top of page
  • Jessica Li

Revamping Market Systems Assessments: Moving to Inclusive Learning & Adaptation

Updated: Feb 12

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):

This blog provides an important perspective around how to rethink systems assessments.  The blog points out that good practice in assessing complex systems is not to do one-off analyses, but to have a continual learning process that is framed around hypotheses about how change could/should emerge.  A foundational principle of MSD approaches is that to be effective and generate durable results, projects need to have a learning culture that excels at probing, learning and adapting.  One point in the blog uses as an example related to profitability that was interesting, but could be reframed from a systems perspective to focus on whether profitability is actually derived from the value delivered.  The point that profit is not that useful a metric when used in isolation is critical.  When market systems are working well profit does tend to indicate the value a firm is generating for its customers, staff and suppliers.  However, in many of the market system where we work, profit does not indicate the value delivered as political favoritism, unfair enforcement practices, concentrate market power, etc. result in firms not competing on the value they deliver, but on wielding power to gain an unfair advantage and results in customers being ‘forced’ to buy their products.  In this context, which the blogs highlights, having nuanced system change metrics/pathways is a critical learning element that should provide insights into whether the competitive landscape is pushing firm to compete on the value they deliver.  


Often a mandated deliverable on US Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded market systems projects, the market systems assessment has become ubiquitous and formulaic at the expense of innovation and usefulness. To enhance the efficiency and utility of these assessments, we need to reframe the approach to emphasize market systems learning as a continuous process that may require a series of outputs, tools, and products rather than a single, cumbersome, and lengthy report. Instead of literature that merely meets a contract requirement, the knowledge gained from these assessments should be packaged to facilitate investment into strategic areas of market systems development. 

We should consider the guidance from UNHCR, which recognizes that the purpose of these analyses is “to facilitate decision making on project teams based on market functionality.” Forgoing the market systems assessment does not mean doing away with details or eliminating the robustness of traditional analytical market systems research. Rather, market systems learning breaks down the complexity of market systems knowledge into more digestible and useful elements and opens the door for greater participation and collaboration in tracking these dynamic systems throughout implementation. 

What could market systems learning look like? 

Reconceptualizing market systems assessments as continuous, two-way knowledge enhancement for improved and flexible decision making, projects should consider tools and methods for embedding dynamic, real-time market systems learning into their interventions. Some examples include: 

Dynamic and Continuous Knowledge Gathering

Traditional market assessments tend to reside only in the knowledge gathering sphere and utilize a combination of desk research, key informant interviews, and focus group discussions. Although this approach may make the most sense in some contexts, we can enhance this process if we focus on continuous learning and create knowledge products that can be updated or revised easily. For example, the replacement for a clunky and lengthy market assessment report could be a dynamic web-based portal that houses an interactive market system map, forums for market actors to exchange information with one another, and a knowledge management repository of relevant documents and data. Such a platform could be updated in real-time. 

Nuanced Systems Change Tracking for Improved Adaptive Management

With a knowledge management system that can support projects to better pinpoint market system failures and opportunities as they evolve and change throughout implementation, projects can better define systems change(s) and track the contribution of its interventions to those changes. By uncovering evidence gaps as they emerge, projects can develop more tailored and specific analyses to refine our understanding of project impact on systems change(s). For example, a project that has a portal to encourage dialogue among market actors might see vigorous discussion among these individuals regarding an upcoming legislative action that would ban the import of GMO seeds. Seeing this discussion could prompt the project to take steps such as scenario planning or short interviews with exporters so that technical staff understand how to adjust its activities.

Inclusive Engagement of Change Agents to Empower Marginalized Groups

At times, market systems assessments tend to leave out consideration of the most vulnerable because of their singular focus on enhancing profit and competitiveness. While profitability may offer one piece of the puzzle to enhancing market systems, just as important is thinking about how to create a more inclusive market system that brings wide benefits for all stakeholders. By eliminating the single deliverable of a market systems assessment, we do not need to pick and choose whether we examine market systems from the angle of profits or people. Instead, market systems learning offers the opportunity for a layered perspective. While we do profit analysis, we can simultaneously consider inclusion through collaboration mapping or systems mapping to identify how marginalized groups interact as market actors. By conceiving of market systems learning as an ongoing process, we can better take the time to conduct gender-sensitivity trainings for project staff and engage in more community consultations to establish inclusive data gathering practices. 

These illustrative examples of how market systems learning may be applied on market systems development projects showcase the key benefits of such an approach: flexibility, practicality, and adaptability.

How can we operationalize market systems learning?

Market systems learning will not just happen naturally. Transforming our market systems knowledge gathering to a more dynamic and responsive effort instead of a singular report delivered at one point in time requires a supportive enabling environment to encourage intentional and strategic learning, similar to the need for resourcing collaboration, learning, and adaptation (CLA). Strong support of CLA and integration of regular checkpoints or pause-and-reflect sessions facilitates market systems learning because it offers a forum for thoughtful consideration of the technical evidence base developed for market systems. 


Taking these steps and conceptualizing market systems assessments as a phased, iterative process rather than a single point-in-time, stand-alone assessment provides more time and space for helpful, innovative approaches to flourish. Additionally, with ever-evolving markets susceptible to global shocks and events, documentation of how conditions change will be helpful to ensuring that program strategies are relevant and enduring in the face of any changing social, political, or economic contexts. Being able to track shifts in the market system because of external events, other donor activities, new investment, revised legislation, etc. is integral to decision making that will have impacts on project outcomes. 

Undoubtedly, rethinking the purpose of market systems assessments and reimagining them as continuous learning loops for more real-time monitoring of market systems has implications for project resources and staff roles and responsibilities. A continual approach to assessing market systems requires a champion, or group of champions, to shepherd the process systematically and consistently. For example, a finance and grants manager could be responsible for monitoring banking regulations, which might have implications for lending, while a gender, equity, and social inclusion (GESI) manager might establish quarterly meetings with the technical director of markets to ensure alignment on knowledge and updates to any internal knowledge management platform. No matter the specific person or group, the task of upkeep and management will add a layer of complexity and responsibility, which may require perhaps more resources to staffing, technology, or meetings. 

Despite these possible challenges, and the investment required, which come naturally with a shift in processes and systems, the future of sustainable market systems development depends on a radical change in how we gather and learn from data, and how we share that information with local market actors.


Jessica Li is a technical advisor in monitoring, evaluation, and learning at Palladium with a decade spent supporting and leading research, communications, M&E, and CLA on market systems development programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Honduras, Nepal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

79 views0 comments


bottom of page