Layering Economic Growth and Nutrition: Learning from NCBA CLUSA’s Food System Approach
This post is part of a Microlinks-Agrilinks collaboration for Markets Month which explores market systems trends. This blog features a conversation with Todd Crosby, Technical Advisor with the National Cooperative Business Association Cooperative League of the USA (NCBA CLUS) and is authored by Ingrid Weiss, Nutrition Advisor with USAID's Bureau for Food Security (BFS).
At the USAID Market Systems Global Learning and Evidence Exchange (GLEE) in June, NCBA CLUSA’s Chief Technical Advisor, Pape Sene, discussed how the USAID Yaajeende Project is strengthening the private sector to improve nutrition. Afterwards, we followed up with Todd Crosby, NCBA CLUSA’s Director for Food Systems and Resilience, to learn more about the project’s community-based, market-orientated food systems approach to sustainably improve nutrition.
Crosby describes Yaajeende’s food systems approach as building “circuits” within the larger food system where actors at different levels are connected and focused on resolving priority issues of malnutrition, sanitation and health by providing key products, services and knowledge.
In order to ensure access under the Yaajeende project, NCBA CLUSA had to develop the local private sector, as it often didn’t exist. This focus on private sector development for sustainability with an orientation toward solving nutrition problems is innovative, allowing for a truly multi-sectoral response at the community level, where agriculture and nutrition products are often sold in the same place.
NCBA CLUSA has largely approached market-oriented nutrition through the village-agent “last-mile” model. Connecting supply chains all the way through that last mile to rural villages can be a win-win, as communities gain access to high-quality products and companies get more customers. However, in the food and nutrition industry, profit margins are often low to motivate companies to extend to marginalized or underserved areas. This forced NCBA CLUSA to think creatively about where the motivating forces in the system are to improve nutrition at the village-level.
They found that both monetary and social incentives were strongest at the community level of the supply chain. Based on that understanding, they trained health nutrition volunteers and community health workers who are already motivated and working to solve nutrition issues in their community. NCBA CLUSA trained these volunteers to begin to sell products and provide services as Community-Based Solution Providers (CBSPs).
While the profit mechanisms are critical to sustainability, CBSPs also integrate a strong aspect of social enterprise, thinking of their roles as not only selling products but providing critical solutions for difficult problems. One interesting lesson learned is that having a social mission is itself a powerful motivator, enabling civically minded entrepreneurs to thrive in rural villages, making a reasonable profit while helping their neighbors. Many CBSPs describe their businesses in terms of their mission to feed their neighbors, protect family and friends from pesticides, and help local children grow healthy. As CBSPs gain experience, they often diversify products, from enriched flour into horticulture seed or fertilizer, and with that diversification comes increased revenue and stronger social impact.
Rather than being shaped by large-end market users, the Yaajeende Food System is a directed system with civil society and governance at the center. At the community level that means that civil society groups work with local government to lead planning, coordinating and monitoring of actions across nutrition, agriculture and businesses. These citizen working groups plan and coordinate actors across the private sector, governance and NGOs to ensure that local needs are being addressed and that products, such as biofortified crops, are reaching those who need them most. While this sounds like an intensive community-level implementation, NCBA CLUSA has been able to set up this system through trainings and facilitation and, as the project matured, the local institutions themselves have become the frontline implementers of activities. In most areas, communities are now sustaining this system on their own, without project assistance.
Women are involved in all aspects of Yaajeende’s food system approach and are at the heart of many of the activities. CLUSA looked at barriers to women’s nutrition and food security and found that access to land was a large constraint. In one notable example, Yaajeende expanded its work with civil society to develop a mechanism for women to receive legal titles to reclaimed land, which allowed for more equitable and lucrative participation by women as they produced and sold vegetables for the local market.
We at USAID’s Bureau for Food Security (BFS) are still seeking more examples of using market-orientated approaches to achieving nutrition impact. As explained in more detail in this USAID discussion paper, there are convergences and tensions in achieving nutrition impact under a market development program. We’d love to hear how others are navigating these forces. Please reach out to Ingrid Weiss, USAID BFS Nutrition Advisor, if you’d like to share an example.