During Covid-19, Marie-Anna Bénard manages Technical Assistance projects in developing countries from a distance, supporting companies in strengthening their resilience and sustaining their growth.
You usually spend your time managing projects that help companies to develop skills and enhance their operations through targeted consultancy services. How are you keeping up this work with Covid-19?
Covid-19 has definitely changed my daily routine. Under normal circumstances, I spend a lot of time coordinating with our investment teams and partners (investees and potential investees) to ensure a smooth and effective implementation of Technical Assistance projects. Many of these projects depend on everyone, including consultants, being able to travel, which has become increasingly difficult since the end of February with increasing travel restrictions, closing borders and lockdown measures. At the same time, it has become clear that priorities have shifted for many of our partners, who are having to deal with immediate operational struggles which impact their resources to handle consultancy projects and overall capacity to absorb Technical Assistance support.
Does this leave you with very little to do?
Not really: We currently manage about 100 Technical Assistance projects, and none of them has been cancelled due to the pandemic. With Covid-19 causing all sorts of obstacles and blockers, but also affecting people personally, it has become even more important to remain on top of things, touch base with our partners and all consultants involved to check on them, understand where adjustments are required in the projects and what type of immediate support is needed from us. With priorities shifting, we need to be very pragmatic about ensuing delays and finding alternatives when possible. This includes trying out new ways of providing consultancy, for instance by experimenting with e-learning and online training tools to share knowledge and sustaining our relationships, even if we cannot be on site.
"Our priority is to support business-critical activities. Technical Assistance can be a critical tool to strengthen the resilience of investees in crises such as this."
All responsAbility-managed Technical Assistance facilities are donor-funded. What are these donors’ reactions?
We have communicated very transparently ever since the outbreak of Covid-19, making them aware of the limitations we are facing due to the widespread lockdown. I am happy to say that all of our donors have maintained their commitments. This is mainly due to the fact that they see Technical Assistance as a cornerstone of impact investment. Now, more than ever, our priority is to drive our interventions in a way that supports business-critical activities, for our company and for the beneficiaries. Covid-19 is a super-shock of global dimensions and Technical Assistance can be a critical tool to strengthen the resilience of investees in such crises. We are joining efforts with some donors and external partners to deploy extraordinary Technical Assistance interventions to mitigate the Covid-19 impact on our investees’ operations and support them wherever it makes sense.
Can you give an example of a potential approach?
Most of our agricultural portfolio companies work with smallholder farmers. While they continue to produce sustainable food, farmers and their communities are particularly vulnerable to health and safety risks. In addition, price risks due to the fluctuations of the commodity markets, the impossibility to ship their production and, in some cases, shrinking demand have become major issues for farmers. As long as they can rely on strong links to partners in the agricultural value chain, this helps them. With Covid-19, however, the risk is that value chains get disrupted and partners disengaged, exposing farmers to even higher risks. This is why we are looking at ways to strengthen linkages within the value chains, understand lessons learnt and devise projects that will help build resilience for the future. At the same time, this crisis does not erase the climate challenge, and we believe that the post Covid-19 world will bring new challenges but also new opportunities. We stand ready to support our investees in whatever may come.
You usually work out of Zurich but are spending the Covid-19 lockdown in France. What is your personal tip to maintain your mental health?
I am doing an hour of yoga every day to keep myself fit and focused. And then there is the weather, obviously. We have been enjoying a wonderful spring here and I am lucky enough to be surrounded by nature – it’s certainly nice to wind down enjoying a drink in the garden at the end of the working day.