A few years ago, a mango farmer in Burkina Faso told us something that forever changed the way we interact with our clients and the farmers they serve.
“I don’t want to answer any questions,” the farmer said as one of our impact surveyors approached him. “Here you come to ask us the same silly questions that you go sell to aid sponsors…. You’ll ask me my name, my family size, the kinds of goods I have, and so on, and so on.… Go take the answers from the [other organizations’ surveys] we provided last year.”
It was a wake-up call for Root Capital: our approach to impact evaluation, regardless of our intent, felt extractive to the very people we were trying to serve.
Since then, we’ve been looking at our impact studies through a new lens, asking ourselves, “How can we create shared value for the enterprises we finance and their affiliated farmers, whom we ultimately aim to benefit?”
We now start each study by engaging clients directly in the survey design, and we share results with them no more than four months after collecting data, in time for them to use the data to plan for the upcoming harvest. For instance, we recently used this approach to help a coffee cooperative utilize our survey results to learn what agronomic topics farmers wanted to learn more about during trainings. And at another cooperative, we were able to help managers verify that 75 percent of members had increased production in recent years.
Putting partners — in our case, agricultural businesses — at the center of any impact study is a growing trend among our peers in the social enterprise and smallholder agriculture sector. For example, we’re excited to have partnered with Acumen Fund’s Lean Data Initiative to pilot the use of mobile technology for social and environmental performance management among 12 of our clients.
As we’ve invested in our evaluation methods, we’ve also been calling for greater transparency around the “impact” piece of impact investing, as well as the financial piece. My colleagues Mike McCreless and Brian Milder and I recently wrote on the subject in greater detail here, and we look forward to continuing to share our ideas on the topic in the coming months.
As the autumn leaves in Cambridge glow a bright mango orange, I’m reminded of the farmer who challenged and inspired us to view not only impact, but impact evaluation, in a new, more inclusive light. We’re a better organization because of it and, together with a growing cadre of our peers, we’re pushing ourselves even further to create value for agricultural businesses and smallholder farmers around the world.
We’re so grateful for your support and glad to have you along for the journey.
Founder & CEO