Laws of Nature

By Gale, Sarah Fister | PM Network, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Laws of Nature


Gale, Sarah Fister, PM Network


For agriculture projects to bear fruit, project leaders must take a systems approach.

Fertile soil and proper irrigation is just the beginning. For agriculture projects, the real challenge is getting crops to their final destination on nature's ticking clock. If roads are poor, markets are flooded or regulations cause delays, even the most productive farming project can fail.

According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about one-third of the food produced globally each year- 1.3 billion metric tons-never makes it to the plate. In the United States alone, 40 percent of food is wasted somewhere in the process.

While food is going to waste, people are going hungry. Agriculture projects aimed at improving food production can mean the difference between feast and famine in a community-or an entire nation, says Chuck Chopak, Africa regional managing director at DAI, a global development firm in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. In the United States, just a 15 percent reduction in food losses would feed more than 25 million Americans every year. But to deliver the result, project managers must first study the systems that govern large-scale agricultural production.

"As you manage an agricultural project, you have to understand the related economic, physical and social pressures so you can build those into the plan," Mr. Chopak says.

That means assessing the value and supply chains to identify potential obstacles. In developing nations, those hurdles often revolve around limited infrastructure, a lack of clean water and unstable economies. In the developed world, teams must contend with price fluctuations due to market demands, limited distribution options and overcompetition for a single crop.

The act of growing food itself is rarely what causes project snags, says Steve Cohen, manager of food policy and programs for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in the City of Portland, Oregon, USA. "It's the barriers to bringing those foods to market," says Mr. Cohen. In Portland, for example, where he oversees urban farming projects, zoning laws and regulations outline the rules for growing and selling food on urban sites.

While the challenges vary by region, the strategies for solving them are similar. "From a project management standpoint, you have to identify the barriers with community stakeholders and address them together. The only way to move forward is to raise awareness and get stakeholder buy-in for what you are trying to do," Mr. Cohen says.

From sourcing organic hair-care ingredients in India to tracking fish as it goes to market in Slovenia, the following project teams all rely on the same strategy: Practice due diligence, secure stakeholder support and test assumptions before building a project plan.

"As you manage an agricultural project, you have to understand the related economic, physical and social pressures so you can build those into the plan."

-Chuck Chopak, DAI, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

CASE STUDY

The Root of the Problem

Value chain analysis helps African farming project teams ask the right questions.

Cassava root is a food staple in many African nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yet while the crop can be grown in large amounts locally, "Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, normally has only a two days' supply of cassava," says DAI's Mr. Chopak.

So why not just grow more cassava? This question, often the first asked on food security projects, wasn't quite the right one. In fact, the FAO found that even if agricultural productivity jumped 60 percent by 2050, 300 million hungry people would still lack access to food.

For many not-for-profits that implement agriculture projects in rural or hard-hit communities, asking the wrong questions is what causes them to fail, says Bill Grant, global lead for inclusive economic growth at DAI.

"Often the constraint we identify is a surprise to the very stakeholders who are funding the project," Mr. …

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