Monthly Archives: January 2021

How Theory of Change can be a pathway to impact: three takeaways

This blog post is written by Anneli Sundin, Communications Lead in the AgriFoSe2030 programme. This post was first published by SEI.

ToC workshop group photo with project teams back in October 2019 at SLU Uppsala, Sweden. Credit: AgriFoSe2030

Theory of Change (ToC) is a systematic approach focusing on pathways to change. This approach can be a key ingredient for a well-functioning project design, blended with stakeholder participation and strategies for communication. Here, three takeaways from a recent paper exploring the use of ToC are outlined.

We still see food and nutrition insecurity in many parts of the world and, in recent years, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of Zero Hunger (SDG2) seems to have become more difficult to reach. To combat this challenge, smallholder farms need to further increase their productivity.

We in the Agriculture for Food Security (AgriFoSe2030) programme believe that we need to connect and synthesise best available scientific research with policymaking processes, as well as with practices on the ground. We focus on sustainable intensification of smallholder farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South and Southeast Asia for improved food and nutrition security and are interested in bringing change that directly benefits smallholder farmers. But we need tools that can guide us. As such, we turned to Theory of Change.

In the recently published paper in the journal Global Food Security, we showcase how we applied Theory of Change in three projects. It is an approach for evaluation, widely used today within development practice, and, stated in the paper as “a systematic way of clarifying the underlying theories and cause-effect pathways that underpin initiatives working to promote social and economic change, particularly in complex interventions”, such as those interventions that take place in agricultural research for development.

All of the three projects were part of the wider AgriFoSe2030 programme, and aimed to translate research into policy and practice. The paper explores the benefits of having used ToC in the projects, as well as some of the challenges it involved.

The projects

All three projects are related to different types of livestock production in low-income countries. One of them looked at how to develop the sector for edible insects as a way to combat food insecurity in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another one, based in Uganda, further north in SSA, focused on sustainable dairy production and artificial insemination. The third project was about improved goat keeping for smallholder farmers in a number of different regions in Laos, Southeast Asia.

Field visit to small commercial dairy farm, Uganda. Credit: Anneli Sundin
Goats in their pen, Laos. Credit: Anneli Sundin
Newly built market structure for selling of edible insects. Credit: Robert Musundire

Here, three takeaways from our paper are outlined, exploring how to enable a successful ToC process. At the bottom of this page, you can read more about the ToC stepwise method.

Takeaway 1: Stakeholder engagement as you begin your ToC

Many research studies have shown the importance of stakeholder engagement for a successful research or development project. Throughout each project period, the teams focused on activities that involved reaching out to stakeholders and finding inventive ways to engage with people. For instance, the groups involved stakeholders outside academia from the onset of the projects. The paper states that “drawing on all stakeholders’ perspectives, experience and skills to construct the ToC map strengthened the shared vision, identified the key target groups and developed a realistic ‘pathway’ to guide planning and implementation”.

Through this genuine and early stakeholder engagement, the projects gained wide support early on, which manifested in tangible outcomes in the longer term. For example, in the edible insect project, representatives from the municipality of Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe were part of the project team, and understood through their participation the value and importance of boosting the edible insect sector. As a result, they decided to devote a piece of land to the construction of an insect market facility.

In the example of Laos and goat management, a strong feeling of ownership of the project and its goals was created among the agricultural extension officers (the intermediaries between farmers and researchers), thanks to robust collaboration between the researchers and extension agencies. This also resulted in the project reaching farmers more easily.

Takeaway 2: Allow for flexibility

When we made sure that there was good internal communication within projects, and also between projects and both the AgriFoSe2030 management and the communication and engagement team, everyone had a better understanding of the contexts in which the projects were operating. Hence, it was easier to redirect funding and resources in ways that helped achieve the projects’ desired outcomes. This allowed the project teams to adjust their ToC plans. Previous research points to this as very important for success; in order for them to succeed, projects need to have some degree of flexibility in budgeting and resources, and there is a need for “complexity-aware” approaches.

Takeaway 3: Combine your ToC with communication strategies

In each case, we gave the project teams training and guidance in how to communicate with relevant stakeholders. This covered, for example, how to explore windows of opportunity, and how to tailor speeches, presentations and written texts so that audiences would not just understand, but also listen to them and become interested and involved. The projects used planning matrixes for their communications, in which they mapped specific stakeholder groups, the change they were targeting for that particular group, what messages would work well and through which channels they could communicate them. The projects also made sure these matrixes were aligning well with their ToC plans.

It’s not all rosy – but the benefits outweigh the challenges

The projects did also experience some challenges. It can be difficult to learn the ToC approach if you’re completely new to the concept. It was important to de-mystify it and have a facilitated process with a ToC expert, from start until the end.

The two projects on the African continent aimed at going beyond improving practices to also influence policy. They realised that policy development on governmental level is often a slow and fluid process. Sometimes you rather need bottom-up approaches that can demonstrate clear results. They decided, therefore, to get closer to local policy processes. When a policymaker can clearly see that an activity or initiative is successful on local level, it can open up opportunities for policy changes on regional or national levels.

Early in the process of developing their respective ToCs, the project teams understood that creating associations with their target groups (e.g. the farmers, traders or extension services) would help in consolidating the projects, as well as spreading knowledge and experience to a wider group. However, all three projects struggled with launching these farmers’ or traders’ associations due to the short project periods and contextual challenges linked to “e.g. demographics, the institutional landscape in which the associations operate, the environmental context, as well as underlying economic structure or local economic base”.

However, thanks to the early involvement of stakeholders and the fact that some of these associations could create demonstration farms, spin-off effects could be seen. In the case of dairy farming in Uganda, both an association of AI technicians was formed, as well as a number of farmers’ associations. These activities led to the renewal of the animal fertility and breeding centre at the Makerere University, and AI skills training is now included in the university’s educational programs.

We are yet to see the long-term impact of these AgriFoSe2030 projects, but we understand that ToC has helped them to more effectively integrate science-based knowledge in agricultural practice and policy. When we engage with stakeholders and develop refined communication strategies as part of our ToC planning, we will increase the likelihood of getting on the right path to impact.

What are the steps in a ToC process?

These projects walked through an eight-step process, guided by a ToC facilitator. This process begins with understanding the purpose of using ToC methods and describing the desired change, as well as the current situation. It then continues with the identification of what, where and by whom change needs to be made, and with the mapping of change pathways. Thereafter, strategies are developed for the interventions needed to make that change happen. Last but not least, it is important to look at monitoring and evaluation of the project and reflect on the full process. See the figure below to get an overview of this stepwise approach.

The ToC stepwise approach. Diagram modified from van Es et al. (2015)

Read more about the AgriFoSe programme here
AgriFoSe2030, Agriculture for Food Security, contributes to sustainable intensification of agriculture for increased food production on existing agricultural land; the aim is to do so by transforming practices toward more efficient use of human, financial and natural resources.

Can charcoal business be sustainable? Examples, challenges and opportunities in Africa.

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

A trailer loaded with bags of charcoal coming from Nigeria and heading to Niamey
Photo: Anders Roos.

On 13 October 2020, The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in partnership with the African Forest Forum (AFF) organised a webinar to discuss the opportunities for creating more sustainable charcoal value chains in Africa.

Growing population and urbanization increased charcoal consumption in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Charcoal is an affordable energy source and generates rural jobs and incomes. However, the use of charcoal causes significant downfall of health due to indoor air pollution and slashing deforestation and forest degradation.

Eight scholars were invited to discuss the core question ‘What is required to promote charcoal value chains that provide affordable energy and rural income, without degrading the forest resources?’ and to provide their recent experiences of working in different countries in Sub Sahara Africa. Based on the discussion at the webinar, this article gathers four key considerations for developing sustainable charcoal production and consumption.

Unpacking the value chain

The life cycle of the charcoal business is full of uncertainties. Who is involved in different processes of charcoal production and marketing?  How many hectares of forest are being cut? What is the difference between the selling price and the costs of production, including the raw material components? These questions can be addressed by following the charcoal value chain, from harvesting and production, to transportation, wholesale retail and to consumption.

This approach doesn’t only allow us to unpack the values of each step, but also makes the hidden actors visible. Such hidden actors include, for instance, illegal woodcutters, who are often migrant workers from neighboring countries, or international companies investing in charcoal production in the region, or women who work as charcoal traders or even a local cartel. According to Anders Roos, ‘most of the charcoal producers we met during the fieldwork were relatively poor. They have tried to earn their incomes to pay for food, clothes and school fees. While they were hoping to establish a sustainable charcoal production, where they for instance planted trees to replace what were cut.  However, the charcoal ban 2018 in Kenya has blocked the development of legal and mores sustainable charcoal value chains. Moreover, by unpacking the value chain, we can see that consumers are not only concentrated in cities, but also in rural areas. Rural value chain actors deal in smaller volumes but make up a large part of charcoal production and consumption.

Charcoal retailler in Dosso, Niger. Photo: Anders Roos

Improved technology

Better technology can improve the sustainability of charcoal value chains, including raw material production, transportation and marketing. For instance, a study in Kenya showed that mobile technology and network coverage are the key physical resources for producers, traders and transporters throughout charcoal value chains.

Moreover, developing a new technology like biochar could provide alternative energy product for rural households. A long-running participatory project with 150 Kenyan farmers tested the effects of biochar on the quality of the soil. Farmers who have a biochar stove can collect agricultural waste, like crop-residue, and small branches from forests and turn them into energy and biochar. Biochar stoves are energy efficient and save time on waste collection, which is often done by women. The triple wins of this method are 1) less smoke during cooking 2) less biomass input and 3) rich soil nutrient biochar! This technology may foster out-of-the-box thinking and farmers can start using crop residues, parts of the tree or farm waste as alternative cooking fuel. While biochar can be reused for soil improvement and carbon sequestration.

Trader selling regular cooking stoves (Jikos) in Voi, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Gender perspective in charcoal production

Women have a marginal position within charcoal value chains. A study from Kenya showed that women are the most vulnerable when it comes to uncertainties. For instance, when Kenya imposed a logging ban in 2018, it affected women who were mainly working in production and retail sectors the most. Women experienced more challenges from the ban due to the lack of access to and control over productive resources and social capital. Moreover, women who were working in charcoal business often came from poor households and didn’t have an alternative livelihood option to resort to in time of change. With limited financial independence, women can only be involved in localized, and less regulated markets. Moreover, the logging ban has affected the income of their husbands who were working in the logging industry. And with fewer remittances, the women’s businesses had lower cash flow.

Women’s vulnerability was also exposed by the current pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the whole value chain of charcoal industry. Border restriction has fueled production challenges, both in terms of transportation and migration of labour. With transportation bans and limited labour, but the same demand, charcoal prices grew and small-scale female retailers have been outcompeted by larger business owners due to their lack of capital and inability to obtain long-term loans.

A community group of charcoal producers and vendors at their tree nursery in Mwatate, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Livelihood or forest: trade off or both?

Overall, the charcoal business dilemma boils down to the trade-off between livelihood and forest sustainability. However, it is possible to meet both needs if the raw material for charcoal production comes from sustainable sources. While we are working towards creating sustainable charcoal businesses, a value chain approach may help achieve a more holistic understanding of the topic. Lastly, it’s important to remember about the importance of innovative thinking in biochar production, employing a gender-sensitive lense and developing sustainable sourcing.

The webinar was organized as part of the ongoing SLU research project, ‘Sustainable Business Models for Tree-based Value Chains in Sub Saharan Africa’, led by Prof. Anders Roos. The goal of the project is to generate knowledge about the charcoal value chain, more specifically, on its processes, actors, and their interactions. The research is conducted in Kenya and Niger in a participatory manner that involves various stakeholders.  The project aims to analyse resources, competences and business models among supply chain members to foster sustainable natural resource used and improved livelihoods.

“Planting trees is always good”

– A Master’s thesis about Swedish carbon offsetting initiatives through tree planting projects in the Global South.

This blog post is written by Emil Planting Mollaoglu, Research Assistant at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, MSc in Rural Development at SLU

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

Over the past two years, I have studied the Rural Development and Natural Resource Management Master’s Programme at SLU. During the spring and summer of 2020, I wrote my Master’s thesis – which focused on the role of companies and consumers in mitigating climate change. More specifically, the thesis explored how two Swedish companies, MAX Burgers (MAX) and ZeroMission, presented carbon offsetting on their websites. MAX is a fast-food restaurant chain that has received a lot of attention for its engagement with climate change and ZeroMission is an intermediary company that sells carbon offsets to MAX and many other Swedish and Scandinavian businesses. Through interviews with customers at MAX, my thesis also explored how carbon offsetting was perceived by a sample of Swedish consumers. The thesis illustrates how planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate to its customers that they will solve climate change by eating at their restaurants – in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, many Swedish companies have voluntary made commitments to reduce their climate impact. An approach adopted by several Swedish food and beverage companies (among others) to lower the impact is to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. This is commonly called “carbon offsetting” and it means that emissions occurring in one place are compensated for by reducing emissions or storing carbon somewhere else. This is done through projects producing carbon credits – for example through capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting trees. The carbon credits can then be traded on carbon offsetting markets as a way for people, companies, organisations and governments to offset their negative climate impact.

Although it may sound good that actors offset their climate impact, carbon offsetting by planting trees in the Global South is not without contestation. Critique has for example been raised regarding uncertainties of the permanence and additionality of projects. These are two of the conceptual pillars of carbon offsetting. Offsetting projects are also meant to deliver sustainable development benefits to stakeholders in the Global South, and yet, there are documented cases of a lack of such benefits and even of negative impacts on communities. In addition, so-called natural climate solutions (such as forest preservation) and methods for carbon dioxide removal (such as afforestation) are not infinite. To meet the targets of the Paris Agreement we need these tools for negative emissions to counter the impact we already have had on the climate. Researchers have therefore argued that we should change how we think about carbon offsetting and move away from the idea that we can compensate for continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

From Vi Agroforestry in Kitale, Kenya. Photo: Malin Planting.

Since 2008, MAX has been offsetting 100% of its emissions through Plan Vivo certified tree planting projects – mainly in Uganda. Since 2018, the company has expanded its investments in planting trees and now offsets 110% of its emissions. MAX calls this approach “climate-positive” because the carbon offsetting extends beyond the company’s own emissions and captures an extra 10% of CO2. The Swedish company has gained international recognition for this approach. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has praised MAX for introducing the world’s first “climate-positive” menu and in 2019 the company received the UN Global Climate Action Award, which was presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

The results of my thesis show that the two companies describe climate change as a problem of both reducing emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but that MAX’s emissions have continued to increase on a yearly basis. My analysis also show that the companies highlight consumption as a cause of climate change, but that the “climate-positive” approach attempts to turn consumption into the very solution to the problem. In this regard, a lot of responsibility for solving the problem was put on consumers, who were expected to choose products and companies based on their climate impact. The two companies also highlighted that deforestation is a major cause of climate change and that companies within the food industry in particular are part of causing deforestation. The argument here was that deforestation occurs as a result of land-use change, from forest land to agricultural land for cultivation of food crops. Both MAX and ZeroMission therefore argued that companies within the food industry have a responsibility to counter the loss of trees by planting new ones. The final theme of the analysis emphasised how carbon offsetting was represented as a solution to sustainable development challenges in the Global South.

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

The thesis concludes that all the abovementioned representations reinforced each other and created a strong narrative for offsetting by planting trees in the Global South. At the same time, the customers’ responses implied that the view on how private actors and individuals can mitigate climate change is not homogenous, as they partially contrasted the two companies’ representations of climate change. The customers’ responses also illustrated a mental distance to the tree planting project in Uganda. This was for example apparent as one of the customers expressed that they did not understand the connection between MAX in Sweden and a tree planting project in Africa, but that “planting trees is always good”.

Finally, and as mentioned above, the thesis illustrates how a lot of responsibility for solving the problem of climate change is put on the individual consumers. Planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate that climate change will be solved by its customers, that choose to eat at the Swedish fast-food restaurant chain instead of somewhere else, in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Department of Urban and Rural Development at SLU, there is an ongoing project that explores how Swedish companies and consumers perceive carbon offsetting through tree planting projects. I am part of this project as a research assistant and currently work on an academic article that partly is based on my thesis. If you are interested in or want to know more about carbon offsetting, you can find out more about the project here and you are also most welcome to read my thesis, which is available online.