The Trade for Development Centre (TDC) wants to increase its impact. That’s why it’s not limiting itself to directly supporting cooperatives in the South. The TDC also assists ‘business support organisations’, which in turn support other organisations locally. We zoom in on this lesser-known, but no less effective form of support.
The Trade for Development Centre (TDC) programme is part of Enabel, the Belgian development agency. The TDC aims to combat poverty in the countries of the South. It does this by supporting micro, small- and medium-sized enterprises, and more specifically producer cooperatives, in their economic development.
The TDC wants to reach even more organisations. Therefore, in addition to direct support, it also offers an intensive coaching programme for business support organisations or BSOs. These then coach other organisations at a local level. These local organisations don’t necessarily receive additional coaching from the TDC.
One of the BSOs that received coaching from the TDC is Incub’Ivoir. They have been supporting entrepreneurs in Côte d’Ivoire since 2016. For several years, Incub’Ivoir received extensive coaching from the TDC. The organisation wanted to determine how to better position itself in its sector and how to refine its business model. Incub’Ivoir redefined its mission and objective and revised its range of services, but focuses mainly on supporting players in the sustainable cocoa chain in Côte d’Ivoire.
Since this transformation, the BSO has won several development programs, including ‘Agripreneurs De Demain’ and ‘Fonds pour climat’ set up by the German development agency GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit).
Another structure that has been able to benefit from the expertise of the TDC coaches is the ‘Guichet d’Economie Local (GEL) Sud Bénin’. GEL Sud Benin was born out of an initiative by the NGO Louvain Coopération and became independent in 2013. The BSO assists Benin entrepreneurs in rural and urban areas. The organisation requested coaching from the TDC with a view to becoming more professional and refining its range of services. That coaching mainly focused on marketing, financing and organisation.
Thanks to the support of the TDC, GEL Sud Benin can now distinguish itself from the other actors in Benin. For example, they’ve refocused on supporting value chains in agriculture. As a result, the organisation can now carry out some of the activities of the DEFIA programme. DEFIA was set up by Enabel to support the implementation of the National Agricultural Investment Plan for Food and Nutrition Security (PNIASAN) and the development of entrepreneurship in the pineapple sector. The aim is to improve and secure the income of the actors in the pineapple sector in South Benin. One of the objectives of the programme is to significantly increase the income of approximately 6,000 local agricultural entrepreneurs.
What is a BSO?
But what exactly is a BSO, and what does it actually do? The term ‘business support organisation’ covers all initiatives that aim to provide advice and support to entrepreneurs who want to expand their (small) business.
A BSO can:
- adopt various forms: one-stop-shop, incubator, accelerator…
- offer multiple services: financial and organisational management advice, technical advice, mentoring, coaching, training, networking…)
- and help entrepreneurs overcome all kinds of obstacles (change in scale, finding new sources of income, attracting private or public financing, solving logistical challenges, recruiting staff…).
In Western economies, there are relatively many forms of support for start-ups, but this is often not the case in emerging economies where market conditions make the development of these start-ups even more challenging. That’s why BSOs play a particularly important role in these countries: they help create a stronger entrepreneurial DNA and ensure that start-ups can grow, create more jobs and generate local economic growth.
What does this support include?
Just like start-ups, BSOs may also need capacity development. This might be to allow their own organisation to grow and become more sustainable or to improve the quality of the capacity development they provide. And that is exactly what the Trade for Development Centre wants to achieve. From the applications submitted, the TDC selects promising BSOs and offers them a coaching programme tailored to their own specific situation and needs.
The support provided can be aimed at improving the services that a BSO offers to its customers and/or at strengthening the structure itself. In the first scenario, the coaching can focus on the technical side (marketing, finance, HR knowledge and tools, etc.) or on the training side (participatory methods, co-creation, etc.). In the second scenario, the coaching may relate to the organisational structure of the BSO (diversification of funding sources, performance monitoring, creation of a staff policy, etc.) or to its positioning on the market (commercial strategy, communication, marketing of the range of services, etc.). In other words, the TDC trains the trainers and coaches the coaches.
The content of the coaching is also determined based on the needs identified by the BSO and TDC coaches. A total of three to five coaching modules are set up, which are given by one or more coaches on site and which, depending on the topics covered, each take about five days. In general, the coaching is practical, pragmatic and focused on participation. Throughout the process, the TDC expert acts as a companion, adviser or facilitator, but not the driving force. It is the BSO itself that needs to take on that role. Because control over the content and strategic choices remains in the BSO’s hands at all times: the organisation receiving the coaching determines its own business plan, financial management tools, communication, strategy, commercial opportunities, etc.
“To coach a company, you need to understand where it’s heading”
Sounds good in theory, but how does it work in practice? ‘The coaching that the TDC provides to BSOs has several specific elements,’ says Maxime Bacq, a coach who specialises in management. ‘Firstly, we spend enough time with the structures we support to understand their real problems. By getting to know the organisation and its members and forging a relationship of trust, we can understand the corporate culture, uncover needs and really touch on the points that enable the BSO to develop. Because to coach a company, you have to be able to understand where it’s heading based on its strengths and weaknesses,’ claims Maxime Bacq.
Over the last few years he has been coaching HapaSpace, a business incubator in Ghana, and CIPME, the agency supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises in Côte d’Ivoire.
Other specific elements to the TDC coaching are the variety of support offered to BSOs and the holistic approach. This is reflected in the many roles that the programme experts have to take on. ‘The most important role of a coach is that of a guide: leading an organisation and its people along a challenging path towards a specific goal. The coach helps to find the most suitable answers, to give the right guidance, etc.,’ explains Maxime Bacq. ‘But sometimes they also have to fulfil other roles. Like a teacher, when the coach provides the theory that is sometimes a prerequisite before you can tackle a problem in practice. Or a facilitator, when the coach wants to make people aware that working with participatory methods within teams can be an interesting approach to coaching. And finally, there is also the role of mentor, in which they provide advice and insight into a certain situation based on their own experience. In rare cases, the coach may also be asked to take on an advisory role that has nothing to do with support as there is no participation involved at all.’
The expert emphasises that the TDC insists on the participatory nature of its coaching, with the underlying idea that the organisations then develop more self-reliance. ‘And that’s great,’ says Maxime Bacq. ‘It will probably take longer to get to the solution, but in that time the participants have the opportunity to share their individual knowledge, their lack of knowledge too, to deepen their understanding of certain topics, to enrich themselves, etc. In short, to build their own capacity. There are training courses on coaching by coaches, and they can be useful, but coaching is something you experience by doing. To get better at it you need to quickly explore real-life scenarios that have ideally come from the BSO itself, and try to find the best solutions together with the group, using a kind of collective intelligence.’
What does a typical coaching session look like? ‘We always start with a diagnosis of the organisation to determine what the coaching priorities are. That’s not always the case with other programmes,’ says Maxime Bacq. ‘As part of this participatory diagnosis, we highlight certain problems. Sometimes there are many, sometimes few. We then prioritise the ones we’re going to concentrate on. Depending on this process, the focus may be on improving weaknesses or boosting strengths.’
His colleague Daniella Mastracci, who specialises in marketing, agrees: ‘When we start working with a new organisation, the first two sessions usually consist of exploring and understanding where they are right now and where they want to go. Before going any further, making recommendations or choosing an approach, we will first explore and discover what the BSO wants to get out of the coaching. So it is always tailor-made,’ continues Daniella Mastracci. She also took part in the coaching of the Ghanaian incubator HapaSpace.
TDC’s coaching program usually lasts about three years. The coaches alternate between leading on-site sessions (an average of four sessions per area of expertise for each organisation) and following up remotely via email, WhatsApp, video calls, etc. ‘This helps us see the organisation evolve,’ says Maxime Bacq. ‘This period also gives us the chance to test solutions and get feedback to improve our answers. Also, a coaching week, which is very intense, can be followed with time for implementation to evaluate and possibly reposition or start new projects.’
This way of working was particularly suited to the coaching of HapaSpace, says marketing expert Daniella Mastracci. ‘HapaSpace is a BSO with a set-up that is very similar to a start-up. It wanted to work out its strategy and see what worked best. The method I used was a combination of theoretical training – but clearly with much more participation, collaboration and discussion – and putting into practice the tools that we had discussed beforehand. I let the HapaSpace teams choose the direction and supported them in defining what they wanted to achieve and how to do it.’
‘We mainly needed coaching in marketing, finance and business management,’ says Gideon Brefo, CEO of the Ghanaian incubator. ‘The coaching started with a comprehensive evaluation of our business systems, staff and operational approach. Based on the results, we decided on the content of the coaching together with the two experts assigned to our organisation. We were able to benefit from resources, the experience of the experts and hands-on training.’
« Coaching requires a lot of focus »
Of course, carrying out TDC’s coaching programme is not without its challenges. For example, the coach has to adapt to different company cultures. ‘In the French-speaking world and the English-speaking world, for example, universities take different approaches,’ Maxime Bacq illustrates. ‘The highly theoretical Latin approach contrasts with the Anglo-Saxon approach, which is more pragmatic and uses more case studies. And that approach is quite good, because I think you have to experience the reality on the ground as soon as possible. Economy, management, organisations… they mostly revolve around people.’
However, the challenge of getting everyone on the same page is not specific to TDC coaching. ‘It’s something you come across everywhere, as soon as you’re asked to lead a group. The same happens in Belgium when you’re leading a project that requires, for example, a biologist, engineer and marketing specialist to work together. Here, too, there will be a need for alignment and the ability to understand each other.’ The approach also differs greatly depending on the nature of the organisation receiving the coaching (private, public, start-up…), the qualifications of its members or the specific context of each country.
Another point that Daniella Mastracci insists on: it is important to find a format that is suited to all participants. ‘Coaching requires a lot of focus from the BSO teams. This means they have to temporarily put their other projects on the back burner. The challenge is to find a way of working where employees are fully engaged without being distracted by their daily work. Our goal is to keep distractions to a minimum so that we can work as productively as possible when we’re together. And between the sessions, the challenge is to maintain that “momentum” once their attention is back on their daily work,’ she adds.
Finding the time and money
‘A big challenge is finding the time to fully participate in the coaching sessions,’ confirms Gideon Brefo. ‘But if you plan your time well, every minute is worth it.’ HapaSpace’s CEO also finds it a challenge that there is no additional financial support to implement the experts’ suggestions. ‘The organisation must therefore be prepared to find other sources of income to implement the recommendations.’
In general, one of the biggest difficulties in coaching young and/or small companies is the economic model,’ says Maxime Bacq. ‘Most BSOs fail to get the right value for the services they offer. Simply because start-ups cannot pay the full price. This is a very common reality for 90% of the BSOs in the world. And the problem of the economic model is even greater in economies such as Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, where the prices of the services offered by the BSOs can be particularly high compared to the local purchasing power.’
In some regions, the profession of business coach or mentor is not always well developed. ‘Without a market there are hardly any vacancies, so it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do this work. Bringing the coaching profession to the local level is therefore sometimes a real challenge and is one of the objectives of the TDC.’
Another problem is that the BSOs are active in economies where the proportion of informal companies can be quite high. ‘The BSO then has to coach companies that do not have annual accounts, that have not really structured their activity and that are therefore unable to raise funds to develop. In terms of coaching, this is obviously an element that needs to be taken into account, as we coach companies whose playing field is much more limited. Most of these start-ups will not have access to traditional financing and will have to manage until they reach a sufficient level of activity to be able to apply for a loan.’ Anderson Nda, head of the SME Services department at the Côte d’Ivoire government agency CIPME, agrees: ‘In general, the biggest challenges we face in Côte d’Ivoire are: the business environment, the technical and managerial capabilities of business leaders, the difficulties our clients face in gaining access to markets and finance, and the lack of development of an entrepreneurial culture and innovation.’
Real role models
Despite these challenges, the TDC’s coaching program still seems to be beneficial. ‘The extensive evaluation of the organisation alone is really valuable,’ says Gideon Brefo. ‘The experts also don’t force their experiences on the company, which we appreciate a lot. They recognise that the circumstances here are different. As a result, they co-create content with us and help shape our ideas with their wealth of experience. They also helped us develop concrete structures using the tools they provided. In addition, the personal interest that the experts took in each member of the team was very inspiring,’ continues Gideon Brefo, who has since partially revised his organisation’s objectives. ‘In the future, we will expand the number of internally designed paid programmes for our innovation hub, enhance the career development opportunities for all our employees, and promote our new brand identity through a new website and social media.’
‘In general, we can make more progress in much less time by coaching a BSO than a cooperative,’ says Daniella Mastracci. ‘With a cooperative, foundations usually have to be laid before you can move forward, while with a BSO those foundations are already there. You can therefore quickly look at strategy development so that the BSO can support other organisations that we may have also coached.’
In addition to their primary support function, the BSOs also act as role models for other organisations, says the marketing expert. ‘Many organisations rely on BSOs for advice, information, guidance, to act as an example of how they should set up their own business… BSOs are therefore well placed to effectively communicate the positive impacts these organisations can have.’ This is especially true for aspects of socio-economic and environmental sustainability: ‘Determining how to measure and communicate these impacts can, I believe, bring about a lot of change. BSOs have the opportunity to really integrate this triple baseline: it’s not only good for business, but also for people and the planet.’
Sustainability at the heart of the TDC approach
Concern for sustainability is part of the DNA of the TDC’s coaching programme. This shines through on all levels. ‘The vision of the Trade for Development Centre is that we need healthy companies in the regions and that they are as active as possible in fair and sustainable trade, with fair pay for all actors in the chain,’ summarises Maxime Bacq. ‘We therefore look at the socio-economic impact, both on the more agronomic sectors and on the ecosystems.
The TDC also pays a lot of attention to the professional background of its coaches. ‘In participatory coaching, we often find people who have an affinity with, or at least a good understanding of, the external factors, positive or negative, and the effects that these can have on a company, a program, an industry, etc. I myself have worked in sustainable business for about 10 years, sometimes in fair trade, sometimes in cooperative development as part of sustainability. And that’s why I also work for the TDC.’
Finally, the TDC also pays particular attention to this aspect when selecting the organisations who will benefit from the coaching programme. ‘Most selected BSOs are organisations with a social purpose,’ confirms Maxime Bacq. ‘If you’re crazy enough to set up a BSO, you probably also want to have a positive impact on society.’
Africa coaching Africa
Gideon Brefo illustrates these sustainability effects using various HapaSpace projects. ‘We have collaborated with the SNV GREEN project to support 10 start-ups active in agricultural engineering, processing and farming in applying a green methodology to their commercial activities. And finally, from December 2021 to September 2022, we worked with the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, the German development agency, ed.) to train 160 women farmers in Adjamesu, a rural town in Ghana, in digital skills. They received basic training in telephony, electronic payments and marketing via social networks.’
Improving sustainability in agriculture in the South is all the more important now that the European Union is working on new regulations in this area. This will have major consequences for the cocoa chain, which is particularly developed in Côte d’Ivoire. So there is a real need for coaching and that is exactly what an organisation like CIPME tries to do. CIPME is also the only governmental BSO to receive TDC coaching so far. ‘With the support of partners such as the GIZ, we coach several SMEs in the cocoa chain. One of the things we are working on is for them to adopt EU regulations on sustainable agricultural supply chains, which should make a big difference to the SMEs we support,’ says Anderson Nda. ‘More generally, the contribution of SMEs to the economy should not be underestimated. The more SMEs develop and become strong thanks to the support of our institution, the more they contribute to the growth of the country’s economy. Thanks to the TDC’s coaching, we have gained a better understanding of the important role that companies, regardless of their stage of development, have to play to grow and positively influence socio-economic and environmental sustainability in Côte d’Ivoire.’
‘Ultimately, BSOs are key organisations for generating impact because they are local organisations,’ concludes Daniella Mastracci. ‘They understand the context of the organisations they work with and we may need to work with as well. That’s why it’s important to continue to work with business support organisations so that they can offer even more opportunities to local companies, without the need for foreign coaches. It is important that Africa can coach Africa, that local organisations can do the work themselves in their own country.’
Text: Anthony Planus