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Managing Stakeholder Expectations in Agriculture Technology Projects

By Guest Writer on December 30, 2021

digital innovation agriculture

Many ICT4Ag digital design processes involve diverse stakeholders, such as researchers, farmers, governmental organizations, or donor agencies. While each stakeholder may be motivated by different expectations to become part of the design process, these expectations often define how they perceive their own roles, interactions with other stakeholders, and the ultimate objective of the design process.

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Currently, many stakeholders have experiences with software and ready-made digital services as consumers only. These experiences can generate assumptions and expectations that mismatch a co-design process. We have encountered at least three sets of mismatching expectations that are common and that need to be managed.

3 Lessons Learned in AgriTech Projects

The experiences shared in Participatory Design of Digital Innovation in Agriculture are embedded in global research-for-development efforts within CGIAR, a global consortium of agricultural research organizations. Our experiences with digital design generally took place in a project context, funded by bilateral donor funds or CGIAR Research Programs. The insights shared in this article are colored by our experiences and limited to these projects.

1. Solution Delivery Expectations

Clients often expect that the researchers will devise a solution, and that the client will provide little input into the process.

In some cases, for example with the Food Security Decision Support Tool in Guatemala, this expectation of ‘solution delivery’ was held even though the problem was not well defined at the outset of the project. This has led to frustration with the level of commitment required from stakeholders, the perceived low quality of intermediate prototypes, and the time it takes to arrive at an eventual solution.

To avoid frustration and ensure productive collaboration by all stakeholders, researchers need to be frank, from the beginning, about the iterative and collaborative nature of the design process. Over the course of the project, it is important to repeat the message and regularly indicate the current stage of the process. It may help to have standard visual materials (e.g., posters, infographics, slideshows) to explain the process in a short time to different types of design stakeholders. But learning about design processes is also highly experiential.

Design participants may need time to become comfortable with their role: that their subjective feedback rather than mere approval is wanted, that the design process is a safe space to express opinions and formulate ideas, and that the design process is progressively closing in on a solution.

This experiential learning can be stimulated by quick development cycles. If the first design iterations are done quickly, stakeholders may gain more insight and confidence in the process and may contribute more actively in subsequent iterations.

2. Business as Usual Expectations

Many clients do not foresee that a design process may go beyond the digitalization of existing data and information processing.

Digital design is not restricted to ‘business as usual, but digital’ (although more centralized digital bookkeeping, for example, can be a reasonable solution in some cases). Rather, effectively introducing novel digital tools and services into sectors such as agricultural extension, input supply, or breeding may require organizational changes, such as business simplification.

Not all parts of the solution emerging during a digital design process must be tightly linked to the digital product itself. The need for organizational change as a condition for successful adoption of digital tools and services has been highlighted before.

In Ethiopia, for example, aggregating data on seed stocks from the lowest to the highest level required approval of each intermediate layer in the Ministry of Agriculture. The first prototypes of the Seed Information Exchange Platform deliberately did not challenge this existing rule and replicated the hierarchical system of approvals. This was then flagged as inefficient by design participants, starting a reflection that led to a simplification of the approval process.

In all stages of the digital design project, including the original proposal, researchers can highlight that digitalization is not a holy grail and technical innovations may need to be accompanied by social or organizational innovation.

3. Scalability & Replicability Expectations

The open-ended and iterative nature of digital design processes can contrast with the expectations of donor agencies.

Donors may seek disruptive, highly scalable and/or replicable solutions. Expectations around the possibility of scaling the user base of ICT4Ag innovations and the efficiency increases they will generate, however, have often turned out overly optimistic. A successful digital design process requires collective reasoning and ideating by the design team that is, as much as possible, unbiased by technology preferences or overall solution expectations expressed by the donor or client.

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In reality, however, donors and senior management at the design clients will often have concrete expectations, preferences, or commitments towards others, which set boundaries to the creative space and predetermine parts of the solution.

In the case of the Seasonal seed scenario planning tool, for example, the design assignment specified a decision-support tool that uses seasonal climate forecasts to improve planning of seed distribution. This tool was designed, but eventually, the design partners (public and private seed companies in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) saw limited applicability of the tool. The time range of seasonal forecasts (up to six months ahead of the season) was too short to influence the really big decisions, i.e., about seed production (one year ahead of the season).

With a more open-ended approach towards ‘improving seed distribution planning with digital media’, the eventual product might have had a stronger use case. Highlighting the importance of an open-ended, unprejudiced approach to designing a solution already in the project proposal is important.

This, however, may require raising awareness about digital design among donor agencies, as research-for-development donors prefer to fund proposals that are able to outline their expected outputs in advance. In design projects, however, even the understanding of the problem that motivated the whole exercise frequently evolves over time. Thus, describing expected, hypothesized solutions in the project proposal is not advisable.

A lightly edited excerpt from Participatory Design of Digital Innovation in Agriculture by Jonathan Steinke, Berta Ortiz-Crespo, Jacob van Etten, and Anna Müller of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, Digital Inclusion, Montpellier, France

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