The Role of Village Agents in Scaling Up Input Technology and Input Access
This post was written by Gitau Mbure, Senior Technical Advisor for Agriculture and Natural Resource Management at World Vision.
Strengthening input supply systems is undoubtedly one of the most critical interventions in agriculture development. As presented in the recent Agrilinks/Microlinks seminar, “Scaling Up Input Technology and Input Access: Clues from Zambia”, sustainable scale up of improved inputs requires facilitating stronger linkages between targeted farmers and private sector input suppliers. We heard how the PROFIT project strengthened the capacity of input suppliers by facilitating engagement of village agrodealers to reach smallholder farmers in remote markets. A similar approach is used by various organizations including the agribusiness service provider (ASP) model employed by the WALA program in Malawi; IDE’s farm business advisors program and Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Workers Initiative, to name just a few.
I believe the use of village agent networks holds a lot of promise, not only for increasing access to inputs but also for generating employment opportunities for youth. Having promoted this approach in Malawi (and now working on similar approaches in Niger and Zimbabwe), I’m keen to hear from other implementers who are also working with village agents. As the number of development organizations using this approach continues to increase, I believe there is a lot we can learn collectively.
In Niger, World Vision is facilitating the establishment of a village agent network working with a private sector seed supplier. To date, 10 young people have been trained to facilitate demonstration sites and provide technical support to farmers on use of improved seed varieties and other sustainable practices. This helps stimulate demand for improved inputs. To meet this demand, agents help farmers access certified seed by aggregating bulk orders, negotiating discounts, and facilitating the logistics for delivery of seed to farmers in remote locations. In return, the agents receive a commission from the supplier. In the first year of this initiative, agents have helped farmers access about $4,500 worth of inputs, earning 10 percent in commissions. The commission helps agents meet their operational costs and provides an incentive for enhancing service delivery. Having realized the potential of this model, agents are now seeking to engage more suppliers so they can widen the variety of goods they can offer farmers—and this is where it gets tricky.
Often, suppliers prefer an exclusive relationship with agents. Understandably, they are hesitant to invest in building capacity of agents who may also work with their competitors. To avoid putting their eggs in one basket, village agents would rather not work exclusively with one supplier. They stand to lose if the supplier goes out of business or fails to deliver goods in a manner that satisfies farmers. Agents risk losing the trust of farmers if they are seen as working singularly for a specific supplier. But making the transition from working with one input supplier to adding others can put the relationship already established with the original seller at risk. The dilemma can be challenging for all parties involved but as a facilitator, World Vision does not take sides. Agents are encouraged to work within the arrangements they find comfortable. However, as an organization we are keen to learn from the experiences of other implementers specifically on facilitating exclusive agent relationships and/or independent village agent networks.
Besides expanding the number of actors they work with, village agents will inevitably seek to increase the menu of services and products they offer in order to diversify income streams. In Niger, agents are starting to move from solely facilitating access to inputs, to now helping farmers to access more profitable output markets and financial services. In addition, village agents provide embedded services; such services might include facilitating trainings in Farming as a Business, and group management (which they are not compensated for directly). However, such services help their clients become more competitive in the long run.
While diversification is critical, it is important to maintain a balance in increasing the menu of services and ensuring the quality of relationships. We are finding that it is very easy for agents to overstretch themselves: A tendency exists to gravitate towards services that offer the quickest return, even though those services may not help build sustainable relationships. It would be interesting to hear from other organizations on how they have supported village agents to find the right balance in terms of diversity of products and services and sustainability of relationships with clients on both ends.
Lastly, compensation is critical in that it provides the necessary incentive to sustain service delivery. In Niger, the agents are paid by the input supplier on a commission basis. In Malawi, agents received a stipend from buyers in addition to monetary and in-kind rewards from farmers as a token of appreciation. While the intent is the same, the different forms of compensation may have varying implications. Ideally, agents should work within their network to develop pricing structures that are profitable and transparent. Success in the long run depends on their ability to negotiate value-based compensation and flexibility in responding to various contexts. We would love to hear from other implementers regarding experience in facilitating growth of agent networks and defining compensation structures, so please share your experiences in the comments section below.