Human-Centered Design: From California to Côte d’Ivoire

What do young leaders in agriculture really want?

Last year, we asked young leaders in rural Ghana what it takes to be an effective agricultural business leader in their communities. Our next step was to translate what we learned into prototypes designed to strengthen the agricultural leaders of today and tomorrow.

The role of business leadership in agriculture is particularly critical in West Africa, where many of the communities in which we work are acutely afflicted by mass migrations fueled by climate change. Many rural regions of countries like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are experiencing rising temperatures that make it increasingly difficult to farm. Communities are being drained of experienced farmers who emigrate in search of work in northern Africa or Europe.

When talented young people leave rural communities en masse, the future of those communities becomes threatened. To prevent this disturbing trend, we must provide agricultural businesses with the resources they need to support farming families. We need to help young people recognize that successful and fulfilling careers in agriculture—and in the communities that they’ve always called home—are possible. And we also need to support existing leaders of agricultural businesses to serve as mentors for these youth, while guiding their companies towards the type of growth that will create more jobs and opportunities in these rural regions.

Driven by this urgent need and guided by the insights of the focus groups from Ghana, Root Capital collaborated with Dalberg’s Design Impact Group and the Rural and Agricultural Finance Learning Lab (RAFL) to test prototypes for youth development programs using the framework of human-centered design (HCD).

Human-centered design at work among agricultural leaders in West Africa., the San Francisco-based organization that pioneered this concept, describes HCD as “a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.” This fancy phrase boils down to a simple concept: Rather than assuming you know what someone wants from a cursory look, get to know them.

HCD has become a buzzword among the droves of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aiming to develop the next killer mobile app or revolutionary tech innovation. We decided to use it a bit differently: to develop leadership programs that could generate the greatest possible impact in rural West Africa.

Using the responses from our Ghana focus group as inspiration, we brainstormed potential programs that would address the needs and desires of young people. We then came up with “advertisements” for the services in question, and presented them to a new focus group comprised of young business leaders from across Côte d’Ivoire. We asked them to give us feedback on these ideas: What do you like most? What would you change? What questions do you have?

The insights that we gained from this round of prototype feedback are allowing us to fine-tune the programs in question. However, perhaps just as valuable as this feedback was what we learned about how to best apply HCD to similar focus groups going forward.

Root Capital staff with members of a focus group from Kumasi, Ghana.

Here’s what we learned from the focus groups we’ve conducted so far in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana:

  • Use stories and superlatives to draw out insight. Much of what the facilitator said during these focus groups began with “Tell us about…” or “Consider the best / worst…” Asking for specific stories and extreme events generates deep and actionable insights in a way that other types of questions do not. We will continue applying these practices as we ask for feedback on the leadership development pilots we conducted earlier this year.
  • Separately consider the needs of managers with different levels of seniority. In self-assessments and observations to date, we’ve noticed that senior leaders and founders of businesses are more confident in themselves and their abilities than the middle managers that work for them. While this is not surprising, it was important to break out the focus groups by seniority in order to ensure participants could talk freely and give honest answers. Whether our leadership development trainings target founders or middle managers, Root Capital will continue to think about the interaction between the two groups in our services.
  • Keep it short and sweet! Rather than scheduling a separate session, we added this focus group onto a previously scheduled financial management training. As much as focus group participants were excited for these discussions, a workshop followed by a contemplative conversation on leadership makes for a long and exhausting day! We plan to hold any future focus groups at a separate event to keep participants’ energy and engagement high.

We’re currently deep into the next round of product development, and are excited to share more updates on the new services for young leaders in agriculture over the coming months. Stay tuned!

Without access to predictable markets for their crops, many of the estimated 48 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty. To address this, Root Capital and the Mastercard Foundation have partnered to support early-stage agricultural businesses that will help raise incomes for more than 300,000 smallholder farmers in West Africa.

Whether it’s an individual contribution or a large grant from a foundation like the Mastercard Foundation, it’s your donations that allow us to reach the businesses that need funding the most — and that often have the potential to create the greatest impact.

This is the second in an ongoing series of stories about our partnership with the Mastercard Foundation in West Africa.


Topics: Advisory Services | West Africa | Youth |

What do you think?

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.