Date released
09 October 2023

The ‘slow magic’ of agricultural research, as described by eminent agriculturalist Professor Phil Pardey, is delivering impact long after a research project concludes. ACIAR has been focusing on effective commercial engagement, particularly with local businesses, in project design and implementation, to maximise the impact of its investment.

Mr Howard Hall, ACIAR Special Advisor, Commercial Engagement and Adoption, said that farmers are usually involved in integrated and complex value chains where businesses buy and sell products, and provide other services such as advice and finance.

‘With the focus from ACIAR on long term impact, the commercial engagement area is exploring ways to involve the private businesses in the design, delivery and post-project investment that adds value to the farmers’ normal business system,’ said Mr Hall.

Mr Hall said businesses, farmers and researchers face barriers in enabling sustainable impact. The new commercial engagement approach from ACIAR is seeking to overcome these barriers – improving the connection between private businesses in the value chain and publicly funded research.

Often encouraging dialogues between the different partners and involving all of them in research design and implementation, has a significant effect on delivering long term impact and improving the capacity of each partner to add value.

To support effective commercial engagement, ACIAR has introduced an Agribusiness Reference Group (ARG), in Vietnam and Pakistan. The ARG is improving communication and understanding between governments, institutions and industry about the research needed and how this can be utilised to deliver value for both businesses and farmers.

A group of people in protective gear including hard hats and masks inspecting machinery

Agribusiness Reference Group in Vietnam

The primary purpose of an ARG is to identify groups of businesses that have interest in exploring how working with ACIAR-supported projects could benefit them and how this can also support the greater impact of the research project.

The first ARG was started in Vietnam in 2020. Initially interrupted by COVID-19, the first phase of the Vietnam ARG raised awareness amongst businesses that ACIAR research is seeking to be aligned with the needs of businesses that can also deliver livelihood impacts for smallholder farmers in Vietnam.

‘There is a big opportunity for ACIAR to use the ARG as a pathway to understand not only what government and universities think is important, but also what industry thinks is important,’ said Mr Hall.

Even with interruptions, the Vietnam ARG has resulted in several successful forums and workshops, wherein businesses, government and researchers have met and discussed specific agricultural topics of interest, such as a formal memorandum of understanding between local partners committed to developing a successful sea cucumber value chain in an area where it has not existed previously.

The Vietnam ARG is now creating more direct project connections with businesses and building long term partnerships between businesses and projects, enhancing the ‘slow magic’ of agricultural research.

Agribusiness Reference Group in Pakistan

The Pakistan ARG, which was initiated in 2022, has been able to establish direct partnerships more quickly between projects and businesses without the interruptions of the pandemic.

Dr Munawar Kazmi, ACIAR Country Manager, Pakistan, said there are two main developments he hopes to see come out of the ARG.

‘The first is to see more companies co-investing and being part of ACIAR research and helping design future research,’ said Dr Kazmi.

‘We were expecting that when our research outputs are delivered, they are passed on to agribusinesses. However, often the linkage between research and business is weak, operating in separate siloes. So, the ARG is helping to link the three corners of the farmer/producer, researcher and agribusiness triangle.

‘With the support of the ARG the expectation is that projects will undertake research that is of value for agribusiness, and they become a key partner in taking it to scale. If projects are not generating business opportunities for industry and producers or farmers, you cannot achieve sustainable change for smallholder farmers’ lives. We hope that commercial engagement will become part of proposal design process and from day one researchers will enagage the potential business partners.’

ACIAR project leader Dr Rajendra Adhikari has been leading an agribusiness project on developing competitive and inclusive value chains of pulses in Pakistan since 2018 and has benefited from being involved with the ARG.

Based on his involvement and the subsequent partnerships developed with agribusinesses as a result, Dr Adhikari said the ARG allowed researchers to understand and appreciate priorities of commercial entities and align research to add value. 

‘It has helped identify agribusinesses who share values of growing the business by helping and sharing the benefits with smallholder producers, who are typically the main value creator in agribusiness value chains,’ said Dr Adhikari.

Commercial Engagement Fund

Another way that ACIAR is supporting commercial engagement is through the establishment of the Commercial Engagement Fund (CEF) – a Fund which looks to invest where both businesses and governments see timely opportunities to improve the impact of research projects.

The main goal of the CEF is to enable collaboration with businesses on publicly funded research projects, such as ACIAR-supported projects.

Private businesses seek to respond quickly to market demand, taking advantage of rapidly changing dynamics. Publicly funded research, such as those delivered by ACIAR, takes time to build effective partnerships that deliver impact. The CEF is bridging the gap, enabling public and private organisations to work more effectively together in a timely manner and facilitate innovative and timely collaboration with private industry in ACIAR-supported projects.

group of people in colourful clothing standing talking amongst crops
ARG meetings in Vietnam have been well supported by commercial, research and government representatives. Photo: ACIAR Vietnam

Key tools for commercial engagement

Three CEF projects have been completed so far – these include the development of viable long-term commercialisation of a coconut veneer plywood sheet product, initiating private sector partnerships to sustainably grow the smallholder dairy sectors of Indonesia and the Philippines, and landscape and opportunity analysis in the Pacific tuna sector.

Through these projects, there have been a number of key business tools developed that can enhance future commercial engagement.

Mr Ian Buck, Buck Advisory, led the coconut veneer commercial engagement module, which involved supporting a product developed out of a long-term ACIAR-supported forestry project in Fiji – utilisation of wood from senile coconut palms.

To assist in finding appropriate agribusiness partners efficiently, the specifically selected commercial engagement team lead by Mr Buck created the Project Opportunity Prospectus, which defines and presents the commercial opportunities and benefits for a potential private partner to engage in the project. The Partner Search Framework was also crafted to identify suitable private sector firms to partner with and ensure appropriate due diligence such as considerations of ethical, financial and commercial reputation and credentials and confirming company business plans align with project goals.

When a business invests in something, they want to get it on the ground as quickly as possible and these tools developed enables these businesses to do just that.

Mr Ian Buck,
Buck Advisory

‘Supporting good communication between research teams and commercial partners during a project is also an important feature of success.’

While the original coconut project provided the research to prove this value-add process was possible, commercial engagement projects like this help implement the research by creating sustainable business partnerships and providing improved income and livelihood opportunities for disadvantaged communities.

‘Developing competitive and inclusive chains of pulses in Pakistan’ (ADP/2017/004)
ARSF – funded project: Developing digital value chain solutions for smallholders pulses farmers in Pakistan
‘Defining priority commercialisation pathways, and potential private commercialisation partners for viable long-term commercialisation of products emerging from FST/2019/128’ (AGB/2021/172)
‘Initiating private sector partnerships to sustainably grow the smallholder dairy sectors of Indonesia and the Philippines’ (AGB/2021/171)
‘Landscape and Opportunity Analysis in the Pacific Tuna sector’ (AGB/2021/173)