Friday, 12 October 2012

Comparing research and oranges: what can we learn from value chain analysis?

By Elise Wach

A conversation with a colleague the other day about how we would communicate our research findings for a nutrition initiative struck me as remarkably similar to the conversations I held under orange trees in eastern Uganda about market research and value chain analysis a few years ago.

In Uganda, the government was promoting the cultivation of certain fruit trees based on studies that had shown which varieties were agriculturally viable.  Farmers transitioned their plots from cassava to orange trees on the assumption that there would be a market for their oranges once their trees started fruiting several years down the line. 

Obviously, to us value chain analysts, this was crazy – it was necessary to do some market research first to find out where there were opportunities for these fruits in the national, regional, or international markets, and then grow and prepare the right crops accordingly. 

What can we learn by applying value chain concepts to our research?
Our thinking was shaped by the countless instances of NGOs and donors promoting the production of something (whether oranges, soaps, water pumps, etc.) without doing their homework to find out if anyone might purchase them and under what conditions: whether there was an opportunity in the market for the product (e.g. will people buy the oranges to eat, or would a juicing company be interested in them?), whether product could be improved to better meet consumer needs and preferences (e.g. are Naval oranges preferred over Valencia for juicing?  What about for eating?), whether demand could be stimulated (e.g. can we promote orange juice as a healthy breakfast option to increase consumption?), etc.  Without doing this research first, there is a significant risk that the oranges that farmers produce will not bring them the returns they hoped for. 

So I wondered, is producing research first and then deciding how to communicate it afterwards the same as growing an orange and then deciding how and where it will be sold? 

We invest a substantial amount of time and resources into producing our research and for most of us, having our research reach other people is our primary concern.  

What does the value chain for research look like?

Our product, or ‘oranges’ are our research studies. Our ‘market analysis’ is our ‘audience research’.  Our ‘marketing approach’ is our ‘research uptake strategy’. Our ‘value chain analysis’ is the research we do about ‘evidence into policy’ or ‘knowledge into action’.

We work to strengthen the knowledge value chain.  We build demand for our products through increasing the demand for research and evidence.  We alter our products to our consumer needs through producing 3-page policy briefs for some and Working Papers for others.  And we create or strengthen bridges between our producers and consumers (e.g. individuals such as knowledge intermediaries / knowledge brokers or systems such as the policy support unit that IFPRI is supporting within the Ministry of Agriculture in Bangladesh).  We understand that policy decisions are complex, just as markets have long been recognised as being complex (the outputs from value chain analysis, when done well, never look like actual chains, just as a theory of change never fits into log frame boxes). 

Obviously, there are differences between research and oranges.  The shelf-life of research is clearly longer than the shelf-life of oranges, and research can be dusted off time and time again and used in a variety of ways, many of which we’re unable to anticipate.  But much of the impact of our research does rest on the timely communication of our findings.  While Andy Sumner’s research on the bottom billion will certainly facilitate a better historical understanding of poverty, I will venture to guess that he also hopes that this information will shape development policy so as to better tackle this issue. 

We do face many similar issues as our business-minded colleagues.  When is audience research necessary, and when does the ‘if we build it, they will come’ assumption apply?  Where is the line between research communication and advocacy?   How can we create demand and to what extent should we do so?  Do our ‘consumers’ have balanced information about the products available or did they only have access to the one that we produced (Catherine Fisher wrote an excellent blog about policy influence vs evidence informed policy)?  How much do we let the market dictate what we produce and how we produce it?   

Are there opportunities to apply lessons from our colleagues working in markets and value chains to our work on ‘evidence informed decision making’?  Should we be comparing research and oranges?

Elise Wach is a Consultant Evaluation & Learning Advisor with the Impact and Learning Team, at the Institute of Development Studies