UvA Alumni Portraits: IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative with Kafui Adjogatse
Updated: May 11
Alumni Portraits, where we interview UvA alumni who are pursuing sustainable careers to inspire you to do the same!
Kafui Adjogatse is a data analytics manager within the Farmfit team at IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative. IDH is a not-for profit public-private partnership that uses data-driven insights to facilitate sustainable business practices and improve smallholder farmer livelihoods. Read the whole interview to learn about the importance of Data in sustainable agriculture, the reasons why Kafui believes more sustainable agriculture systems are needed, and how the UvA helped Kafui Adjogatse during his path towards a green career.
Gabriel Rivas (interviewer):
To start, could you just tell us a bit about the Sustainable Trade Initiative?
The role of IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, has always been to make trade more sustainable, with a heavy focus on agriculture, textiles and manufacturing. The angle which it takes is unique in that it uses the private sector as an entry point. Other organisations take more of a policy-focus or a bottom-up focus, but our entry point has always been in the private sector.
That does sometimes lead to criticism since you're working with companies which people consider have created issues or which haven't been necessarily doing trade in a socially and environmentally sustainable way in the past. But our view is very much that you need to work with these bigger players, you need to find these leverage points within the system in order to affect change.
IDH does that by focusing on three things (see infographic below): The first pillar is convening. This means convening organisations around specific goals and getting them to sign up to these commitments. For example, convening around paying living wages through their supply chain or around new certifications about environmental standards.
The second pillar is co-financing projects. In order to meet a lot of these commitments, we provide co-funding to the projects these companies are doing in order to accelerate their progress. These can be projects with smallholder farmers or projects with estates or projects in manufacturing, for example.
The third thing we do - which is probably closest to my focus - is around insights and innovation. So, generating insights on what works well and where it works well - in terms of having a strong impact but also being commercially sustainable. Because one of the things which my team - Farmfit - and I have seen, is that a lot of programmes are run in a way which is not economically self-sustainable. So, when the funding ends, then the impact ends. So, a lot of our work is seeing how things can be done in an economically sustainable way, but also in a way which maximises impact. Because ultimately, you want to see sustainable long-term impact for every euro of public funding which is spent.
Could you explain a bit more about Farmfit? And also, since you're a data analyst, could you talk a little more about why data is so important in these projects, and why it is so important for sustainability?
Farmfit emerged from what's known as the Service Delivery Model methodology. This refers to supply chain structures where companies are interacting directly with smallholder farmers, either providing them with services in exchange for products, for example maize or coffee, or selling their services to make a profit. For the latter, you have financial service providers for instance, where there’s a growing number of fintech and digital solutions which work on a pure financial basis
And we have three departments: One is our consulting arm, where we provide integrated business support to companies who are operating these models. They can be large companies, E-comm’s or even small companies such as SMEs. We work with them to analyse their business model, and to suggest changes of how it can be improved. Second, we have the Farmfit funds, which provide investment funding. One of the problems in smallholder agriculture is that you don't get that much commercial investment. So our role is taking higher risk positions to crowd in, to encourage commercial investors to participate more in smallholder agriculture.
And lastly - and this is where the connection lies with data - although every business and context is always going to be very different, we've taken quite a standardised approach to analyzing a business. This is partly so that we can collect quantitative and qualitative data, which we can then compare across a broader scale. With Farmfit intelligence we're able to compare across different business models to try and identify what are the best practices, what works, and what doesn't work.
Why this is so important is that in the sustainable agriculture sector, there's a lot of flying blind. People are carrying out activities with a presumed logic of why this activity will work. So, for example, if we train farmers, this will give them the capacity to carry out certain things. But what we want to do is actually learn the dynamics of that process, because often you might find that actually training alone doesn't work. Maybe you actually need to ensure that they have inputs, so that they've got their fertiliser, their crop protection, etc. Then you may realise that that doesn't work either, and that they need finance to buy the input instead. You need to be able to develop a big picture of what works. And the best way to do that is by collecting information. In lots of other sectors, there's a huge amount of information which people can use to make decisions, but in smallholder agriculture there isn't that much information to work with. You do have a lot of organisations working in this space, and there will be a lot of evidence in hidden pockets, but it's in a different form, and in different places. And if you can't get to it, and you can't compare it, then it becomes difficult to generate insights.
Since this is the UvA green office, we wanted to ask you, how did the University of Amsterdam help you in getting you where you are?
One of the reasons why I went to do a master’s at the UvA was because I recognised that for the sector, and also for myself, I needed to advance my knowledge in international development. So, I think one of the most important things was giving me that base level knowledge about international development.
Actually, during my time at UvA I didn't focus that much on agriculture, I focused quite a lot on education. But a lot of the conceptual thinking, which I learned during my master's, has been really helpful in my job.
The second thing I found helpful were the research skills I learnt. I did a research Master's, so I spent a long time doing field work. I had to assess the complexity of systems, and really had to use a multitude of data sources, so I used a mixed methods approach. I think that is really something which I've transferred into my current job, because while I'm a data analyst, it's not that we just crunch numbers, there's a wide range of sources that we use. So, I think that has in particular supported me from my master’s.
Now going a bit broader to the general topic of sustainable agriculture - which some of our readers are maybe not familiar with - could you tell us why it is so important? And what are the emerging challenges of the sector?
It's important for numerous reasons. First, a large part of the global working population especially in the global south, is involved in agriculture: 65% of the world's poor are engaged in agriculture for their livelihoods. Another reason comes from the food security angle. The global population is growing pretty fast, and we need to produce more food. We need to increase the level of food production by 50-60% over the next 30 years. We need to feed the planet and we need to do it sustainably.
In general, agriculture's relationship with climate is twofold. Agriculture is a big contributor to carbon emissions, but also agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture in the global south is very much impacted by climate change. Irregular rainfalls, droughts, and natural disasters disproportionately impact agriculture. There's also a lot of research saying that sustainable agriculture is the most effective way to reduce poverty, and that it has the potential of improving gender empowerment since a lot of a lot of the labour in agriculture is done by women, even if they're got disproportionate access to assets, and they may not have a title on the land. So, a more equitable system could also have a large impact on attaining gender empowerment and improving women's resilience in the agricultural system.
In general, agriculture has a huge impact on a lot of different things. If you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, agriculture interacts with a lot of them, which is what makes it hugely complex. When a lot of the global north was developing, the only focus of agriculture was with increasing yields. But today, we’re trying to tick multiple boxes of social and environmental sustainability at the same time.
Our final question is: what advice would you give to a student that wants to have a positive environmental impact, but doesn't quite know where to start?
That's a good question. I would say this: it's good to be cognizant of the fact that there are always trade-offs. Particularly within agriculture, there are no perfect solutions. So you'll probably never find the perfect solution for agriculture and sustainability in a job. It's more about trying to find somewhere where you see the potential for making some positive change. One of the challenges, I would say with the sustainability and international sector is it's incredibly hard to get into. But I think once you get into it, you're able to more easily find your way around. So, the practical advice is: get your foot into the door somewhere, and then from there see how you can develop your career.
The Alumni Portraits Team would like to thank Kafui for his time and valuable insights. Check out these links if you would like to know more about Farmfit and IDH.
And a massive thank you to Rivas Gabriel (below) and the rest of the Alumni Portraits team for continuing to produce such insightful and though provoking interviews!