Yearning for a crystal ball, but realising it doesn't exist – why futures-thinking should be part of programme monitoring

Yearning For A Crystal Ball Banner INSIGHT

Mrs Kassaye Baye, a beneficiary of AgroBIG. Photo: Mr Akanaw Abebaw, AgroBIG Focal from Dera Woreda, Qorata Kebele

The Programme for Agro-Business Induced Growth (AgroBIG), an Ethiopian-Finnish government collaboration, has been strengthening rural economic development in Amhara National Regional State since 2013. In this piece, NIRAS evaluation expert Petra Mikkolainen and monitoring and evaluation advisor at AgroBIG Mezgebu Werku propose the integration of more adaptative forward-looking methods into programme monitoring. Drawing on AgroBIG as an illustrative example, they demonstrate how combining monitoring and foresight allows us to better anticipate and navigate the complexities of an ever-changing landscape, ensuring the effectiveness and long-term success of our programmes.

August 3, 2023

A shift from ‘business-as-usual’ to engaging actively with the future  

Earlier this year, Petra Mikkolainen published a blog and discussion papers on futures-sensitive evaluation where she argued that, in a world characterised by constant change and uncertainty, relying solely on past experience to guide actions may no longer be sufficient. Petra believes "traditional" monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) methods – where the assumption is made that what has worked or not worked in the past will continue to hold true in the future – is increasingly problematic.  

With 13 years of M&E experience in projects related to value chains, food security, agribusiness development, women's empowerment, and job creation for young people and underrepresented groups, Mezgebu Werku himself had been exploring the combination of MEL with futures thinking, with the aim of creating more sustainable and impactful projects in the long run.

Reading Petra’s work, he discovered the invaluable tools and terminology of foresight and futures literacy and considered why and how this approach could be applied in the context of the AgroBIG programme where he is the chief MEL advisor. 

As I reflect on my experiences in Ethiopian society, the word "dynamic" comes to mind. It's a society that has witnessed remarkable economic growth over the past decades yet has also grappled with increasing political turmoil in recent times. This unique blend of factors creates a societal context that simply cannot be ignored when it comes to the implementation of development cooperation. Working within AgroBIG, I've come to realise that the ability to anticipate possible future scenarios is essential. Foresight offer the means to navigate the complex landscape of Ethiopian society and ensure our efforts align with the changing dynamics of the country.

Mezgebu Werku, Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor, AgroBIG

What is programme monitoring?

Programme monitoring refers to the systematic and ongoing process of collecting, analysing, and using data to assess the progress, performance, and outcomes of program activities. It involves the regular tracking of various aspects of the intervention to ensure that it is on track towards achieving its objectives and desired outcomes.

AgroBIG is a joint initiative between the Ethiopian and Finnish governments launched a decade ago aimed at promoting agribusiness development. The programme’s first phase focused on organisational development and partnership building in the Amhara region, supporting capacity building and providing access to finance for value chain actors in the selected value chains such as rice, onion and maise. Ending in December this year, the second phase, with a budget of €10.3 million, sustains the achievements of Phase I and strengthens agribusiness in the Tana sub-basin. It has an expanded target area and supports a total of eight agricultural production administrative woredas, and additional value chains such as tomato, dairy milk, goat and sheep fattening, and egg and poultry meat production. AgroBIG emphasises value addition, job creation, and market linkages, while promoting the inclusion of women, youth and persons with disabilities (PwD). The value chain approach addresses bottlenecks and supports various actors in adding value to their produce, improving competitiveness and profitability. 

AgroBIG's monitoring approach and activities has focussed on different stages of the agricultural value chains, from production and processing to marketing and distribution. It involved monitoring key indicators and variables related to agricultural practices, input availability, productivity, quality standards, market dynamics, and income generation, among others. The programme has employed a diverse range of participatory techniques, including external evaluations and studies by short-term consultants, regular reviews conducted with technical and steering committees, as well as annual surveys on selected indicators. These practices served to inform project stakeholders about both the achievements made and the persistent issues that require attention 

In retrospect, Mezgebu believes there are many ways in which AgroBIG could have benefitted from futures-thinking.

Women and youth in cooperatives  

One of AgroBIG’s objectives was to enhance access to finance and financial services and one of the main ways it has done this is by providing two types of loans. The first was targeted at women and youth with small business ventures to help clients engage with the traders and to create income and jobs. The second were cooperative loans meant to increase the purchasing power that enables cooperatives to buy agricultural produce from members and to provide services. 

With respect to these loan funds, in order to effectively combine futures-thinking with monitoring, it is essential to pose questions that require imagination and consideration of potential future scenarios while also examining current trends and evidence-based practices. For example:  

  • Financial sustainability and futures preparedness. One could ask, "How might saving and credit cooperatives and unions sustain themselves in the event of financial policy changes in Ethiopia?" This question could lead to discussions on various topics such as systemic changes, risk management/mitigations, portfolio management, human resources development, competitions with other financial institutions and financial preparedness. By considering the possible implications of future scenarios and working on contingency plans, cooperatives and unions can better prepare themselves to adapt to new conditions, thereby increasing their chances of success in the long run. 
  • Policy change opens doors to new opportunities. Suppose the National Bank of Ethiopia allows rural saving and credit cooperatives to use rural land use certificates as collateral for loans. In that case, an exploration into the capacity of these cooperatives to use this opportunity needs consideration. Factors such as organisational structure, leadership skills, financial management expertise, and risk assessment capabilities of the cooperatives need to be considered. This exploration could help cooperatives analyse their strengths as well as weaknesses regarding taking advantage of this opportunity.  
  • Implications of inflation. A relevant inquiry from a futures-thinking perspective may involve asking how inflation affects the savings and credit service vis-a-vis their limited value of savings and capital. By considering the potential implications of inflation on these cooperatives, it may be possible to develop plans for addressing and mitigating its effects. Inflation can reduce the value of money and make it challenging for cooperatives to maintain sustainable operations. Therefore, the analysis could involve discussions about future economic trends, the creation of innovative business models that can sustainably operate in times of inflation, and the development of risk-mitigation strategies, among others. This approach can increase cooperatives' readiness to respond adequately to possible inflation and keep up with emerging economic trends to succeed in the future.


An AgroBIG beneficiary of women's cooperative, Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo: Petra Mikkolainen, 2019

Farmer Field Schools 

To improve the quality, volume, and marketability of vegetables, AgroBIG has supported the Farmer Field School (FFS) scheme together with Horti-LIFE (Horticultural Livelihoods, Innovation and Food Safety in Ethiopia – a project hosted by SNV Netherlands Development Organisation) and the Amhara Region Bureau of Agriculture. Originally designed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the FFS scheme helps horticulture farmers learn new production practices that improve productivity, product quality and, thereby, competitiveness. Apart from improving the quality of the supply, pioneering farmers, who are ready to invest more in their business also create genuine demand for high-quality seed and other inputs that the suppliers can, in turn, respond to with competitive terms once the required volumes are adequate.    

In looking at the nexus between futures-thinking and monitoring of the FFS scheme, some possible questions for further exploration include: 

  • "What scenarios could be envisioned for the future of FFS and greenhouse farms if farmers shift their preference to other commodities?" In addition, the government has recently made a shift in programming, such as paying more attention to the production of wheat both off- and during the main season. By exploring different possible futures, it may be possible to design future-oriented outcome indicators that can anticipate potential shifts in demand, ensuring the continued sustainability of these initiatives.  
  • "How could changes in seed quality, availability and affordability impact the management of production processes? How does the unavailability of hard currency for importing raw materials for the production of plastic sheets affect greenhouse plastic sheets?" By considering how future changes and uncertainty may affect seed quality , seed distribution and the availability of the right fertiliser in a timely manner, capacity-building strategies can be designed that allow smallholders to leverage alternative inputs and production techniques sustainably.  
  • "What will be the long-term effect of recent laws legalising contract farming on increasing the income of smallholder farmers and enhancing public-private linkages?" Through evaluations that factor in outcomes from the point of view of multiple stakeholders and examine the potential implications of legal and policy changes, project managers and policymakers can ensure that smallholder farmers are empowered through enhanced business relationships while mitigating potential negative impacts.  
  • "How might globalisation affect smallholders in Ethiopia, particularly AgroBIG-targeted farmers in Amhara region?" By considering the possible impacts of globalisation on smallholder farming, micro and small enterprises and processors, it may be possible to develop M&E strategies that anticipate and address the challenges and opportunities these entities face.  
  • "What strategies can be developed to integrate climate-smart agriculture practices into smallholder production processes?" By examining climate-related implications both on a short-term and long-term basis, it may be possible to design monitoring and evaluation frameworks that support adaptive practices and enhance productivity in increasingly changing environments. 
Yearning For A Crystal Ball 2 INSIGHT
Mihret Arega, a beneficiary of FFS – traditionally-cultivated tomato on the left-hand side, improved farming method on the right-hand side (from the farmer's perspective). The site is in North Mecha Woreda, Kudmi kebele, Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo: Petra Mikkolainen, 2019

Establishment of agro-processing and rural transformation centres to stimulate agricultural value chain activity 

In recent years, the Ethiopian Government and development partners have been working to establish agro-processing centres and rural transformation centres in order to support farmers in producing market-oriented products. In monitoring and evaluating the success of this approach, some futures-thinking questions could include:  

  • " How can the dynamics of the global market have a significant impact on enterprises and agro-processors in Ethiopia?". For example, the Russian war on Ukraine has affected smallholders and enterprises in many developing nations around the world. Additionally, market disruptions such as supply chain disruptions, changes in trade policies, or natural disasters can also affect the ability of Ethiopian enterprises to buy or sell their products in international markets. As such, it is crucial for Ethiopian agribusiness entities to carefully monitor global megatrends, weak signals, and market dynamics in order to stay competitive and responsive.  
  • Systemic challenges in the market systems. Another question could be," How does systemic challenges in the market affect the competitiveness of the private sector in Ethiopia, especially those agribusiness entities targeted by AgroBIG?" Agribusinesses in Ethiopia face challenges in sustaining operations, creating jobs, and building effective relationships with input providers and consumers. These challenges stem from factors like limited market access, financial constraints, inadequate infrastructure, inputs constraint, and limited technical knowledge.

Agricultural cooperative supported by AgroBIG in Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo: Petra Mikkolainen, 2019

Challenging assumptions, exploring alternative futures, and creating new visions 

Monitoring megatrends, weak signals, and scenario-building are powerful tools. Going beyond, practising futures literacy, for example, in a Futures Literacy Laboratory, involves various exercises like mental warming-up, describing probable and desired futures, challenging assumptions, reframing, defining a new vision, and outlining concrete actions for its realisation. This enhances foresight and enables critical thinking, imagination, and proactive decision-making for a better future, which can be applied across various contexts, ranging from programme beneficiaries to donor organisations.  

If we want to have an impact on the way society evolves, it's important to be able to imagine the future we desire. By having foresight and cultivating a sense of futures literacy, we can better understand the possibilities and actively shape the direction in which society develops. 

If this blog resonated with you, we’d love to hear your insights and experiences, including examples of situations where foresight could have been applied as a part of program monitoring. 

Connect with Mezgebu on LinkedIn. And for more information on AgroBIG, visit 

Read "Evaluation Must Become Future-Sensitive" here