Between a rock and a hard place. Sectoral vs. local approaches to private sector development

I am preparing for a presentation at a conference in May about development programmes shifting from a sectoral to a regional or local perspective. This got me thinking about these shifts in focus and why they appear.

In economic development, it is often necessary to choose whether to intervene at a sectoral level, or whether it would be better to take a locational or geographic approach. In my experience I have learned that when you start with the one, i.e. with a specific sector or value chain, you often end up with the other, i.e. supporting specialization or addressing specific issues in a certain location. But this is of little consolation to managers of development programmes and Local Economic Development units who are then typically measured by the wrong indicators or that have different incentives due to the design of their programme or institutional mandate.

During my MBA, the Professor in Organisational Development introduced us to a really elegant tool to assess whether a tension or conflict between different approaches could really be addressed. He introduced us to Polarity Management, a simple instrument developed by Johnson (1992). According to Johnson, many problems that we face today are not really problems to be solved, but polarities to be managed. Johnson argues that we can continually try to solve these problems by shifting our strategies to another mode where we perceive lots of benefits. The trouble is that after a while of some negative aspects emerge, and suddenly the benefits of the other strategy seems to be more attractive.

Polarity management is an instrument that can be used by change management practitioners to understand these polarities and to manage them. It implies that perhaps these different strategies even depend on each other, like breathing in versus breathing out. We need both, even if they have very different objectives, benefits and downsides. This means that the strengths and the weaknesses of alternatives must be understood, and then managed.

In development we have many polarities, for example wealth creation versus poverty reduction, or designed interventions versus enabling evolution, project versus process, top down versus bottom up, and many others. It is very expensive and even risky to shift between these, and an organisations current expertise, instruments and orientation may find it very hard to make these shifts effectively. But some try and some even manage to do this.

This post is for those organisations that are undecided about their strategy and their focus.. A key question then is how do we manage these alternatives, especially if we want the best of both worlds?

There are 3 steps to better understand a polarity:

  1. Fill in the headings of the two polarities in the matrix
  2. Capture the strengths and the weaknesses of both in the columns
  3. Determine if there is a movement of preference between the polaries, meaning that when the negative consequences of a particular strategy becomes too much, strategy is shifted to the other approach for its apparent strengths. Then over time, the negatives start to weight in on the positives, resulting in a shift to the other approach.

Below I have quickly written down some of the positives and negatives of both approaches. This is an incomplete list but I think it is sufficient to illustrate the point. The PDF of the graphic below can be found here. For those that cannot read so small, the bottom line is this: there are pluses and minuses to both paradigms. Under each strategy, the benefits of the one approach may outweigh the negatives of that approach, but be aware, these weights are changing and after a while the other strategy may become more desirable!

Polary table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The third step in understanding the polarity is to look at whether there is a shift between these polarities. From my experience working in a dozen or so developing countries, development programmes are either designed to be sectoral or geographic, with very few programmes designed to do both. From a local perspective, institutions and programmes are designed and resourced to either be targeted at specific industries and sectors, or they have a locational focus. It is very hard for programmes and institutions to build a case that a strategic shift to the other paradigm may be needed, even if for only a part of the resources to be dedicated to the other approach. This typically happens when the negatives of a current path starts to outweigh the positives, and the benefits of the other approach increasingly looks appealing. The danger is that a compromise is reached, instead of a synergy being developed.

From a Local Economic Development perspective, growing the technical capability to pursue both strategies simultaneously is important. This does not imply that both are equally important at any given time, as both these approaches have different timescales, resource requirements, and objectives. For example, it would be unwise to leave a dominant sector to its own devices in order to focus on emerging enterprises. At the same time, focusing on the issues of a dominant sector might distract attention from purposefully promoting emergence, diversification and economic resilience. Yet, many programmes and organisations are forced to choose, often too early when not enough is understood about the dynamics of the place or the industries. For me the worst reason to choose an particular approach is because some or other decision maker has attended a training course or conference, or because a particular approach is deemed “best practice”. In fact, most of my time is spent trying to help leaders and decision makers get out of a mess because their programme or institutions was designed based on some ideology or “solution” without enough attention being given to the requirements, trajectories and complexity of the specific context.

For national governments and international development programmes there seems to be a continuous shift between these two. Almost like a flip-flopping from one to the other. I think that the shifts are counter productive, as the learning from the previous shifts are often lost. If I just think back over my 16 year career how often the value chain or sub sector approaches or alternatively cluster and Local Economic Development have become fashionable again and then losing its appeal after a short time.

My conclusion is that while there is a tension between these approaches, the shifting between the strategies are not taking place at an institutional or programmatic level. Decisions about these strategies are made at higher levels of government and development cooperation with little regard for the challenges faced at sub national level in developing countries to build and grow “the right” institutions that can ensure long term economic evolution and development.

At the implementation level, regional development programmes should do both:

  • Sectoral programmes that ignores the impact of their sector on the geographic areas they are working in are most likely creating negative externalities, even with the best intentions in mind and even when they achieve their objectives of inclusiveness, job creation or export promotion. The negative externalities could be about the environment (mono economy, mono culture), or about increasing the coordination cost of every economic activity not related to the priority sectors (institutional or locational lock-in to particular paths and trajectories). Sectoral programmes that ignore opportunities for regional nuances to develop in their targeted sectors miss important opportunities to enable diversification and emergence of unique regional capabilities.
  • Location development programmes that do not collaborate with other locations to build sufficient scale in particular sectors to justify investing in particular regionally significant institutions will forever remain trapped in low value add, or perpetual dependence on the priorities and mood shifts of national governments. While trying to help every kind of economic activity in a region, you have to at some point also start promoting specific industries and sectors in order to try and reach some leverage or scale.

But most importantly, the economic activity, available institutional capabilities and the regional context prescribes where to start. And when you have started down a chosen path, be sensitive to when it may be necessary to foster additional organisational or collaborate with other institutions with different more adequate capabilities to enable the benefits of the other strategy to be leveraged. A key challenge in developing countries is that we do not have a rich layer of supporting institutions pursuing different strategies. Everyone seem to be trying more or less the same approaches, or chasing the same politically set targets.

In our capacity building sessions in Mesopartner we always elaborate on the importance of value chains and sectors to Local Economic Development practitioners, and the importance of regional competence development for value chain and sector development specialists. Actually, the process of diagnosing industries and regions are very similiar, even if you would give slightly more attention to different issues and perspectives.

In the end, from a bottom up perspective, supporting specific industries allows for scale and focused public investment, but caution must be taken to not create path dependence or institutional lock in. At the same time, a regional approach is critical as it allows for emergence of new kinds of economic activity and for diversity to emerge. I think we need to development of synergies for both, but it depends on the context what your priority should be. Simply being aware that there are pluses and negatives to either strategy is already a good start! This makes it much easier to collaborate with other organisations and programmes that have different objectives and priorities.

Now I have some questions to my readers:

  1. What is your current approach in your programme or organisation? Sectoral or locational?
  2. Have you even been through a shift from the one to the other in your programme, or do you cater for both?
  3. How did making the shift work out? Did you have the networks, resources and expertise to make this shift?
  4. What would you do differently next time?
  5. Please share your thoughts by commenting below, or send me an email if I can paste your comments unanimously if you are afraid to upset somebody higher up the chain.

References:

JOHNSON, B. 1992.  Polarity management : identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

 

User-led innovation

Here is another short article that I wrote on the topic of user-led innovation. Many of my clients are asking about this topic. Because we are so far away from the industrialised countries, and because we have such huge geographical spaces to cover, we are faced by sophisticated and sometimes unreasonable demands. Therefore lead firms, lead customers, government and problems solvers are all asking for some very demanding solutions. Many of them are not waiting for new innovations to come from the markets, they are simply innovating to solve their own problems.

In recent years the focus in value chain promotion has increasingly emphasised the importance of systematic and market-based interventions. Within innovation system promotion, markets are important not only as selectors or buyers of successful innovations. Specialised users or unmet local needs could also be used as an impulse to stimulate innovation in a specific part of a value chain. The challenge here is not to ‘import’ technology or ‘solve’ a problem, but to get industry and its supporting structures to respond to this opportunity. This can often be achieved by better articulating unmet needs, or facilitating interaction between innovative producers and user groups.

Authors such as Von Hippel (2005, 1988) have over the years made a strong case for recognition of the innovations introduced by users, especially lead users. For instance, Von Hippel argues that customers (markets) often know what design criteria they have, and if a producer can capture this knowledge then new products could be created. Other authors, most notably Michael Porter, has in several publications indicated that the force of market demand not only shapes the design of products and technologies or strategies of firms (i.e. 5 Forces analysis), but that it could affect industry structure (i.e. the Diamond of Competitiveness). In his work Porter also emphasises the role of sophisticated or demanding customers in the innovativeness of firms.

Lead users may also provide unique opportunities for firms to innovate by customising or combining existing elements of technologies to respond to the needs of a potential customer group. For instance, many medical devices originate from the US or Europe. But surgeons and operating theatre staff working in distant locations may have unique functional requirements for these instruments, and if approached or observed in their working environments may provide important clues or insights on how instruments can be customised to improve their functionality. While firms in developing countries may be far from large markets, they are often close to specialised or niche users that may then create opportunities for innovators.

The risk of an emphasis on user-led innovation is that path dependence may occur and that blindness to rival technologies may result in a marketplace being disrupted by a rival technology. Path dependence occurs when producers respond to the demands of a certain kind of customer through investment choices that do not allow the producer to switch to a different technology or market. These customers may in turn be exposed to other market forces or technological change processes that may affect their continued demand for a given technology. The risk of the strong governance of strong buyers in the chain may then lead to a tunnel view that does not consider the upgrading potentials and requirements of the whole innovation system in the sector or region, but a too-narrow perspective on companies and their need to upgrade according to the demands of the main buyers and final customers[1]. The insights as well as interventions may be too narrow and may not lead to more proactive knowledge loops but to a reactive orientation that does not encourage new ways of doing things in the system.

Experienced value chain practitioners will be able to identify the opportunities and the risks of working with lead users as sources of innovation, as in value chains lead customers often emerge who can be used to better position certain actors in a chain. Although this usually works to the benefit of certain kinds of chain actors, it could also be argued that it deepens the dependence on specific kinds of customers (resulting in path dependence).

Sources:

VON HIPPEL, E. (1988) The sources of innovation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

VON HIPPEL, E. (2005) Democratizing innovation, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.


[1] For instance, the IDS has published several papers on this and related topics which can be found at http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/idsproject/clusters-in-the-global-economy

Climate technology for competitiveness

Following the calls and e-mails I received based on the previous post, I thought it might be a good idea to expand on the idea of how climate technology could be used to increase the competitiveness of industry and of certain locales. By the way, you are welcome to share your ideas by commenting and uploading pictures on the blog directly!

What do I mean with “climate technology”? Climate technology refer to the many technologies that are now being developed out there, with well-known examples of solar geysers, solar panels and windfarms. But there are many other technologies that are being developed that range from insulations for homes and offices, to home electricity and heat generation. If you dig deeper, then you find that many industries are now becoming aware that they are using electricity to generate heat, and then using electricity to cool things down again (Have they never heard of heat conversion?). So people are generally becoming aware that if they can use less energy to produce a product, that they will ultimately be saving costs and saving the planet.

There are many forces for change other than the riots, protests and bickering at international conferences about the climate. Last week the first supermarket chain in South Africa was certified as emission free, with several large retailers like  Massmart, Woolworths and Marks and Spencer in the process of assessing their emission footprint. These retail chains are now starting to assess how their COMPLETE supply chains are dealing with the environment.They are not only looking at their consumer goods, but also at their total operation. This is just one way that value chain promotion and climate technology is related.

What do I mean with climate technology as a means to increase the competitiveness of industries? Let me first create a picture of the South African manufacturing environment. In general, our manufacturers are losing out to more productive and lower cost Asian producers. But the South African manufacturing industry is still world class in many fields and in many advanced production methods, especially in shorter niche production runs. Furthermore, despite the brain drain that has affected the economy, South Africa still has a rich expert base in diverse technological fields ranging from electronics, metals, to chemicals and all the way to nuclear research. Compared to many other developing countries there is a rich institutional layer (ranging from research institutes to specialised tertiary institutions) that is supporting the private sector.

I believe that we should be actively mobilising the South African manufacturing sector into climate technology, as the international pressure on industries, government and consumers will only increase in the future. Many of these different users of technology are going to start making decisions not only the utility of the product that they are purchasing, but they will increasingly assess the environmental footprint of the product. Furthermore, industries that adopt climate friendly technology are reducing costs in new ways, increasing their cost and brand competitiveness.

Locales or places that start to promote climate technology might be able to get a headstart on other regions, and there are many places where the scale of environmental or climate pollution could actually be used to start completely new climate technology research and development capacity. I can think of the very sensitive waterlands in the Chrissiesmeer region in Mpumalanga province in South Africa that is under threat from coal mining as an example of an area that could provide a critical incentive for the development of a new industry of climate technology producers and service providers (see feature on the Carte Blanche investigative journalism programme).  The demand for this kind of technology is there, yet the environmental lobby is still trying in vain to fight industry.

But there are several obstacles, and the first is the limited economies of scale. If the cost of researching and developing new technology is set aside, then costs of finding potential customers (search costs)  or applications for new technology is high, and the scale of return is uncertain. Therefore investors are hesitant to enter many market segments. With Southern Africa’s tendency to perform well in small scale and specialised production the risk is lower, if only the producers could identify the right market opportunities. But government and development practitioners would have to play a critical role in supporting this new marketplace, and often public funds is needed to get this kind of initiative off the ground. The current policy obsession with benificiation and final product manufacturing is in my view misguided, and should focus on the strength of the South African industry to develop advanced niche technologies.

Secondly, I get the feeling that many people think that this interest in climate technology and the environment is a fad that will go away. Help, any ideas out there?

Lastly, as development practitioners we must get business, governments and households to understand that using new climate friendly technology save costs for the society on some new fronts. There is more to it than just saving the planet (although that is a good enough reason), it could also mean increasing the cost competitiveness of a company. It could mean smarter ways of doing thing, like finding ways to generate electricity and heat at a home or a business, instead of digging up roads and building coal fired power stations.

So when you conduct your next value chain assessment, ask yourself how the different links in the chain could benefit from technology that is climate friendly. Look at places where heat, steam, chemicals or other byprodycts are generated that may be of value to somebody else.

In the shadow of value chains

Over the last few years value chains have become an important topic for donors and development practitioners. I say “again” because as with many other topics there is a tendency for these topics to be seasonal (read fashionable). This is great because every time it becomes fashionable new ideas are brought in, while old experiments provide valuable lessons and knowledge.

The purpose of this post is not to discuss value chain promotion. Just to make sure you understand what I am going on about, I will briefly define a value chain as the path of a product through a conversion process that starts with design (or raw materials), production, distribution and in some cases even consumption. An agricultural value chain will often start with seed, and will end up as a processed food product. On the mesopartner.com website there are several great publications and a LEDCast episodes on the topic of value chains.

In many of the areas where I am working there is a tendency by officials and development practitioners to take on the very tough commodity value chains. These value chains are typically in the traditional sectors and include end products like sugar, wood, furniture, fish, and many other agricultural products. These value chains are very

A huge pile of yellow wood and meranti, waiting to be burnt

A huge pile of yellow wood and meranti, waiting to be burnt

attractive, as they typically reach into rural areas, involve a large number of people, create many jobs, and often involve small farmers and less educated workers. But these value chains are also the oldest, which means that the actors have had a lot of time to mobilise strong interest groups, entrenched positions, and comfortable way of doing things.

When you look around these traditional value chains, you often find dozens of smaller value chains that are overlooked. Hence the title, “in the shadow of value chains”. These chains include biomass (leaves, sawdust, feathers, etc), traditional medicine and exotic plants (in the case of forestry), wood offcuts (in the case of furniture).

A mountain of sawdust

A mountain of sawdust waiting to be blown away by the wind

In these secondary value chains are typically very small, and may appear insignificant at first glance. But closer scrutiny may reveal some interesting opportunities to start new firms, or to create skills upgrading opportunities for unemployed or unskilled workers. Extreme care must be taken to not raise false hope, or to push the vulnerable into businesses that they are not able to run competitively. It does not matter whether a trust, cooperative, project or society is used, as these are simply means to an end.

During the analysis these secondary value chains make an extra effort to see why entrepreneurs have not already pursued this idea or opportunity. Also try to determine what the minimum scale is that is required to pursue the opportunity commercially. The economies of scale typically pose a huge barrier to entry in rural or marginalised areas.

I believe that there are huge opportunities in the emerging sector of climate technology and environmental management. I recently saw a biomass to gas converter that can be installed in a community for only a few thousand US dollars. The converter is fed with biodegradable mass and then provides the community with gas for heating, lighting and cooking (another example here). There are many new technologies now entering the marketplace that can give rural areas a complete head start, with biodiesel being a obvious example. It would be great if we can find ways to link cleaner technology and climate technology with new innovative and competitive business processes within the context of value chain promotion!

Firstly, do you have any experience in working with these secondary value chains? Which products, technologies or end markets have you worked with?

Secondly, do you have pictures of obvious resources or business opportunities that are not exploited? I would like to build up a library of pictures of these products, so please post them to this blog so that we can get a movement going on these value chains.

Thirdly, have you investigated CDM and other climate technologies that have the potential to not only save the environment, but to improve the competitiveness of sectors and value chains?

If you are interested to read up a bit more on the green news in South Africa, then head over to Urban Sprout. They have a great website and lots of resources and links to keep you busy. If you are keen to get involved in investigating some of the value chains that are often overlooked, and that may offer interesting opportunities for exploiting by-products chains then share your ideas here!

%d bloggers like this: