Produced in more than 175 countries and a staple of every cuisine, the onion is a truly global ingredient. However, in the early 1990s, the available supply of onions was lagging demand; particularly the demand for sweet onions in the U.S. market. The solution to that challenge came through a USAID project that involved connecting sweet onion growers in Peru with Pennsylvania-based Keystone Fruit Marketing, Inc.—a relationship facilitated by Dexis subsidiary, Agland Investment Services. Now, nearly 30 years later, the relationship persists, as does the steady year-round supply of sweet onions.
Such engagements are not new. USAID has been partnering with the private sector since its founding in 1961. Since that time, the role of private enterprise in promoting global growth has expanded. Today, private capital accounts for nearly 90 percent of financial flows to developing countries, as companies are increasingly realizing the potential for significant market opportunities and investment in the developing world.
What is unique about the above example is its long-term results—today, sweet onion exports from Peru exceed $70 million annually. Not all projects, or even private sector engagements, lead to sustained outcomes, though that is usually the goal. That is even truer today for USAID, which sees the private sector as a key player in accelerating countries’ self-reliance while providing opportunities for American businesses.
USAID has historically been a leader in the private sector engagement space. Initially focused on improving the enabling environment for market economics, then shifting more toward shared value partnerships, the Agency has now issued a new Private Sector Engagement (PSE) Policy.
The policy builds on the Agency’s efforts to date, while also bringing the focus more inward to incentivize and incorporate market-based approaches across Agency interventions. The policy also broadens PSE responsibilities to staff at all levels and in every country where USAID operates.
This is a significant shift and a big lift. It will necessitate major cultural and operational changes, as well as internal capacity building, new systems and success measures that value PSE. It may also require the Agency to adjust its role and change the way it works with partners.
As part of this new direction, Administrator Green noted that USAID “will be steering, more than rowing, in an effort to create a force-multiplier” to work more effectively with the private sector. While not further expanded upon in the policy, this presents an opportunity to more strategically leverage the partners already engaging with USAID.
Specifically, USAID can look to better leverage its implementing partners for some of the high-value and often time-consuming aspects of PSE. Most notably, bringing in partners through relationship building, piloting new approaches, and sharing experiences to contribute to evidence and learning.
In the Peruvian sweet onion example, the relationship was formed and brokered by implementing partner, Agland. The goal of the USAID project was to help small producers expand their agricultural exports. Agland contacted several marketers of onions and sweet onions in the U.S.; when Keystone showed an interest, Agland worked closely with the company to conduct initial market tests, and later to improve crop quality, and resolve logistical issues. With Agland doing the initial legwork and making the connections, a strong commercial partner joined the project which led to long-term sustainable results.
In Mali, Dexis is conducting a pilot project to grow rice via drip irrigation technology. If successful, this method could increase yield, allow for year-round production, and ultimately ensure greater food security and increased incomes for Malian farmers. In addition to evaluating the agronomic feasibility of this approach, the pilot is assessing the market viability of drip irrigation technologies in the region through partnership with two companies: SOPOTRILAD, a Malian rice production and processing company, and Netafim, one of the world’s largest irrigation equipment companies. The outcomes of this pilot could help to inform USAID programming in the region.
Implementing partners can contribute to gaps in knowledge in the evidence base for effective PSE. With vast knowledge and experience working alongside private sector partners, and as private sector entities themselves, implementing partners understand the key drivers and motivations behind successful cross-sector collaborations. Including the experiences of implementing partners across all phases of collaboration—planning, design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and learning—can add valuable insight on best practices that will deepen USAID’s engagements with the private sector, while furthering development and commercial outcomes.
Utilizing implementing partners in this way can lead to potentially big rewards—in the form of committed partners, tested approaches, and shared lessons learned—at little to no risk to USAID. With implementing partners helping to engage partners, making local connections, and spearheading new approaches, there is ultimately a greater chance of seeing long-term success if these partners are empowered to “row.”
The Agency can take steps in this direction; for example, by pushing for stronger language in RFPs and emphasizing private sector engagement in evaluation criteria. Additionally, USAID has mechanisms already in place, such as the BAA, that can be more broadly utilized to bring implementing partners in at the design phase. USAID can also rethink the role that implementing partners play in building and managing relationships.
Already working with USAID in countries around the world, and with insight into corporate priorities and ways of working, implementing partners are a force multiplier—further supporting USAID in harnessing the power of the private sector to shape solutions that achieve sustained impact, and promoting countries’ self-reliance.
Kristin Treier is Deputy Director of the Implementation and Management Solutions Division at Dexis, providing leadership in project management and private sector engagement to U.S. government clients. Kristin has worked with some of the world’s largest companies to improve corporate sustainability practices, promote more responsible supply chains, and engage communities where they operate.