How systems change

Sadruzzaman Noor
Sadruzzaman Noor

After five years of working with development organizations to bring about systemic change, I have learned one key lesson about designing and selecting interventions– you just need to keep trying new things. The idea is that while some changes may not work, if the overall number of initiatives to create change increases, the system will improve. This concept is central to understanding social systems. Social systems improve not because everything works perfectly, but because enough entities (firms or people) are testing innovations that over time the system evolves its capacity to cycle through tests and adopt what works and discard what does not. All highly innovative market systems have high rates of testing-adopting-adapting cycles and with time the system gets better and better at cycling innovation by learning from failures. Typically, the rates of failure remain high, but generate enormous learning that leads to and informs the next generation of innovation.

The interesting thing about systems is that they self organize. No single external force can bring change overnight, and similarly improving the efficiency and inclusivity of a market system takes significant time and a range of simultaneous disruptions and trends. The system responds to each intervention/disruption in a way that is unique and hard to predict, creating a non-linear path to change as these reactions misalign or even compete with one another.

Donor-funded interventions often fail to generate sustainable change in the agricultural eco system of developing economies by focusing on a set of narrow interventions that generate quick results towards targets rather than supporting market actors to innovate and test new business tools/strategies. In many cases, these interventions backfire because they fail to delegate the ownership of change to the actors and forces within the systems. Additionally, when not used thoughtfully, donor funds can create a negative disruption in the system.  We have seen many agricultural input organizations to open business wings for “project hunting,” where the team develops proposals aimed at winning donor-funded grants and contracts.  It is crucial to discourage this kind of donor dependence because the system will suffer in the long run as the businesses invest more in short term personal gains rather than focusing on their own long-term strategic business goals.  It is not unusual to see interventions to stop once the cash flow stops.

All these happen if donor projects/organizations do not strive to practice critical systems thinking[1] – keeping the mind open and wallets not-so-open. Systems are complex webs of relationships and interactions among numerous components/actors. Intervening in one interaction creates a ripple effect across the web, and the system self organizes to absorb the external force while the impact of that force fades. Hence, it is imperative that interventions are designed in such a way that they affect all the necessary touch points, so that these actors/components work together towards to path to greater value generation. To achieve this, the sense of ownership over the intervention and resulting change must be transferred from the intervening body to the interacting ones. Let us take the example of the agricultural input firms from the last paragraph to elaborate on this. The firms do not feel the need to change the way they operate because of their lack of trust in the system. They have seen donor funds to be disbursed abundantly, regardless of funding recipient’s business strategy or commitment, and sensed the absence of a balancing mechanism that rewards innovation and change, and punishes stagnation. As a result, they fail to see the potential of growth promised by market inclusiveness, indulge in the zero sum game prohibiting growth, and reinforcing their belief that systems do not work.

As I have seen through the projects I have worked for, it is very important to understand the complexities of relationships between market actors present in the system to learn why it malfunctions. A healthy system corrects itself because it supports innovation in processes, changing the way things work. On the other hand, an unhealthy system shows symptoms like unfair bargaining powers, lack of growth and inefficient distribution and usage of resources. No external force can change the way things work in a sustainable fashion because none of the actors own the change. Hence, donor projects can serve as a positive disruption to boost innovation by providing technical support to businesses to improve their long term business strategies and focus on innovation, and then use funds sparingly to buy down risk as the business tests no ideas or strategies for growth. The key to help the system is to encourage influencers to try new things by motivating them through examples and by sharing the risk. Once they own the concept of “trying” they would see that taking such risks pays off in the long term. Once they see the reward of trying things, they would recognize the change.

So, the next time before you think “Huh… I guess this is the way it goes,” would you pause for a moment to think “Wait! Can I try this?”


Sadruzzaman Noor has been working as a Specialist with the Research & Technology Commercialization team of USAID’s AVC project. He completed his BBA & MBA from the Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka. He is an enthusiast on systemic change theories and their practical usage.

[1] “Critical systems thinking aims to combine systems thinking and participatory methods to address the challenges of problems characterized by large scale, complexity, uncertainty, impermanence, and imperfection. It allows nonlinear relationships, feedback loops, hierarchies, emergent properties and so on to be taken into account and Critical Systems Thinking has particularly problematized the issue of boundaries and their consequences for inclusion, exclusion and marginalization” – Bammer (2003)

Learning Lunch: Strategic Approach Tools for Agro-Input Market

Wasel Syed
Wasel Syed
Asif Ahmed Tonmoy
Asif Ahmed Tonmoy

Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) is an approach specific to AVC that allows the project the space to improve by continuously evaluating and learning from ongoing activities. One AVC CLA tool is the Learning Lunch, which is a one hour session held on a monthly basis where technical teams present and lead a discussion around a recent innovation or intervention, highlighting the successes and challenges and reporting out on the resulting learning.

A one-hour interactive session, initiated by Knowledge Management Team (KMT), took place on March 29th 2107. It is one out of many initiatives by KMT that facilitates employees of AVC to get more familiar with the CLA approach.   Mohammad Soeb Iftekhar, Deputy Team Leader, Market System and Cassia Mahjabeen, Marketing & Media Specialist, showed two videos during the event which utilized two case studies of current AVC partners as examples to better show the AVC approach to strengthening market systems & strategic approach tools for Agri input market. The session was followed by a lively discussion where opinions were exchanged between different experts from Dhaka and regional offices of the AVC project via video conferencing.

Strengthening agricultural input supply market system

The current market system presents an obvious disconnect between the large agricultural firms and small holders. The large agricultural firms were offering products which did not completely meet the smallholders’ needs. USAID AVC Project in Bangladesh looked to address this issue by working with the large agricultural firm to build their business capacity in market and package a more reputable brand that delivers a more reliable product to smallholders. In one case AVC assists a firm named ISPAHANI to promote and distribute IPM or bio-pest management products which work to control pest while limiting harmful environmental effects and being cost effective. After ISPAHANI’s marketing, distribution and customer service strategy was finalized, positive results seemed to materialize very quickly. Small holders experienced less crop loss, greater income and reduced their spraying needs by over 60 percent. ISPAHANI furthered its reach by training farmers directly on how to properly use their products.  AVC also helped strengthen ISPAHANI’s distribution network extending its services to the far reaches of Bangladesh. However AVC did not work solely with ISPAHANI. It also initiated a positive competition through engaging with several competing firms in the same sector in similar interventions. The goal was to show how marketing tactics and a promotional strategy can be used to produce broad systemic change across a market system.

Strengthening service market systems

To strengthen the service provider system, USAID AVC Project in Bangladesh works through the private agricultural firms to affect the greater market system. In one case, AVC supported NAAFCO to train and brand independent Agro-service providers who help farmers in basic cultivation technology and management practices. In less than a year, a rapid result has been observed as a growing number of Agri-service providers are working in a team and earning much higher income than previous years. Thousands of farmers are accessing specialized services and harvesting better crops. NAAFCO’s sales have increased and they are now investing more to expand the strategy in new regions and crops. International experts were also brought on board to train the local farmers about spraying, fertilizing, and irrigation. The professional spraying services created an opportunity to get better specialized services locally and created new job opportunities for local communities.


The takeaways from the strategic approach tools and tactics for agro-input market in Bangladesh:

Strategic Approach includes consumer segmentation and differentiated marketing strategy. In consumer segmentation, geographic location, demographics, purchase behaviour and ease of access play a vital role. On the other hand, a marketing strategy asks for effective campaigns to attract various market segments within the target market. AVC facilitated the NAAFCO brand by injecting the NAAFCO corporate logo on all products, retaining strong identities as sub-brands of the NAAFCO master brand and striving for visual uniformity in packaging and marketing materials. In this case experimental marketing of a distribution chain and a differentiated marketing strategy for consumers were utilized together to reach their targets. Point of Sales (POS) branding for dealer and retailer have also been observed. Tangible engagement between farmer and retailer has been established through different activities as well.

Initiatives like AVC’s Learning Lunch ensures collaborative learning, adaptation and inclusive participation of the entire AVC staff. This will surely facilitate employees of different departments to learn the bigger picture, exchange ideas and interpret future interventions more adequately.

Wasel Syed is Manager, Knowledge Management, Monitoring and Evaluation at USAID’s Agricultural Value Chains project and Asif Ahmed Tonmoy is an Intern working with Knowledge Management team.