Can ‘value chains’ and ‘innovation platforms’ boost African agriculture? 11 reasons to be sceptical

What are innovation platforms?

In practice, value chain approaches often include the creation of ‘multi-stakeholder platforms’ (also called Inter-Professional Bodies). The idea is that these platforms re-group the various actors in a particular value chain (i.e. everyone from producers through to retailers), and can be used to analyse and coordinate actions across the chain for the benefit of all. An ‘innovation platform’ is a multi-stakeholder platform which is meant to stimulate or promote innovation within a particular value chain.

While there may well be some value chains in Africa where multi-stakeholder platforms and innovations platforms in particular can be valuable, we believe that there are good reasons to be sceptical about their ability to deliver on the high expectations that are being laid at their door.

Reasons to be sceptical

These reasons include:

  1. There is little direct evidence of their positive impact in relation to poor farmers in Africa.
  2. In the rush to promote the establishment of such platforms, little account is taken of the implications of different kinds of commodities, or the structure, form or characteristics of different value chains.
  3. The framing of ‘the value chain’ as an arena of consensual action where everyone (all ‘stakeholders’) can win – as opposed to an arena of intense contestation and struggle for advantage – is highly problematic.
  4. The assumption that consensus is possible and desirable is likely to gloss over differences and invite formulaic development responses.
  5. The focus on achieving consensus may act to inhibit radical or disruptive innovation in existing value chains and/or the development of innovative new value chains.
  6. Agency is bounded by tradition and pressing material interests, so the scope for creative and adaptive decision-making is often over-played. Community leaders can be authoritarian, private sector actors disinterested in small players and the participation of women limited by cultural and time constraints.
  7. The single-minded focus on multi-stakeholder innovation platforms may lead to a new round of ‘blueprint development’ that is insensitive to varied contexts.
  8. Multi-stakeholder innovation platforms cannot include everyone. They may have negative exclusionary effects on some actors: there is no reason to believe they will necessarily achieve more than the ‘islands of progress’ that resulted from working with, say, ‘lead farmers’.
  9. Private sector actors will not necessarily be interested in providing the public goods – e.g. roads, market infrastructure, and electricity – required for value chains to function to the advantage of small-scale producers. Over-emphasising coordination of private sector players ignores the need for better coordination of private AND public actors and resources.
  10. There is little knowledge about the new transaction costs involved with engagement in innovation platforms: how do they compare to existing transaction costs and how do they evolve over time?  Does an innovation platform offer sustainable financial incentives to cooperate or merely exhortation?
  11. There is often too little attention to potential feedback across scales: sudden policy shifts at the national scale (e.g. driven by rising world food prices) could easily derail the efforts of an innovation platform that is locally or regionally organised.

Avoid formulas, be sensitive to context

Agriculture is now at the top of the policy agenda in Africa. There is a genuine window of opportunity to demonstrate how a focus on agriculture can promote broad-based rural poverty alleviation, food security and employment generation.

However, there is the constant danger of slipping into uncritical, formulaic and context insensitive responses. Now, more than ever, this must be avoided.

A much more critical and realistic approach to the potential contribution and applicability of both value chain approaches and innovation platforms would likely pay large dividends for the future of African agriculture.

(Picture: chain by pratanti on Flickr)

This article was first posted on the Future Agricultures blog.