When USAID/East Africa announced the first Annual Program Statement (APS) under the African Institutions Innovation Mechanism (AIIM) initiative in 2012, many organizations were excited about the prospect of partnering directly with USAID.
Funded through the Feed the Future initiative and aligned with USAID FORWARD, the AIIM APS opened opportunities for locally based East African organizations, with the requirement that they be operating in at least two countries and legally registered in one.
Complex New Process for Local NGOs
“Complex” was the first word AIIM APS applicants used to describe the process, and justifiably so. It is at least a year-long process that involves many meetings, assessments, and negotiations.
While the complexity is daunting, it is not necessarily a deterrent to NGO applicants. Several organizations responding to the APS had past experience implementing USAID-funded projects as subgrantees to large international organizations. And to prepare them, ACDI/VOCA’s USAID-funded African Institutions Innovation Mechanism-Assist (AIIM-Assist) program provides technical and operational capacity building to the potential applicants and awardees.
Application Process Fine-tunes NGO Operations
James Mutonyi, the chief executive officer of Agricultural Market Development Trust (AGMARK), explained that the application process is complex and thorough. He said the pre-application bidder’s conference helped clarify the process and address applicants’ queries and concerns.
“USAID was very straightforward and clear on their requirements,” Mutonyi said. “USAID has also very specific instructions on the application, and this makes it easier to apply as one adheres to a set format rather than having to come up with one as they go along.”
Stevenson Nzaramba, project manager for the East Africa Food Federation (EAFF)’s USAID-funded Farmers’ Integration into Regional Markets through Structured Trade project (Farm-Trade), which is the first and only recipient of the AIIM grant to date, observed that despite the complexity of applying for the grant, the organization would have reapplied had they not been successful. He attributed this to the pre-award assessment stage of the application.
During this stage, the applicant organization is assessed by USAID in seven key areas, including governance, leadership, and financial systems. Once USAID identifies gaps in the organization’s capacity, the organization must address them to qualify for the award.
“Because of the pre-award conditions you have to improve your organization. Hence, our institution came out stronger because we had to fine-tune our operations,” Stevenson said.
AIIM-Assist is NGO Development Partner
EAFF made improvements in several areas with capacity building support provided by AIIM-Assist. The organization updated and improved its procurement policy and financial systems, and introduced the use of timesheets for staff time allocation to various projects. EAFF is also improving its governance and leadership structures to be fully compliant with the grant requirements.
EAFF considers AIIM-Assist an invaluable institutional development partner throughout this process.
“The AIIM-Assist team holds your hand and advises on start-up activities, work planning, performance monitoring planning, branding and reporting. AIIM-Assist provides all the technical expertise required to strengthen institutional gaps,” Stevenson said.
He added, “It would have been difficult to implement the project without the technical support of the AIIM-Assist team who continue to guide us through startup, planning, reporting, and implementation.”
Going a Step Further
Stevenson further described the AIIM APS as an educational process for the individual staff members involved in the application. Patrick Fafali of the Eastern Africa Grain Council agreed.
“One of the expectations of the grant is innovation,” Fafali said. “This, coupled with an emphasis on resource management, compels the team to figure out more cost- and time-efficient ways to implement the project.”
Fafali also said that the complex application system “makes the organization interrogate its own processes.”
The Eastern Africa Grain Council has gone a step further. In addition to making changes part of the application process, they are also auditing and fine-tuning other processes.
“Once key flaws have been pointed out you begin to re-examine even the smaller procedures, and that in the long run improves the entire institution,” Fafali said.
NGOs Will Apply Lessons to Other Projects
Another benefit of the procedure is planning. Stevenson and Fafali agreed their programs will be easier to implement since more energy has been expended in the planning process.
“The application is part of the project planning, because it is so demanding everything has been planned and re-planned, which will make for smooth implementation,” Fafali said.
Stevenson said this thorough approach will cascade to other projects as a standard practice.
Mutonyi of AGMARK appreciated that the length of the process provided time to respond to concerns.
“It gives you time to repair your shortcomings,” Mutonyi said. “You have time to implement long-term, viable solutions that are better for the institution.”
AIIM-Assist Helps NGOs Reach Goals
The beauty of the AIIM APS is that it connects applicants that have reached the negotiation stage to seek technical support from AIIM-Assist. This support from ACDI/VOCA has been very useful to applicants dealing with financial and technical questions from USAID.
Having help from ACDI/VOCA’s team translating USAID contractual and business language into action was a relief to AGMARK as they worked through the process.
“We have benefited tremendously by the support from AIIM-Assist – there were many institutional and administrative issues that AGMARK was not aware of. The support given by AIIM-Assist in revising the AGMARK proposal was timely and professional,” said Mutonyi.