Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Trends in inclusive agribusiness: nitty gritty detail and changing mindsets

10. Apr 2017

If there is one clear consensus from our blog contributors this month, it's that standardised blueprints and single-instrument approaches do not work in inclusive agribusiness.    Our contributors are hugely diverse.  But two overarching trends emerge:

  • Digging into the detail: practitioners are focusing on the nitty gritty of farmers' incentives, drivers of adoption, success factors for corporate initiatives, and degrees of gender engagement are essential for shifting from a good idea to something that truly works, has commercial and social return, and can scale.
  • Shifting perspectives and blending approaches. Once upon a time there was commercial agriculture for business people and rural development for the public and philanthropic sector.   No longer.  A host of blog contributors share how long-standing perspectives are shifting and barriers breaking down.

Digging into detail

Success rests on assessing reality not making assumptions, as Robin Bonsey from Hystra makes clear.  If you assume that smallholder adoption of a farming innovation depends on the increase in farmer income it drives, or the price farmers face, or whether the innovation comes with insurance, think again.  He explains the key factor is reversibility of their decision, and the implications of this.

One early but thriving example of innovation comes from Vietnam, where Mimosa TEK is using the 'Internet of things' for precision irrigation.  Yields are up by 25% and costs down by 30% but it's not plain sailing.  Financing models and training matter too.

Zenzo Sibanda from Palladium shares some apparent 'good news stories' about women smallholders 'stepping out' from their subsistence agriculture, thanks to their new contracts for maize.  But close attention to the risk taken and capital foregone shows we - and indeed the farmers - need to think carefully before celebrating.  Examples of companies show how some are pushing new boundaries with more crops and more cross-sector partnerships, but one company facing huge potential for goat sales is holding back. Why?

Reaching farmers that are women is not the beginning and end of gender inclusiveness. But it can be hard to know just how gender responsive inclusive business initiatives are, and what to do better.  Clare Bishop introduces a clear analytical tool with simple scores, spider diagrams, and comparisons, to help think through the spectrum from gender blindness to gender transformation when designing or assessing an intervention.  It will get you thinking about why one initiative is better than another for empowering women.

A raft of agribusiness corporates has announced supply chain sustainability initiatives since the 2008 food crisis, realising that this is not just about reputation by security of supply.  But not all have been delivered.  Anna Swaithes draws on years of senior corporate experience in cocoa and beer, to trace the rise and wobble of such initiatives.  Two constraints stand out.  Standardised codes to check supply chain standards fit well with approaches of conventional procurement departments operating at scale, but they don't always handle the local complexity needed. Sometimes the risks and challenges are too great, relative to the business opportunity.  Anna's lessons are invaluable for corporates and partners alike.

'Loyalty,' the flip-side of side-selling, is so often discussed, but not so often understood.  In Indonesia, VECO works with smallholders and Mars on a FarmScan tool that converts personal farmer stories into a map of attitudes and problems in the farmer relationship to the buyer.  Chris Claes reports that the real-time feedback that Mars received has been hailed as invaluable. 

In Mali, 1279 farmers took input credit, promising bags of maize in return.  Repayment rates stand at less than 60% as farmers found better markets elsewhere.   Baba Togola from 2SCALE looks at lessons for how to build loyalty, challenging some assumptions that a 'single fix' can work, or even that collective arrangements are needed. It's a candid look at an arrangement that didn't achieve its repayment target, and a reminder that 'loyalty' means different things to different players.

What do farmers aspire to and how much difference does any enterprise or intervention have?   Again, the answer lies in the detail. Ileana Resendez explains how the 'living income benchmark' differs from a standard (World Bank or national) poverty line, assessing what would enable a family to meet its needs in a given context. It can be used to assess the 'gap' in current living standards or progress made.   Ian Randall shares other approaches to assessing impact on inclusive business initiatives, including detailed data gathering by SAB Miller, and an excellent new working paper digging deeper into a variety of impact assessment methods used in company supply chains.

Shifting perspectives to support inclusive agribusiness

A host of blog contributors this month share how long-standing perspectives on cooperatives, corporate strategies, value chain partnerships, market system change, rural livelihoods support, finance and innovation are beginning to shift. And why success often lies in an atypical blend of approaches.

In the Niger Delta, fisher family income rose by 65% thanks to introduction of improved fish feed - with farmer training. It started as a win-win for farmers and the company, facilitated by 'market system' actors.  Now competition drives expansion, with several companies stepping in. The same model was applied to improved seed in Mozambique.  William Grant looks at this market system approach helps specific companies to take a risk.  Then combining collaboration and competition is the key to getting markets to work better for the farmer on a commercially viable basis.

From FAO, David Neven poses the conventional juxtaposition:  economic development for the rich vs social support for the worst off.  He argues we need the best of both to be integrated for inclusive agribusiness, as nothing else will address all the binding constraints at the same time, meeting the so-called Anna Karenina principles.  Interesting examples show how FAO does this, integrating approaches and work across Ministries, in Kenya, India and Senegal.

Partnerships have been a core building block of African agriculture for some years, but have not yet delivered strong food systems at scale. Ian Randall argues that a new generation of cross-sector partnerships is emerging, focussed on action and investment, rather than talking and connecting. He explains why they are key to strengthen African food systems for farmers and companies alike.

There is no single type of programme to address barriers to women's economic empowerment. Vincent Trousseau explains the range of Oxfam approaches, from enterprise support to market system interventions to challenging norms around women's roles.   Another NGO, Siyavuna, focuses on organic production to boost farmer income. They combine a conventional strategy - training for cooperative members - with support for branding of organic products.

What all these approaches have in common is the ability to leave conventional silos behind.  It is clear that a thriving inclusive agribusiness sector depends on drawing out the best from many different approaches from business, market systems, social development, and change management.   Combining a willingness to meld mind-sets with an ability to dig deep into detail, seem to be the current way to go.


  • This blog is part of a series on what’s new in inclusive agribusiness from April 2017. Hear from more contributors in part one of the series- digging into the details of inclusive business programmes around the world.  In part two contributors share how long-standing perspectives on cooperative, corporate strategies, value chain partnerships, market system change, rural livelihoods support, financing, and innovation adoption are beginning to blend, and why. 
  • Read more on key topics in inclusive agribusiness in the series of six theme papers.
  • Access over 450 resources on inclusive agribusiness on