Making sense of ‘partnerships’ in agriculture value chains

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As ‘partnerships’ continue to be prioritized as a catch-all solution in development contexts, numerous scholars have tried to make sense of how partnership structures contribute to the desired positive social and economic outcomes that are often assumed to be inherent. Much depends on how decision-making processes are organized and who is included in the deliberation of partnerships.

Making sense of ‘partnerships’ in agriculture value chains

Member for

1 year 7 months

The details are equally important: how are people involved, when are they included and to what extent? Enhancing such deliberative capacity and building the deliberation spaces within partnerships has been identified as one way to create an enabling environment for inclusive development (Vellema et al, 2019). In this article, I reflect on the dynamics of developing deliberative capacity in partnerships through a case study of the deliberative space in a soy value chain partnership in Kenya, facilitated by a partnerships incubator in sub-Saharan Africa.

This partnerships incubator operates in 10 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa to facilitate agribusiness value-chain partnerships. Through partnership facilitation, the aim is to achieve more equitable collaborations in agribusiness, increase nutritional outcomes for those most vulnerable and secure more sustainable value chains through cooperation with lead businesses called ‘Business Champions’.

‘… women farmers in Kenya chose to plant soy …because they understood its nutritional value and … realized the value-addition potential for soy products’

In this case study, a soy value chain partnership in Western Kenya was utilized to explore deliberation within a partnership, its impacts on women farmers and the linkage to their inclusion in the soy value chain. In this example, the partnerships incubator worked closely with a local NGO in Western Kenya to engage with farmers, understand the local cultural contexts and ensure consistent dialogue with community groups.

In the case of Kenya, soy itself provided a unique opportunity for the inclusion of women farmers in the value chain. Most land in Kenya is owned by men, leaving women with very few opportunities to make decisions related to agriculture and farming. However, soy is easily grown in Western Kenya’s second growing season; this means that while men typically focused on the first growing season, planting cash crops such as corn, women had more freedom to use the land in the second season and were able to exercise more choice and influence about crops.

Soy farmer showcasing her soy-based products
Soy farmer proundly showcasesing her soy-based products ©Maya Krishnan

Many women farmers in Kenya chose to plant soy, specifically because they understood its nutritional value and also because they realized the value-addition potential for soy products.

Ultimately, my research finds that space for deliberation seems to enhance women farmers’ position and inclusion in the value chain. Several examples of this can be seen through the creation of ‘Agribusiness Cluster Coaches’ (ABC Coaches), a role created within the partnership structure that trains, teaches and provides critical services to farmers. These roles evolved from more traditional ‘Training of Trainer’ (ToT) functions, with a key difference lying in the compensation model.

‘…space for deliberation seems to enhance women farmers’ position and inclusion in the value chain.’

ToT roles were compensated by the organization itself; ABC Coaches were encouraged to fill important gaps in the value chain through market-based incentives. One example relates to buyers, who often want to buy soy in larger quantities than a single farmer can produce, meaning that aggregation of soy is required in order for farmers to access bigger markets and customers. An ABC Coach would be incentivized to aggregate soy because of the financial gain they would receive in providing this missing service, charging a slightly higher amount to the final buyer per kilo of soy. As this soy partnership has progressed in the last three years, the ABC Coach role has grown in importance, with Coaches increasingly providing the ‘glue’ needed to hold the partnership together and more deeply establish soy as an important crop in Western Kenya. In this case study, over half of the ABC Coaches were women farmers, most of whom had been growing soy at a small scale for their families for years before the value-chain partnership. In particular, the ABC Coach role strongly shaped the deliberative space, specifically through Coaches’ ownership of key relationships and the decisions made regarding transparency of information both up and down the value chain.

Group of women farmers outside the shop selling their products
Women soy farmers pool their resources to sell their enhanced products ©Maya Krishnan

To elaborate on this further, owning property and other tangible assets has often been seen as a metric for inclusion. However, what is less discussed are intangible assets — in the case of this soy partnership, the deliberative space was deeply connected to value chain inclusion through the ownership of relationships. As the partnership progressed into its third year, women ABC Coaches were being transferred the ownership of key relationships, including with seed and fertilizer suppliers. The Coaches owned the contacts, communicated community interests and independently conducted meetings and negotiated terms without the supervision or involvement of other partnership stakeholders.

‘…opening up space for women to take on additional leadership and relationship management roles.’

This transfer represents an important shift in the partnership structure; not only creating space for a more sustainable agribusiness value chain in the long-term, but also opening up space for women to take on additional leadership and relationship management roles that enable more direct communication of their needs with the actual decision-makers. Furthermore, this ownership was not always singular — in the case of relationships, there were always several ABC Coaches who shared the responsibility.

However, even while the ownership of these key relationships was shared, that level of access to deliberative space was only held by women serving as ABC Coaches. While the ABC Coaches benefit very directly from this transferal of ownership and increased authority, it is then incumbent on them to ensure those benefits are felt by the women farmers they represent. In some cases, decisions made by the women ABC Coaches may not have always represented all of the interests of other women farmers or enhanced the deliberative space. Interestingly, many soy farmers — though technically part of the soy partnership — were not aware of the details regarding the ‘Business Champion’ or final buyer, nor were they fully aware of the challenges related to the buyer off-taking their product. The ABC Coaches interviewed clarified that this was intentional — that problem-solving related to issues with the buyer was a burden held by them and the local support organization, and that full information was intentionally not disclosed as it would impact farmers’ decisions to continue planting soy in future seasons.

Soy farmer holding up newspaper article about women soy farmers
Newspaper article about women turning their soy crop into marketable goods ©Maya Krishnan

A nuanced dynamic emerged: women ABC Coaches were selectively sharing information with other (mostly women) farmers, acting out of what they considered to be their best interests. But it was also out of their own personal best interests, given that their roles, and the financial benefit derived from them, would not exist without soy being planted. Would women farmers and community groups continue to plant soy if they realized the full extent of the challenges with the buyer?

And yet, despite the business incentive pushing Coaches to selectively share information, the narrative within the community was not one of solely competition or self-interest. Women farmers in Western Kenya were seizing the opportunities that soy provided, that they otherwise may not have had access to due to their gender. Women and community groups were starting soy value-addition businesses, tweaking and sharing recipes for soy products and building business relationships with local buyers. What emerges from this case study is an ecosystem within the soy agricultural value chain of women farmers and entrepreneurs operating creatively to make spaces for themselves, both independently and in groups, and also within and outside the structures of the partnership.

‘…an ecosystem within the soy agricultural value chain of women farmers and entrepreneurs operating creatively to make spaces for themselves...’

Ultimately, the existence of a partnership that has a focus on enhancing the value-chain inclusion of women farmers does not mean that all women farmers equally benefit, as can be seen in the examples of the ownership of relationships and information transparency from the ABC Coaches. However, these examples showcase the importance and influence of deliberative spaces and point to how partnerships can better design and consider deliberation when thinking about women’s inclusion in the value chain. Having women in a leadership role that is incentivized by the market, such as the ABC Coach role, may limit their ability to represent other women farmers as it separates their interests from that of the larger group. For future partnership and programme designs, this challenge could be mitigated by having elections for the Coach role, or by including additional monitoring and evaluation metrics regarding the Coaches to better understand the long-term impacts of such roles. In this way, agribusiness partnerships can better ensure that the benefits derived from an enhanced access to deliberative space are not only felt by a small cross-section of women farmers.


Vellema et al. 2019 ‘Partnering capacities for inclusive development in food provisioning’ Development Policy Review