Foresight for better futures, GFAR blog, Transformative investments

Spurring Sustainability through Data-Driven Needs Assessment

Single Woman Coffee

In development, implementing targeted and responsive programs is crucial to achieving impact. The importance of creating effective programs cannot be understated for agricultural extension programs that work with some of the estimated 1.5 billion smallholders—many of whom are vulnerable to climate change, volatile markets, and conflict—who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. At the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), a Partner in GFAR, we believe that a data-driven needs assessment is the first step to crafting high-quality interventions.

COSA’s goal to make data work for all those involved in agri-food systems, is part of GFAR’s multistakeholder approach to collective actions that allow farmers and rural communities to determine and express their own needs. Needs assessment is one of the valuable tools that can help enable communities to collectively design their desired future, and help extensionists and partners of other sectors identify which innovations and practices can be taken up to realize that future. Furthermore, a solid evidence base can inform policy, promote better and more coherent investment, and demonstrate the impacts that are being achieved.

The evaluation literature discusses needs assessment methods extensively. Assessment methods include secondary sources of data, focus-group discussions, key informant interviews, and participatory processes. Here we present insights from COSA’s evaluation project in Vietnam to highlight how the development community, businesses, and other stakeholders can use COSA’s measurement system to implement a data-driven needs assessment.

The case of Vietnam

In 2014, COSA partnered with one of the largest coffee companies in Vietnam to study the impact of training coffee farmers on good agricultural practices, environmental protection, and business skills. COSA and its partner conducted the study in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the country’s leading coffee-producing region. We administered in-depth, farm-level surveys to 800 farmers in four regions. We used more than a hundred COSA indicators to obtain baseline data from farmers and to measure the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.[1] We present select findings below. These examples are not exhaustive but are illustrative of our results.

Women Coffee jpg

Social: Gender Disparities

Among the farms we surveyed, we found, rather unsurprisingly, that women were less represented than men in critical decision making related to coffee production, although they constituted nearly half of the agricultural workforce. Sixty-nine percent of farmers who made substantial decisions on coffee production were men. Also, more than two-thirds of the coffee producers who participated in producer organizations were male. These insights highlight an opportunity to invest in more targeted training and gender-sensitive interventions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Environmental: Water Conservation, Biodiversity Concerns

Water Conservation: More than half the farms (52%) in the sample reported using no water conservation practices. Combined with the use of large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides and the potential threats run-offs pose to natural aquifers, our findings suggest an opportunity for subsequent programs to focus on water/resource management practices.

Biodiversity: COSA’s indicator on land use change measures the conversion of natural land (example, prairie, forest, savanna) to land used for cultivation or pasture. Routine monitoring of this indicator will provide insights into whether natural lands are converted into land for coffee cultivation.

Economic: Low Income Diversification

We found a relatively high dependence on coffee for income, accounting for an average 80 percent of the household’s main source of revenue. The median household reported deriving 88 percent of its total income from coffee. Low-income diversification presents challenges with respect to adaptation to potential shocks, and this indicator is particularly useful when incorporating risk management and resilience strategies into development programming.

Data through a wider lens

The results presented above illustrate how the COSA’s multi-dimensional survey can be used for data-driven needs assessment. COSA creates “hotspot reports” using over a hundred standardized indicators that identify areas of improvement. This multi-dimensional assessment tool, when used with representative sampling and other qualitative needs assessment methods, presents a powerful way to assess the needs of agricultural communities and target appropriate extension services at scale. COSA attempts to minimize disadvantages related to how time- and resource-intensive this process can be by using appropriate technology and automated processes for data management.

Multiple economic, environmental and social dimensions are brought to light through the efficient collection and astute analysis of data that form a needs assessment. As seen in the example of Vietnam, getting a full picture of needs in local contexts can inform actions towards women’s empowerment, environmental conservation and improving livelihoods. This process also lays the foundation for creating rigorous theories of change and the design of evaluations and metrics systems that can help guide investment decisions and cross-sectoral collaborations towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

[1] COSA refers to this as SEE sustainability


This blog post was written by Gayatri Ramnath, Regional Research Coordinator for Asia for the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), a consortium of institutions fostering effective ways to measure and understand sustainability in the agri-food sector. During our Partner Spotlight from 23-27 October 2017, we’ll be examining pragmatic ways COSA metrics are driving innovations and sustainability practices, through the applications of tools ranging from impact assessments to performance monitoring. As part of the Partner Spotlight, a webinar on “Effective Tools for Understanding, Managing and Accelerating Impact” will be held on Thursday October 26th at 15:00 Rome time (13:00 GMT).

Metrics is a very relevant area of inquiry for the Partners in GFAR, who are embarking on a Collective Action to develop an “Innovative Approach to New SDG Metrics for Agri-food Innovation.”

GFAR Secretariat is turning the spotlight on the work and Collective Actions of Partners in GFAR who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. Not a GFAR partner yet? Join now!

Photo credits: COSA

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