Pathways for transitioning from projects to community investments

African governments and development organizations are increasingly being challenged to build the capacity of entire communities rather than continue investing in isolated projects that do not speak to each other. Several agricultural projects have failed to make a difference in many African countries because implementers have rushed into communities without investing adequate time to fully understand community dynamics. If an organization is implementing a five-year intervention in a particular community, it is better to spend three years learning about that community. The remaining two years should focus on what really matters in that community based on actual daily needs.

Why change NGO modelling

There are signs that the generic NGO modelling which focuses mainly on vulnerable members of society as beneficiaries has reached its limits. It is like expecting the weakest members of society to change community dynamics in which power, politics, class and prestige influence the direction and pace of social transformation.  Many investments have been done in several African communities but what is missing are attempts to knit those investments to achieve large-scale socio-economic transformation.  Projects have continued to operate in siloes yet in real life, communities function as one cohesive whole.

Communities have interlinked layers in how they use existing resources to define notions of wealth and poverty. For instance, the way development agencies define a poor household is different from how communities look at households. Someone considered materially poor can be a source of deep knowledge and wisdom that is critical for the survival of all social classes. Households that do not own cattle can still afford to plant crops because the community knows the collective value of helping each other. So-called poor households may not be as vulnerable as NGO narratives assume.

Instead of introducing the beneficiary model, development agencies can achieve more by taking time to bring together the richness of communities in terms of natural resources, values, relationships, beliefs, perceptions, cultural practices, skills and other intangible assets that are an integral component of the rich social landscape often excluded from NGO programming. Understanding people within their communities as well as their interactions with natural resources has remained an undocumented approach to understanding African communities. When fully understood through longitudinal baselining, this framework can inform the community approach to development. 

Positioning actors – who is doing what, where, when, how and why?

In addition to guiding project proposals, a longitudinal baseline can also inform resource allocation and utilization as well as positioning actors. In most interventions by development organizations   positioning starts and ends with beneficiaries but no involvement of other community members such as local business people and the middle class. Excluding other key community stakeholders creates problems at the time of exiting the project intervention as development organizations suddenly realize the difficulties of vulnerable beneficiaries sustaining benefits of the intervention. For example, agricultural projects that focus on production without positioning market actors right from the start often face problems when they want to hand over the project to the market at the end. 

Where development agencies have tried to introduce a food processing plant in a community without first making sense of community dynamics and relationships with other markets, the results have been disastrous. It has dawned on the project implementers that in as much as a processing plant seems an ideal market, the majority of smallholder farmers prefer a market in which they have meaningful control and direct benefits. For instance, when farmers supply tomatoes to a processing plant, they are excluded from subsequent value-added benefits which they cannot see or control.  The processing plant is a closed market where farmers supply and go home with no idea of what happens inside the factory and how many quantities of the same product are being supplied from which production zone. This is one reasons why processing companies have failed to compete with mass markets where farmers participate directly in setting prices and gain knowledge from other farmers. In the mass market, farmers can actually see the quantity of commodities and use such intelligence as bargaining power.  For instance, if a farmer sees that today he has brought superior quality and quantity of fruits, he can negotiate for a higher price.

Mass markets as community enterprises

Unless a processing plant is introduced after thorough consultation and involvement of community members, local farmers will not feel part of it. They will continue going to the mass market.  That means a processing plant should not be introduced as a project but a community-owned investment. In moving away from projects to community investments, development organizations and governments need to ask themselves questions like: How do we develop community-based enterprises in which the notion of ownership is about the community being involved in determining the sustainability of such enterprises through community-driven benefit sharing models?  Community benefits may not be in monetary form but in critical aspects like reducing transport costs to other markets. Additional benefits can include strengthening bargaining power through aggregation. The community can easily collate volumes of commodities from its local farmers and use that to bargain for better prices unlike farmers approaching the market as individuals.

When the market is seen as a community-based enterprise, collective community volumes and production plans are known and the bargaining power of farmers increases.  The community can even monitor its progress from primary production to secondary production and collectively decide what should start preservation or processing. As the last stage of value chain intervention, processing may come in when much damage has been done in terms of losses which means it may not add much value when surplus commodities have been lost during earlier stages of the value chain nodes.

While the colonial model of enterprise ownership considers the owner as someone who invests in purchasing infrastructure, processing equipment and other related assets, the indigenous definition of ownership is about community involvement in collectively informing the establishment of an entity that addresses challenges affecting a particular community.  With enough support in building community investments, community members can come together to answer questions like what are our sources of livelihood and income?  What key challenges are undermining our progress? Is it lack of market information, perishability against distance to market or stiff competition in the market?   What type of entity can help us address these challenges and increase the community’s collective Return on Investment (ROI)? Rather than supplying a processing company as individual farmers competing with each other, what if we put an aggregation centre that can bulk and supply the market so that we enjoy economies of scale?  What if we put preservation technologies to manage supplies to the market, maintain quality and manage perishability? Community members should participate in seeking answers to all these questions before an NGO decides to set up a processing plant that may end up being a white elephant due to lack of community ownership.

Who should facilitate the setting up of community-based enterprises?

There is no easy answer to this question. Whoever facilitates this enterprise should be able to build a model that embraces aggregation, preservation and information systems. A purely profit oriented enterprise will not. Government will not be able to do it because its main focus is creating an enabling environment and not setting up businesses. If governments were good at setting up businesses most government parastatals would be operating viably. NGOs are also not in business. This requires a social investor who is passionate about addressing social challenges faced by farmers but also operating a business entity for sustainability. This is the domain of a social enterprise in which farmers are active participants in line with their specific needs such as aggregation, preservation and market information.

A cooperative may be a different animal because its structure assumes farmers should run this business yet they have their own individual businesses. The enterprise requires a unique entity that consolidates services so that farmers benefit collectively in their different capacities. The cooperative model places farmers at the same level which is not the reality of life because farmers are at different levels. Again, in cooperatives farmers expect dividends while in a social community enterprise, farmers do not need dividends as they will already be benefiting through fair prices.  Fair pricing is much more valuable than dividends. Cooperatives are also controlled by a constitution and very difficult to sustain in community settings. Farmers just need an entity that addresses their needs without too much hassling. Weaning communities from NGO models and replacing such models with sustainable community models is long overdue. / /

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