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Recent Strategy Changes: Investing More in Farmer-Centric Work

Summary: Over the past two years of our work in India, FWI has operated three departments in parallel: farmer, corporate, and policy. Due to both (i) direct farmer work seeming more scalable than initially expected, and (ii) corporate and policy work seeming less able, in isolation, to incentivize large-scale farmer change, we are now centering the farmer work more in our theory of change.

Over the coming years we expect to be scaling direct farmer work via similar structures as the Alliance For Responsible Aquaculture (ARA). We will continue investing in institutional incentives, including corporate and policy ones, primarily to further propel farmer participation in this program.

Our Old Theory of Change: Equal Focus on Institutions and Farmers

Following one of our regular re-evaluation points, FWI has made some changes to our high-level theory of change in India. This post discusses those changes.

Our previous high-level theory of change was the following: We work with institutions, particularly governmental and corporate ones, to support farmers in transitioning at scale to higher-welfare practices, which in turn improve the lives of fish. You can see this in diagram form here:

FWI’s previous high-level theory of change in India

In this model, equal weightage was put on institutions and farmers; also, we aimed to focus most inputs on institutions, who would then (hopefully) be able to change farmer practices at scale. With the information we had at the time, we thought this decision made sense: Direct farmer work is messy and resource-intensive, and thus other avenues seemed worth exploring. We were also heavily influenced by the success of Western animal advocacy organizations, who have achieved extraordinary impact by targeting corporations and thereby influencing many farms with a single point of input.

However, two broad learnings made us rethink this strategy:

  1. Direct farmer work has proven more successful and scalable than previously expected. This is partly because farmers have seemed sufficiently incentivized by the benefits we provide to them (e.g. water-quality monitoring, lower disease incidence and mortality) to take up our Version 1 Standard.

  2. Our corporate and policy work, while having gained significant traction, have not proven likely to incentivize large-scale farmer change on their own (for instance, in the way that The Humane League is able to do with corporate work in countries like the US).

And with most of our impact coming from our direct farmer work, we began to realize that getting institutions to influence farms wasn’t even the theory of change we were implementing. It became unclear whether we’d ever be able to implement this part of our theory of change cleanly in the Indian context.

So, we are pivoting to a modified strategy, one that centers the approach that we have already demonstrated can generate a significant impact: direct farmer work.

Our Modified Theory of Change: Focus on Farmers

Our modified high-level theory of change focuses on farmer change, specifically with our farmer-centered Alliance For Responsible Aquaculture (ARA) program.

Our modified high-level theory of change is as follows:

FWI’s new high-level theory of change in India

Note that the main change here is our “institutions” work becoming “farmer engagement”—instead of viewing corporate and policy work as necessary and sufficient components of changing farmer behavior, they are now just one avenue of doing so, alongside other, more on-the-ground approaches like providing free water-quality monitoring and helping the farmers organize themselves into higher-welfare/best practice-mandated cooperatives.

We wish to highlight a few key features of this shift :

  • Focusing more on direct farmer work: With this modified theory of change, we are planning to scale in a similar way as the ARA has operated previously—via direct interaction with every farmer. Our initial hesitation with this approach was that it does not seem likely to be sufficiently cost-effective to warrant pursuing. Based on our experience so far with the ARA, we have recently updated in favor of our ability to make direct farmer work cost effective, specifically because we think our current programming could be made cost effective itself without any added incentives (see our very rough guesstimate). We also expect to add extra incentives in the future that will decrease our resource cost per compliant farm—see The role of institutions below.

  • Making the Alliance for Responsible Aquaculture (ARA) our signature program: As the ARA has been our direct farmer work program, the strategy change now makes it FWI’s main program. So, our policy and corporate work will now be overseen by the ARA lead instead of functioning within separate, parallel departments.

  • The role of institutions: Previously, we viewed our institutions work as a somewhat separate process of helping fishes. For instance, we could work with a corporation and support them in mandating higher-welfare fishes in their procurement policies; then the corporation would implement that policy, and animals would live better lives for it. As per the revised theory of change, we consider institutions as sources of incentives for farmer participation in the ARA—for instance, if we were able to secure market linkages with better-paying procurement deals for higher-welfare fishes, farmers will be more likely to enroll in the ARA and meet our higher-welfare standards. This is why now group all of our institutional work under the broad category of Farmer Engagement, which will include both institutional and non-institutional work to motivate farmer participation.

Immediate Operational Implications

While the new approach is partly just a shift in perspective, it is also accompanied by the following operational changes to support the revised theory of change:

  • A new departmental structure at FWI, comprising:

    • Farmer Engagement Department, whose mandate is to enroll and retain farmers in the ARA. Our staff from the previous corporate and policy departments are now part of this new department.

    • Welfare Standard Department, whose mandate is to ensure that our welfare standard is implementable and impactful at scale.

    • ARA Department, whose mandate is to guide farmers in implementing our Welfare Standard.

  • Changes to our annual and quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). As we make our annual OKRs public and linked in our transparency page, you can track our progress in real time. Our OKRs for 2023 reflect the four components of our new theory of change while also considering potential fish welfare improvements we can support in other high-priority countries (this year, just China).

As always, we welcome any feedback you may have on our strategy—feel free to comment below or contact us.


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