Threading the Needle: Technical Experts Case Study
For Tanager technical experts serving on the Impacting Gender & Nutrition through Innovative Technical Exchange in Agriculture (IGNITE) project, providing technical assistance (TA) isn’t simply a matter of knowing your subject matter. IGNITE is a TA mechanism designed to strengthen African institutions’ ability to integrate nutrition and gender into their agricultural interventions and their way of doing business.
“Working with clients—the [African agricultural institutions]—and being able to deliver TA requires some amount of soft skills,” observes Catherine Macharia-Mutie, deputy team leader for IGNITE. “Beyond you needing to be a technical expert—you have your nutrition skills, your gender skills—there’s much more [that is required] for you to be able to deliver to your clients.”
Nearly a dozen IGNITE team members from Tanager shared best practices, insights, and challenges of delivering TA during a virtual learning workshop among IGNITE technical experts last year. Participants ranged from gender and nutrition experts to researchers, monitoring and evaluation specialists, and team leads, who work in both anglophone and francophone contexts in Africa. Despite the variations that may exist in both roles and cultures, the technical experts recounted similar learnings from their work and agreed on many of the points made. Following are some of the key observations.
Client availability can significantly impact the speed of TA delivery.
Before TA is ever delivered, IGNITE works with clients to determine the specific activities and materials to be provided. Leadership on the client side tends to be eager for the TA at this point and actively involved in planning the scope of work.
While clients may express enthusiasm about the TA to be delivered, that doesn’t mean they’re available to receive said TA per the agreed-upon timelines.
“Since we are working with agriculture institutions that most of the time are working in seasons, we find that, yes, the material [we’ve agreed upon and developed] has been delivered, but there’s no one to receive it because most of the staff are out in the field,” says Winnie Osulah, former IGNITE gender expert.
IGNITE staff have employed a number of strategies to try to mitigate this issue. One is to try to synchronize work plans with client institutions—but this has its own challenges, as IGNITE’s operational calendars often differ from those of their clients’.
As an additional tactic, before finalizing scopes of work, technical experts often go back to the client to confirm that the originally agreed-upon timelines still work. IGNITE’s Burkina Faso staff, for example, share with clients a calendar of the intended activities for an upcoming month—prior to starting on the actual planning. “So what we have [planned] next month, we already have shared [ahead of time] with clients to confirm the dates and their availability,” explains Sokhna Gaye, an IGNITE gender expert based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The staff then layers on additional reminders: During monthly meetings with the client liaisons, the technical experts will provide advance notice of plans 1 to 3 months out. Gaye also follows up any emails with a phone call to ensure clients have understood what she covered in the email.
Staff transitions—on both ends—creates difficulties.
“One of the challenges that we face is staff mobility in the organizations that we support,” observes IGNITE Nutrition Expert Josias Compaore. Client staffing changes can mean not only starting anew on the relationship building but also on knowledge building. Clients may assign gender or nutrition focal points who don’t have much knowledge in those respective areas. IGNITE’s had experienced such a situation previously, which Compaore says required the team to provide some foundational training to beef up the focal point’s technical capacity.
According to Dr. Mary Thamari, an IGNITE gender expert based in Nairobi, Kenya, transitions on both sides of the relationship can create challenges. She references comments she received from a client on having to work with different IGNITE gender experts at different times during the relationship.
“To some extent, the clients might feel that there are some needs … that have fallen through the cracks,” Thamari says.
In this case, Thamari explains the client’s gender focal point was well briefed on the IGNITE transition. Meetings also took place between IGNITE’s outgoing and incoming gender expert to ensure a smooth handover. Even so, she says, “seemingly that may have not been received well or sufficiently with other members of the team [on the client side]. That can demotivate, or make a client feel that their needs have not fully been met.”
Client knowledge levels impact what IGNITE can do for, and with, the client.
While clients are often eager to learn about gender and nutrition issues—wherever their starting point—technical experts report that working with focal points who are not gender or nutrition experts can add an additional challenge to delivering TA.
“That limits the ability to pass on the information or to utilize the capacity you as the gender expert are providing to the teams who really need this information and this technical support,” explains Thamari. In particular, clients may not understand the importance of a particular IGNITE service to their overall business.
“If an organization is in a position to bring in an expert who is trained in that particular area, on gender and nutrition, or gender or nutrition, then that would be the ideal,” says Charles Karari, monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) manager for IGNITE. “But if that is not possible, then the organization just volunteers one person who they feel could be their focal person. And it is up to our team of experts to work with that person, bring them to speed in understanding what is needed in integration of gender and nutrition.”
As such, IGNITE experts agreed that continued engagement and ongoing mentoring is key to providing the most value to clients. TFor example, they have used the monthly client meetings as an opportunity to introduce new topics in gender and nutrition. IGNITE experts have also worked to find teachable moments during their client engagements that may connect to previously discussed topics.
Client assessments or diagnostics at the start of partnership are helpful in building evidence—and creating demand—for TA support.
Perhaps at the other end of the knowledge spectrum from brand-new focal points are the monitoring and evaluation teams found at client institutions. According to Karari, “The organizations that we work with, most clients—especially from the non-governmental sector—have very well-developed monitoring, evaluation and learning systems. So they even have officers who are trained in monitoring, evaluation, and learning, or experts who are very well trained in data collection, analysis, and all that.”
While these staff are well-versed in their area of expertise, they may not think about gender and nutrition. “In Burkina Faso, the microfinance institutions [we are working with] have been collecting all these huge data elements,” he explains, but have historically only analyzed a handful of elements. “Once they buy in to integrating gender and nutrition, then they’ll go into other areas, including monitoring evaluation and learning, and maybe even research.”
Using the IGNITE diagnostic tool to identify areas of TA support is key to cultivating that buy-in. “I think for TA, we should first be able to know where the organization is—by a diagnostic or then the next step, a formative assessment, so that all the assistance we’re giving is based on some evidence,” Thamari says.
Adds Macharia-Mutie: “Creating evidence for TA support is critical.”
Doing an assessment is particularly helpful, Gaye says, because institutions often think they’re doing gender, whether they actually are or not.
“Using any assessment approach—diagnostic, audit, discussion in beginning for client uptake—helps to let them see the gaps they have,” says Gaye.
The assessments form the basis of a tailored scope of work, which additionally allows clients to commit to, and help determine, how the IGNITE TA will unfold.
From there, demand creation may flow naturally. “For clients we have done a diagnostic assessment [for], I would say that would be the first point where demand creation for services is created,” explains Karari. “Because you can tell from each of the domains in the diagnostic tool, based on what they score, … there is a plan to track changes across all those domains and subdomains. [And] if you need to do a training or develop a gender strategy, then how will you measure that that gender strategy is useful to your organization? That creates demand for other services, including monitoring and evaluation and accountability processes.”
Ultimately, delivering TA is a matter of threading the needle: Technical experts must possess seemingly opposing traits to successfully serve clients.
In delivering TA for IGNITE, subject matter expertise is a given. But a technical expert’s toolbox must be deep and varied to successfully deliver TA, according to IGNITE team members. It’s helpful, for example, if the expert possesses:
A delicate balance of management skills and savvy in partnership engagement. In order to keep growing institutions’ competencies in gender and nutrition, technical experts must both manage an institution’s focal points as well as, in a way, its leadership. A scope of work must be agreed upon, work plans must be explained and reviewed. “Everything to some extent requires client management [to ensure buy-in],” observes Clarice Kionge, who served as institutional development manager for IGNITE until this year. But, she says, “You also need to be able to see them as a [part of your] team. So you’re a manager—but at the same time you are developing partnerships. For me, that means you need to understand how to nurture partnerships and sustain that partnership, even as you manage that client.”
An analytical mind, with a flair for creativity. An IGNITE technical expert must be able to assess and analyze where an institution is in terms of its gender and nutrition mainstreaming and how the institution can be guided to the next step. “We have to be solution-driven, and there is a need for a technical expert to see in an analytical way how we can improve what institutions are doing,” says Gaye, an IGNITE gender expert. IGNITE has developed a variety of gender and nutrition assessment tools, sensitization trainings, and modules to assist with this.
But, Gaye points out, customization is necessary to adapt to each client’s differences. Experts also need to be considering how they can ensure client buy-in and engagement. “We need this innovative way of thinking in addition to the analytical way of thinking,” she says.
Sales and persuasion skills—tempered by an ability to be patient. IGNITE Team Lead Maureen Munjua points out that the start of an IGNITE–client relationship often involves sales: “We are selling a service, and you have to almost pitch why that service is beneficial for that institution. So you don’t go into that conversation from a purely technical perspective,” she says. In that sense, persuasion skills are handy to have.
But technical experts can’t be pushy. “You need to be able to convince the client that what you’re offering is good, but also be able to be patient when things don’t work out,” says Macharia-Mutie.