Preparing on the ground for value chain links and sector policies

Authors: Ted Schrader, Dossa Aguemon and Bertus Wennink

FUPRO-BENIN is a multi-layered organisation composed of primary cooperatives and associations, district unions (UCP) and regional unions (URP). FUPRO is at the interface between the farmers and the community of stakeholders in development on the one hand and between farmers and the State on the other. It participates on behalf of farmers in the development and implementation of agricultural development programmes as well as in Benin’s agricultural policy dialogue. FUPRO takes the lead in representing and defending the interests of its farmer members. Areas of intervention include information dissemination, communication and training services, and the mobilisation of external resources for financing programmes and projects in rural areas.

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Development challenge

Maize is the most important food crop in Benin and is produced in all regions of the country, although under varying conditions. The southern part of the country is densely populated, farms are small, and there are two crops per year production. In the north of the country, farms are much larger but there is only a single production season. For a long time, agricultural policies in Benin favoured the cotton sector, which was the main recipient of public investment and intervention. Recent agricultural policies are, however, more open to agricultural diversification, with maize being a priority crop. The Government’s ambition is to double maize production (to 1.9 million tons in 2015), aiming to improve both food security and stakeholders’ incomes. The Benin cotton sector crisis and soaring food commodity prices triggered the call of District Producers’ Unions (UCPs) for agricultural diversification, with an explicit focus on maize. Maize was not only to enhance food security but also to become an alternative “cash crop”.

It was in this context that the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Benin (EKN Benin) asked the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV Benin) to prepare a concept plan for a maize and cereal crop development programme for Benin. This resulted in a proposal to invest in Action-Oriented Research (AOR) to underpin the preparation of a new programme. Considering their representation in all regions of Benin, it was proposed that the Federation of Unions of Agricultural Producers of Benin (FUPRO) be entrusted with implementation of this AOR programme. Another reason to put FUPRO in the driver’s seat was that producers’ perspectives were seen to be lacking in the assessment of maize value chains, which had already been initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (MAEP). The objective of the proposed Action-Oriented Research (AOR) programme was to deepen the knowledge and understanding of the maize sector through an analysis of challenges and opportunities in various maize value chains, as identified by sector stakeholders in general and farmers in particular. The AOR programme was explicitly oriented to the formulation of a future development programme for promoting competitive, sustainable and inclusive maize value chains in Benin. For this reason the AOR programme was also referred to as the Maize Programme Pre-Project (“Avant Projet Maïs”- APM). The basic aim of the AOR programme was to work on strategic levers and to identify institutional and practical options for change that were based where possible on the experiences of innovative actions by farmers and other stakeholders, both in Benin and in neighbouring countries.

The AOR programme was made possible through funding from the EKN Benin; Agriterra who specifically provided support to regional workshops and exchange visits to Burkina Faso; and the ESFIM programme. The action research team was composed of researchers of FUPRO (at national, regional and district levels), SNV Benin, Agriterra, the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and the Centre for Development Innovation of Wageningen University and Research Centre (CDI-WUR), part of AGRINATURA. Agreements were signed between FUPRO-BENIN and all other partners. All partners are also members of Agri-ProFocus, which is becoming an increasingly important network for the promotion of farmer entrepreneurship and which is represented in Benin through the AgriHub Benin. The five partners worked as a team. The diagram below shows the roles of the different parties, as defined in the APM proposal.



Management and coordination of the AOR project;

Organisation of the AOR process;

Mobilisation of the farmers and their organisations at different levels;

Ensuring communication of research process and results and links with Ministry of Agriculture and other important stakeholders.


Advisory services to FUPRO concerning its management and coordination tasks;

Technical and methodological support for AOR process.


Valorisation of experiences of other African FO’s through the organisation of exchange visits;

Capitalisation of experiences of maize producers in Benin at local and grassroots levels.


Provide specific support to the action research strategy and programme including Elaboration of research protocols;

Moderation of multi-stakeholder workshops;

Capacity strengthening of FUPRO and SNV staff and of sub-contracted local researchers;

Organisation of Writeshops;

Advisory inputs for the formulation of a programme for maize value chain development.

Collaborative research process

In December 2010, EKN Benin agreed to a ten-month contract with FUPRO and SNV, the intention being that the AOR would lead to a full proposal for the development of maize value chains in Benin. The programme became operational in April-May 2011, after the recruitment of a FUPRO AOR coordinator and agreement on the design of the action research process, facilitated by KIT and CDI. Activities were thus concentrated in a period of six months.

Desk studies
The desk research focused on collecting and analysing information on the dynamics surrounding maize value chains in Benin and in neighbouring countries, as well as identifying market opportunities including comparative market advantages. This research, conducted by consultants hired through a tender call, highlighted possible innovations in specific maize value chains in Benin and in the West African sub-region. This led to an inventory of potentially interesting ways to promote maize value chains and the identification of possible destinations for (farmers’) exchange visits.

Results of the desk research were validated during a workshop organised by FUPRO. The workshop, which was characterised by a strong participation of actors in the maize sector, including many farmers and FO’s, confirmed the priorities for maize value chain development: white maize for the local market; white maize for the regional market; yellow maize for animal feed for the local market; maize grits for brewing; and improved infant maize flour. The findings were in line with conclusions from the MAEP. Information from the desk studies contributed to a discussion on challenges and possible actions, as well as to the selection of study themes. This was also evidence of the iterative nature of the action research process.

Identification of challenges, options and research subjects
In the early stages of the research process, CDI and KIT had extensive meetings with FUPRO to discuss the challenges farmers face in the maize sector. A conceptual framework (RISE; rural innovation systems and entrepreneurship – Schrader, 2011a) was used to systematically seek drivers for maize market system change and also for discerning options to improve existing value chains, especially to the benefit of (smallholder) farmers, other local entrepreneurs and labourers.

The overall research question of the AOR programme was formulated as follows: ‘What are the levers and options for making maize value chains more competitive, sustainable and inclusive, in order to contribute to food and nutrition security in Benin and to improve producers’ income?’

This process led to the identification of ten challenge areas: (i) food security; (ii) producers and their organisations; (iii) production and productivity; (iv) storage and conservation; (v) processing; (vi) commercial relations and price transmissions; (vii) product development and marketing; (viii) regional trade and competition; (ix) institutional context; and (x) technical and financial support services. These ten topics were also considered to form the basis for identifying practical actions having the potential to contribute to answering the overall research question.

Based on the identified challenges and options, the literature review and FUPRO’s strategic analysis of the maize sector, 12 subjects for action-oriented research were identified within the same ten challenge/performance areas. These subjects were validated during the AOR programme planning meeting of the team (May 2011).

Peer-review workshop
Towards the end of the AOR programme in September 2011, a peer review workshop was held to evaluate the research results. This workshop also generated short articles on the main themes using Writeshop methods. These articles, comprising key messages, were prepared to inform decision-makers involved with future maize value chain development programmes. This phase also resulted in the production of summary documents (‘thematic information sheets’) for the previously-identified challenge areas and validated the relevant options for addressing the challenges. At this stage, the number of challenge areas was reduced from ten to eight, as some areas were merged and reformulated.

Strategic workshop
As a follow-up to this preparatory meeting, a strategic workshop was held in October 2011 that brought together the different stakeholders in the maize sector, farmer leaders and MAEP executives. FUPRO made efforts to identify participants having in-depth and practical knowledge of the maize sector as well as a vested interest in the sector. In spite of the efforts made, private sector representation in the workshop remained limited. The workshop allowed for validating the key findings of the AOR programme and identified strategic options for action with government and sector-specific policies. Furthermore, participants discussed the institutional set-up of such a future programme, which requires good coordination of activities as well as delegation of responsibilities to stakeholders. A basic principle that was agreed upon was that public and private service providers should follow demands of private entrepreneurs (producers, processors, traders, etc.) in the maize sector. This was a fundamental change from the usual approach, whereby project owners (i.e. the public sector) defined the objectives.

In addition to the definition of principles and programme strategies, the workshop prepared the terms of reference for a small group of experts to be responsible for preparing the first draft of the programme for maize value chain development. A steering committee was nominated to discuss and ratify the programme proposal. The use of a team of experts for the preparation of the programme proposal was necessary in view of the extremely short time between the last stages of the AOR programme and deadline for submitting the proposal to the Netherlands Embassy in Benin. The deadline for submitting the proposal was not renegotiated, because FUPRO wanted to demonstrate its credibility as a reliable partner. However, the short time available and the fact that the consultants writing the proposal was not sufficiently up-to-date with the outputs from the AOR programme led to an insufficient uptake of AOR results in the formulation of the programme proposal for maize value chain development. This resulted in an under-utilisation of strategic insights, ‘grounded’ options and innovative ideas for the implementation modalities of the programme for maize value chain development. Several new ideas for future development work on the subject of maize value chains were also shared with EKN Benin. These included the development of agribusiness clusters around specific maize value chains, combined with the cross-cutting learning from the thematic areas that emerged from the AOR. Work on value chains could combine production-push and market-pull dynamics. Support to agribusiness clusters would focus on stakeholder collaboration and give a central role to companies, farmers and their organisations and be especially interesting for financial service providers and quality advisory services. Three components were seen as crucial: promoting rural entrepreneurship, prioritising topics that support innovation, and sharing evidence-based knowledge and experience.

Lessons learnt

  • Having information on various sectors and a comprehensive database on farmers’ realities, experiences and objectives is essential for any national farmer organisation to be taken seriously as a partner in policy and programme development. The action research process and results allowed
  • FUPRO’s members’ voices to be heard by the institutions in charge of elaborating agricultural policies and development strategies. The wealth of information that was collected and analysed could still be better utilised, for example in a final layout of thematic studies, finalisation of member consultation reports, and the finalisation and publication of articles. Some documents and articles from the AOR programme have not gone through the final stages of validation, editing, lay-out, and publication. Although AOR programme results were not fully used in the programme proposal as originally intended, the wealth of information is available at FUPRO and could therefore still be used by other interested parties.
  • The systematic member consultation was particularly important in making FUPRO fully aware of the situation and aspirations of their membership base, the maize farmers and maize cooperatives in the country. Such a sound knowledge of constraints, perceived opportunities and options is necessary in order to represent the maize farmer population, which is an important function of FUPRO, being a national federation. It was an eye-opener to FUPRO that it is possible to know thousands of members by taking a representative sample.
  • FUPRO established a library with relevant documents on the maize sector. To be a partner in policy dialogue, and as a strategic supporter of their associated organisations, FUPRO need and value such materials. Thus the outputs from this AOR programme have contributed to the FUPRO knowledge base. Nevertheless, the action research results were ultimately insufficiently reflected in the new programme proposal for maize value chain development. This was mostly due to the extremely short time between the last stages of the AOR process and the drafting of the programme document.
  • Despite the high level of interaction between the team that was made responsible for the drafting of the programme document and the AOR team, the results of the action research have not been capitalised to a satisfactory level. This was seen by the AOR team as a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding this sub-optimal use, the submitted programme on maize and cereal crop development programme for Benin was still quite innovative, as it ‘talked business’, focused on specific value chains, stressed multi-stakeholder collaboration, suggested important areas for innovations and placed farmers at the heart of maize value chain development.