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Monday, May 16, 2011

Tools of the Trade

I'm spurred to write this post by a recent chat I had about value chain analysis. The folk I spoke with seemed to think that a deep, formal knowledge of the subject was a prerequisite for successfully developing agriculture.

I disagreed.

Look: as a trained economist (Oxford University, Institute of Agricultural Economics which became the Oxford Department of International Development) I understand and apply ALL the formal tools from time to time during my work. These include cost-benefit analysis, financial and statistical analysis (internal rates of return,net present values, bell curves), terms of trade analysis, DRC analysis, welfare analysis etc. and so on. If you qualify as an economist you usually end up with a box of tools.

So why do people want to know which specific tools you have in your box? It's like asking your car mechanic if he understands how to use a torque wrench, or a doctor if he's familiar with a CAT scan.

There may be two answers: one is that there are so many charlatans out there, so now people worry that they'll find they've paid money and don't get results. That's fair enough. One thing you can do with FoodWorks is ask for references and you'll get them from the top people in this industry.

The other thing is that non-specialists (usually the folk that have the money - the donors and the like, the desk officers) don't understand their business. After all, they are often bureaucrats or investors. So they fall for the jargon.

"Integrated value chain analysis" (IVCA) is a real case in point. Years and years ago we used to measure marketing costs and margins. Absolutely standard, no one thought it was anything special. You just did the measurements as part of your effort to understand the market supply chain. Then IVCA came along and lo and behold, one could sell a service as a Value Chain Analyst.

What's the difference? The first kind of analysis really only captured the "horizontal" movement along the chain whereas VCA looks at the entire business system (horizontal and vertical) and tries to capture its entire value with a view to looking at its competitiveness. The "integrated" bit just makes it sound a bit more complicated in order to raise the consulting dollars.

Here's a formal definition: "The value chain is a model that describes a series of value-adding activities connecting a company’s supply side (raw materials, inbound logistics, and production processes) with its demand side (outbound logistics, marketing, and sales). By analyzing the stages of a value chain, organization’s are able to redesign their internal and external processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness." (Rayport and Sviokla 1996 - see below).

Like so many of the ideas in this area it derives from Michael Porter's work. But economists remember that Porter pretty much took the old ideas of comparative advantage in trade - basic undergraduate economics - and added a sexy overlay. The entire area of competitiveness theory opened up a whole new area of strategic planning and even more of the necessary bucks.

Now here's the thing: IVCA is indeed useful. But it's NOT magic; yes, it does require careful and systematic quantitative measurement, but that's what economist do every day of the week. And IVCA is NOT going to answer the real questions of agricultural development all on its own.

That requires EXPERIENCE and it's experience combined with knowing how to use all the formal tools in the toolbox that we at FoodWorks bring to the table. The experience to know that when all the quantitative modelling in the world tells you to make that investment, somewhere there's just that one little thing that will screw the deal, whether it's for the smallholder being stiffed by the middle-man (by the way another shibboleth of the academic world) or whether your $100 million feed mill is actually going to find the raw material at the right price. It takes "nous" as well as those tools.... just like it takes a real mechanic to fix your car.

Photo: GQB checking out a real world value chain at Karachi Fish Harbour, Pakistan.

PS. If you want to follow the literature on IVCA, here are some references (so you know we have them in our tool box):

'The Virtual Value Chain', John Sviolka and Jeremy Rayport
'A Handbook for Value Chain Research', Raphael Kaplinsky and Mike Morris, IDRC