Agribusiness: inclusive intentions, not yet core business
Over the past five years the term “inclusive business” has shifted from being an uncomfortable phrase for many to being commonly used in the world of food and agriculture. Companies that struggled with what was considered wishy-washiness of the phrase now have CEO’s who refer to the inclusiveness of their business. Even that slightly awkward phrase ‘inclusive agribusiness’ is regularly used.
Just a few examples that this language is becoming mainstream:
- Five of the 17 SDGs use the term ‘inclusive’ in their top-line goals, notably 8 (economic growth) and 9 (industrialisation) and the UN Resolution adopting the SDGs uses the word 40 times.
- The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has ‘Inclusive Business’ as the first of nine dimensions to its approach to Food and land-use.
- The FAO promotes inclusive business models, and has just launched a set of training modules on IB (models).
- J. Woodhill’s 2016 overview “Inclusive Agribusiness: The State of Play” mapped dozens of examples of inclusive agribusiness initiatives lead by every actor group working with such initiatives.
What this tells me is that there is widespread acknowledgement of the need to make agribusiness more deliberately inclusive. This means simply being much more deliberate about how the risks, resources and rewards of a business model and relationship are shared. Why is it needed? Because while growing agribusiness has many benefits, at best it simply does not trickle down to those who struggle most to life off agriculture. And at worst it can make those who struggle most worse off, by focusing limited resources on the more asset rich.
That’s a major step forward. Increasing reference to "inclusive (agri)business" seems to be an abstract recognition by many businesses that they are co-dependent for success on others in their value chain. What’s still missing for me is the many examples of core business models being built around the intention of inclusiveness. There are always great examples led by inspiring people, who play a critical role of demonstrating that yes, it can be done. But they tend to be exceptions, rather than the rule.
What’s also missing is structural evidence and effective sharing on what inclusive agribusiness models and investment strategies do and don’t work. Work in terms of structurally improving farming community income, reducing everyone’s business risk, stimulating productivity leaps, ensuring the right products are available and affordable for those who can least afford poor quality. Without clear evidence, it is perfectly understandable that companies will not gamble on structural shifts in business models and investment strategies.
A third piece of the puzzle I’m increasingly missing is a linked discussion with transitions out of primary production. Many producers need to move out of primary production, to make it viable and attractive for those who do stay there. But of course they can only do that if they have opportunities to move to. Anywhere: in processing, logistics, retail, supporting services. And also outside agriculture, yet ideally also in rural areas to maintain necessary flexible labour pools. Of course this Stepping Out happens all the time, see massive rural-urban, often male migration. I just wonder whether it can be tackled more deliberately and as a whole.
So I’m hopeful for the future. Because changing intention reflects changing awareness, and is the foundation for changing practice. And there is a growing active demand for evidence, exchange and investment opportunities, all wanting to do good business in a more inclusive manner. This demand will be met, and standard agribusiness practice will look quite different in 10 year’s time.