Student blog series Part 2

Exploring the potential of inclusive business models for food systems transformation

This blog from Maggie Hamilton is the second in a student series. The aim is to share perspectives and reflections while she provides support to Nutrition Connect, and how global conversations around nutrition and food systems connect to her studies and future ahead.

One of the main ways I support Nutrition Connect is scanning for potential resources that are relevant to public private engagement for nutrition so we can share them on the site to help inform and inspire practitioners and decision makers. Recently I found a report that blew me away: NGO and company partnerships for inclusive business, produced by Endeva, a consulting firm focused on regenerative and inclusive futures.  

The report describes inclusive business models, and how they can be leveraged to improve partnerships between public and private entities. The report defines an inclusive business (IB) model as “a commercially viable business model that integrates people with low-income into value chains in various capacities, whether as consumers, producers, suppliers, employees, or entrepreneurs, with the aim of creating mutual benefit.” 

I was completely unfamiliar with IB models, which is probably why this was such an interesting read. During my brief time working with Nutrition Connect this summer, I have been exposed to a lot within the nutrition nonprofit sector and it has been fascinating to learn how different organizations operate; and learned a lot about different ways in which governments, businesses and civil society organizations can work together towards the shared goal of improving nutrition. But this report from Endeva was particularly compelling because it really set out opportunities for sustained partnerships between businesses and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), beyond the classic model of philanthropic or corporate giving. Many companies are interested in helping NGOs, and NGOs need help from companies but this exchange isn’t always the most effective. What is really cool about partnerships for inclusive business is that both the NGO and the company bring their individual skills and assets to the relationship. 


These public private partnerships (PPP) are structured around a true relationship between both entities while also accomplishing social impact and business interests. Another attractive piece of the PPP structure is that they are incredibly relational. Rather than relying on a time-bound grant (which is commonplace for philanthropic giving), with PPPs the company and the NGO have the relational bandwidth to determine when the partnership is mutually beneficial or when it may be time for the two to part ways if goals are no longer aligned. 

However, because PPP is inherently more relational than a philanthropic partnership, it takes much more work at the start. To establish a healthy PPP, both partners must be very open and communicative on what they hope to gain from the partnership. Currently, there is also no way to streamline creating these partnerships which makes it difficult to know which companies are interested in partnering with which type of NGO. Personally, I feel that the work put in at the very beginning of the relationship would pay out exponentially years down the line -- for both NGO and company. 

To be effective, the Endeva report stresses that from the outset, both the NGO and the company need to understand:

  • what each can contribute (including, e.g. time, money, expertise, networks);
  • there are no perfect partners, just good matches; and 
  • there are no shortcuts in building relationships. 

Keeping those three ideas in mind as an NGO and company embark on a PPP journey will be imperative to laying the foundation for mutual understanding of what is to come, and a solid and supportive working relationship. “Co-creation on equal terms, complementary partner contributions and generally working towards systemic change by influencing the broader market system” are some of the key ground rules for those involved in PPP in order to see the fruit of their labor down the road  (see Box 1 of the report). 



Although I am hopeful of the potential of  PPPs to help improve our food systems, some would argue this may be rooted in my naivete. At worst, many people argue that the private sector will always prioritize profit over public health, while others say we need more evidence of successful PPPs, especially within food systems and nutrition. A recent discussion paper, for example, questions whether PPPs can simultaneously accomplish both business goals and NGO goals in order to further better nutrition and sustainable food systems, and argues for more data to determine if PPPs are effective. In addition to more evidence, the authors call for an agreed definition of what success looks like for a food and nutrition PPP.  Despite these concerns, I do believe that partnering with the private sector is necessary given the immense role business plays in producing, packaging and selling our food.. 

But as with anything in this space, PPPs are not a silver bullet for food systems improvement - not because they aren’t helpful but because there is no one solution to fixing the monstrous cracks in our current system. While the Endeva report was not specific to creating IB models within the food system, I believe their findings can be extrapolated and applied to the nutrition sector quite well.When done right, this approach to partnerships could lead to a sustainable relationship and sustainable change in today’s food system. This type of collaboration is currently underutilized but full of potential. I am excited to see how PPPs in the food system progress and to be a part of helping to search, find and share evidence and experience in this space so we can better understand how to effect change, together. 


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