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A Holistic Approach to Strategy Implementation

Many food and agribusiness companies across the value chain are reassessing their strategies in light of significant ongoing industry shifts. Among these shifts, changing consumer preferences now require the food distribution chain to deliver healthier and more environmentally friendly products; advances in technology provide stakeholders with access to unprecedented volumes of information; consolidation at multiple levels is changing the competitive landscape as well as supplier-customer relationships; production innovations allow food to be grown in new ways; and capital from new investors is enabling a startup scene in the industry. However, simply adjusting a strategy to address the evolving environment will not be enough to succeed. Success also requires effectively implementing that new strategy.

Most leaders realize that good results call for both a good strategy AND good strategy implementation. Unfortunately, all too often implementation planning is too narrow in focus, targeted at just one or two of a large set of decisions that must be made. Without proper attention paid to a holistic set of organizational elements, a good strategy may still fail.

Peter Johnson, executive in residence at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, describes successful strategy implementation as involving both effective coordination and cooperation.

Coordination is the process of aligning activities across an organization. Leaders must decide what degree of coordination between individuals, teams, and businesses will be optimal for the company and its strategy. They must decide how work will flow, what will be shared between businesses, how sharing will occur, who is responsible for resources, where will decision rights reside, etc. The following elements are the levers that can be used to manipulate coordination:

Structure – The way in which the work done by the company is arranged. Will activity be organized by function, by product line, or by geography? Will work be centralized or decentralized? What does the reporting hierarchy look like? How is the senior team composed? An aligned structure ensures the proper teams will be in place to adequately execute the strategy. For example, Airbnb organizes into small geographic teams with high levels of collaboration with global functions to enable local responsiveness while maintaining efficiency.

Processes – The way in which activities are integrated. This element includes how decisions are made, what interfaces are in place between business units or functions, how information flows, how resources are shared, and how work progresses from one stage to another. Without well thought-out processes, strategic objectives may stall. For example, UPS manages all its businesses (air, ground, domestic, international, commercial, residential) through a single pickup and delivery network. The single network process allows UPS to maximize network efficiency and asset utilization.

Cooperation is the process of aligning individuals to behave in the organization’s best interest. In other words, this is how companies influence team members to work according to the new strategy. The following elements are the levers that can be used to increase cooperation:

Controls – Metrics that appropriately measure performance and enable leaders to ascertain how effectively the strategy is being applied and, if necessary, what changes need to be made. Choosing the correct metrics requires clearly understanding the objectives. Metrics can be highly varied, based on individual vs. group achievement, outcomes vs. behaviors, numbers vs. ratings vs. observations. Effective controls allow leaders to determine how to support, reinforce, or improve the strategy. For example, the Oakland Athletics (of Moneyball fame) discarded the common practice of measuring baseball players’ abilities to run, throw, field, and hit and instead used on-base percentage metrics to recruit winning players more economically.

Incentives – Tools used to motivate cooperative behavior, including both extrinsic motivators (pay and bonuses) and intrinsic motivators (recognition, autonomy, purpose).  With proper incentives, team members can effectively help drive a strategy forward. For example, employees at Southwest Airlines can give gratitude points to each other. This practice supports a community culture among employees, which encourages them to contribute to the strategy of making flying a fun, positive experience for customers.

Finally, one critical organizational element impacts both coordination and cooperation:

People – The talent in an organization’s workforce. Leaders must decide what knowledge, skills, and experiences are needed in which positions to successfully integrate the strategy. This may involve hiring new people, moving people to new jobs, ensuring the right mix of attributes on a team, and creating a plan for people development. Having the right people in place can make or break a strategy. For example, in order to meet the economic imperatives it faced in 2014, TheNew York Times took the unusual step of appointing a business executive, rather than someone in its news organization, to an assistant managing editor role.

Kristina Rose, a consultant with The Context Network, notes that the appropriate approach to strategy implementation will depend on a company’s current organization, resources, and portfolio. “But in all cases,” she says, “it is critical to consider the holistic set of elements that will impact the results of the strategy.” Too many leaders focus most of their attention exclusively on structural or incentive levers, when the reality is that successful implementation involves a complex, interwoven web of decisions. The complete architecture created from those decisions must be “clear (understandable across the organization), coherent (all elements fit together in a supportive and reinforcing manner), and relevant (aligned with the strategic objective)” (Johnson). If the levers are aligned correctly, an organization will get the performance desired from its strategy.

Successfully launching a strategy depends on an array of interwoven elements and decisions, just as launching a plane depends on a whole system of maintenance engineers, fuel availability, national and sometimes international airspace regulations, a customer reservation system, a maintained airstrip, and many more factors.

Of course, any shift in strategy requires a simultaneous updating of this system of levers to ensure it services the new strategy appropriately. This holds true during times of planned strategy revamps, growth of the firm over time, expansion of strategy to new geographies, expansion of business portfolio, strategic transformation, etc.

The Context Network, with its broad array of consulting, business, and subject-matter experts, has deep experience with helping clients plan their strategy implementation in a systematic, impactful way. For more information about Context’s implementation support, contact Principal Tray Thomas at


Engineering Culture at Airbnb,
UPS vs. FedEx: Comparing Business Models and Strategies, Investopedia
The True Measures of Success, Harvard Business Review
An Unusual Hire, for Uncommon Times,


New Investments Redefining LATAM Ag & Food Landscape

A confluence of trends has sparked sizeable investment in agriculture and food sectors in Brazil, Argentina, and other Latin American countries. The investments are historically unique, not only because of their scale, but because of who is making them and where they’re coming from. The flow of funds and entrance of new market players has significant implications across the value chain, creating both risks and opportunities for established players.

Sovereign wealth funds gain influence

The first trend revolves around an influx of foreign sovereign wealth fund (SWFs) investments in the region. José Gobbée, senior associate with The Context Network, says, “In recent years, sovereign wealth funds from China and the Middle East have actively acquired assets and invested throughout the agricultural supply chain, from ag inputs to farmland to distribution networks to food manufacturing.”

Gobbee, who is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ties the activities of SWFs in South America to strategic policies emphasizing food security in countries like Saudi Arabia and China. He notes, “Sovereign wealth funds are acting to ensure their countries have access to the resources they’ll need in the future. Recognizing their dependence on food imports, they’re seeking to gain more control of food value chain.”

A USDA report[i] released in April 2018 concurs that China’s investments and acquisition in South American agriculture are closely tied to food security concerns. According to the report, China’s five-year “go global” plan spurred “large-scale, competitive food conglomerates to produce grains, oilseeds, and sugar crops on rented lands … and then to transport these crops back to China to balance supply and demand.” The report also observes that China’s recent investments in pork, ag trading, and farm input companies suggest that acquisition of foreign technology to improve agricultural productivity has become another important objective.

Other SWF activities include the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company’s (SALIC) 28% acquisition of Minerva, the third-largest meat company in Brazil, just one month after Brazilian beef imports to Saudi Arabia were approved. Further SALIC acquisitions in Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, and Colombia are expected in coming years. Additionally, an agricultural fund linked to the Qatar Investment Authority has invested in Adecoagro, one of South America’s largest agribusinesses.

Institutional investors seek alternatives in ag

The second trend driving increased investment in South American agriculture reflects a global shift among institutional investors toward alternate asset categories. Pension funds, hedge funds, and private equity firms are looking beyond traditional asset classes with waning returns toward alternative assets like agriculture that may offer more profitable returns.

Cassandra Oliveira, Context consultant based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, describes a superabundance of new financial resources in the agricultural industry, noting, “Investors are eyeing alternative investments that can achieve higher returns. Ag and food supply chains, as well as farmland, are promising targets.” In addition, she says, agricultural investments are seen by some investors as more stable and less risky than other categories.

Globally, investment in agriculture as an alternate asset category has multiplied fourfold in just 12 years (see Figure 1), with investments in South America second only to North America. And this appears to be just the beginning. Agriculture is still a 3% of the 6.6 trillion that the alternative assets category accounts for. Global ag investments are projected to triple by 2030 according to research conducted by investment analyst GOAGRO in coordination with the Centro de Agronegocios y Alimentos of Austral University.

Venture capital funds are also actively investing in agricultural technology startups in the region, seizing on support from regional governments as well as corporate venture funds. New agtech accelerators in the region include Glocal Managers, SP Ventures, and The Yield Lab LATAM, all established with matching funds from Brazilian and Argentina governments.

Robust potential for expanded footprint, higher productivity

The third driver of agricultural investment in the region reflects a heightened recognition that South America is well positioned to satisfy rising global demand for food, which of course ties into the other two drivers.

Many experts believe South America will supply as much as 50 to 60 percent of the increased food demand from Asia. This belief stems from the region’s inherent potential for yield improvement and land expansion. “While Brazil is already a leading global producer of crops like soybean, the country lags in productivity compared to other leading producers. With technological innovations and infrastructure improvements in the region, yields will certainly improve,” Oliveira says. According to 2016 Food and Agriculture Organization data (FAOSTAT), Brazil’s corn yield averages 39% of U.S. yield, and its soy yield also trails at 83% of the U.S. In addition, Brazil could increase corn and soy area by 10 million hectares in the next five to 10 years, while Argentina could add six to nine million hectares in the same timeframe.

Given the flow of investments in the region, established players and new startups alike are wise to prepare for impacts by asking critical questions, such as:

  • With more foreign ownership of input companies and large farming groups, how should they communicate or market differently?
  • How will closed-loop systems affect competition in the region? For example, South America’s grain handling sector is increasingly facing competition from Asian-owned grain handling companies.
  • Are there opportunities for new partnerships, financial instruments, or distribution agreements with investment groups?
  • How can existing companies make their offering more attractive to outside investors? For instance, many pension funds from European countries will not invest in companies without certifications (i.e., environmental, social, traceability, antibiotic-free, etc.)

Context’s South American team delivers valuable perspective on the changes coming to the industry. With our unique combination of strategy competence, food/ag industry knowledge, and unrivaled experts, we are equipped to provide objective perspective to help companies make informed and rational decisions.

For more information, contact Context Principal Christian Guffy at 


Wild Thing – Resilience Through Rich Oats







Context Global Development (CGD) is partnering with General Mills to develop a community-led initiative to bring a protein- and nutrient-rich oat to traditional oat-consuming communities in Morocco, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.


In the wild, Avena magna has a mind of its own. This 100,000-year-old Moroccan oat, discovered in the 1960s, has two “awns” that act like arms when activated by water, helping the seed drill down into hard mud soils.

Soon, this resilience will help African farmers in climate-stressed environments produce healthier traditional cuisines for the continent. Eric Jackson, a systems biologist and geneticist, has worked for more than 10 years to domesticate the Avena magna oat variety while retaining the plant’s heritage, nutrient-rich profile. The new oat has nearly twice the protein and zinc, double the folic acid, and one-third more iron compared to the common oat.

Through the Rich Oats for Africa (ROA) initiative, CGD is spearheading community-led efforts, in partnership with General Mills to leverage General Mill’s current advances in computational biology and advanced genomics to bring the improved oat to rural farming communities in three priority countries – Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Morocco.

The new oat will directly address acute nutritional needs through culturally relevant oat-based foods in each country. Additionally, the new variety will integrate into existing agricultural and food production systems to help break the cycle of poverty and malnutrition while providing economic opportunities for local communities.

The Difference Nutrition Can Make

  • In Morocco…a nutrient-rich oat would improve dietary diversity and nutrition in a country where 32% of women of child-bearing age are malnourished.
  • In Ethiopia… 40% of pre-school children are stunted because of micronutrient deficiencies in their heavily cereal-based diets.
  • In Nigeria…76% of pre-school children in Nigeria are living with anemia.

In Morocco, the variety’s point of origin, oats are used in traditional breads, such as khobz, bejhrir, and msemen. The crop grows in the Atlas Mountain regions due to its suitability to heavy, clay soils Dr. Benlhabib, a professor from one of CGD’s implementation partners, the Institute of Agronomique et Vétérnaire (IAV) Hassan II, observes, “Since the protein-rich oat is already known to be agronomically suited to Morocco, it offers the promise of improved health and lifespan for Moroccans.” A nutrient-rich oat would improve dietary diversity and nutrition in a country where 32% of women of child-bearing age are malnourished.

On the other side of the continent, Dr. Gemechu Keneni from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) also considers the purpose of nutrient-rich oats as a viable solution to agricultural and nutritional issues in Ethiopia. He says, “By targeting improvements in oats, a crop that farm families within the central highlands rely on for food and fodder, the deployment of a high-protein oat can achieve our purpose of directly improving the nutritional profile of the meals of tens of thousands of low-income families.”

Tiffany Agard, program analyst at CGD, notes that in Ethiopia, despite strong gains in reducing the impact of micronutrient deficiencies, 40% of pre-school children are stunted. She says, “Meeting protein requirements to prevent stunting can be difficult in regions where diets are largely cereal-based. 60% of the oat production in the Central Highland region is consumed on-farm and as much as half of the cropland in focus communities grows oats.” EIAR has incorporated oats, including Avena magna, into its breeding program for plants adapted to marginal and acidic soils because they perform particularly well in these conditions.

For Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, oats can be a new crop opportunity for farmers and processors. “Oats are a viable, new alternative crop for the millions of farmers that currently have limited crop choices within Nigeria’s rainfed Northern states,” states Dr. Oyekunle, plant breeder at the Institute of Agricultural Research. Northern Nigeria, where oats are most suitable, is predominantly a sorghum and millet production region and could benefit from a larger crop mix for economic and nutritional opportunities. Local processors are also engaged in finding more nutritious grain sources for manufactured food products, like crackers, muesli, and granola, which will provide farmers a commercial market for this new crop as well.

ROA is engaging farmer cooperatives, local research institutions, government agencies, small and medium agribusinesses, and other implementation partners to develop an enabling ecosystem for producing and consuming nutrient-rich oats.

ROA began field trials in Morocco in 2017 and expanded to Ethiopia in 2018 to test Avena magna’s agronomic capabilities and farmer responses to the crop. Trials will be established in Nigeria later in 2018.

To learn more about the ROA initiative and implementation partnership opportunities, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development at or 515.225.2204. Visit for more information about Context Global Development.

Gene Editing: How Will European Ruling Impact This Potent Game Changer in the U.S.?

Gaining Consumer Support Remains Key

A July ruling in European Union courts signals a setback to proponents of gene-edited crops. While most scientists argued that crops using new gene-editing technologies should be exempt from restrictions previously imposed on trans gene genetically modified crops, this argument did not prevail in the EU.

Regulatory freedom to operate is key. While regulatory support for gene-edited crops has occurred in the U.S., the European ruling makes it clear that securing regulatory and consumer support continues to be crucial and not assured.

Gene editing gripped the imagination of all facets of the agriculture industry, from seed companies to food companies to livestock breeders to ag tech investors. Earlier gene editing tools like zinc finger nucleases (ZFNs) and TALENS paved the way for newer, faster, less expensive, and more reliable tools, of which CRISPR-Cas9 is currently the most widely embraced.

Used in plant breeding, CRISPR-Cas9 can selectively snip a gene that carries a negative trait and replace it with one carrying a desirable trait from the same plant species. Genetic changes that would take years or decades with the trial-and-error process of traditional breeding can now be achieved in a matter of months. Accordingly, agricultural possibilities are seemingly limitless, with scientists already producing mushrooms that don’t brown or bruise from handling, waxy corn with disease resistance and drought tolerance, and soybeans that produce healthier oil, to name a few.

Agricultural technology and investor conferences around the world have been showcasing gene editing and spurring lively debates about the technology’s potential and challenges. There’s no question that gene editing technology could have immense impact, paralleling or even eclipsing previous industry innovations such as crop protection discoveries in the 1970s and 1980s and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the mid-1990s to current time.

However, regulatory and consumer acceptance will be paramount, as we have learned (and continue to learn) from the introduction of GMO crops and products. With 6.8 million people added to the planet every month, it’s clear that both genetic modification AND gene editing can play a crucial role in increasing productivity and improving the sustainability of our food production.

Development is progressing fast, but seed and food companies in our industry still have an opportunity to engage consumers by thoughtfully prioritizing which genetically edited crops are brought to market. You never have a second chance to make a first impression.

While it may be tempting to focus on first on genetically edited products that are farmer centric (i.e., tackle farmer concerns such as weed and insect resistance and yield enhancement), these benefits don’t speak to consumers nor do they stimulate consumers’ support or acceptance of the technology. We need to talk to consumers right from the start to find out what benefits they value and what changes they fear.

It will be valuable to introduce “consumer-centric” products that offer attributes valued in today’s marketplace: healthier, more flavorful, longer lasting foods. Furthermore, to support consumer adoption, new products must set the gold standard for consumer transparency, going beyond mandatory disclosures.

The Context Network is uniquely positioned to help companies across the value chain by prioritizing opportunities in gene editing. In many instances, the products that can be on the market most quickly (i.e., Bt resistance, yield enhancement) are not necessarily those with consumer-facing benefits. We can help facilitate discussions and connections with all levels of the value chain, starting with grocers and retailers to understand their wants and needs. Furthermore, gene editing opportunities exist for everything from multinationals to mid-stage companies to boutiques, and Context can assist in identifying strategic partners and licensees.

For more information, contact Mike Borel or James Mann

*Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 2018. Genome Editing in Agriculture: Methods, Applications, and Governance—A paper in the series on The Need for Agricultural Innovation to Sustainably Feed the World by 2050. IssuePaper60. CAST, Ames, Iowa.

Building The Business Case For Custom Planting

Embracing technology does not come easily to all farmers, and Ed Kasper sees a business opportunity in that reality. Kasper, a farmer and precision ag equipment dealer in northern Illinois, is preparing to offer custom planting services in his area. He figures he can share the benefits of new planter technology with farmers who aren’t ready or able to purchase the technology themselves.

Those benefits? With planting technologies improving by leaps and bounds in recent years, the discussion revolves primarily around higher yields.

  • The latest variable-rate seed meters put seed in the ground at different rates depending on field conditions. This allows a farmer to use just the right amount of seed – not planting too little in fertile ground or too much in soil that doesn’t produce as well. The result? Higher yields and less waste.
  • Down-pressure technologies use electronic sensors and hydraulic cylinders to keep the planter in constant contact with the ground so that seeds are planted at an optimal depth. Planting seeds too close to the surface or too deep can dramatically reduce yields.
  • Another technology controls seed movement from the planter to the ground so that seeds are planted one at a time with equal spacing. Rather than planting at a traditional 4 or 5 mph, a farmer can plant at up to 10 mph while maintaining proper spacing of seed, which can significantly boost yields.

Another important benefit of new planter technologies is that farmers can plant more acres during the all-important planting window. Farms are becoming larger, and that means producers feel more pressure than ever to plant when it’s exactly the right time to get seed in the ground.

Farmers are adopting new planter technology in two ways. Some – particularly those with larger operations – are buying new planters, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others are retrofitting existing planters with new technology, which can mean investing $50,000 to $100,000.

Doug Griffin, Principal at The Context Network, notes that operators of large farms can easily see the payoff when they spend that amount of money. Those with smaller operations must look much more carefully at potential expenditures, particularly with today’s lower commodity prices. They may be cash-constrained or nervous about using new technology. In addition, they might be stretching out the life of their equipment so they can invest available cash in more land.

“Any capital investment a farmer makes is always carefully scrutinized,” Griffin says. “And as long as commodity prices stay low, farmers are reluctant to make big investments in technology – but by not using new planter technologies, they’re giving up yield.”


The ever-present tension between investment and yield creates the niche for custom planting. A custom planter could serve farmers who won’t use the technology, can’t afford the technology, or don’t know how to use the technology. The business model would not be new; other custom for-hire services are common in agriculture. “If you hire someone else to spray, why not hire someone else to plant?” Griffin asks.

He notes that any move into custom planting would need to start with building the business case around the concept, considering the risks, benefits, and payback of such an operation. Risks and rewards will vary from location to location.

Brett Peelen, a farmer and precision agriculture technician in northwest Iowa, agrees. The biggest question, he says, is “Does it pencil out?”

He says custom planting rates in his area would make such a venture dicey. “The math doesn’t work out here yet,” he says. “The challenge will be finding that good operator … and finding the acres … I see it more as a way for a farmer to get extra income and bring a kid back home to the farm.”

Across the border in Illinois, Kasper has meticulously counted the acres he would need to make a go of it in his area. He’s also looked carefully at how many acres he can fit into a shrinking planting window. In his area, near Lake Michigan, the planting window in the past was two weeks; today, because of changing weather patterns, it’s closer to nine days. To make a custom planting operation work, he would focus first on farmers to his south, where the planting window opens earlier, and then “follow Mother Nature” north.

Griffin says all farmers are from Missouri – the Show Me State – when it comes to changes in farming operations. He suggests they test custom planting – for example, for one year or on 100 acres – to see the improved technology results for themselves.  “Let the customers experience the difference for themselves,” says Griffin.

Kasper says he understands farmers’ caution. Planting is the foundation for a farmer’s operations that year; everything else is built upon it. “Your corn planter is the lead engine of your train of consequences,” he says. “If your planter screws it up, your train goes off the track.”

Education is key to growing the market. Griffin says: “If I were an equipment dealer, I would be talking to my coop or ag retailer about the concept. If I were a coop, or retailer, I would be talking to my customers about improving yields with new planter technology. Equipment dealers must help educate retailers and coops that could use this, and coops must educate their customers.”

“This is an opportunity for equipment dealers and retailers to add value,” he says. They can offer a service that no one else offers and provides an opportunity to solve a pain point for a customer that otherwise would not have accessed the technology.

Kasper says that once you educate growers about the benefits of new technology, they’ll want it. Peelen agrees. “It’s an exciting time to be in precision ag. If you can get a guy in the cab to see what the planter does, it will win him over. That’s going to make this market explode.”

Kasper is betting his Iowa counterpart is right. “We’re going to start the ball rolling,” he says. “My philosophy is to always say yes if there’s an opportunity.”

Context has many years of experience in helping organizations in the equipment industry identify and execute go-to-market strategies that address customer needs in changing economic environments. Through deep business knowledge and a broad network of growers, dealers, and experts, Context can glean current market information to gain an understanding of what expectations exist in the particular market cycle.

For more information, contact Doug Griffin at

The Context Network Invests in Women in Agribusiness

The Context Network made a strong commitment as a diamond sponsor of the Women in Agribusiness Summit on September 24-26, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.

Sometimes three minutes is all you need.


Priyamvadha “Priya” Sivakumar made the most of her three minutes when she met Context Principal Asha Lundal in passing at the Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Summit two years ago. Sivakumar was working toward her master’s degree in agribusiness when she was invited to work as a student volunteer at the summit, where she met a number of female agribusiness professionals.

While brief, her conversation with Lundal stood out. “I hadn’t realized an organization like Context existed. It seemed too good to be true, a place where I could merge my consulting experience with my passion for food and agriculture,” Sivakumar says.

Returning to the WIA Summit the following year on a coveted student scholarship, Sivakumar had already done her homework. Throughout the year, she had reached out to others at Context; at the summit, she reconnected with Lundal. That led to interviews with Context executives and an offer to join the firm as a senior business analyst. “It worked out perfectly,” Sivakumar says. “Before I even finished my graduate work, I had the perfect job.”

Sivakumar’s passion for food and agriculture has deep roots. As a child in India, she would sneak into her mother’s “forbidden” kitchen to concoct snacks, experimenting with spices. While studying food process engineering as an undergraduate, she developed a commercial product (now under patent) that shaved hours off the preparation of a traditional gravy, while preserving its taste and nutritional value.

But it wasn’t until she worked for several years as a project management analyst in telecommunications for one of the world’s largest consulting firms that she realized she wouldn’t be satisfied until she merged her professional expertise with her interest in food and agriculture. This led her to move to the United States and enroll in Texas A&M University’s graduate program in agribusiness.

Sivakumar credits the WIA Summit with providing a collegial forum where women in the industry can connect and learn from one another. “Walking into a room filled with 500 executives could feel intimidating, but it doesn’t. Everyone is friendly and wants to see you advance in the industry,” she says.

She was thrilled to learn that Context, a WIA sponsor for three years, stepped up to diamond-level sponsorship of this year’s event, which was held September 24-26, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.

Lundal also cheered Context’s increased investment. She notes that the firm has long recognized the power of assembling project teams with diverse perspectives to solve clients’ toughest problems — whether that diversity stems from gender, ethnicity, age, education, or geography. “What WIA stands for is consistent with Context’s values,” Lundal says. “It is meaningful to me personally – and it also makes good business sense.”


The sponsorship is a natural fit, says Lauren Chupp, Associate Principal at The Context Network. The WIA Summit highlights networking, the foundation of Context’s business model. “It’s something we’re really good at – relationships and focusing on people,” she says. “I have seen, and experienced myself, that core strength we have as a company.”

Chupp says she has benefitted from strong mentors within Context, including a principal who has provided professional help and advice for more than a decade. She calls that generosity of spirit a “critical piece” of Context’s business success.

Photo: Gloria Basse, Lauren Chupp and Jessica Langley of The Context Network

Strength in numbers

The need for women in agribusiness is widely acknowledged but hard to quantify accurately, notes Joy O’Shaughnessy, managing director of HighQuest Partners, which initiated WIA. While nearly equal numbers of men and women in the United States earn agribusiness-related college degrees, [1] they do not equally share employment in agribusiness companies.

Recognition of this gap, however, can help close it. O’Shaughnessy says the WIA was born after her colleagues noticed “a distinct lack of women” at a major industry conference in 2011. She says women were being overlooked when companies chose someone to send to industry conferences – leaving them a step behind their male colleagues in continuing professional education.

“We want women to be informed and educated… If you were to take the word women out of our title, WIA would be a fantastic industry conference,” O’Shaughnessy says. “But putting women in the title helps companies recognize that they can’t just send the same person to this conference they send to all the others.”

In 2012, 212 people attended the WIA Summit. That number grew to 450 in 2013. Now in its seventh year, the conference sold out in August; more than 765 women were registered to attend.

Leadership training

In addition to providing professional development opportunities, the WIA Summit helps attendees build leadership skills and increase their presence in the business community. This year Marianne Smith Edge, Context senior associate, helped provide training in a session titled “Landing a Board Position.” A former senior vice president for the International Food Information Council and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Smith Edge draws on her many years of board engagement, including her current role on the Board of Editors for Nutrition Today and previous terms on the USDA National Research, Extension, Education, & Economics Advisory Board, among other boards.

Gloria Basse, Context senior associate and WIA board member, calls such training critical. “We need to develop and grow women leaders,” she says.

Basse stepped into WIA leadership after attending one of the early conferences. She noticed that no presentations dealt specifically with livestock, her specialty. “The question for me was, how do I find, in a sea of people, the people with whom I really want to network?”

Her answer was to initiate a dinner the next year for women in protein, an event that has become increasingly popular each year, drawing together women with similar professional interests. She also joined the WIA board four years ago. “It has given me a terrific opportunity to meet other senior women leaders,” she says. “If I would have had exposure to WIA early in my career, I would have had a much different experience.”

It’s important, Basse says, for every professional woman to build a strategic network of women and men, inside and outside her company, who can help her advance her career. The connections a woman can make through WIA enhance that network, she says.

Networking toward an evolving future

As agribusiness has evolved, Lundal and Chupp note, Context has grown from its origins into a global strategy and management consulting firm working for clients across the entire food system and across geographies. “We’re playing in a much broader space,” Lundal says. “It’s business-critical for us to have and leverage a variety of perspectives in unique and valued ways for our clients. There are legitimate drivers for thinking about the makeup of our team.”

Chupp notes that the changing nature of Context’s work has attracted increasingly diverse individuals, with more women and people of varied backgrounds making important contributions. “We’re in an evolution, right alongside our clients who are experiencing parallel changes to their workforces and their customers. Ultimately, we’re taking steps to ensure our teams reflect the world we live in and do business in,” she says.

Among those steps, Lundal says, are progressive approaches to employment that attract today’s agribusiness and food industry professionals, including millennials and Generation Zs. For instance, Context was an early adopter of virtual teams. Such teams enable the company to leverage key talent around the globe regardless of physical location and encourage its team members to live where they wish and to engage in projects about which they are passionate. She admits such flexibility is key to her own relationship with Context.

She also notes that, in the changing environment, some of the strongest contributors are women.

“I personally want everyone to understand Context’s commitment to diversity and the value we see in it,” she says, calling the WIA venue “very aligned … to what we think it takes for us and our clients to be successful.”

Sivakumar spread the word early about the upcoming conference. “I am interested in making sure other women get the benefit of this,” she says.

Lundal sees a payoff in the future. “Today I am the only female principal among 12 at Context,” she says. “But with the talented women in our organization, it’s clear I won’t be alone for long.”

The Women in Agribusiness Summit brings together women who are passionate about agribusiness and the need to recruit, retain, and advance women in the industry. It provides an opportunity to network, learn about industry outlooks and trends, and develop valuable professional skills.



The Future Face of Service

Farmers have long relied on trusted service providers to advise them on equipment, crop inputs, accounting, and more. The concept of “great service” is intertwined with the familiar face of an agronomist or local tractor dealer, a warm handshake, and a conversation in the field or across a desk. While the need for trustworthy service isn’t going anywhere, The Context Network predicts a ground-shifting change in the character of service that farmers will expect in the future.

During the next 10-25 years, technological advancements in precision agriculture, coupled with disruptive entrants in the market, will dramatically redefine the service-based ag economy. While relationships will remain a critical aspect of service, they won’t hinge upon any particular individual. Rather, service will center on precision ag platforms that help deliver insights. The Context Network Principal Doug Griffin says, “The most valued service providers will be those who can interpret a grower’s data and make smart recommendations with the profitability of a farmer’s entire enterprise in mind.”

Based on recent conversations with industry experts, Griffin recognizes big opportunities—and potential blind spots—for the ag equipment sector in this future service landscape. He observes, “Equipment dealers and manufacturers have a head start with precision ag tools that collect valuable data, so the equipment channel is well positioned to deepen advisory relationships by helping farmers understand their data and creating complete solutions that boost farmers’ efficiency and profitability.”    

However, dealers and manufacturers who rest on their laurels could find themselves displaced by new entrants with a price-first/service-second offer. As ag equipment become smaller, autonomous, and more interoperable, web-based equipment sales are truly viable, which opens the door for new purchasing venues. Griffin says, “The equipment market isn’t immune to direct retailer or virtual retailer concepts we’ve seen gain traction in the crop input and ag retail market. To remain relevant, equipment dealers and OEMs need to develop differentiated services that are less about selling equipment and more about creating equipment-based solutions to growers’ problems.”


For example, instead of the traditional model in which a farmer owns his own equipment, the farmer of the future might prefer to pay an annual fee that ensures timely access to adequate horsepower to farm “x” number of acres and perform “y” operations. In the model of the future, equipment services providers will “prescribe” equipment fleets that are seasonally timely and impeccably matched to the needs of a farmer’s operation.

Griffin says this change is already underway as farmers seek to minimize the uncertainty and risk of owning and maintaining increasingly expensive and technologically complex equipment. He says, “Farmers absolutely want the capabilities the latest equipment provides, but they don’t necessarily want that asset on their balance sheet. They’re already shifting the financial risk of owning equipment up the channel to dealers and manufacturers through leasing models and maintenance agreements.” In the future, complete equipment solutions are likely to emerge that supplant traditional leasing, financing and ownership models. This will have a significant impact on equipment manufacturers and dealers as capital requirements change and profit realization shifts.

With these changes in the marketplace, the equipment channel has an opportunity to secure its place as “trusted advisor” role by delivering complete solutions and services, rather than merely products. The Context Network has many years of experience in helping agriculture equipment organizations identify future trends and develop strategies for succeeding in changing environments. Through our deep business knowledge and broad network of growers, dealers, manufacturers and other experts, we can help anticipate and plan for long-term market opportunities.

For more information, contact Doug Griffin at