Role of Business Consulting in Promoting Agri-business

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Role of Business Consulting in Promoting Agri-business

Business support and advising to agri-entrepreneurs are the need of the hour to boost the agro productivity and utilize the immense potentials available in the Nepali agriculture sector.

--BY ROSHEE LAMICHHANE BHUSAL

What is the buzz about business support and advising to agri-entrepreneurs in today’s scenario prevailing in Nepal? This is one of the most pertinent questions usually raised. The fact that Nepal, being a predominantly agrarian economy where 68 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural activities contributing to as much as 34 percent to the country’s GDP, indisputably points to the immediate need for agro entrepreneurs. Currently, agri-tourism activities are also on the rise and the average value of the crop has risen from USD 250 USD to 700 USD per metric tonnes over the last five years.  

However, limited access to improved seeds, new technologies, market opportunities, and the need for reducing the post-harvest loss of crops present themselves as some of the key issues facing Nepali agro entrepreneurs. Though initiatives like ‘Feed the Future’ focusing on artificial fertilization and commercial farming have been in place, agro entrepreneurs need support in terms of market feasibility studies, new product innovation, diversification of products, preparation of market and business plan, and a host of other management activities that generally come under the label. 

Such a scenario definitely calls for and necessitates organizations like Nepal Agribusiness Innovation Center (NABIC) to partner with universities and other academic institutions. Only then will they be in a position to assist the processing players and can provide a wide array of required support services. They may range from securing funds, developing sales and marketing plans, strategy, HR, information system development and technical support. 

In essence, the whole gamut of services from ‘generic advising’ to ‘special type advising’ can be availed by the needy client organizations. For instance, the traditional form of the farmers’ market in Nepal is generally referred to as “haatbazar” and is prevalent in almost all parts of the rural countryside. In such a background, business advising can be a real blessing and can prove very handy for agribusiness entrepreneurs. It would be a paradigm shift indeed should they all decide to conduct their market operations strictly on commercial lines by switching over from their traditional format of market that has outlived its utility.

Quality Assurance through Personal Development Plan (PDP) Framework
Learning, undoubtedly, is a continuous process in an individual’s life. However, as conventional wisdom demonstrates, learning produces beneficial outcomes if it is more structured and well organized. Individuals who are eager to get into business consulting are required to review their own Personal Development Plan (PDP) through a reflective process. This enables a person to introspect and assess his workplace inventory skills ranging from personal competencies (problem solving, handling complex information, cognitive and analytical skills, influencing skills, interpersonal skills, team working, presentation and communication skills), as well as their  most preferred learning style. It also focuses on one’s personal qualities such as honesty and integrity, timekeeping reliability, a positive “can do” work ethic, decision making, influencing/negotiation skills, business acumen, appropriate dress, and proper decorum. 

Likewise, professional/vocational skills that include academic, vocational, and professional qualifications, current and ongoing development (best practices, technologies, new techniques, experience, legislation, etc) are also part of PDP. 

It also incorporates the management and leadership aspects (such as managing self and personal skills), providing direction, facilitating change, utilizing resources, achieving results, creativity and innovation, and enterprise). This illustrative framework is a rich guide in helping an individual to understand and assess his personal development needs relative to those of his organization and workplace, and the individuals in the workplace. By revisiting it, individuals realize where they are currently vis-à-vis where they intended to go originally.

Any engagement in this PDP exercise helps an individual not only to assess himself various competencies but also to work on those that require further development. It affords an excellent opportunity to take charge of one’s own development and to instill confidence in oneself thereby making one more valuable in the eyes of the employer and/or client. An ability to view oneself in a holistic manner provides the much-needed credibility to the role performer. Hence, this becomes a sine qua non for anyone desiring to put on the cap of a business advisor. Such exercises bear rich fruits as business advisors come with different kinds of expertise and backgrounds. However, one can’t disregard the importance of standardization for the processes inherent in business consulting as well. 

For instance, the UK already has such standards in the form of certification given by different professional bodies such as Chartered Management Institute (CMI) wherein the consultants are rigorously trained to acquire and get assessed against the highest quality standards. This makes certification of the Nepali business advisors and consultants imperative. This additionally can provide quality assurance to the clients of business consulting firms.

Advising Vs Consulting
Despite the fact that more often than not advising and consulting are used interchangeably, there do exist subtle differences between the two. While consultants take more responsibility, be it largely of an insider and for a longer period of time, advisors remain defensive and merely ask right questions, address challenges, and come to the best conclusion. As clients, agro-entrepreneurs need to understand the services they can expect from NABIC so that the mutual and reciprocal expectations are established correctly from the beginning. This is very much required as there have been instances wherein clients expected and wanted NABIC to share the subsequent losses should their proposed solution not work out well and deliver the goods for them. Hence, total clarity is needed at the outset itself both for the advisors and consultants with regard to the precise scope of work through articulated terms and conditions of the consulting contract. 

Role of Business Advisors
In the context of business advising, understanding the pain points of the clients becomes very essential and crucial. Additionally, they need to make the clients analyze their businesses and implement the needed change initiatives through a slew of tools and techniques. For instance, Mc Kinsey 7S-Framework and many other popular business advising tools such as STEPPLE (PESTAL), SWOT (Significant Waste of Time), Porter's Five Forces,  Balance Score Card, Price 2, OODA Loop (BYOD model), EFQM-Business Excellence and others have the potential to unearth, figure out, and assess the main issues facing the existing business in a highly holistic and integrated fashion. The primary purpose, however, is not to get lost in the maze while using these tools and complex models but sensitize all other stakeholders about the pros and cons of choosing to use them. After all, taking the people dimension also on board becomes and remains primary in all such social intervention. 

Drawing a corollary from action-centered leadership, business advisors should act more like facilitators and mentors to help the clients meet their objectives even if it entails hand holding them initially for some time. Finally, whenever they provide viable solutions and help their clients make informed choices, they need to remember that they are acting purely in an advisory capacity and taking them forward to the next level is better left to the sweet wisdom of the clients. In this context, while coaching and mentoring skills, in general, are highly relevant and important for business advisors, counseling skills specially come very handy for effectively discharging their principal role of bringing in some change in the current situation. To deal with tricky situations and testing times deftly, advisors should be in a position to create a win-win solution and avoid any kind of tussle between the key players. 

Challenges in Business Advising
Business advisors can’t afford to be unaware of and ignorant about the challenges they have to deal with while discharging their duties and performing their roles. While they often need to play a devil's advocate, at times advisors are taken as an external threat, at times, by the lower rungs in the organization as the common perception among them is that top management hires these advisors primarily to dig the dirt and hence do not become supportive of the initiatives and the information subsequently generated. In the process, business advisors get sandwiched in the rift between the top and the lower level management. This requires not only a prior written commitment from the management about the proposed changes to be introduced by them in the client organization and also proper communication of the reasons for the same to the lower level employees directly by the top management before it becomes messy. 

There isn’t any magic solution to some of these issues that may crop up in organizations as business advising is all about dealing with people and not just proffering pieces of technical advice. Any lack of role clarity on their part is going to land them in trouble and hence clients should be clear about the nature and scope of their role as one of business advising vis-à-vis consulting. Advisers also need to be mindful of the legal consequences stemming from their attempts to deal with issues that are beyond their domain of knowledge and expertise and getting them wrong subsequently. Such issues can be left to people who are acclaimed to be ‘experts’ in that field.

The other inherent challenge is the “Scope Creep” or “Kitchen Sink Syndrome” in projects — a phenomenon that mostly happens when organizations fall into a ‘growth trap’. It is advisable that projects always start with set, clear goals and objectives and avoid adding new elements into the scope of the originally conceived project to avert any potential dilemma to the business advisors. Keeping in mind the fact that it is foolhardy to expect that every project attempted is going to be successful, failures have to be treated as part of the learning curve in a consultant’s journey through proper self-reflective methods.

Potential Benefits from Academic Partners to the Agro-entrepreneurs
What can academic partners offer to innovative ventures that are established to promote growth-oriented agri-businesses through business advising activities? Let us consider the case of KUSOM. It can, for instance, help NABIC in carrying out joint research to come up with some of the most viable, feasible, and desirable agribusiness ideas that can, in turn, be offered to clients who are looking for business diversification. A part of its research funding can be earmarked for agro-related ventures in an effort to support each other’s objectives. Its expertise can gainfully be utilized in agri-markets’ reforms such as modernization for optimizing the yield from the ventures. They can also offer a range of critical services such as advertising and marketing to agro-entrepreneurs. 

Finally, to conclude, KUSOM and NABIC can profitably reach prospective entrepreneurs by sharing and disseminating the current success stories through their social media channels. Networking skills of the experts from the school become very handy to connect the clients to the right business parties as well. Using the services offered by its in-house Incubation Center, KUSOM’ students can be motivated to invest their time and effort in agro-related ventures. Faculty members can constantly improve their learning and hone their skills in training and consulting as the resources get contextualized and handy. Expert members of faculty can develop actual case studies of the consenting clients for future reference and use by all the stakeholders of the agri-business eco system.

Knowledge and expertise acquired by faculty members by working in several agri-related ventures and by supervising student projects can be shared with prospective clients while maintaining confidentiality. There is indeed an immense scope for forging a really meaningful partnership among different players by utilizing the inherent strengths of all the parties in a symbiotic manner.

The author is Lecturer, Organizational Behaviour, and Placement In-charge at Kathmandu University School of Management (KUSOM). She would like to accord the full credit for writing this article to Roger McCartney, Executive Director, Center of International Executive Education and Development (CIEED), UK.

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