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"Stronger platforms and partnerships will be key”

Our Director discusses his first year at the Foundation and looks ahead.

Simon Winter became the Syngenta Foundation’s Executive Director in 2017. We asked him about change, continuity and the years to come.  The French version of the interview is here 

When you joined the Syngenta Foundation (SFSA) last September, you highlighted four priorities: functioning markets, risk-adaptation, smart use of technology and a tailored focus on certain groups’ special needs. Where are you now, one year on?
Simon Winter: Those priorities still stand. The issues we’re tackling with smallholders remain essentially the same. However, I’m clearer now on how we should be working to make progress. For functioning markets that include and provide benefits for smallholders, as in other areas, we need good business and financial models, locally adapted. Commercially viable models are not always a focus for development organizations, but they need to be. 

And what about your other three priorities?
SW: We’re making good progress in the area of digital technology, and are often a sought-after partner here. We are now starting a study of what tools and applications are currently available for smallholder agriculture, in particular for the businesses and organizations that work directly with smallholders, and where there are gaps. Technology is not just about smartphones and the internet, however! High-quality seeds are another example of technology from which smallholders can hugely benefit. We are also looking closely at the particular needs of specific groups such as rural youth, and are advancing our risk-related work on a number of fronts.  

How is SFSA changing under your leadership? 
SW: We are making some modest shifts. We’re now focusing more strongly on opportunities to work across our streams* within each country or region. Increasingly, country and regional directors act as our local business leaders bringing the best of the Foundation to meet local needs. As a group, they now report to Robert Berlin* in Switzerland. A stronger operational base not only improves delivery of the initiatives. It also frees up my capacity. I can therefore now add more value in areas such as advancing our strategy and vision, mobilizing further changes and building new partnerships.

What will be ‘new’ about future partnerships? 
SW: So far, most SFSA collaborations have been between our teams and partners’ technical implementers. We’ll still need that kind of cooperation. In addition, though, we’re now working to establish more institutional relationships. We are aiming for these with, for example, funders such as USAID, SDC, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s early days yet, but I hope we will soon start to see these relationships generating more comprehensive partnerships beyond individual projects that can bring benefits to smallholders at much greater scale.

SFSA now has its first-ever Program Development Manager. Why have you made this move? 
SW: This is also about partnership-building around new programs. For example: When SFSA and an innovation partner pilot a new idea and prove the concept, we then need to get resources behind the idea to bring it to the market and then to scale it up. Where possible, we’d also like to mobilize additional partners at the innovation and incubation stage. And by ‘resources’, I don’t just mean money – expertise and Intellectual Property are two of many further possible contributions to success. What matters is that we find more partners who share our values, views, and aims in smallholder agriculture.  

Where do you see private investment in this mix?
SW: It definitely has a role to play, particularly during scale-up and ‘scale-out’, i.e. as an initiative nears the market. Typically, philanthropic support enables proof of concept, and then private investment can be brought in through a range of what is becoming known as ‘Blended Financial’ instruments. We need to attract more ‘Blended Finance’ than we have done hitherto. A suitable mixture of shorter and longer-term capital combined with philanthropic funds to cover public benefits and de-risk investments can help mobilize more private engagement. The aim is positive results both for investors and rural communities. A great example is the new Seeds for Impact Challenge Fund, in which our Seeds2B team is closely involved.

What about governments? Where do you see their roles?
SW: Typically, we look to governments to create an ‘enabling environment’. Wise policy, with well-directed support, including infrastructure, and well-enforced legislation, can make a huge difference. As well as taking into account some suggestions from our Policy team, we also hope, for example, that more African governments will step up to meet the agriculture investment goals they set themselves in the Malabo Declaration. Sometimes, however, governments’ role can go well beyond just creating the right environment. For example, several Indian states have now signed cooperation agreements with our ‘Agri-Entrepreneur’ (AE) program. They see the significant potential benefits for rural youth employment and are accordingly keen to support AE expansion. 

As SFSA Director, you often speak at conferences. One of this year’s events, in particular, is related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Is SFSA now going to align itself more publicly with what might be called ‘general development world’ wording?
SW: The SDGs provide an overarching global framework. So referencing our work to them can make a lot of sense. The two obvious ones are SDG 1 “No poverty” and  SDG 2, “Zero Hunger”. We contribute to these every day. We are working on a new Foundation-wide performance measurement framework that I expect will enable us to more closely align our performance to ‘general development world’ targets, such as provided by the SDGs.

On average, smallholders are getting older and older. What role do you see for SFSA in addressing the needs of young people?
SW: For me, a ‘youth agenda’ is probably one of the most important we can tackle. At the moment, millions of young people would rather leave the countryside than stay on their parents’ smallholdings. Farming remains a pretty unattractive occupation associated with poverty and drudgery. For food security and rural prosperity, we would like to help change that. The technology of all sorts can help, but other factors are also important. The AE program I’ve just mentioned is one sign of our commitment to improving the position of rural youth. Importantly, both that scheme and our Farmers’ Hubs pioneered in Bangladesh go beyond farming and take a broader view of young people’s livelihoods. You will soon hear more from us on the topic of youth!

If you had to pick one key achievement during your first year as Director, what would it be? 
SW: I’m glad to say that it’s difficult to choose! We’ve devoted a lot of effort to launch a new topic for SFSA, soil health. We’ve taken important steps towards better performance measurement and the resulting impact measurement. We have also registered an office and hired our first two staff in China, and look forward to working there. Even as a small foundation, we believe we can help make a big local difference to the lives of many millions of still marginalized Chinese smallholders. 

What can people expect from SFSA programs in the near future?
SW: I don’t think we need to make major changes. Our three main streams will continue to be Risk Management, Access to Seeds and Agriservices, supported by cross-cutting R&D and Policy Initiatives.
My own work, however, will include creating and strengthening platforms and partnerships for greater smallholder adoption of innovations – especially those that embrace the multiple stakeholders required to bring lasting market solutions for smallholder agriculture. One such example is the Farm to Market Alliance, who’s Steering Committee I’ve recently joined.   

To conclude, a more personal question: How do you feel personally about being SFSA Director?
SW: I am very happy to be here! It’s been a great first year, and I remain as excited as when I started. There is still lots of work for us to do; being a mission-focused, highly independent corporate foundation puts us in a particularly good position to tackle the tasks ahead. I would add that I have been surprised by what a great place Basel is to live! The city and tri-national surrounding area are very attractive. Basel also punches way above its weight in many ways. The available range of both culture and sports, for example, are quite remarkable for a small city.   

*The Syngenta Foundation’s ‘streams’ are Risk Management, Access to Seeds and Agriservices. 
*Robert Berlin is the SFSA Head of Agriservices, Digital Delivery & Country Programs.