Updated and refined, 12 April 2020
When working to improve the performance of any sector or value chain, we are often confronted with a range of meso organisations or programmes designed to support upgrading, skills development and better decision making in small businesses in the targeted sector.
While mapping these organisations is not so difficult, it is much harder to figure out what each organisation is doing, offering or whom they are targeting with their services. If it is hard for me to do, I can only imagine how hard it must be for an overstretched entrepreneur working on a dozen burning issues.
Recently Annelien and I worked together to map the meso landscape in the bio sector in South Africa. We used an expectations matrix format to get more than 40 meso programmes to express what they expected of each other.
The first step was to get each organisation or programme to express their expectations in every other organisation in the sector. Then, in a public workshop, each organisation had a chance to respond to the expectations expressed in them by all the other organisations in the sector.
In general, it was evident that most organisations did not have a clearly specified service offering that made it explicit who they were trying to help, what had to be in place in the enterprise, what the benefits or value of their service offerings were and what they cost. While many programmes had objectives and indicators for their work in support of the specific sector, it is hard to find clear information, contact persons and engagement processes in marketing or online material.
What can be done to improve the visibility and value addition of the bio trade meso system?
Here are some of the recommendations that we presented to our clients.
- Make descriptions of services more explicit. For instance, clearly describe how each service offering addresses user needs. How can each offering be accessed by entrepreneurs?
- What resources or capabilities does each organisation have in place? Is the support aimed at particular links in the value, a specific range of species, or does it provide general support to all business activities?
- Clearly state which kind of enterprise and at what level of competence the enterprise must be to benefit from the service. For instance, state explicitly what the preconditions are to use a particular service. Must the enterprise already have a two-year track record? Must they have a particular kind of technology in their operation? Is this service only useful for certain kinds of companies in specific sectors or stages of development?
- Which kind of enterprise can not be assisted? For example, can the organisation help all sizes of companies? Can only community projects be helped?
It is helpful to think of the meso landscape in its present state as being very diverse with many organisations, programmes and resources. The challenge is that from the perspective of enterprises and other support programmes, the meso landscape is like a labyrinth. It is hard to navigate and only those with huge tenacity or resources can afford to go door-to-door to find specific support for their challenges. Often the quality or effectiveness of the support available is also hard for entrepreneurs to assess.
While it will be easy for some meso organisations to improve their visibility and access to their services, others may struggle.
Some organisations may only have to improve their marketing and information material. If they are already clear about who, what and how they support the sector, then all they have to do is to make this more explicit. For other organisations, improving their offering may require designing specific services or making certain resources available. Or perhaps a more specialised programme would have to work closely with other complementary programmes to improve their impact. There could also be organisations that provide specific services to a more general target market, so perhaps they should make their offerings a bit more explicit without making it specific to the bio trade sector.
To summarise my argument, in many developing countries there are many development programmes or targeted support programmes aimed at addressing market failures or performance issues at the level of enterprises. Some are more generic, promoting, for instance, start-up support. Others may be more technical, such as providing export promotion support. The main point is that these organisations often offer products and services that are very vaguely described. This means any enterprise (or other meso programmes) may have to spend a huge amount of time to figure out where to get support. This increases search and discovery costs, it raises coordination costs and it reduces the quality and effectiveness of public goods available to society.