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What We’re Reading


Jason Nickerson, Senior Program Manager

Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century


Nigeria is the largest country in Africa (by population and GDP), whose citizens speak more than 520 languages and have lived through eight political coups since the country’s 1960 independence. When I first traveled to Nigeria and experienced the sociopolitical nuance and economic disparity firsthand, I felt completely overwhelmed. To help make sense of my experience, I turned to Richard Bourne’s immensely readable account of the pre- and post-colonial history that shaped present-day Nigeria. His personal account provided context and framework that improved my understanding of this influential and complicated culture.





Tiffany Agard, Program Associate

Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons 


This powerful collection of essays details the history of agrarian policy in the U.S. that has led to large concentrated land holdings. It equally highlights movements that have sought or are seeking to reconnect communities with access to both urban and rural land and encourages equitable distribution of food resources from the land. There is a strong focus on how different cultural communities interact with the land, which I think is critically important as we, coming from Western backgrounds, work in agricultural development, primarily in Africa with various systems of land ownership and cultural traditions.

To learn more about the Context Global Development team and its work, visit




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Yams – West Africa’s Corner on the Market



Yam yields in Nigeria and Ghana are low, largely because the quality of seed yams sourced from the informal seed system is poor and disease pressure is high.

A project funded by a multi-year grant to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to strengthen the entire yam value chain, from smallholder farmers to yam processors and international exporters.

(Photo: Yams produced in Nigeria)

Yams present a conundrum in West Africa. While consumer demand is high, yam yields are chronically low, stymied by poor seed quality, intensive labor requirements, disease pressure, limited use of fertilizer or crop protection, and more.

West Africa accounts for 96% of the world’s yam production, with Nigeria alone producing two-thirds of the global yam crop. Ghana, also in West Africa, is the second largest yam producer, with about 10% of the global total.


Challenging, But Profitable

Most of the yam production is by smallholder farmers in the Savannah region, with farm sizes of about one-half hectare (1.25 acres). “Farmers in this savannah region are usually resource poor and rely on rainfall for irrigation. They experience some of the highest rainfall variability in the world, both within a season and year-to-year,” says CGD Senior Program Manager Jason Nickerson.Furthermore, smallholder yam production is uniquely labor intensive. Because cultivated yams produce no seeds, tubers or pieces of tuber must be planted in prepared soil to grow new plants. Prior to planting, the soil must be mounded to receive the seed.

As soon as plants begin to grow, a framework or trellis is needed to support the 35- to 40-foot vines. Yams are often grown next to trees or intercropped with maize or sorghum where the stalks can provide support. At the beginning of the dry season, the vines die away, and the tubers are ready to be harvested. Typically, tubers weigh between 6 to 12 pounds (3-6 kg) each, although special production systems can yield tubers as large as 60 pounds (about 27 kg). Yams are usually dug out by hand to avoid damaging the tubers.

When harvested undamaged, yams are among the most storable root and tuber crops. Stored yam tubers provide food security in the dry season when other crops can fail, thus serving as a crucial, natural hedge for farmers and their families. Moreover, consumer demand for yam is robust in West Africa, rewarding farmers for their efforts.


Where Is the Research?

Against this backdrop, it is notable that yam value chains in Nigeria and Ghana are underdeveloped, with the formal seed system contributing only ~2% of total yam planted area in Nigeria.This translates into low yam yields in both countries, largely because the quality of seed yams sourced from the informal system is poor.

Given yam’s pivotal role in the lives and livelihoods of farmers, it is somewhat surprising that yam has not received the research and financial support needed to set a clear path toward increasing the value of yam cultivation, according to CGD Managing DirectorMark Nelson.

The development of a formal yam seed system is critical to improving yields in Nigeria and Ghana, but it has been hindered by several factors including low seed propagation rates, a lack of collaboration between the research community and processors, and farmer uncertainty around the benefit of purchasing improved seeds. As a result, the yam value chain remains unattractive to private sector investment.

While the Nigerian government has made some investments in yam, programs have been modest. Opportunities to meaningfully improve the value chain remain. In contrast, governmental support for yam in Ghana is further along. The difference represents an opportunity to promote a shared learning agenda.

At present, a champion to drive needed change has not emerged: (1) industrial companies are not of scale, (2) while support is present in Ghana, the Nigerian government has not yet made yam a priority crop, and (3) few donors have invested in yam-centric programs.


Opportunity for Development

commodity-report-person-2Improving the value chain for yam seed producers in Ghana and Nigeria requires a systematic and multifaceted approach. On the supply side, limited production of early generation seed is a major constraint toward improving yam yield. Yam is traditionally propagated by tuber, with a low multiplication rate of less than 1:10, compared to 1:200 in many cereals.
The situation is worsened by the long growth cycle of yam. The introduction and adoption of rapid multiplication technologies developed and piloted by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and partners, such as temporary immersion bioreactors, aeroponics, and adapted yam minisett technology can increase the rate of propagation, improve production economics, and accelerate the introduction of improved varieties.

On the demand side, yam processors are reluctant to invest in new processing capacity without an assurance of a steady supply of high-quality tubers. Conversely, private seed companies are reluctant to invest in high-tech seed production processes without strong indications that farmers are willing to pay a premium price for improved seed.

The Yam Improvement for Income and FoodSecurity in West Africa (YIIFSWA) project, granted to IITA in September 2011 by the Gates Foundation, is a two-phase, multiyear program that addresses challenges facing yam production in Nigeria and Ghana. Key objectives of YIIFSWA include strengthening smallholder farmer-market linkages and establishing sustainable improvements in production of clean, improved seed yam.

IITA is leading the project. Phase two of the project commenced in November 2016. Intended beneficiaries of the project extend through the entire supply chain from seed producers, farmers, processors, traders, and their surrounding communities.  

Under YIFSWA II, CGD is working with IITA, the national partners, and Sahel Capital to build the first formal seed yam marketplace in Nigeria and Ghana. Accelerating market uptake of improved varieties is critical to the goals of the project. By stimulating widespread adoption and ensuring the impact of breakthrough seed production technologies, the project seeks to solve the dual challenges of high scarcity and low investment in the high-quality seed yam market.

The project team is working closely with private seed companies to implement business plans and organize trials demonstrating the value of quality seed yam. These efforts are aimed improving and enabling the scale-up of private seed companies.

CGD’s Nelson says: “It’s rewarding to be able to tap our private sector experience to offer guidance on business models that sharpen the marketing and operational skills of private seed companies in Nigeria and Ghana using aeroponic systems for basic seed yam production. Working with partners, we believe there is tremendous potential to improve the economics across the yam value chain by strengthening the early generation seed (EGS) system and localizing seed production.”


To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.

Agribusiness Consulting Proves Right Fit for Outscaling Technology and Grant Management



Agricultural development donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expect from grantees rigorous reporting and accountability to ensure proper allocation of funds. Context Global Development (CGD) works closely with grantees and integr
ates into multi-partner programs to coordinate activities that achieve targeted outcomes.

From left to right: CGD Senior Program Manager Jason Nickerson, YIIFSWteam-perspective-topA-II Project Leader Dr. Norbert Maroya, and Sahel Capital Consultant Temi Adegoroye display high-yielding seed yam tubers propagated using aeroponics system for rapid multiplication of improved, disease-free plantlets.



Each year, agricultural development donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fund grants and programs focused on providing low-income people with the tools to lead healthy, productive lives and thus lift themselves out of poverty. Portions of this funding focus on sub-Saharan Africa to stimulate sustainable increase in incomes for smallholder farmers and contribute to their food security and economic development.

The Gates Foundation has ambitious goals to catalyze development in African agriculture, and to meet these goals, they build multi-stakeholder partnerships to address complex challenges throughout crop value chains. Third-party, independent consultants are frequently contracted to coordinate program activities, provide business and financial advisory services, and maintain compliance requirements.

Side-by-side Participation

As an independent, non-profit organization founded in 2017 by Context Network, Context Global Development (CGD) has quickly proven itself an able and adept partner to donors and program managers alike. Context formed CGD to be an implementation partner on programs that seek to outscale commercially sustainable technologies to overcome value chain bottlenecks and demand constraints.

In its first year, CGD was selected by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Potato Center (CIP) to provide advisory, organizational, and management support and financial analysis for two recent Gates-funded grants (see accompanying articles, Yams – West Africa’s Corner on the Market and Quality Cassava Begins with Improved Seed). “For their grants, the Gates Foundation requires a rigorous amount of oversight, communication, and accountability to assure that funds are being properly purposed and that projects are progressing toward stated goals,” says Will Rogers, CGD’s Africa lead based in Accra, Ghana. “We’ve worked closely with IITA and CIP to be a fully informed participant and to help coordinate the activities needed to move the grants forward.”

Making Hard Decisions

The ability to make unbiased, objective recommendations is often at the heart of CGD’s work. For the IITA YIIFSWA-II grant, one of the benchmarks established by the Gates Foundation was to engage local seed companies to produce yam foundation seed. Working together with Sahel Capital (a Nigeria-based consulting firm focused on unlocking the potential of agriculture and nutrition in West Africa), CGD selected 15 seed companies for consideration. These companies’ managerial background and experience, financial positions, and physical capabilities were vetted, and three companies were selected and presented to IITA for the project.

“As an independent agricultural development consultant, CGD has the commercial and development expertise to provide objective decisions needed to implement a grant,” Rogers says. “We share the grant’s vision and support grantees with objective analysis. That is the value of an effective agricultural development consultant.”


“Working closely with grantees, Context Global Development teams seamlessly embed as advisors, trainers, or managers into the core business operations of public-private partnerships.”


– Managing Director Mark Nelson of Context Global Development

Talking the Talk

As the independent “sister” organization to Context Network, CGD taps into its 25 years of experience providing services to agriculture, biotechnology, and food companies and to government entities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Accordingly, CGD can truly speak the language of the private-sector parties that are central to maximizing societal impact in implementation of agricultural development programs around the world.

CGD Managing DirectorMark Nelson describes how this common vernacular has impacted the YIIFSWA-II project: “CGD teams seamlessly embed as advisors, trainers, and managers into the core business operations of IITA with a shared vision to harness our commercial and development expertise to maximize the value of agricultural resources in Nigeria and Ghana. In doing so, we intend to catalyze public-private partnerships that result in meaningful and lasting change by outscaling breakthrough technologies that improve the access to improved inputs for smallholder yam farmers in West Africa.”

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at

The Context Network is the world’s premier business management and strategy consulting firm providing services to agriculture, biotechnology, and food companies, and to government entities and NGOs.

Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.

Breaking the Bottlenecks in High-quality Seed Systems

breaking-bottlenecks-shutterstock_33409396In 2014, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Bureau of Food Security partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and other international donors to leverage significant seed system changes by breaking the bottlenecks in early generation seed (EGS) and other forms of quality seed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through this program’s lead partner, Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), Context Network* was selected in 2016 to apply a previously vetted methodology to analyze seed value chains and identify the actors and actions needed to produce an adequate supply of breeder and foundation seed on a sustainable basis. 


*Context Global Development (CGD) was subsequently founded as a sister organization of the Context Network for the implementation of development interventions.  


In many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, farmers face a severely limited supply of high-quality seed. Although it is widely understood that early generation seed (EGS) systems lead to healthier, more consistent crops and stronger yields, many factors in the developing world create hurdles to such systems. Most farmers throughout the region are poor, relying on relatively low-quality seeds reserved from the previous year’s harvest. Therefore, demand for improved seed can initially be hard to gauge. Moreover, a host of other factors often stymie effective seed value chains, from poorly functioning national variety release systems, to weak policies and misplaced subsidies, to counterfeit seeds that undermine farmer confidence in the formal seed market. “It’s a complex problem that can’t be resolved with a single fix,” says Context Network Principal Mark Nelson. “We recognized that our first step was to untangle the underlying reasons EGS systems underperform within each country for each crop. From there, we were able to identify strategic recommendations for transforming respective seed value chains.”

Early in 2016, Context worked with lead implementer AfricaLead/Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) to assemble a team of seed experts and in-country consultants, effectively merging both firms’ management consulting know-how with the deep insights of industry experts. Together, the team developed a field research process that tapped the collective knowledge of hundreds of key stakeholders in the seed industry—ranging from farmers, seed multipliers and retailers, and seed company managers to government officials and managers within nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Nelson says, “This collaborative and stakeholder-centric approach is a hallmark of Context’s way of developing solutions to resolve systemic problems.” The Context team’s in-field engagement and seed system expertise supports rapid immersion within the complexities of local seed value chains, while the team’s engagement with a range of local stakeholders provides the opportunity to address numerous breakdowns simultaneously. The team first successfully piloted this field-research approach in Rwanda and Zambia, then developed and refined a curriculum to train additional country consultants, working across several other Sub-Saharan countries and subsequently replicating this approach in Kenya and Nigeria.

The trained country teams used a standardized, 10-step field research methodology (see Figure 1) to identify and address the bottlenecks on breeder and foundation seed within the focus countries. First, teams assessed the current situation of seed systems for prioritized crops, gaining an understanding of which seed systems were dominant and how the current EGS systems functioned. Next, they analyzed seed system economics to identify potential EGS demand relative to the revenue/cost of EGS production.

Finally, armed with this research, the teams shaped operational strategies and recommendations for overcoming key seed supply challenges. Crucial to these recommendations was an understanding of the type of public-private partnerships best suited to the specific market, crop, and economic dimensions. The team used a unique four-box matrix to determine which of “market archetypes” each country-crop represented. These market archetypes were Private Sector Dominant, Public Sector Dominant, Public-Private Collaboration, and Niche Private Sector (see Figure 2), which reflect the level of demand for improved varieties of the crop relative to the profit margin potential.

As an example, in Nigeria, the project team partnered with Sahel Capital and kicked off the project with three regional stakeholder meetings to align on a prioritization of crops for seed supply chain improvement. Yam, maize, rice, and soybean were selected, based on factors such as importance for food security, nutritional value, income-generating potential, competition from imports, private sector engagement, industrial demand, government support, women’s participation in the crop, and more.

Taking Nigeria again as an example, the Context team determined that yam reflected the Public Sector Dominant market archetype since demand for improved varieties was currently low but had potential for increasing with public sector-led development of a formal seed system, including farm demonstrations showing the benefits of improved varieties. Moreover, while the current marginal value of yam seed was low, emerging technologies held the promise of reducing seed production costs, enabling private seed company growth, and allowing formal seed demand to emerge.

Upon conclusion of research in all four countries, the team synthesized findings across the individual studies to identify broader prevailing themes uncovered through the research. It was clear across all countries that structural and demand issues impacting the quantity, quality, and use of EGS seed can be resolved, but only if supported by adequate investment of financial and human resources. Therefore, improving seed provider profitability came to be a common theme across these country/crop studies. In addition, multi-crop strategies within a shared geography or market surfaced as a way to justify and buoy development of seed production operations.

Further expanding on these cumulative findings, Context also developed the EGS Investment Plan Guide. Context Senior Program Manager Jason Nickerson describes the practical application of this guide: “We wanted to put tools in the hands of policy makers to help transform EGS study findings into solid investment plans that will stimulate funding and resource allocation for the public-sector functions needed in a sustainable EGS system.”

While overcoming seed supply chain bottlenecks is challenging, Context is proving that deep experience in the global seed sector can support the appropriate identification and recommendation of systemic solutions. The formation of Context Global Development puts additional muscle behind these ideas and highlights the organization’s commitment to doing good, well.

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.

Farming on the Edge: Smallholders in Africa’s Sahel


Getting his shoes dusty helped open Joe Funk’s eyes to the realities of Africa’s Sahel region. As a writer documenting Context Global Development’s (CGD) work in evaluating agricultural development programs, it was Funk’s first time on the ground in the region. “I had read and written about Africa’s low-income, small-scale farmers,” he said, “but it was not until I walked through their fields, visited their communities, and got their dust on my shoes that I began to understand and appreciate their lives and challenges.”

Funk accompanied a CGD team in 2017 throughout Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria, as it assessed programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). These programs—designed to help improve farm productivity and increase family food security—are being administered by international nongovernment organizations (INGOs).


Two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live and farm on land plots smaller than five acres, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many of these 475 million farm households are poor and food insecure, with limited access to markets and services. Yet despite their constrained choices, they produce food for a substantial proportion of the world’s population.

A Race Against the Weather

The Sahel is a semi-arid transition zone in the agro-climatic zone south of the Sahara Desert and north of the wetter North Sudanian region. It stretches across the African continent from the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the Red Sea.

Rainfall—or more specifically, the absence of significant rainfall—is a significant challenge for farmers in the Sahel. Droughts periodically cause severely reduced crop yields. Annual rainfall ranges from 8 inches in the north to 24 inches in the south, with variation from week to week and year to year.

It’s crucial that farmers time crop planting with the weather, especially in the northern regions where rainfall is more limited. There is a short window of opportunity to ensure that crops receive enough rain before the dry season begins. Therefore, labor needs for planting intensify in June or July, at the beginning of the three- to four-month wet season.

In addition to rainfall challenges, farmers in the Sahel lack the established economic and physical infrastructures taken for granted by farmers in more developed countries. Funk observes, “The American images I had of what it is to be a farmer simply do not apply to these resource-poor regions.” The supply chains to provide farm inputs, credit, extension services, and transportation to markets are poorly developed to almost nonexistent in some areas.

Most farms in the Sahel are smaller than 1 hectare (2.5 acres), and the vast majority of production is consumed on farm. While farm families do earn a small amount of income by selling some production, there is typically little disposable income for purchasing inputs. Therefore, farmers traditionally plant seed saved from the previous year’s crop. Not only does this seed lack modern genetic potential for improved yields, it is often damaged by disease and insect infestation during storage.

“To raise farmers’ incomes and improve families’ food security, ag development programs aspire to help farmers get the most out of the few pennies they have,” says Mimi Gaudreau, an agronomic consultant with CGD. “There are no easy, short-term solutions. Whatever assistance an outside organization provides needs to be sustainable so that when a program ends, these farmers will not be plunged into an even more difficult financial crisis.”

Depending on soil and climatic conditions, the main food crops produced by smallholder farmers in the Sahel are maize, sorghum, cowpeas (black eye peas), and millet. Sorghum and millet–more drought tolerant than maize–are most common in the drier, northern areas of the Sahel. Farther south, maize is more prominent, with yams and cassava providing a large portion of farmers’ caloric intake in Nigeria. Cotton, ground nuts (peanuts), and rice (both dryland and paddy) are produced as cash crops.

Harvesting crops is less time sensitive than planting. Sorghum, however, needs to be harvested promptly at maturity to minimize bird damage. After the heads are gathered and put into storage, threshing can be done at a more relaxed pace, although the entire farming cycle is continuously a race against the weather.

Unless a farmer has an animal like an ox, horse, or small donkey to pull agricultural equipment (such as a simple cow-plow or cultivator), all field operations, including harvesting are performed with hand labor. One of the BMGF programs is reviving a simple, animal-traction planter that greatly reduces the time needed to plant crop seed. In addition to programs like this one that aims to boost agricultural productivity, other BMGF programs under evaluation strive to achieve other goals, from improving market access, to providing technical farming education and access to improved seed, or strengthening participation among men and women alike within Sahel communities.

Understanding the impact of extreme conditions on Sahelian farmers and their everyday lives is central to CGD’s work in assessing programs’ ability to be sustainable, replicable, and scalable. As writer Funk discovered, the dust of the Sahel is a way of life there. More important, CGD’s team appreciates that smallholder farmers in the Sahel will weigh their decisions against a complex set of factors that pivot around the well-being of the household. Food security for the family will always trump what might be seen as straightforward agronomic or productivity benefits through an American farmer’s frame of reference.  CGD’s Gaudreau says, “We never lose sight that farmers in the Sahel need to feed their families first and foremost, and their investment decisions will reflect that priority.”

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at

Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.

Quality Cassava Begins with Improved Seed


In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded BASICS, a $11.6 million, four-year program to develop a commercially sustainable cassava seed value chain to help Nigerian smallholder farmers improve their productivity and family income. It is led by CGIAR’s Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB).

Context Global Development is a program partner leading the processor-led model and providing business analytics and commercialization support.

Context Global Development consultants and IITA program specialists meet with representatives of local smallholder cassava farmers at a cassava variety demonstration plot near Ilorin, Nigeria, to better understand grower demand for improved cassava planting material.


Although cassava is the third most important source of calories for people in the tropics, after rice and maize, it is often viewed as a poor cousin amidst the world’s family of staple crops. While admirably tolerant to drought and productive even on poor soils, this hardy tropical root plant seems unsuited to modern farming.

First, cassava is vegetatively propagated from stem cuttings, and the crop is highly perishable, deteriorating rapidly after harvest. Vegetative reproduction also means the rate at which new, improved varieties can be multiplied to supply new planting material to farmers is limited by production cycles. For smallholder farmers not practicing mechanization, harvesting cassava roots and dealing with the leftover plant material is a labor-intensive process.

Even with these challenges, cassava is the most important food crop in Nigeria. As a primary food source, it has high potential for reducing poverty. Because of its low production cost, widespread cultivation, and capacity for job creation, it is likely that improving cassava production will have an amplified impact for smallholder farmers and their families.

However, far less research and development have been devoted to cassava than to rice, maize, or wheat. This lack of scientific focus has contributed to widely varied cultivation and processing practices, some more effective than others. In the absence of standardized farming practices, it is not surprising that the cassava roots harvested by smallholder farmers lack uniformity. Processors, on the other hand, value uniformity to optimize their production operations and root processing. Accordingly, prices paid to growers are based on starch content and root quality.

The Global Cassava Development Strategy, launched in 2000 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, seeks ways to improve the farmgate value of cassava. At a forum at FAO’s Rome, Italy, headquarters, 80 agricultural experts from almost two dozen countries were asked whether cassava had the potential to meet the food security needs of the estimated 500 million farmers who grow it, and to provide rural industrial development with higher incomes for producers, processors, and traders.

The conclusion of these experts?Cassava has potential to become the raw material base for an array of processed products that will effectively increase demand for the crop. An improved supply chain will contribute to agricultural transformation, raise incomes for smallholder farmers, and promote economic growth in developing countries



Cassava’s potential to improve farmer income, however, is stifled by the absence of an economically sustainable, integrated cassava seed system to provide farmers with affordable and timely access to the planting material of high-performing varieties. Despite being the largest cassava producer in the world, Nigeria’s average yield of 13.6 metric tons per hectare, as estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), is less than one-half of what is realistically attainable. Poor seed quality and outdated varieties are commonly cited as factors contributing to low productivity.

In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded BASICS, a $11.6 million, four-year project to develop a commercially sustainable cassava seed value chain to help Nigerian smallholder farmers improve their productivity and family income. Context Global Development (CGD) is a program partner providing businessanalytics and commercialization support to the grant’s administration in Nigeria.


Building an Economically Sustainable, Integrated Seed System for Cassava (BASICS)

BASICS is a four-year program to sustainably improving farmers’ access to affordable, high-quality cassava seed by developing commercial models for improved seed production in Nigeria.

The program is coordinated by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas (RTB) and implemented by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Context Global Development (CGD), National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and FERA (UK).

The goal of the initiative is to provide smallholder farmers access to healthy seed material of desirable varieties to increase farm productivity and build capacity of the entire Nigerian supply, including both men and women cassava farmers, processors, and commercial seed producers.

The program also aims to develop a strong testing, field inspection, and certification system for cassava seed to ensure disease-free planting materials are in use throughout the industry to improve productivity and incomes for farmers and their families.

“As a part of the program, CGD is leading the establish-ment of a replicable commercial stem business model, termed the processor led model (PLM),” says CGD Senior Program Manager Will Rogers. “The PLM aims to address systemic issues in the cassava seed value chain and increase farm-level returns by encouragingthe full integration of industrial processors, who possess the incentive and market power to spur development of an improved seed system.”

High-quality planting materials provide several key advantages over the traditional farmer-saved cassava stems, including increased yield, higher starch content, and improved disease tolerance. Because farmers have not been exposed to these traits and are unaware of the benefits of improved varieties, adoption of high-quality planting materials is low. To fill this information gap, the BASICS program will feature on-farm demonstration plots to show the utility of improved planting materials. A key innovation being tested in Nigeria is the application of novel seed multiplication technology employed commercially in South America, which uses semi-autotrophic hydroponic labs to rapidly increase the multiplication rate of clonally propagated crops in a cost-effective way.

“The potential for this technology to accelerate the development of a high-quality, cassava seed system is immense,” Rogers says. “When new, improved varieties become available, millions of smallholder farmers will finally have continuous access to high-quality seed stems at a fair price.”

To learn more about Context Global Development’s work in Africa, please contact Mark Nelson, Managing Director at Context Global Development (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide. CGD teams with development organizations and government agencies to maximize the value of agricultural resources in developing countries as they partner to accelerate innovations that result in meaningful and lasting change.


Context is pleased to announce its commitment and new partnership with the National FFA Foundation to support agricultural education opportunities for young people in the U.S.

marketing plan

 “We’re very excited about The Context Network joining us as a sponsor,” says Mark Poeschl, chief executive officer of the National FFA organization and the National FFA Foundation. Poeschl sees strong parallels between the work of Context and the mission of FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America. He notes: “Context is shaping the model for 21st century agriculture by helping companies think strategically and plan for the future, while FFA is preparing students to be engaged in 21st century agriculture. This is how we make the connection between young people and real life.”

Specifically, Context’s partnership will focus on supporting three key programs that deliver opportunities for members and expand recognition of FFA as a premier agriculture education resource. Context will sponsor the National FFA Marketing Plan Career Development Event, a competitive activity in which student teams from across the country write a marketing plan for an actual agricultural product, supply, or service in their community. “We’re excited about sponsoring this event because it’s at the heart of the work we do every day,” says Context Principal Mark Nelson. “Beyond our sponsorship, we will earnestly extend our support at all levels, including coaching and mentoring students in local chapters and serving as judges at state events, as well the national competition.”

marketing plan

Furthermore, Context will join the National FFA Sponsors’ Board, a cohort of corporate executives who leverage their industry relationships to assist the National FFA Foundation in raising funds. Context Principal Doug Griffin, who will serve on the board, recalls his time as president of his local FFA chapter as being instrumental in shaping his leadership abilities. He says, “There are very few, if any, organizations that develop young men and women the way that FFA does. I’m honored to give back to an organization that’s given me and my colleagues so much.” In addition, Context is co-sponsoring the convention’s Sponsors Recognition Dinner, an appreciation event that honors more than 600 sponsors and donors.

Since its founding by 33 farmers in 1928, FFA has grown far beyond its initial purpose of preparing young people to work in production agriculture. The organization now blends classroom instruction, leadership development, and hands-on work experience to expose young members to a wide range of career possibilities. The need for new talent across fields ranging from agribusiness, animal science, biotechnology, environmental science, food science and production, natural resources, plant science, mechanics, and more is pressing. Poeschl points to a 2015 Purdue University study indicating that 23,000-25,000 jobs directly related to agriculture currently go unfilled each year.

While the partnership marks a new level of commitment from Context as a whole, many individuals within Context have formative ties to FFA. Senior Business Analysts Jason Troendle and Seth Pratt held national offices with FFA during their college years. Both men recall the “sea of blue” at National FFA Convention & Expo, where more than 64,000 attendees gather each year with students donning the blue corduroy jackets that are the hallmark of FFA. Pratt says, “I wouldn’t be the same person without FFA. I started out as a Western boy who knew about one farm in one place. FFA broadened my perspective and allowed me to understand my farm within the context of agriculture across the country. I carry that understanding of the national agricultural economy into my work every day.” Having grown up one generation removed from his grandparents’ farm, Troendle credits his local FFA chapter for instilling his passion for agricultural economics. He says, “Without FFA, there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t be working in agribusiness.”

Poeschl says he looks forward to seeing Context principals, associates and analysts amid the “sea of blue” at the 90th National FFA Convention October 25-28, 2017, in Indianapolis. He says, “It makes a big difference when organizations like Context feel strongly enough about our work to financially support us.” Context’s commitment to FFA is meaningful to many in the network too. Troendle says, “Having joined Context recently, I’m excited that we have principals who are passionate about the same thing I am and who see the value in developing leadership in young people.”

To discuss the possibility of joining Context in its support of the National FFA Foundation, contact Doug Griffin at or 678.772.1077.

The National FFA Organization is a national youth organization of 649,355 student members as part of 7,859 local FFA chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The organization is supported by 225,891 alumni members in 1,934 local FFA Alumni chapters throughout the U.S. The FFA mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education. The National FFA Foundation builds partnerships with industry, education, government, other foundations and individuals to secure financial resources that recognize FFA member achievements, develop student leaders and support the future of agricultural education.

The Context Network Announces New Roles, Promotions in Support of Business Growth

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA – (October 9, 2017) The Context Network is pleased to announce the promotions of Lauren Chupp to Associate Principal and Christian Guffy to Principal Consultant. Both positions are new roles within the firm, and support the organization’s expanding service across several sectors.

“We are building our staffing model to support strategic growth in our business, and across the changing global value chain we support,” said Asha Lundal, Principal at Context. “These roles and the added leadership they bring within Context further support our mission to be a leader in advancing agriculture.”

In her new role, Chupp will work to deliver strategic business development and management functions with the firm’s Principals. Since joining the firm in 2011 she has served as Senior Associate delivering exceptional results in project management and client support in areas ranging from strategic planning to corporate social responsibility. Lauren has previous experience in the areas of business development, investor relations, portfolio management as well as financial and market analysis within the forestry sector. She received her Master’s degree in business administration and Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology from Clemson University.

Guffy joined Context in 2014 with a background in agriculture consulting, strategy development and financial analysis. His work has helped clients develop long-term strategic plans, as well as annual go-to market strategies rooted in fundamental market analysis and research. As Principal Consultant, he will drive new business development and client service efforts across Context’s business. Guffy earned a Master’s degree in business administration and Bachelor of Science degree in investment finance from Anderson University.

Also promoted is Weston Babbitt as Consultant with Context. Since he joined the firm early last year, Babbitt has led significant projects in market analysis and strategy consulting across key sectors in the company’s global agribusiness practice. As a Consultant, he will also support client engagement and project management efforts. Babbitt earned his Master’s degree in strategic innovation from the University of Iowa and a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from the University of Utah.

The Context Network is the world’s premier business management and strategy consulting firm providing services to agriculture, biotechnology, and food companies, and to government entities and NGOs. We help each client achieve remarkable results and advance agriculture via customized business solutions. Major areas of expertise include: strategy development, opportunity analysis, R&D assessments, merger and acquisition support, product/portfolio management, regulatory compliance, industry benchmarking, competitive intelligence, and marketing intelligence/ research. Context is comprised of a core of professional executive consultants and is complemented by a global network of hundreds of industry and subject matter experts on-site worldwide.


Thinking Big? Think Again. Niche products yield outsized rewards for midsize and large companies.

It’s human nature to think big. Within the crop protection industry, most companies aspire to reach a big, wide universe with each of their products. This explains why the word “niche” is often used dismissively or, at best, is associated with small, entrepreneurial companies entering the market with a specialized product or service that has limited sales potential. However, Context has seen that “finding a niche” is not a small or trivial matter. It’s one of the most powerful ways to drive sales growth and profitability. This is every bit as true for large companies as for mid-size or small ones.

Instead of aiming to be “master of the universe” with broad-label products, companies are wise to uncover each product’s strengths and points of uniqueness, relative to competitors. By narrowing the target market focus until a strong and unique position is possible, the product finds its niche—the place where higher share, margins and higher return on investment is possible. In essence: identifying smaller ponds where the product can be a big fish.

Ideally, niche identification occurs before product rollout, but it is also a very valuable way to reposition an existing product. Take, for example, an older fungicide/bactericide product that has been marketed under a broad label. It performs well in controlling several diseases on a broad set of different crops, but sales are trending flat and margins are low because plenty of other products vie for this same market and deliver comparable results. However, by performing a relative competitive position analysis (RCPA) that examines and narrows the variables (i.e., uses, crops, pests, diseases, etc.), it becomes clear this product outshines everything else on the market for inhibiting black chaff in wheat.

Based on years of performing product and portfolio assessments, Context Principal Mike Borel says, “It’s rare to see a broad-label product that has a strong-unique relative competitive position.” Conversely, narrow-label niche products meet a specific and well-defined need. They yield higher margins and achieve higher market share of a smaller target market because they offer a distinct value proposition. Borel points to the Profit Impact of Market Strategies® (PIMS) database from the Strategic Planning Institute, a comprehensive collection of anonymized information from more than 3,000 companies across all industries. “The PIMS data clearly shows that a strong relative competitive position has more influence over market share and business profitability over time than anything else,” says Borel.


Granted, it is hard to shed the belief that more customers and bigger markets are better. By its very definition, a niche market has fewer customers than a broad market. However, the customers within a niche are willing to pay premium pricing for products that meet their needs markedly better than any competing products. On average, cumulative profit of products with a strong relative competitive position (RCP) pursuing a niche market are often greater than 25 percent higher than products with a fair RCP pursuing a broad market, as in the following chart.


It’s also useful to think in terms of finding niche products with a strong RCP, not striving to be a niche company. A large crop protection company might, for instance, fill multiple niches with its product lineup. The growth rate for segmented markets compared to unsegmented markets is illustrated here.


Of course, focused or narrow targeting is not a new concept, but it is a surprisingly overlooked one. It’s especially relevant as the ag input sector undergoes another wave of consolidation, while also seeing exciting new technologies come to market.

Context Senior Associate Mike Kostrzewa notes: “Whenever there’s consolidation, you see overlapping portfolios that need to be rationalized, product by product.” Kostrzewa says insights from the RCPA can be leveraged a number of ways to maximize the value of existing portfolio assets, either through outlicensing, product extension, increased marketing to drive share, increased pricing, or disposition of products. “It’s worthwhile to consider the realizable niche value of older products before abandoning them or reducing support for them,” says Kostrzewa.

Kostrzewa says the RCPA process is equally valuable for companies introducing new technologies, such as biostimulants and biopesticides. He says: “There’s a big shift to softer chemistries coming to market, and it will be critical to understand how these new technologies compare to conventional ones. Performing an RCPA highlights any product’s strengths and weaknesses in specific situations and quantifies a product’s competitive position through a rating and/or ranking scheme.”


Size Matters

Focusing on niches where a strong, unique competitive position can be established and maintained yields big advantages, including:
• Little or no serious competition within a targeted market
• High margins because customers are willing to pay premium prices
• Stronger relationships with customers
• Focused spending on marketing
• Easier to sell

The Context Network has a strong record of helping ag input companies understand the relative competitive position of their products and the appropriate/optimum segmentation of markets to achieve higher profits and market share. For more information, contact Mike Borel at



Crop Protection Manufacturers Can Boost Financial Results through Inventory Turns

Refining business operations can help manufacturers of crop protection products dig up what might be called buried treasure, increasing profits without generating a response from competitors.

Taking steps to uncover that treasure—by improving inventory turns—can improve not only the company’s balance sheet, but also its profit and loss statement.

A Context Network® benchmarking study of crop protection manufacturers in North America shows that inventory turns averaged 1.7 per year in 2016. Performances ranged from 0.8 to 4.4 turns per year—a vast spread from low to high. The best-in-class performance was more than 2.5 times the average and a whopping 5.5 times the low.The numbers show that manufacturers have an outstanding opportunity to improve inventory turns and thus their return on capital employed and, ultimately, their bottom lines, says Context Principal Mike Borel. He cites one manufacturer that had inventory turns of 1.0 but believed much more was possible. “The company instituted a good process and made what turned out to be a very smart ‘out-of-the-box’ hire of a supply chain manager from an unrelated industry in which high inventory turns were the norm,” he says. In just three years, the manufacturer achieved turns near the best in the industry.


Such improvements fly under the radar. “The beauty of this is that it doesn’t attract a competitive response like you would see with a change in prices, terms, or programs,” Borel says. “You get the benefit without having to fight the battle.”

In planning and implementing improvements in inventory control, it’s critical to maintain a customer focus. “The goal is to get the right inventory in the right place at the right time,” says Context Senior Associate Mike Danner. “Inventory turns require the product to be in the hands of those who need it within 24 hours—wherever they are.”

Different products call for different inventory-control standards. “Some products can be made available ‘just in time’; others must be available ‘just in case’ they are needed,” Borel says. “It’s critical for the company to segment its portfolio of products.”

Some products have high profit margins, are critical to customers, and/or are key to the company’s competitive strategy. “Such products require the company to maintain supply ‘just in case’ it is needed,” Borel says.

Other products have generic competitors and lower profit margins. “You want to manufacture those products ‘just in time,’” Borel says. “The perfect situation is that you make just enough product and, at season’s end, you have none left. In many cases, it’s actually OK to run out of these products!”

Improving inventory turns can require a sometimes-difficult change in thinking about business metrics. It might mean looking beyond such measures as revenues and market share—through which functional groups have traditionally been rewarded—and helping manufacturers see the bigger picture. “Business executives who can do that can dramatically improve their company’s financial results,” he says.

For example, Borel recommended that one manufacturer cut about 25 percent of its SKUs because they were more of a distraction than a value to the company. “The sales organization had a target on my front and my back,” Borel says. But 16 months after cutting the extraneous SKUs, the company’s sales were up and its profitability had improved dramatically.

Danner adds: “As you improve your turns, your profitability goes up—sometimes without even increasing your sales. That frees up cash in the business to apply where you need it.”

One of the trickiest parts of managing inventory turns is forecasting demand for crop protection products up to 18 months in advance. Forecasters look at factors such as weather patterns, crop prices (and thus how many acres farmers will plant in various crops), and anticipated pest pressures. “There are a lot of moving parts,” Borel says. “If you’re inaccurate in forecasting, you’re going to have a heck of a time managing inventory.”

One factor in improving working capital, Borel says, is simply recognizing what is possible within the industry. For example, 4.4 turns—the best-in-metric figure in 2016—would have been viewed as impossible a decade earlier, when the average was 1.0. “Now, across the industry, working capital management has improved significantly, but we still have vast opportunities for further improvement,” he says.

He notes that the process and benefits that apply to crop protection products apply to other products as well, regardless of business category or sector.

The Context Network has many years of experience in helping companies dramatically improve working capital turns while assuring appropriate service levels for customers. For more information, contact Mike Borel at