about independent value chain programs, not the value chain approach as a component of broader programs, which is the lens that all of our institutions bring.”
The GROOVE Learning Network’s blend of perspectives, including institutional approaches focusing on gender, food security, ecosystems and participatory market systems development, put the network in a unique position to address this gap. Nina Ullery, speaking on behalf of Conservation International, stated, “Virtually all of us do integrated programming, and this was an opportunity for us to not only take the lessons learned which have been put out publicly by the large, established organizations doing value chain development, but also a chance for us to look at the different lenses that we all bring to the table.”
The breadth of perspectives not only enhanced the individual activities implemented by GROOVE members, but contributed greatly to the collaborative efforts of the network. One of the key challenges faced by the GROOVE learning network in developing appropriate products for the broader value chain development practitioner community was in making the complex issues approachable without over-simplifying. “Three-to-five years ago, there was a lot out there on value chain programming, but practitioners were left trying to understand how to ‘get it off the page’ in a practical sense,” noted Pennotti. “At CARE, we have focused on the idea that if you want to get to scale, you have to make the complex ‘simple’ and approachable without ‘simplifying’ it.” However, creating practical tools for value chain practitioners can be difficult to do in a vacuum where the clarity and application of ideas and perspectives are not challenged. For the GROOVE members, each organization acted as a sounding board with a different insight to the broader practitioner community. The tools that the GROOVE Learning Network members are developing reflect that collaborative approach.
Tools and knowledge products
The GROOVE Learning Network’s collaborative knowledge products have focused on two key learning components: monitoring and evaluation for value chain projects and capacity building for value chain practitioners.
With input from an advisory team comprised of leading value chain development experts, the GROOVE Learning Network is finalizing a series of three briefs on monitoring and evaluation for value chain development projects. The topics for these briefs are: “Five Things Every Practitioner Should Know about M&E for Value Chain Projects,” “Tacit Knowledge in Value Chain Monitoring,” and “Critical Sustainability/Impact Measures for Value Chain Programs.” (Drafts of the first two briefs can be accessed on USAID’s Microlinks site by clicking the above links.)
Based on a pilot program pairing value chain development practitioners with mentors and resources designed to bolster capacity in value chain development project design and implementation, GROOVE is developing a refined series of modules and an Administrator’s Guide for institutions to adapt and design their own capacity building programs for value chain development staff.
In addition to the collaborative products produced by the GROOVE members, USAID is using the experience of this learning network as it continues to understand, learn from and adapt approaches to better encourage learning-oriented activities among implementing partners, spread awareness and understanding of good practice, and catalyze industry-wide change.
Please keep an eye on USAID’s Microlinks community for opportunities to engage and provide feedback to these and other GROOVE Learning Network products in the coming months. For more information, contact Ashleigh Mullinax.
This publication was produced for review by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It was prepared by Brandon Szabo of the USAID Knowledge-Driven Microenterprise Development Project.
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the U.S. Government.