Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Inclusive Business Case Studies – Reflections on timescales and communication

Elise Wach, Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Adviser at the Institute of Development StudiesBy Elise Wach

IDS recently partnered with the Business Innovation Facility (BIF) and Said School of Business to conduct a number of case studies (which we’re calling "Deep Dives") to find out more about the businesses that the BIF has been supporting.

The idea was to go beyond what was already being captured by the BIF’s monitoring and evaluation system and try to capture some of the rich lessons coming out of the pilot initiative. Specifically, these case studies aimed to provide useful insights into (a) commercial viability of the business models, (b) additionality of BIF’s technical support, and (c) development impacts.

Despite the fact that each case study was unique, in terms of business size (small social businesses to large corporations), market sector (agriculture, renewable energy, retail, etc.), stage of the business model development (early thinking to scaling up), and country (five countries in Africa and Asia), I did find that there were a few lessons to be learned across all eight.

One of the principal lessons for me was related to timescales, which I’ll break down into three points:

1. It takes time for business approaches to get off the ground
After three years of working with businesses to provide technical advice, very few of the business models have really taken off or gone to scale. Many of them may well be on their way, but it is important to note that they’ve all required a good amount of time (i.e. years) to get going, and that this process is outside of BIF's control.

2. It takes time to start having a development effect
Given that none of the businesses were at full scale at the time we conducted the Deep Dives, the development impacts (with a small ‘i’) were still a long way off. Therefore, much of the investigation around the development impacts was necessarily based on narrative and theory: speaking to people about what the effects might be, determining plausibility, identifying other possible effects that might also result and so on.

Even once the business (or business model) is up and running, just as in a development project, it will take time for the development effects to unfold: for markets to change, behaviours to shift, people to benefit. Many of the effects noted are indicative at this stage.

3. It takes time to actually assess all of this
The authors conducting the Deep Dives were able to get fabulous data and qualitative information from companies, which provided extremely insightful information about how the business model had unfolded, the additionality of BIF support, and commercial viability.

But in terms of development impacts, students had to rely on just a handful of interviews or focus group discussions: so they weren’t able to do anything representative or systematic. That doesn’t mean that the exercise hasn’t been useful: in some cases, the deep dives uncovered information which may enable businesses to overcome obstacles and function more smoothly.

Based on these time issues, one of my key takeaways is:

Regular communication with potential beneficiaries and stakeholders is vital

In other words, there needs to be channels for communication between the people whose lives will be affected (positively or negatively) by the business model, and the people who are involved in getting the model off of the ground. This is essential to ensure that we as practitioners aren’t basing our activities on assumptions made by business employees sitting in offices far away from where the development is meant to take place, but based on information and perspectives provided by the people who are or will be affected by the business.

This changes the business approach from a scenario such as, ‘I know that poor people grow carrots and this innovation is going to make carrot production more profitable, so the poor people will therefore benefit’, to a two-way dialogue in which carrot growers can discuss and identify strategies to improve their quality of life and how that relates to a value chain (or not) and also work on course corrections as things develop over time (e.g. when training is inappropriate or when crops fail). This approach goes beyond traditional market research of people’s preferences and behaviours, to understanding people’s broader lives and realities.

What this communication actually looks like in practice will be different depending on context, business approaches, markets, etc. It may be direct communication or it might be mediated through a partner or a system.

Perhaps in the first instance, communication could be brokered or facilitated by an initiative such as BIF. Ultimately, however, there needs to be some way for these groups to communicate (directly or indirectly) with one another, after the support has ended and the inclusive business approaches are set to continue.

Given the relatively expansive timescale from conception to impact, this regular communication can help ensure that the approach isn’t just a well-intentioned business but one that actually contributes to improvements at the ‘bottom of the pyramid'.

Elise Wach is Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Adviser in the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies


Hubert Schmitz said...

Elise, Thank you for drawing lessons from across these cases. I find your stress on time scales particularly helpful. As you say, it takes a lot of time to get these initiatives off the ground and a lot more time for them to have an effect. This makes it difficult for most donor agencies to get involved. Think of the typical situation: a local aid official, highly motivated to make a difference to local communities but also under pressure to disburse funds – against deadlines. So the problem is often not the availability of funds but the (unpredictable) time scales of the projects that need the funds. This is what went through my mind when I looked at the very interesting case of “MEGA: a commercial approach to off-grid power in rural Malawi” ( and saw that “donor grant funding is needed to fund capital infrastructure development at all sites …” . So the implication of your stress on time scales is that funding needs to be extremely patient.

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