For several years, the paradigm in development has been moving towards ensuring a future that is as sustainable as possible against a whole range of qualitative measures. GDP should count, but so should people’s wellbeing, for example. But when we look at the life of individual projects and the people involved in them, what does this coveted sustainability mean and what does it actually require of us? Importantly, it means not looking only at the hard numbers, but also at the soft data of sustainability. It means monitoring progress during and well beyond a project’s life cycle. And today there are agile, real-time assessment tools that can make this performance monitoring easier and more powerful.

Supply chain managers are increasingly being asked to provide sustainability information about their supply chains, whether for corporate social responsibility reporting, branding initiatives, other client or consumer demands, or concerns for continued supply. In agricultural value chains, we see many investments made in sustainability at the field level, and managers are being asked to understand and report on the effects of these interventions on the environment, social welfare, and economic prosperity for the farms and communities where they source.

Generally speaking, sustainability along supply chains has been understood and measured by reporting on investments themselves. In smallholder agricultural systems, this has meant collecting data on how many people were trained on specific skills, how many services were provided to farmers, and the costs of those activities. While this is important, it does not provide information on the performance of those activities—how many people adopted practices as a result of training, were services utilized effectively. It is not enough to know that services were provided, but we must also understand if they are providing their intended benefit to manage sustainability in a way that truly improves farmer livelihoods, the environment, and producer communities.

At COSA, we understand this well. The COSA Performance Monitoring (PM) Tool is designed specifically to offer a straightforward and low-cost method for collecting sustainability performance data in the field. It provides feedback loops for managers to make real-time decisions about sustainability investments to ensure that programs remain on track to reach their goals. Performance Monitoring achieves this by focusing on a program’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) through short and targeted surveys administered to recipients of sustainability investments. COSA has meticulously designed indicators and survey questions to help deliver standardized data across the supply chain—they allow flexibility for local adaptation but are also accurate and credible at a global scale.

To keep the process simple and low-cost, PM is designed to be embedded into regular business operations by utilizing field technicians to administer surveys during routine field operations (as compared to third-party data collectors, which are typically much more costly). As data is collected in the field, real-time dashboards are populated with calculated indicator results to track progress towards goals over time. The dashboard facilitates quick learning at the field level about sustainability progress but also enables accountability across the supply chain as all stakeholders and partners have access to the same data and can be participants in the assessment process together.

COSA has worked with several leading national and multi-national companies to embed Performance Monitoring systems into their daily operations. The flexible nature of the tool has enabled it to have broad application potential—for example, some organizations have integrated more robust methodologies to increase the credibility and reliability of results (through more advanced sampling methods, utilizing verification mechanisms, or integration with formal Impact Assessments).

In short, the tool is designed to be a knowledge management system to improve sustainability performance and integrate more voices from the supply chain into the sustainability conversation. This is where COSA sees its added value: in bringing its strengths in performance monitoring to all the stakeholders in the agriculture sector. To make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals together, the PM tool is exactly the type of tool needed to know precisely what kinds of progress we’re making and should be making. From producer to processor to marketer and vendor, all those involved in the supply chain need to have a common language to identify gaps and discuss where there’s room for improvement. And this is where GFAR—as a network of diverse partners who value collaboration and recognize the need to create new and innovative metrics for agri-food systems—helps make the space to make progress together.