The win-win-win of public-private partnerships

Farmers cultivating the field in West Usambara, Tanzania.

Photo: Rik Schuiling

How can you make sure that N2Africa’s knowledge gets used by as many farmers as possible? An interview with the business developer of N2Africa, whose role is to be the oil in the machine of public-private partnerships. “It takes a lot of understanding, negotiating and lobbying.”

There were two important phases in N2Africa. The first investigated whether grain legume production could indeed be improved in volume and quality by using inoculants, good seeds and specific fertilizers. Once this had been demonstrated, the project progressed to its second phase.

Knowledge of inoculants and seeds and their availability then had to be spread further during the second phase. It wasn't only the 660,000 farmers taking part in N2Africa who had to be able to benefit from the results, but all the millions of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

How can you achieve that? According to N2Africa, public-private partnerships (PPPs) were the key. In this type of long-term cooperation, national or local authorities worked together with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the commercial sector, knowledge institutions and farmers’ organizations. The important feature of public-private partnerships is that the parties work together using their own expertise.

Group assignments during the annual N2Africa overall strategic planning and review meeting with eleven N2Africa country teams, key partners, the project advisory board and donor organizations. Photo: Charlotte Schilt

Edward Baars was appointed to flesh out and develop these PPPs in the second phase. He has a wealth of experience as a business development manager with various organizations in Africa. Over the last five years he has been based in Nigeria with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), coaching eleven N2Africa country teams. IITA’s mission is to improve the yields and quality of crops with the aim of increasing incomes and reducing malnourishment among the poor.

“You could say that the second phase of N2Africa was above all a value chain project,” says Baars. “That means that you don't only give out information about techniques but that you make sure the information spreads beyond the N2Africa project and that the inputs needed are available for purchase. In other words, the seeds, inoculants and legume-specific fertilizers are on the shelves in local stores and the farmers are able to sell their crops at a good price.”

Video: N2Africa partner Gerson Daniel talks about how he is helping farmers with his company Ikuru. Produced by Taskscape Associates

Business models are developed and progressively improved to get this process in motion and keep the wheels turning.

“In public-private partnerships, donor funds are used in combination with private funds to improve agriculture. That’s good for the farmers and good for the population as a whole. Cooperating with the private sector also makes projects like N2Africa sustainable. It doesn't stop when the project ends: the work continues because it has been adopted by the private parties. And that's a win-win-win situation – for the farmers, the companies and the country as a whole.”

Formalized partnerships with NGOs

Just like legumes and rhizobial bacteria live in symbiosis, Baars and the N2Africa country teams went looking for partnerships for N2Africa where there would be a win-win-win situation. Formal cooperative agreements were signed between the public and private organizations.“That's unusual because companies and NGOs generally tend to operate independently.”

A PPP doesn't stop when the project ends: it continues because the work is led by private parties who are there for the long run

According to Baars, most of the projects of the NGOs have sufficient resources for supporting rural development and are keen to promote grain legumes, but they often fall short in the scientific and practical knowledge to provide the right information that farmers need.
“Take Catholic Relief Services, for instance, an international NGO with headquarters in Baltimore (USA) that works throughout Africa. They initiated a very strategic project to promote soyabeans in Tanzania called Soya ni Pesa which means “soya is money” in Swahili. That was a huge value chain project with nearly eleven million dollars available and a network of local partners. But they initially lacked the detailed technical knowledge and the contacts with seed growers, inoculant producers and distribution networks.”

N2Africa Nigeria bi-annual planning and review workshop with national or local government extension services, knowledge institutions, NGOs, the commercial sector and representatives of farmers’ organizations.

Photo: N2Africa

N2Africa did have that knowledge and the contacts. “So, together with the N2Africa team in Tanzania, we formed a close, fully-fledged partnership. With the combined resources of Catholic Relief Services and N2Africa, we were able to reach far more farmers than would ever have been possible for N2Africa alone.”

Market forces and sustainability

According to Baars, NGOs are increasingly being required to cooperate with private parties in order to be funded.

“Donors think it is important that project descriptions also talk about market forces and sustainability,” says Baars. “What that last point means is that the farmers must have a guarantee that they will be able to buy the inputs and then sell their crops after the project ends. NGOs write that down, but are often struggling to deliver.” Baars says that this is because NGOs lack experience and affinity with working with the private sector. “They often see companies as exploitative, which is rarely true. It's entirely in the private parties’ interests that the products farmers need are sold, so they listen carefully to what the farmers want.”

According to Baars, the development landscape is changing. “In the past, NGOs would operate mainly through farmers’ cooperatives and local authorities. They would often buy seed and give it away to farmers or sell it at half price. Then it turns out not to be seed that farmers want! That was that hugely unhelpful.”

Training of farmers and input suppliers in the use of bundled input packages scenarios also linked to their cost-benefit analysis. Photo: Edward Baars

Similarly, private companies were resistant to working with NGOs. “The private sector – largely small and medium-sized enterprises – are first and foremost about selling products. They saw NGOs as unfair competition, because NGOs were able to offer seed or provide services for free.”

Baars brings the two parties closer together, lubricating the wheels, as it were. That demands a great deal of understanding and negotiation, he says. And a lot of lobbying with both parties. “The mistrust generally fades away after a while, once they realise they have a common goal.”

Clear picture of project proposals

Before Baars starts talking with private parties, he makes sure that he has a clear picture of the NGOs’ project proposals – what the NGOs’ mandate is. “The NGO has often received funding and promised to cooperate with the private sector. I then ask people from the companies what they need from the NGO. That mostly boils down to them wanting information about the farmers’ needs and wishes, something that the NGO can easily invest in. Then I go to the NGO and explain the companies’ interests. Finally, you hope that a workable win-win-win agreement will be signed. Which does happen in most cases, fortunately.”

The many shapes a PPP can take

Various business models for PPPs have been developed so that a successful value chain can be created. In particular, N2Africa used the following models to make sure that knowledge and equipment was disseminated and shared.

When asked about a PPP that is close to his heart, Baars names a PPP centred around Balegreen Spice and Grain Development plc in Ethiopia. “That is a really large nucleus farm that is involved in propagating not only seeds for itself but also for the community; they arrange the distribution of inoculants for the farmers in the surrounding area, they have room for storing the harvest and they supply mechanization services for a total of 90,000 smallholders who are members of various cooperatives. So they play an important role in promoting new technologies within the community and buying and marketing the farmers’ produce. The farm also works closely with a biotech company called Menagesha Biotech Industry plc, which sells the farmers inoculants for chickpeas.”

As far as Baars is concerned, business development had been the missing link while aiming to alleviate malnourishment and poverty. “I see the smallholders as equals in the discussions, not as helpless victims. If there are disasters or refugees, business development isn’t the answer – other forms of help are needed then. But I’ve been convinced since the eighties that business development, if setup ethically and responsibly, really helps to tackle poverty.”


An NGO is a non-profit organization with a social or scientific objective. The majority of NGOs are involved in a single specific theme. N2Africa has worked with various NGOs together with national government services and private sector companies.

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