Framing CLA: Continuous Learning & Improvement in Bangladesh
This blog post is part of USAID Learning Lab's Framing CLA blog series. Organized according to the subcomponents of the CLA Framework, the blog series features question and answer with development practitioners who submitted cases in the 2016 CLA Case Competition. This blog focuses on: Continuous Learning & Improvement.
USAID Learning Lab: What is your full name, title, and organization?
Janoch: Emily Janoch, Co-director, Research Innovation, Evaluation, and Learning; CARE.
The project is the Strengthening Dairy Value Chain project in Bangladesh funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
USAID Learning Lab: What was the development challenge you addressed in your CLA Case Competition submission?
Janoch: 80% of rural farming households in Bangladesh are small scale dairy farmers who represent a huge opportunity to get more milk into the market and get farmers connected to sustainable opportunities. We wanted to get women more involved in dairy value chains in Bangladesh so that they could produce more milk, earn more income, and have better nutrition at home. This meant connecting women to markets more effectively, and looking at the entire market system—from input supply to end-market sales. We started with a capacity building program that focused on building women’s skills to produce more milk by changing the way they raised cows, and changing the gender inequality that prevents women from participating in markets.
USAID Learning Lab: Your case is a great example of one of the enabling conditions of CLA: Continuous Learning & Improvement. Can you tell us about how this aspect of CLA helped you address this development challenge?
Janoch: The first phase of the project showed good results: 50% increase in production, a 97% increase in income, and impressive moves towards gender equality. But it wasn’t a sustainable solution because farmers had no incentive to invest without the program intervention—they couldn’t get access to end markets that would reward higher quality milk. It looked like a success, but impact would not have lasted long after we left.
We had to spend time asking producers, buyers, and milk companies what wasn’t working. What we found: there was no market transparency, and no way for women to sell milk close to home. So we had to focus on ways to fix the market failure that meant buyers could not measure milk quality and reward producers. Working with BRAC Dairy, a big private sector milk buyer, we prototyped Digital Fat Testers—a machine that quickly, easily, and transparently tests quality so producers get a higher price for higher quality. It also generates real-time data on results that help us pulse check when and where we have problems. This constant process of checking in with market stakeholders and adjusting the program gives us more sustainable results.
USAID Learning Lab: What advice would you give to another team looking to be more intentional, systematic, and resourced in Continuous Learning & Improvement?
Janoch: Ask your end users—for us, this always includes the community—about the biggest challenges they face, and keep them involved when coming up with answers. Build check-in moments with communities and other key partners (for this project, it was BRAC and the private sector, but sometimes it’s a local government) into your project cycle. Create data systems that let you monitor progress and generate evidence about what’s working and what isn’t.
Most importantly, be willing and able to adapt as projects arise. Nothing kills CLA faster than project that won’t act on the challenges that people identify. Hire project staff—especially leaders—who are willing to look at data and make changes over the life the project.
USAID Learning Lab: Why did you choose to use a CLA approach?
Janoch: We wanted a sustainable solution that communities own and manage—and is anchored in a market system so that it can continue after the project leaves. That can only happen if you actually collaborate with lots of actors in the system and learn from what’s working and what isn’t.
Especially when you work with poor communities and women producers, you have to be really aware of the power dynamics. People won’t always tell you what’s wrong unless you create specific spaces and a supportive environment for them to explain what you could be doing better. Then you have to be able to make changes so they trust you enough to speak up next time. A CLA approach allows us to do that.
USAID Learning Lab: How did your holistic CLA approach influence your organization’s culture?
Janoch: It showed us that we can get from good temporary results to great sustainable impacts if we are willing to be flexible and learn from ourselves and others. It also showed us the value of prototyping and making rapid adjustments. These are principles that we are pulling into more and more of our projects, and are changing the way we approach project management.
Showing people the results of this CLA example gives us the evidence we need to move from a mindset of workplan implementation to an adaptive management one. Now we are always looking for more evidence to promote this idea, because CLA and continuous learning are a lot less linear than we are used to in traditional project implementation.
USAID Learning Lab: How did your holistic CLA approach influence your project’s development outcomes?
- Producers see an average income increase of 373%, and get an honest point of sale close to home. They have a clear and transparent record of production volume and prices.
- Private sector companies get a loyal supply of producers and access to high quality milk. The quantity of milk coming from SDVC-trained producers went from 2% of BRAC’s supply chain in 2012 to 55% in 2015. BRAC’s business grew by 31% in 2015. BRAC has decided to scale the model up to the entire supply chain, and
- The market as a whole is stronger: Producers sell directly to processors and eliminate middlemen. A variety of small businesses develop and strengthen their operations such as dairy input shops, livestock health services.
None of this would be possible if we had not been able to solve the market failures that were blocking the system. CLA allowed us to identify those failures and come up with solutions that worked for everyone.