Unlocking the Benefits of Innovation: A Product Life Cycle Approach
This post was written by James Gaffney, Allison Cooper and Regina Eddy.
Collaboration between the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) and the Feed the Future Agriculture Diversification (AgDiv) Activity in Malawi facilitates partnerships to increase farmer productivity and profits
The bottom line: Facilitating technology adoption requires a good fit between product and market and coordination between many actors. The Product Life Cycle (PLC) is an end-to-end management tool that advances products based on fit and identifies downstream actors who must be engaged at each stage as a product advances.
Why it matters: While large companies can work across the entire value chain, USAID focuses on strengthening markets that are less mature and connected. The PLC helps many small producers and businesses link together to engage in production and commercialization.
The successful development, transfer and adoption of agricultural technology is an important contributor to inclusive economic growth. Adoption failures can stem from a poor understanding of market demand, failure of the technology to address end-user needs, delayed regulatory approval, and insufficient incentives to motivate private sector or other value chain actors. USAID research, production and market system partners collaborate to address these challenges.
This year, the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS) launched the use of an end-to-end PLC management system to guide technology development and adoption. PLC management is an industry standard and helps ensure new technologies align with farmer, processor and customer needs and have a pathway to market. The PLC process identifies the threshold criteria for technology advancement along a defined scaling pathway and the downstream partners who must be engaged at each stage. Public and private partners needed to advance a technology to the next phase to help shape the performance standards and product evaluation. As a result, a more dynamic, integrated and informed value chain/market system begins to emerge.
PLC Partnering to Improve Soybean Yields in Malawi
Soybean is an essential cash crop in Malawi, with an estimated market value of $30 million. Due to soy’s protein-rich composition, demand in Malawi is increasing as expanding livestock, poultry and aquaculture industries require more plant-based protein feed than is currently available. Despite soy’s viability as a cash crop and increasing demand, the soy value chain remains stagnant and average yields are less than a quarter of their potential.
When the AgDiv Activity in Malawi launched its soy value chain program in 2017, only three improved varieties of soybean had been registered in Malawi over the previous 17 years, depriving farmers of seed products that match changing environmental and market conditions. To address soy production weaknesses, AgDiv started by focusing on access to improved seed varieties.
PLC Stage 1: Understanding and answering the needs of future soy markets through product profiles
In order to increase access to improved soy varieties, AgDiv co-hosted a seed symposium with the National Agriculture Research System (NARS), independent researchers, seed producers and USAID partners. Information was gathered from farmers, agronomists, seed companies, feed processors and other end-users to understand the characteristics a competing variety must deliver. This type of stakeholder engagement, early in the breeding and performance trial process, is a proven approach to developing a market segment analysis (MSA). Based on this data, target product profiles (TPPs) were developed, listing the “must-have” and desired traits required in a new soy variety to out-compete the benchmark variety and advance.
PLC implementation note: Plant breeders have often been relied upon to develop and deliver their own MSA and TPP. A more inclusive approach integrates value chain stakeholders into the research and development process from the outset. This can motivate actors to remain engaged in early breeding stages where they play an important role.
PLC Stages 2-4: Rapid trials and validation based on benchmark criteria
A partnership emerged between SIL, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), NARS and private soy production companies to evaluate the performance of global varieties in Malawi. A network of trials conducted by SIL and partners in 18 countries, known as the Pan-African Soybean Variety Trials (PATs), fast-tracked the introduction and testing of commercial soybean varieties sourced from around the world. Critical information on the agronomic, feed and food characteristics of the varieties — the product profiles developed in PLC Stage 1 — were made available to seed companies and farmers, helping both understand the benefits of replacing older varieties with ones proven to perform better in current cropping and environmental conditions.
PLC implementation note: SIL is also conducting soy breeding in Malawi, a process that combines parental plants, each with unique traits, to obtain a new generation plant with the best characteristics, such as yield or drought tolerance. However, breeding successive generations takes time. Given the lack of access to improved soy varieties, the Malawi PATs allowed farmers to test high-performing seeds in two years, half of what a breeding program might deliver. Through AgDiv’s inclusive stakeholder engagement, a clear market signal emerged: “SEEDS NOW!” And SIL, laser-focused on the customer, was able to deliver.
PLC Stages 5-8: Selection, commercialization and growth
Varieties evaluated in field trials led to the 2020 registration of a new soybean variety, originally developed by IITA for markets in Zambia. This was the first new soybean variety for the Malawian market in nine years. The new variety averages three times more than the outdated varieties. During the variety’s first release year, nearly 60 metric tons (MT) of seed were sold with a target of 1,000 MT of seed availability for the 2022-2023 season. This was accomplished by Pyxus, a private sector partner in the PATs from the program’s inception. The Malawi soybean sector saw further advancement in 2022 with the registration of an additional seven varieties.
To support development of dynamic soy farm systems, where a new technology can thrive and deliver, AgDiv’s consortium partners continue to identify and resolve production constraints. SIL developed an extension guide to promote good agronomic practices, facilitated women-owned soy milk enterprises and supported distribution of affordable mechanized threshers to reduce back-breaking labor.
PLC implementation note: The combination of MSAs, product profile development and extensive field trial data increased confidence and reduced the risk of investing in new varieties for seed companies. Farmers experienced the performance of new varieties first-hand, spurring adoption of higher-performing varieties.
Increasing soy sector efficiency and integration
Since its inception in 2016, AgDiv has facilitated collaboration between multiple soy sector enterprises to increase the flow of technologies, services and information. Through partnerships with soy production companies, AgDiv’s network now supports 72,267 farmers and soy sales valued at $5.6 million. Thanks to improved agricultural practices and tailored input bundles, average sales per beneficiary almost doubled from $42 to $78 per season. Farmer profits are poised for further growth once newly-released soy varieties reach farm fields.