What do we mean by 'service provision'?

Shufia Begum, a ‘Barefoot Service Provider’ providing ‘last mile’ services to her fellow tea growers in northern Bangladesh. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange

Shufia Begum, a ‘Barefoot Service Provider’ providing ‘last mile’ services to her fellow tea growers in northern Bangladesh. Credit: Traidcraft Exchange

George Williams talks us through Traidcraft Exchange’s thinking and approach.

Skim through any Traidcraft Exchange programme or project report and you will find mention of ‘developing service providers’, ‘strengthening service provision’ – or words to that effect.  These rather opaque terms refer to a fundamental component of our overall programme approach to empowering small producers. 

All businesses depend on other organisations to fulfil their aims.  Some of these service organisations are business entities themselves and some are from the public sector.  For example, previously when I worked for a social enterprise we depended on the ‘services’ of an external transport company (basically a colleague’s husband with a big old hatchback with a spacious boot!) to take our products from our warehouse at one end of town, to our shop at the other.  We also depended on the services of a design consultant, who helped us develop new product ranges.  We depended on an external accountant to pull together our end of year accounts, and an IT support company to maintain and upgrade our web-shop. 

In Traidcraft Exchange’s overseas programmes we work closely with local service providers to ensure that the small producers and business-people we work with have access to the information, resources and skills needed to grow their enterprises.  Our intention is to develop the ‘enabling environment’ required for inclusive sustainable growth.  A key principle is not to replicate existing services, but to strengthen the links between existing service providers and the farmers and business people we are working with.  When appropriate we also help develop the skills and knowledge of these service providers to enable them to deliver services that are relevant and effective for their clients.

We can categorise the service providers we engage with into four rough groups.

Public service providers: these are essentially government employees with a mandate to provide specialist technical support.  They include for example, extension officers from Departments of Agriculture who help farmers take-up new agricultural techniques and address specific issues such as pest infestation.  In many of the contexts where we work, these service providers struggle to meet their outreach targets because delivering services to small farmers one-by-one over large areas where the infrastructure is poor is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.  By building the links between these public service providers and the producer institutions supported by our programmes (e.g. Self Help Groups and Associations), farmers who previously struggled to access this support are now able to take-up the recommendations and advice of these highly qualified specialists.  At the same time, these government employees are able to extend their outreach and meet their targets.

Private service providers: these are business people with specialist expertise that offer this for a fee.  Where we have worked with craft businesses for example, these service providers have been experts in design skills, production management, accounting, marketing and other related disciplines.  Traidcraft Exchange has at times helped build the skills of these service providers, both in terms of content (updating subject matter knowledge and skills, for example on how to access information on the latest design trends), and with the ‘softer skills’ of service delivery.  These include for example: tools and processes that help with understanding client needs; ways to tailor services to needs; how to transfer knowledge and skills effectively using the principles of active learning.

Embedded service providers: over the years Traidcraft Exchange has come to understand that in many contexts smallholder farmers take advice and recommendations (a form of service) when they purchase necessary inputs from local agri-input traders.  For example, when farmers buy seeds from local traders, they often ask for advice on how best to plant these seeds, on their irrigation needs, fertiliser requirements and so on.  Over the years we’ve learnt two things about this dynamic.  Firstly, in many cases agri-input traders have quite limited knowledge of agricultural topics: their specialism is in trading, not in the technicalities of farming.  Secondly, often these traders don’t see much business potential in the small farmers who individually buy only very small quantities of input, and usually the lower value items.  As a result, traders tend not to expend too much time or energy on these clients.  In response to these two dynamics, Traidcraft Exchange’s programme staff work hard to build the relationships with these traders and to offer them training and support on business skills that can help them grow their businesses.  A critical part of this is to bring the agri-input traders around to the view that word of mouth is a very powerful marketing method.  If they provide a good quality product and service to one of the small farmers participating in our programmes, she or he is likely to tell the 24-29 other farmers in her/his village-level group, and this information is likely to spread quickly to the 100s of other small farmer members of their sub-district association and potentially to the 1000s of members at the district level.  Agri-input traders we’ve worked with in this way have seen their turnover and profits double in an 18 month period as a result of this change of approach!  At the same time, we seek to involve the traders alongside the public service providers when they’re providing technical training to farmers on relevant topics.  In this way, the agri-traders, alongside the small farmers, learn more about specific agricultural techniques and approaches which are relevant when they then sell product to their clients – thereby developing their ability to provide a better quality ‘embedded’ service.

Grassroots service providers: in some instances, services need to be available within the village context in order for them to reach the so-called ‘last mile of service delivery’.  For example, in our work with small tea growers in the extreme north of Bangladesh, Traidcraft Exchange has developed a cadre of ‘Barefoot Service Providers’ who provide advice to their fellow small tea growers on best practice in the cultivation and harvesting of tea.  In many cases these service providers are well known to the local ‘Bought Leaf Factories’ providing a marketing channel for tea growers and a source of green leaf for the factories.  In cotton-growing areas of Odisha, India, our programme has trained women smallholders on the production of low-cost bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides needed for organic cotton production.  These farmers have then established businesses which sell these inputs to neighbouring villages, but also provide training and advice on how to use them, when, where and why.  In Tanzania our programme with beekeepers has developed the skills of a cadre of local beekeepers who provide training on apiculture, honey harvesting and quality management.  Their services are available to all local beekeepers for a fee.

In each context where we work the focus and balance of our engagement with these different groups of local service providers varies depending upon availability and need.  In all cases the overall aim is to build an enabling eco-system of services that supports the ongoing growth of the producer institutions and businesses, even after the Traidcraft Exchange programme has withdrawn to focus its resources and energies in other localities and supply chains.

George Williams is Traidcraft Exchange’s Impact and Learning Manager

Get in touch at programmes@traidcraft.org

Tom Sharman