Agri entrepreneurs as a new type of innovators

Interview with Andy Hall, Researcher in the area of Innovation Processes and agriculture. UNU-MERIT Maastricht
AISA workshop, Agricultural Innovation Systems in Africa, Nairobi, 29-31 May 2013.

Andy answers following questions:

  1. Are agri-entrepreneurs a new type of innovators? 
  2. What is an example of an agri-business service provider?
  3. Which role can entrepreneurs play to put research into use?
  4. Can entrepreneurs link the value chain to financial actors?
  5. Was Research into Use (RIU) over-designed?
  6. Why is engaging agricultural Small and Medium Enterprises (agri-SMEs) so challenging?
  7. Are equity funds an opportunity to engage them?

Transcript:

Are agri-entrepreneurs a new type of innovators?

Agri-entrepreneurs seem to be a new category of innovators which we start to see in the rural landscape in Sub Saharan Africa and in Asia. And what is interesting about them: they quite often are both interested in making money as entrepreneurs but they are also recognizing the market of poor people to which they sell products to or buy products from. One of the interesting things to me is that the entrepreneurs of this sort have started to martial a different sets of ideas to come up with innovations which seem to have this property to be relevant for development as well as for an entrepreneur to make money. Their resistance as a kind of pervasive force in the rural areas and the rural sector suggests that they may be a useful focus for capacity building into the future, looking at how research can be better linked to them, looking at how policy could better respond to their needs and how the institutional environment around markets could help the development of this sort of sector.

What is an example of an agri-business service provider?

Technoserve has a very long story in this in Africa but this bring us to the great question whether you are born an entrepreneur or can you train then? My sense is that they probably emerge automatically in a self organising way. Some of the agri-entrepreneurs that we have been seen are actually people who have taken a conventional career path. Maybe they have gone into IT and worked in the corporate sector and then come back and actually say “that’s not for me and I want a business which is both socially responsible but also makes me a living.

Which role can entrepreneurs play to put research into use?

I think the most important role they have in bringing research into use is: what are entrepreneurs good at? They are good at  identifying opportunities –  opportunities that are often driven by the market. But entrepreneurs are also good in marshaling ideas and people. So they are in a sense performing – what is now called – the brokering role: putting ideas, resources and people together: to make that innovation actually happen.

Can entrepreneurs link the value chain to financial actors?

I don’t know too much about that but I think that part of marshaling people and resources is there ability to tap into resources of financing to help them do the things they are doing . But as I said I don’t know many details about this.

Was Research into Use (RIU) over-designed?

RIU is of course a very long story. But a number of things come out of that. One is that the distinction between research and into use – what we call innovation – is a false distinction. What is actually required is research funds being made available to development initiatives so they can trouble shoot and support the innovation process. the other thing that also came out – what kind of relate to the agri-enterprise issues we just talked about – is an increasing blur between development and an enterprise. Historically this has been seen as contradictory. But there is clearly a generation of entrepreneurs emerging which  who have developmental interest. And that’s an opportunity for making a better use of agricultural research in development.

Why is engaging agricultural Small and Medium Enterprises (agri-SMEs) so challenging?

I think it continues to be a challenge often quite difficult to identify them. The usual channel to support them through funding mechanisms: they are not familiar with that sort of approach. those funds are often hogged by the usual suspects. Much more effort is needed to understand where they sit in the landscape, what sort of capacity support can be brought to bare to help them access funds, make partnership and this sort of connectivity work that is required around innovation.

Are equity funds an opportunity to engage them?

Equity funds may well be an opportunity to engage them but there is possibly further work required to understand what the investment opportunities are in the rural sector and investment opportunities associated with these sorts of entrepreneurs. But I don’t see any reason why there should not be opportunities for equity funds.

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