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Agricultural small- and medium-sized enterprises (agri-SMEs) are critical to the development of more inclusive and sustainable food systems. These businesses are responsible for much of the sale of inputs, food production, collection and distribution, and processing and retail of food products. However, the absence of a widely shared definition and comprehensive taxonomy of agri-SMEs stymies our view of their role in food systems. With a shared framework and language, we could more comprehensively consider the role of different types of agri-SMEs in food systems, as well as the specific types of support that would unlock their growth potential.

SAFIN commissioned ISF Advisors to develop a framework for more comprehensively considering agri-SMEs, with the goal of creating a common language that:

  1. Fosters a shared understanding among actors concerned with agri-SMEs (including, but not limited to, financial service providers) about the shared features of different types of enterprises that fall under this label.
  2. Proposes a new taxonomy and language to establish agri-SME segments—drawing on existing case studies and literature to illustrate how these might apply in different markets.
  3. Provides a solid grounding for the assessment of different financial needs of agri-SMEs, which can inform SAFIN’s work, as well as that of other relevant actors in the agri-SME finance space.

ISF Advisors conducted a literature review of more than 80 publications, as well as consultations with key experts, including SAFIN members. This research highlights the importance of agri-SMEs in the food system, building off of current classifications of agri-SMEs to create a more comprehensive taxonomy based on key profiling dimensions. It also shows the applicability of the taxonomy across value chains and various food systems priority areas. Finally, this research presents a growth profile classification to link the agri-SME taxonomy to investability criteria and needs, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of how best to support specific segments of agri-SMEs.

Download the full learning brief here, or keep reading for key takeaways.

A comprehensive agri-SME taxonomy

Over the last several years, significant work has been done to further understand agri-SMEs; yet this work has largely been limited to smallholder farmer, input and offtake, or service agri-SMEs. To create a more comprehensive taxonomy, this work has combined the existing, extensive segmentation within each of these agri-SME types and mapped them based on their role along the value chain. While this taxonomy will benefit from continued iteration and refinement as new business models and actors emerge, it is a useful foundation for analyzing the needs of agri-SMEs across previously siloed categories.

Figure 3: Comprehensive Agri-SME taxonomy

As can be referenced in the full learning brief, there are a number of explanatory notes that accompany this taxonomy which clarify the distinctions that have been made. Drawing from these, we highlight four key insights about the landscape that are made more transparent through this taxonomy:

  1. Micro-enterprises support many of the same functions in agricultural value chains, but at a much smaller and more informal level. Considering these differences and viable pathways for micro-enterprises to “transition” to the level of an agri-SME is an important part of how many agricultural markets will continue to develop, and should be an area of continued research and support.
  2. Many smallholder farmers are currently operating at a level that is comparable to many other agri-SMEs with an investability profile that largely depends on the type of operation they are running. Building on the important segmentation and pathways work that has been done over the past few years is an important way of continuing to “crack the nut” on how to support the growth of these primary producers.
  3. In this taxonomy, Services agri-SMEs have been separated from Input and Offtake market agri-SMEs. The authors acknowledge that there are other ways of considering these distinctions, and that considering the market in this way is more of a reflection of how these different types have been considered in the past. While not true in all cases, for the most part Services agri-SMEs tend to operate across value chains with more of a tech focus in service delivery than Input and Output agri-SMEs. Acknowledging these distinctions can be useful in connecting funder communities that have historically been quite separate in where they have focused.
  4. While agri-SMEs in this taxonomy are categorized through functional distinctions, in reality many of these agri-SMEs will run enterprises that combine different functions into a single business. Considering typical vertical and horizontal integrations of different business models is another important lens to put across this taxonomy.

The Question of Definition

Overall, there is broad agreement that there are fundamental differences between micro, small, medium, and large enterprises—and that these differences have a direct bearing on the support needs of each segment, as well as their role in the food system. However, it is difficult to establish a globally applicable set of thresholds for each segment, given company and national differences. Despite these limitations, however, to be able to consistently consider the needs and roles of different segments of agri-SMEs, we need a more global definition.

Having considered the range of options available, this research recommends a definition that includes both business and investment metric thresholds. The proposed definition would distinguish four key segments: micro, transitioning micro, SME, and large. While we anticipate that SAFIN—and others in the sector—will continue to refine the definition and thresholds, an initial structure for this definition is presented in the learning brief.

Applications of a Comprehensive Taxonomy

Value-chain blueprints

There are a number of benefits to having a comprehensive taxonomy of agri-SMEs, but it is important to account for the ways in which the applicability of this taxonomy may differ across value chains and markets.

For example, in the case of rice in the Philippines: As with most staple cereal crops, the rice sector has many farmers and traders, but few processors. Given the large number of consumers, there are also many millers and retailers in the sector, though most are on the smaller end. Despite being a large producer of rice, the Philippines is also a net importer due to high demand—this is also typical of staple cereals writ large, which makes importers an important actor in these value chains. Finally, service providers in the Philippines’ rice sector are limited and focused on market linkages, again due to the large number of consumer transactions. The graphic below illustrates this case example.

Figure 4: Agri-SME landscape example - rice in the Philippines

The way in which this agri-SME market landscape differs from other types of value chains (such as cash tree crops, fruits and vegetables or dairy) reveals a type of market “blueprint”. This type of SME blueprint can help actors trying to transform food systems better understand the types of agri-SMEs that exist in different markets, as well as their unique needs.

Supporting different food system outcomes

Looking beyond specific value chains, the taxonomy can also be applied to specific market development objectives to understand the different roles that agri-SMEs can play in advancing those objectives. For example, the graphic below illustrates how the taxonomy can apply to the UN Food System Summit’s Action Track 4: Equitable Livelihoods. This creates a clear way to map agri-SMEs with the greatest potential to support this action track. The map can also be shared with partners who may not be familiar with the agri-SME space, enabling them to see the linkages and potential interventions that might be needed.

Figure 5: UN Food Systems Summit Action Track 4 Agri-SME mapping

The Question of Growth

Many financial services and business development providers have a much more practical ambition when it comes to agri-SMEs: to support growth. Considering the role and position of agri-SMEs in the market can help providers make some inferences about the business models and growth prospects of potential investees. However, an alternative framework is required to consider the different growth trajectories of agri-SMEs and what that means for support. This work also developed a “Growth Profile” framework to separate agri-SMEs into six segments based on their growth ambition and growth potential. Through considering key differences between these segments, this work created a new way of considering how finance and other support needs map to different types of agri-SMEs. While theoretical, this framework further attempts to build a language around key differences that can be refined by the range of practitioners, donors and investors who support agri-SME growth. To find out more about the Growth Profile framework please refer to the learning brief.

Conclusion

This learning brief continues the critical work of considering agri-SMEs as a distinct and definable set of enterprises, with implications for global agendas related to both SME growth and food systems transformation. We acknowledge that this is only the beginning of creating a shared definition and useful taxonomies in a sector loaded with complexity. We hope this brief forms a basis for further work and conversation related to:

  • comprehensive taxonomy of agri-SMEs, including how to continue refining the segments and sub-segments, and how to think about integrated business models.
  • Defining agri-SMEs, including the global importance of an aligned language, as well as the complexities of developing thresholds and ways of considering national variation.
  • The different growth profiles of agri-SMEs, including whether the six segments adequately cover the range of agri-SMEs in the market, and how such a tool could better align support—both with agri-SMEs and between collaborating organizations.
  • How to better align with different food systems summit outcomes and use a shared understanding of agri-SMEs to consider the value of big intervention ideas, including around women and youth.

More Information

For more information about this work or to continue the conversation, please contact Matt Shakhovskoy, Senior Advisor at ISF Advisors, at matt.shakhovskoy@isfadvisors.org

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As financial service providers (FSPs) have increasingly targeted smallholder farmers as potential customers, there is a growing need for FSPs to access unique tools and develop new skills to reach this customer segment. To help address this need, an ecosystem of ‘Business Development Services (BDS) providers has developed, at both local and international levels. BDS includes a range of external advisory services that provide or develop the capabilities needed to design, deliver, and support FSPs’ products and operations. This includes a wide range of offerings, such as strategic planning, inclusive business design, data and digitalization, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E).

To better understand the experiences and perspectives of FSPs who utilize these BDS providers, ISF Advisors surveyed 47 organizations from around the world, predominantly MFIs, commercial banks, NGOs, and social lenders. The respondents were high-level decision makers, over half from the c-suite level, with broad knowledge of and authority over the decision to hire external BDS services. Our online survey collected a range of data on both the organizations’ individual experiences with BDS providers, as well as their assessment of the availability, quality, and affordability of different categories of BDS.

The following highlights from the survey are offered in the hope that all market participants—FSPs, BDS providers, and donors—can better understand this ecosystem which is supporting and shaping the development of financial services for smallholders around the world.

Market assessment: FSP perspectives of availability, quality, and affordability of BDS services

Respondents were asked to rate the various categories of BDS according to their availability, quality, and affordability. ‘Strategic planning’ and ‘digitization and data’ were the highest rated overall, but these high composite scores mask the divergence between the high perceived availability and quality, and low affordability. Meanwhile, capital structuring was among the lowest rated for all three dimensions. As the market for financial services becomes increasingly complex, particularly with the use of blended finance, the lack of high quality access to BDS that support capital structuring for FSPs may act as a constraint on the market’s ability to evolve quickly.

Build or buy: Understanding FSPs’ experiences with BDS

As part of the survey, FSPs were asked what factored into their decision to hire external BDS providers, rather than build capabilities in house via hiring or training existing staff. Of the potential factors listed, FSPs were most likely to rate ‘BDS builds in-house capabilities via skill transfer’ and ‘BDS offers access to higher quality services’ as either ‘pretty important’ or ‘very important’. The high number of respondents mentioning skill transfer suggest that FSPs are not simply choosing between ‘build or buy’, but are approaching BDS as a ‘buy and build’ opportunity. This offers insight into how BDS providers can tailor their service delivery approach to better meet FSPs’ needs—by explicitly including training and in-house integration components in their project scope.

85% of the surveyed FSPs had previously hired at least one BDS provider, and most had hired BDS providers for a range of different services. ‘Digitization and data’ was the category most frequently reported for previous BDS purchases, with ‘inclusive business design’ and ‘strategic planning’ close behind.

Balancing priorities: FSPs’ interest vs. ability and willingness to pay

When asked to indicate their interest in hiring a BDS provider in the next two years, irrespective of cost, FSPs ranked ‘strategic planning’, ‘fundraising’, and ‘digitization and data’ as their highest priorities.

However, when asked to take costs into account, the high interest in ‘strategic planning’ and ‘fundraising’ did not translate into planned purchase of services. Instead, ‘digitization and data’ was by far the most likely category for planned purchases of BDS. Coupled with the high rates of previous purchase of ‘digitization and data’ BDS, our data clearly points to the importance of this particular category of services.

Meanwhile, the lack of planned purchase for ‘strategic planning’ and ‘fundraising’ suggest that these particular BDS categories may be de-prioritized in favor of more tangible business operation services. With over half of the respondents indicating that their organization could afford to spend less than USD 25,000 on external BDS within the next year to address crucial business needs, this forced de-prioritization is natural. However, it does suggest that external financial support may be required to bridge the gap between interest and ability to purchase these types of BDS.

Further, given the limited BDS budgets, two particular questions present themselves.

  1. How can donors best help FSPs in their portfolio access the skills they need for success? And,
  2. How can FSPs approach and structure BDS to get the most ‘bang for the buck’?

How to lend a hand: FSP feedback on preferred donor support

Within the survey, we explicitly asked FSPs how donors could best help facilitate access to the capabilities that their organizations need to grow and succeed. In addition to the earlier data, which identified high-interest categories of BDS getting deprioritized due to cost, a key insight emerged around engaging with FSPs to jointly determine how and when BDS would be most helpful to the organization.

Consistent with our findings that FSPs are using BDS to access external skills, while also building in-house capabilities, FSPs evenly ranked ‘internal capacity building’ and ‘financial support for BDS’ when asked what type of donor support would be most helpful to their organization. Donors should actively engage with FSPs to determine which of these approaches is the best way to access new skills given the organization’s present and future needs.

Bang for the buck: FSP perspectives on key success factors for BDS engagements

When asked to provide their perspectives on key success factors and key challenges to successful BDS engagements, the feedback from FSPs fell into four primary categories:

 

1. Understanding context

The factor mentioned most often when asked about the success or failure of a BDS engagement was whether or not the BDS provider had a robust understanding of the context shaping the FSP’s business. In addition to basics, such as sharing a working language with staff and understanding the country of operations, multiple FSPs mentioned the need for providers to tailor their understanding and recommendations to individual circumstances, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach.
Or, as one FSP eloquently submitted, “prescribing a solution without taking into consideration the context.”

Sharing their experience, one respondent wrote, “The key elements were engaging the clients and the staff to be able to ascertain the needs of the clients and the right solution to address the needs.”

Another respondent identified “the ability for BDS not to assume a lot of things or to try to bring their experience from other areas into the business. Once we got them on board regarding our real realities and context, they were able to provide services that assisted, especially in loan officer training.

2. Expertise and credibility

Unsurprisingly, another key success factor is the expertise and credibility of the BDS provider. When asked what contributed to poor BDS outcomes, one FSP decried “unclear deliverables, lack of professionalism, incompetent consultants.” While another discussed their positive experience with “consultants [from] a branch of the World bank – key element: their professional authority.”

3. Integration

When structuring BDS engagements, donors and FSPs should strongly consider to what extent the BDS engagement will integrate with and strengthen existing business processes.

As one respondent volunteered, “External BDS providers that are embedded within our FSPs are the most functional, particularly when they are available to implement recommended processes and changes.”

Similarly, a different respondent identified their key challenge as “short-term BDS providers that present vague frameworks and do not implement in-line with our teams.”

4. Buy-in and alignment

Finally, and particularly important for donors that fund BDS services for FSPs, was the issue of buy-in. Multiple respondents discussed experiences in which externally funded BDS did not match the FSP’s perception of their own needs—as one respondent summed up, “imposed on us by donor and bad alignment.” Without the necessary buy-in within the organization, respondents flagged scenarios in which there was “no attention from the management, no commitment, and no political support of the management.” A participatory approach to determining the appropriate BDS or capacity building solution for a particular FSP can help avoid scenarios in which fees and effort lead to disappointment rather than success.

Looking ahead

Given the highly diverse nature of both FSP needs and BDS markets around the world, our current data can only provide general trends and perceptions of the BDS market. To develop more specificity in these insights, there are additional steps to be taken and questions to be addressed.

In addition to deploying the survey to a larger audience to achieve a higher confidence level, ISF is planning to supplement the survey with interviews of both FSPs and BDS providers to gather deeper insight and pressure-test survey results and conclusions.

Part of the follow-up data gathering will focus on the key questions that this preliminary data raised:

  • Given the dynamics identified, what role can different market participants play to ensure that quality BDS is accessible and effective in supporting the evolution of smallholder finance?
  • Given the major focus on ‘digitization and data system development’ within the BDS market, how should this particular set of capabilities and tools be developed and made available in the coming years?

With access to the right tools and capabilities, FSPs will be able to better identify the needs of their smallholder customer segments and ultimately develop a stronger, more sustainable business model to meet those needs. Our data clearly show that BDS providers play a central role in this process, and ISF is committed to further understanding and positively shaping the evolution of such a critical aspect of the smallholder finance ecosystem.

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Understanding the impact of inclusive financial services is crucial to closing the USD 150 billion smallholder finance gap. Since the Lab’s 2015 study on impact, new evidence and emerging data from the Mastercard Foundation RAF Learning Lab portfolio – a USD 175M portfolio including 9 partners targeting 10M smallholders across 26 countries – shows a positive impact of smallholder finance on farmer livelihoods.

Traditionally, donors have pushed for a greater understanding of farmer impact to identify which investment opportunities are most effective and also monitor performance overtime. However, private sector actors, including agribusinesses and financial institutions, are increasingly realizing that understanding the impact of their services on farmer livelihoods is fundamental to ensuring product adoption and thus enabling sustainable and scalable business models. This requires providers to understand the drivers of farmer profitability, including productivity and commodity prices, and understanding how these drivers will change overtime as farmers increase the use of capital.

Over the past few years, the sector has come a long way in understanding impact, as seen by an increase in research investments from think tanks and research institutions alike. However, the evidence gap remains significant.

Impact as we know it

As part of the Lab’s Annual Learning Review, an evaluation activity meant to capture emerging learnings from the Lab’s portfolio and identify knowledge gaps, the Lab reviewed external literature on farmer impact and found positive effects of credit and savings on farmers’ yields, income, and consumption. For example, J-PAL’s 2016 policy brief identified that the expansion of agricultural loans led to an increase in the value of agricultural output by USD 32, and an increase in the value of livestock by USD 168.  Additionally, the 2015 IPA policy brief found that agricultural loans increased output and food consumption in Zambia by USD 35 on average, ultimately improving the livelihoods of both women and youth. In regards to savings, IPA’s 2017 policy brief found that with access to formal savings accounts farmers saved more through the planting and harvesting seasons. As a result, they were able to cultivate more land, invest in more agricultural inputs, and increase their consumption

We’re also beginning to see the early stages of positive impact from Lab portfolio partners. In fact, in 2016 One Acre Fund reported an average increase of USD 137 in annual farm profits, boosting farmer income by 55% and increasing total household income by 15% on average. With higher farm profits, farmers can invest in agricultural training and financial education allowing them to reinvest into building out their company.

Acknowledging the knowledge gaps

Despite these positive findings, there remains significant knowledge gaps when it comes to farm level impact of financial services. For instance, most of the evidence today looks at the impact of the digitization of payments and to some extent short term and working capital credit. More broadly, there is little to no evidence on (1) the impact on farmer livelihoods of other financial products; (2) optimal service features for farm level impact, particularly bundled services and digital attributes; (3) the impact on gender-focused outcomes of financial services; and (4) the relationship between farmer returns and business profitability.

To address these knowledge gaps, providers, agribusinesses, and donors need to allocate resources toward improving the sector’s understanding of these four areas.

  1. Impact on farmer livelihoods of other financial products: Providers need to invest in understanding how to ensure farmer returns, monitor them over time, and capture some of those returns to increase the sustainability of their business models. For example, this research could help service providers understand how much productivity and farmer income is expected to increase from asset-based loans or insurance.
  2. Optimal service features for farm level impact: To date, there is little to no evidence on what service features or attributes are most effective at driving uptake, yields, and income and/or mitigating farmer and therefore business risk. This is particularly true for bundled services and digital attributes, despite the sector hype. Within the Lab’s portfolio, some players are beginning to scratch the surface. Organizations such as Opportunity International and One Acre Fund saw an increase in adoption when transitioning to digital. However, this evidence is still primarily focused on adoption and at most yields ­– with little guidance on what this means for smallholder livelihoods.
  3. Gender-focused outcomes of financial services: Providers need to understand how female farmer returns from financial services may be different from that achieved by male farmer, and what service features work best to achieve gender-focused impact outcomes including financial independence and household decision making power.
  4. Relationship between farmer returns and business profitability: While we are seeing increasing focus on farm level impact, there is still little evidence on the extent to which enabling higher farmer returns leads to more profitable business models for financial service providers. During the next few years the Lab’s research investment and top priority will be understanding the sustainability of different business models delivering financial services to smallholder farmers. Unpacking key drivers of financial sustainability, including the relationship between farmer and business profitability, will be a core part of this exercise.

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