Interview with Flip van Koesveld: “More is not always merrier”

Wageningen University – Applied Plant Research is since 2012 the knowledge partner of the partnership called SEVIA in Tanzania. SEVIA is a private sector driven project, funded by two world leaders in vegetable seeds: East-West Seeds and Rijk Zwaan, and by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs under FDOV. The partners have an interest to develop the African vegetable sector and contribute to food security by providing adapted varieties to the farmers and by setting up an African Institute for Vegetable Technology. Flip van Koesveld who represents the knowledge partner shares in this interview about his experience in working in PPPs and about his firm believe that more partners is not always merrier. He states that if a partnership should be successful 3-4 partners is the best option.

How is your experience working in a PPP?

Our achievements with the SEVIA project in developing the vegetable sector through seed in Tanzania are very positive. After many years of working in projects for agricultural development and innovation, I have come to realise that objectives on social impact linked to commercial goals, as we have in this project, is significant for sustainable development. Without a commercial goal there is a risk that when the project funding ends, the project activities also end. A private partner, however, has the intention to stay beyond the project time, especially if the business is developing and there is return on investment. From this point of view, I see the private sector as the continuing factor in projects in agriculture. There is however a difference between businesses who work in PPPs because of CSR purposes and businesses with a core business ambition to develop business with social impact. Partnering for CSR reasons can be good, but it is not sustainable.

What have been the partnering strategies for the SEVIA partnership?

To my opinion, the fewer partners in a partnership is better,  this means not more than 3-4 partners who are part of decision-making. A PPP is only successful when there is a very small group of partners in charge because the more partners you involve in your strategy, the more diluted it may become. In the SEVIA partnership we are with three parties in the executive committee which is so far working very well.

How do you work on your partnership, to have good and effective collaboration?

For us in the SEVIA partnership, collaboration has been effective because of good governance structure and transparency. There is also room for exchange and conversations. In this structure, we as a knowledge institute are seen as being more neutral than the other parties, which means that we have the role of monitoring the quality of collaboration and operation. In this role, one thing to pay attention to is for example the differences between partners in why they are involved in a project like SEVIA, and what that means for the process. The difference can be that one of the private partners is involved to build a future market, and the other private partner is involved because of CSR reasons. It could happen that private partners become outbalanced in their commercial interest too if you do not pay attention, it might happen that the project and the partners move in different directions throughout the project. Monitoring the process therefore helps you to maintain the balance in the partnership and each partner. You should always continue to ask yourself the question: Are we doing the right things?

How do you in the partnership deal with possibly sensitive issues?

What you need is to have communication between the partners which is open and clear. This way of communicating which you can develop when there are only three partners is significant for being able to discuss sensitive issues. However, for the communication to be successful in a partnership with fewer partners what you need to pay attention to is that you as individuals can work together, that you have a match in characters and personalities. If this core team is working well together, the next step is to really listen well to other parties involved, even if they are not directly involved in the decision making, their inputs are important and should therefore never be far away from the discussions. One lesson I have learned with working with private partner is the importance of action and not only talking. When there are practical things happening such as building relationships with farmers, with field trial and fieldtrips there is enthusiasm. This project is based on the idea of the private partners and developed by them which adds to the enthusiasm and ownership. It was not that there was an instrument and they could apply for funding, they already had this in mind for a long time.

Are there things you can put more attention to?

In SEVIA, we still have four years to go in the project but what I notice is that we are struggling with the exit strategy or so called continuation strategy. I think you already need clarity on this from the beginning which you can if needed later adapt. We expect that certain roles of SEVIA after seven years can be downscaled or have served their purpose by then.

Any challenges in terms on collaboration?

There have been a lot of changes in the project but we have clear objectives which have not changed. The challenge is to continue to keep the balance because the partners have their own perspective and opinion on how things need to be done. We are from different cultures, background and nationalities and even if we as SEVIA have been formalised as its own entity with a brand, image, logos etc we are still need to work on developing our own culture and practices. This continues to be a challenge and we are in the long term the background players, the project is for the farmers to become part of the growing economy.

Want to know more about SEVIA, visit the website.