Partnerships as relationships for agricultural development

Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (
Professor, College of Business, Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

Humans and organizations have to depend on others for optimal existence to work effectively to achieve their goals. However, the significance of such interdependencies is often overlooked because of the tendency to take for granted partnerships, relationships, and communication in the organizational context. These key areas are often ignored, being labeled as “soft science”.

Building a coalition of public-public and public-private partnership for the promotion of 40% cassava flour in bread. Photo by IITA.
Building a coalition of public-public and public-private partnership for the promotion of 40% cassava flour in bread. Photo by IITA.
What is partnership?
In organizational contexts, the term “partnership” usually means the legal/contractual association between two or more entrepreneurs. The word “partner” originated from parcenter-‒a legal term meaning “joint heir.” In the fourteenth century, the emphasis on “partner” shifted away from this legal orientation because of the similarity to “part” (part of). Webster’s dictionary still puts the contractual relationship of the word partner first and only then mentions “a cooperative relationship between people or groups who agree to share responsibility for achieving some specific goal.” This nonlegal definition is most useful for discussing partnerships in agriculture for development. Using the term “partner” to refer to the various human elements involved in the long chain of agriculture for development helps us counter such conventional wisdom and assists in moving science closer to the common man.

Each partnership has three broad phases: initiation, management, and exit. Entering into a partnership, whether at the personal or the organizational level, should be done with care and a level of informed thinking that should include how the partnership will also be terminated. If partnerships are entered into in haste or without much groundwork, there is a high probability that they will lead to failures, and often result in loss of reputation as well. Especially when one does not have the luxury of time to assess potential partners, relying on previous experiences of working with a partner (and an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the partner) is a very good foundation with greater potential for success. Therefore, personal as well as institutional “memory” is crucial to success in choosing the right partner. So also is harnessing the strengths of a partner (while avoiding weaknesses) for maximum harmony and symbiosis.

Types of partnership
As relationships, three types of partnerships can be discerned: exchange, communal, and exploitive. An exchange relationship is one of pure barter where material or even information may be exchanged often among strangers as seen between a buyer and salesperson. Communal relationships often occur between partners who have known each other and thereby care for each other at a deeper level. The exchanges in a communal relationship can often be for altruistic purposes where one partner derives gratification by making the other happy, successful, comfortable, etc. Exploitive partnerships are indicative of parasitic tendencies from one partner often exploiting the goodness (kindness) of the other. Knowledge of the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of partners is vital to managing partnerships for increased harmony and efficacy.

Ingredients of good partnership
There are other key ingredients that help to develop/identify good partners. Foremost is the element of trust. Every good partnership is built on trust. When trust is lost, partners become suspicious to the point of being paranoid and that leads to a breakdown of the relationship. Transparency and open communication help to build trust. A reasonable argument can be made that it is impossible to build and maintain trust without effective (two-way) communication among partners. Mutuality of control (sharing control in the partnership) is another key ingredient of good partnerships. When control is not mutually shared, this often leads to exploitive partnerships and that is certainly not a healthy relationship.
Commitment is another key element of a good partnership. Every partnership is built around attaining certain goals and objectives. Unless every partner involved has adequate, or nearly equal, commitment to those goals and the ways by which to reach them, there can be no synergy in that partnership. Commitment to harmony within the partnership is equally vital and when both are present, a partnership is bound to flourish, leading to exponential outputs. Finally, satisfaction is a vital ingredient of a good partnership. Unless all partners are satisfied with the various elements of the partnership (process, output, and outcome), there is bound to be discord, ultimately leading to a breakdown in the partnership.

Considerations for good partnerships
There are several elements that help in cultivating good partnerships: (a) access: when partners share access to each other and their networks of information and influence, there is harmony in the partnership; (b) disclosure and openness: unless both partners are equally open, the more “closed” partner is more likely to exploit the openness of the more “open’ and sharing partner; (c) share mutual networks: good partners help one another’s integration into individual networks, thereby enhancing one another’s outreach and influence; (d) shared interests and shared tasks: overlapping interests obviously bring partners closer together whether in personal or professional settings; similarly, sharing similar tasks (and thereby goals and objectives) also leads to closer partnerships; and (e) continuing dialog: frequent communication between partners is a sure way of building good partnerships. In addition, dialog helps to reduce tensions in partnerships before these become irreparable.

Intra-organizational partnership matters
It is important for organizations to recognize that partners internal to the organization (employees) are just as, if not more, important than partners outside the organization. Internal partners are often taken for granted, a sure recipe for a weak organizational culture that breeds rumors, discord, and low morale. Involving internal stakeholders in governance is vitally important as it drives employees to feel they have invested in the organization and thereby elicits greater loyalty, commitment, and satisfaction in the partnership. Finally, it would not be hyperbole if one were to state that organizations neglect relationship building at their peril.

Partnership is a mission of IITA
IITA works in partnership with national, regional, and international research institutes, national governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector to conduct research and ensure that research results benefit agriculture growth and development, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. During the course of 45 years, IITA has partnered with over 200 different organizations all around the world to advance pro-poor research programs. IITA recognizes that close collaboration with partner organizations is essential for the optimum use of resources, knowledge, technologies, access to cutting-edge science and technologies, mutual learning and for making a positive impact on the livelihoods of poor farmers.