Public-private partnerships: Strategic goals and alignment

Strategic goals and alignment

»Diversity and commonality
»Sectors' characteristics
»Potential barriers
»Key drivers
»Core mission
»Product outputs

Diversity and commonality 

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have great potential for innovation. They can achieve much more for resource-poor farmers in developing countries than can either the public or private sector alone. PPPs involve partnering between organizations with widely different characteristics and special individual strengths. The partners need to discuss these openly. However, private and public organizations also often have similar values in the R&D arena. When building a PPP, it is important to review all common ground, especially shared values such as: 

  • desire for contribution to agricultural improvement and food security 
  • access to cutting-edge technology and knowledge
  • delivery of top-quality science and standards
  • respect for innovation and its delivery.

Characteristics of public and private sectors

Public sector 

Private sector
  • Strong humanitarian values
  • Focus on smaller area crops and special problems, including orphan crops 
  • Smallholder farmers
  • Less influenced by profitability aspects
  • Often more focused on research than development
  • Fragmented chain to National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). Process for progressing from “R” to “D” can be unclear; seed systems not a major driver
  • Public goods approach and some institutional policies limiting initiation of intellectual property rights 
  • Public sector alone may be unable to deliver the outcome and impact needed
  • Driven by business impact and return on investment
  • Focused on distributors and farmers with purchasing power, and often internationally traded crops 
  • Delivery of product to customers and commercial incentive
  • “Private, not public goods” mentality
  • Ownership of intellectual property an imperative

Potential barriers 

  • Lack of knowledge about each others’ activities and strengths
  • Assumptions that core values are different 
  • Sometimes lack of respect and trust
  • Need for full cost recovery
  • Public sector partners’ concerns about need for independence from private sector influence, and about risk to reputation
Key drivers
Successful agricultural R&D partnerships depend on many different factors. There are four material aspects that are recommended for careful evaluation to determine compatibility of prospective parties:
  • Complementary core missions
  • Agreement on product outputs
  • Mutual benefits
  • Equitable contributions
Core mission
  • Goals. To generate an appropriate level of interest and commitment, the PPP’s key goals need to be part of all parties’ strategic missions. 
  • Senior sponsorship. Partnerships require a high level of support and endorsement from senior management sponsors. This is critical for success. Strong sponsorship ensures clear direction and priority for the collaboration and related research programs. Some questions to consider are:
    • Does the partnership contribute to the core mission and interests of the senior management at each party? 
    • Is a realistic long-term resource commitment possible? 
    • Will the PPP still be viable in an economic downturn or funding cut?
  • Collaboration tactics. There is a major risk of failure if the public sector party only sees the PPP as a way of boosting research funding, or the prime motivation of the private sector is to demonstrate “corporate social responsibility” and gain some tactical positive publicity.

Product outputs

  • Product definition. A common understanding of the products that are sought from the PPP is essential for success. This is sometimes given inadequate attention, which can affect the overall justification for the PPP. Product outputs can take various forms. They include new crop varieties, technical data and scientific information, new techniques or research tools, capacity-building or even skilled staff. Suggestions on how to define product outputs can be found here.
  • Product innovation timescales. Agricultural R&D operates on long timescales. To deliver benefits for farmers, a project needs to be part of the organizations’ long-term vision: it must remain on senior managers’ agenda for at least the next 10 years. The project’s focus must be part of all parties’ core strategy, even if there is an economic downturn or cut in funding.
  • Orphan crops are not usually a focus of private sector strategy. However, they are often vitally important for resource-poor farmers and local communities. So how can orphan crops be the subject of successful PPPs? If the private sector is to invest, there need to be benefits beyond the crop itself (see box below). For example: the R&D needs to deliver results that are also relevant to major crops. Innovative thinking is required by all parties! 

Partnering for orphans can work

An example of a promising orphan crop PPP is the sequencing and novel gene discovery in Eragrostis tef1 2. Tef, although not a well-known cereal worldwide, is a major food crop in Ethiopia. Consumption there is second only to corn, and greater than wheat or and sorghum3.

Tef is a subsistence crop in Ethiopia and some neighboring countries, and is not internationally traded. Its “biological interest” is, however, considerable. Although currently low-yielding, tef performs better than major cereal crops in extreme drought and very wet conditions. It is also less attacked by storage pests. In addition, tef does not contain gluten, to which many people are allergic. The Syngenta Foundation is closely involved in a project to breed semi-dwarf tef in order to reduce lodging and thus raise yields. 

1 Paterson, A.H, Mashope, B.K. and Lin, L. (2009) The comparative genomics of orphan crops. 
   African Technology Development Forum Journal, Vol. 6, issue 3/4 pp.16-23
2 Plaza, S., Bossolini, E. and Tadele, Z. (2009) Significance of genome sequencing for African orphan crops:
   The case of  Tef. African Technology Development Forum Journal, Vol. 6, issue3/4 pp.55-59
3 FAO/WFP Special report.Crop and Food security assessment. Mission to Ethiopia, 21 July 2009.

  • Scale. Compelling tangible benefits for all parties are critical for PPPs to encourage collaboration and to motivate delivery of outputs.
  • Sharing. Genuine belief, understanding and respect that both parties must share the benefits from the PPP in an equitable manner are vital.
  • Analysis. A formalized joint evaluation of the benefits / risks and resources necessary for the PPP forms a solid platform for negotiations.

Some examples of potential benefits for consideration are shown in the diagram below:

Public sector Private sector
Greater scale and scope of  research
Access to germplasm for development purposes
Freedom to operate Access to novel research and ideas on crops or   germplasm that are not commercial targets for the private sector, but may contain genes or other properties of interest
Access to:
  • Proprietary technology - germplasm, traits and enabling technology
  • Knowledge and know-how
  • Equipment and facilities
Access to cutting edge genomic research
Broadening development reach and seed distribution opportunities New market creation - knowledge and access to in-country seed systems and farmers
Know-how on technology stewardship and risk management
Social and corporate responsibility goals – opportunity to support commitment to food security through provision of technology or know-how
  • New improved varieties
  • Access to seeds and propagating material
  • Key questions for reflection are:
    • How to create true and balanced mutual benefit? 
  • How to present a unified vision of enhanced productivity?
  • How to create re-investable capital and share risks?
  • Equity. Parties need to feel they are making contributions that match their benefits. “Contributions” can include data generation, sharing of techniques and materials, scientific expertise and problem-solving, management time, and cash. 
  • Management time. It is important not to underestimate the amount of management energy and time required to agree on a contract and then support operations throughout the PPP. The energy, time and costs involved can be substantial!
  • Science, materials, and know-how. Honoring promises on contributions to the PPP is essential; there are usually plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings. Management representatives and experienced leading scientists need to be involved in setting realistic expectations and enabling rapid handover of technology and materials. “The devil is in the detail”: a clear definition of partner and donor contributions is very important (e.g. the exact technology or service to be transferred – biological samples, data, equipment, know-how, facilities, staff hours – as well as lead-times for financial transactions and international shipments).
  • Material transfer agreements. Transfer of proprietary materials, information and know-how is often best covered by an additional material transfer agreement. This usually covers what is transferred, when, to whom, and also describes disposal and return arrangements. The agreed definition must also take into account international regulations and the practical risks in material transport.