Seattle: The Ideal West Coast Home for SSG

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In July, SSG opened its third US office in Seattle to enable us to better engage with clients and partners on the West Coast. Seattle is a natural choice for a West Coast Office for a firm such as SSG. Home to world class technology firms, such as Amazon and Microsoft, and a growing bio-technology industry, it also boasts a dynamic international development scene with organizations such as World Vision, the Gates Foundation and PATH. According to SSG President Nazgul Abdrazakova, “For SSG, Seattle is the perfect home on the West Coast. Not only does it boast an amazing ecosystem of innovative international companies and organizations, the Seattle community emphasizes local sustainability and global engagement – qualities very similar to what drew us to base SSG in Burlington, Vermont, a decade ago.”

Leading up the charge to build our Seattle office is James Bernard, Director of Strategic Partnerships. James joined SSG from Microsoft where he spent nearly 12 years building and managing international technology public private partnerships, primarily in the education sector. With more than 25 years of experience with technology and consumer companies, and a decade working at the nexus between technology and development, James brings a deep understanding of how companies, donors and communities can leverage ICT to solve social, economic and environmental problems. Although he has only been with the firm since April, James is already making an impact with clients from Kenya to Haiti.

“I have been blown away by the amazing team and incredible passion that SSG has in building partnerships and engaging in frontier markets.” says James. “The best news is that this is exactly what companies in the technology space are looking for – real-world expertise in working on the ground to help public, social and private sector organizations solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.”

We opened our office at the Impact Hub, an incubator for social enterprises located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. The central location, open work space and collaborative atmosphere enables SSG to connect with Seattle’s social innovation community and build relationships with firms and organizations committed to building a better world. We are excited to grow our team in this dynamic and diverse community.

A Multi-Pronged Approach to the Growing Pains of Value Chain Development in Timor-Leste

By Colin Foster and Jeff Halvorson

Like other mountainous and geographically-isolated countries, Timor-Leste suffers from a lack of financial and technological services essential to the creation of a healthy, competitive agricultural market. Therefore, finding solutions to sustainable agriculture production in Timor-Leste is all about identifying missing links/gaps in the marketplace and building trust through relationships that have commercial benefit for everyone along the horticultural value chain.

Timor-Leste has very few established services, groups, and associations that provide basic market information to farmers and SMEs. In response, SSG Advisors and Cardno Emerging Markets recently began laying the groundwork with leading telecommunications companies to build and launch an agricultural database that will be used by farmers along key horticultural value chains that supply both domestic and export markets. This partnership aims to increase the supply of much-needed products by giving rural farmers access to up-to-date market prices for their produce, weather updates, and guidance on relevant good agricultural practices (GAP). Meanwhile, SSG works with leading agricultural buyers to contribute to the content on this platform and brokers MOUs with these farmers, thereby solidifying the market pull that will incentivize these newly-informed farmers to produce what buyers want, when they want it.

The next step will be helping firms in Timor-Leste’s small private sector sustainably integrate these solutions into their core business operations. To address this objective, results from recent ICT and rural finance assessments will provide insights into the incentives banks, MFIs, and other lending institutions need to facilitate the adoption and implementation of these ICT products. In addition, SSG and Cardno address capacity and financing challenges facing farmers, input suppliers, and wholesalers so these groups benefit from ICT solutions and formal purchasing agreements with leading buyers.

It’s a long-term strategy that involves building the ICT platform infrastructure through multi-stakeholder partnerships between key buyers and sellers so that the former continue using/funding it when the project ends in 2021. We are still at the early stages of this effort but based on interest and commitments thus far, SSG has found a fertile ground for this new technology due to its potential to significantly improve the lives of thousands of Timorese smallholder farmers by connecting them to interested buyers through a transparent system.

Building Local Partnerships to Empower Youth in Kenya

I’m 35,000 feet above Greenland, and I’m thinking about Africa. Kenya, specifically. I spent six years growing up in Kenya in the 1970s and 80s, and so it is a place that remains clse to my heart, and it’s only been in the last ten years that I’ve realized how much those experiences havScreen Shot 2016-07-18 at 10.02.38 AMe shaped my world view and my career. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do the work I do for SSG Advisors, and to be able to give back – even in little ways– to a place that shaped so much of who I am.

Kenya is a country of contrasts: huge population growth and large swaths of empty space; arid land that is hard to farm, and lush, green valleys full of growth. Industries in decline – tourism, sugar farming – and new, growth sectors like minerals and technology. It has booming cities – Nairobi and Mombasa — with their frenetic construction, impenetrable traffic jams and vibrant populations; small towns on the verge of collapse, and sparsely populated rural areas. The country is governed by a Constitution that virtually every Kenyan believes in, but they struggle with daily small-scale corruption and ongoing political scandals. As always, Kenya represents the hope and de
speration of Africa.

I just completed, with three colleagues, a Rapid Partnership Appraisal (RPA) on the Kenya Youth Employment Skills (KYES) program, which aims to connect unemployed and underemployed youth with job opPicture2portunities in nine counties over the next five years. The program is funded by USAID, and is being implemented by the Research Triangle Institute International (RTI), our partner on the project. This kind of program can help reshape Kenya, a country with more than 60% of the population under the age of 25. Unemployment, while high among all under-educated youth, is even more prevalent among young women, who often become young mothers, or aren’t allowed to work due to religious or cultural reasons. A program like KYES can give hope to young people who lack confidence and skills, and don’t feel like they are part of the growing middle class. People who feel they are stuck doing low-level jobs with few skills or opportunities to move up the economic ladder.

Under this backdrop is where SSG Advisors does its best work. We believe strongly that partnerships between the private sector, non-governmental organizations, community groups and donors represent a critical part of the path forward in any program. The only way to make development really, truly sustainable is to work with the businesses and organizations that were built locally and will be in their communities long after the five-year span of any program. The great news is that many other organizations are also understanding this, including our partner NGOs, the donors and development banks, and of course the businesses with whom we are engaging. Our Sustainable, Transparent, Effective Partnership (STEP) process simply gives everyone a framework from which to work.

In the past 15 days, we met with more than 50 businesses and organizations in five counties across Kenya – from rural farming areas to the bustling cities. We learned about why growing indigenous chickens can yield faster profits than boiler chickens. We learned how ingredients like tea, sugar and bixa are grown and harvested (employing thousands of people) in the start of a long value chain that stretches around the world. We spoke with women’s groups who are selling handicrafts on the Internet in Europe and the US, and met home-grown technology companies that are designing products for Africans by Africans. We heard how a new government regulator is striving to provide better building standards to manage the construction boom. We met local political leaders who are trying to change their communities from the ground up. These people see hope in the future of Kenya, and are deeply invested in it. When we surveyed them about how long they planned to be working in the country, the answer was invariably “for a lifetime.”

The work we did in Kenya over the last few weeks is really just the start of a process that will last for the entirety of the five-year program, and well beyond. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are actively working with the program team and the partners in every county to start the process of brokering the partnerships that will make KYES successful, and just as importantly, that will give youth the skills and the job opportunities they need to be successful.

At SSG, we don’t just talk about sustainability as a vague concept, or something to check a box in a work plan. It’s fundamental to the work we’ve done in more than 50 countries, and with countless businesses and organizations. It’s core to how we help organizations rethink new business models, allowing them to tap into new markets. By working together in deeply rooted local partnerships, we have some hope of changing the outcomes for millions of people around the world.

Research and Recommendations on Indicators for Agricultural Cooperatives

SSG is pleased to announce the publication of our research report to culminate the Cooperative Research Support Services activity, entitled “Indicators to Measure the Economic Sustainability and Patronage Value of Agricultural Cooperatives: Research and Recommendations” (please see the publication here).

USAID contracted SSG to propose and justify two indicators to measure the impact of assistance to agricultural cooperatives: one indicator for financial sustainability and one indicator for patronage value, or the benefit that individuals receive for being cooperative members. This task was particularly challenging due to the diversity of cooperative experiences across the globe, which makes it difficult to develop widely applicable definitions and metrics, and the limited administrative capacity of many of the agricultural cooperatives with which USAID works.

SSG employed a mixed method approach to identify, filter, test, and assess these indicators. This approach included extensive literature review, key informant interviews with agricultural cooperatives in Guatemala and Kenya as well as subject matter experts and USAID implementing partners in the U.S. and Europe, and survey of subject matter experts. In the absence of an industry standard for designing and testing indicators, SSG developed an indicator rating approach that helped filter through scores of indicators based on data gathered through stakeholder interviews.

Additionally, SSG assessed the indicators based on Participatory Monitoring & Evaluation (PM&E) principles, with a focus on the utility of the indicators to the agricultural cooperatives and the ability of target organizations themselves to collect, report on, and make use of the data. The PM&E lens is aimed at making the process of designing and utilizing indicators a form of building local capacity in the vein of USAID Forward, a strategy within which local organizations develop the ability to increasingly engage with the Agency as implementing partners. SSG’s approach has the potential to advance USAID Forward in that, based on our indicator recommendations, the cooperatives can feel invested in the design of the project and think critically about the effects of USAID assistance.

So, now what? There are several noteworthy next steps that arose from this research. First, during the final presentation to USAID, the report appeared to spark important conversation among the researchers and various USAID stakeholders around how to continue to strengthen the M&E and impact of assistance to agricultural cooperatives. Second, given the objectives of USAID Forward, it will be interesting to explore opportunities to incorporate PM&E principles into other types of activities where target organizations or individuals can assume ownership over the indicator development and reporting process. Third, there appears to be an ongoing opportunity to leverage information and communications technology to inform M&E around cooperative development and other USAID agriculture activities through self-reported data. This capability may be particularly important for indicators regarding small farmer perception of cooperative management, which may be costly or difficult to ascertain through face-to-face surveys due to sensitivities within cooperatives. We are looking forward to leveraging the methodologies and experiences from the Cooperative Research Support Services activity in the future, whether with cooperatives or other areas in which SSG has supported M&E for foreign assistance, such as the security sector.

Finding Justice through HICD in Liberia: Strengthening the Capacity of Liberia’s Legal Institutions

By Natalie Shemwell and Colin Foster
Temple of Justice - Liberia

As life climbs back to normality in Liberia after years of civil war and catastrophic disease, Liberia’s Judicial System is struggling to effectively maintain law and order for its citizens.

A five-year USAID rule of law activity, the Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program (LPAC) program implemented by Checchi and Company Consulting Inc., seeks to promote a more effective and accountable formal justice sector. The project focuses on improving the capacity of five Liberian legal institutions: Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, the Liberian National Bar Association, the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute, and the Liberia Legal Information Institute

SSG Advisors used USAID’s Human and Institutional Capacity Development (HICD) framework to define measurable performance gaps faced by each institution and to propose solutions to address them. Through an intensive three-week assessment, the SSG team worked collaboratively with each of the five institutions, staff, and stakeholders to identify the root causes behind the variety of performance challenges faced by each organization.

The HICD framework provides methodologies and tools designed to assist organizations as they strive for performance excellence. The assessment provides the first steps in the HICD process, serving to anchor the entire performance improvement system. The assessment is a systematic and thorough workplace diagnosis and documentation analysis that provides a basis for improving performance at the organizational, process, and workforce levels.

Strengthening institutional capacity remains one of the greatest challenges faced by USAID as it works to fulfill its development assistance mandate worldwide. USAID Forward mandates a growing role for direct Agency partnering with local institutions. Over the next five years, Checchi will use the comprehensive findings and suggested performance improvement solutions from SSG’s preliminary assessment to support each institution in implementing capacity-building efforts that will target sources of inefficiency.

On Collaboration

Before joining SSG, I worked at Oxfam on policy and advocacy issues for several years. Last week, my former Oxfam coworker Jo Cox was killed while working in service to those she represented as a UK Member of Parliament. Those who knew Jo far better than I have shared about her fierce commitment to justice, delivered kindly and humbly, with a genuine desire to connect with people regardless of their background or circumstance. Jo fought for integration; she believed that through collaboration, people can achieve far more than they could on their own.

Collaboration helps us find solutions that would be otherwise unimaginable. It is additive: we achieve a greater outcome together than we do as individuals. We don’t always know exactly how to work together, with whom to work, or where we’ll end up. But being willing to accept that we can do more with others leads us towards far better outcomes than resolutely limiting ourselves to whatever we can accomplish on our own.

This is why we do what we do – helping people work together to solve tough problems, such as improving health, education, and economic outcomes. Collaboration doesn’t have to be complicated; often the simpler, the better. We bring together those who need, say, books or fertilizers or medicines or jobs, with those who have these things. We help them find the conversation about how to work together. It can be difficult: trust takes time to build, and different types of organizations tick in very different ways. But helping people focus on finding their common goal is worth the effort, because getting there together means we achieve far more than we would alone – something Jo understood and lived by throughout her life.

Can Better Data Enhance the Climate Resilience of Small Holder Farmers?

WILD-photoFarming is – at the best of times – a risky undertaking.  For smallholder farmers in developing countries, such as Kenya, this is not the best of times. A report by Environment for Development finds that severe droughts in Kenya have interrupted rainfall partners with serious consequences such as harvest failure, deteriorating pastures, and livestock losses. [1] These losses have implications for agricultural incomes as well as local food security. It is therefore essential that smallholder farmers have access to risk management tools, such as climate data or weather insurance.

For years, insurance companies and donor organizations have been trying to develop weather-indexed insurance for smallholder farmers with limited success.  A key challenge in many countries has been the lack of accurate climate data – both current and historical.  Weather insurance requires accurate historical and current climate data so that insurance companies can develop models that allow them assess risk and set premiums.  Without accurate data, insurance premiums end up being very high – often beyond the means of a farmer to pay.  These high premiums have hindered the uptake of weather insurance products by smallholder farmers.

A new tool may help address this challenge by providing highly accurate historical and current climate data that can help lower weather insurance premiums significantly.  As a key outcome of the USAID/Kenya and East Africa PREPARED project, the GeoCLIM tool allows for much more accurate climate data by synching up inputs from both ground weather stations and satellites.  GeoCLIM was originally developed by PREPARED partners and stakeholders (including Tetra Tech, FEWS NET, USAID, ICPAC, UCSB and USGS) for use by policymakers across East Africa to address climate change and famine early warning. SSG Advisors and PREPARED partners also envisioned its significant potential for the insurance industry – providing much-needed data required to better forecast risks and, therefore, set premiums.

Under the auspices of PREPARED, SSG Advisors brought together national meteorological and hydrological organizations, climate scientists, technology firms, insurance companies and farmers groups to explore how GeoCLIM might underpin the development and scaling of weather-indexed insurance products targeted at smallholder farmers in Kenya and, eventually, across East Africa.  At a two-day workshop, participants used Osterwalder’s  Business Model Canvas to develop and clarify what a weather-index insurance business model might look like.[2]  Partners mapped out product offerings, channels, value proposition, relationships etc. – all the essential elements of how a weather-indexed insurance product can be offered and scaled for smallholder farmers.

With business models developed, the partners are now working to formalize a partnership that will result in the launch of a new weather-index insurance product for smallholder farmers by late 2016.  By harnessing the power of climate data, insurance companies, governments, donors and scientists are giving small holder farmers the tools they need to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

[1] Kabubo-Mariara, Jane and Kabara, Millicent. (20145). Climate Change and Food Security in Kenya. Environment for Development Discussion Paper Series. 15-05.

[2] Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., & Clark, T. (2010). Business model generation: A handbook for visionaries, game changers, and challengers. Hoboken. NJ: Wiley. Sahlman, WA (1997). How to Write a Great Business Plan. Harvard Business Review75(4), 96-108.

How do we Expand Connectivity to the Last Billion?

SSG-Connectivity-Business-Model-Assessment-FOR ONLINE-smaller

Tuesday marked the culmination of over six months’ worth of information gathering, interviews, and workshops focused on finding successful business models for connectivity.

On a sunny afternoon in Washington D.C., FHI 360 hosted the launch event for the mSTAR report titled Business Models for the Last Billion: Market Approaches to Increasing Internet Connectivity. Attending the event were representatives from the White House, USAID, the State Department, and major corporations such as Microsoft and Cisco, as well as other experts in the field of ICT4D.

But importantly, and in line with the recommendations in the report itself, both entrepreneurs who have started successful businesses that increase connectivity, and the investors who have helped them scale so far, were present and spoke during the event.

In this report, written by SSG, we make the contention that both the technology and the business models exist for increasing connectivity to the so-called “last billion.” Of the approximately 4 billion people who currently do not access the internet, we focused on those with the lowest income, most of whom live in rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. By addressing those hardest to reach markets, we found truly innovative ideas that may well work for the “middle billions” as well.

In both our launch event, and during the workshops (termed “white boarding sessions”) that informed our conclusions, we invited a variety of stakeholders from various points throughout the connectivity ecosystem, and brought together perspectives that don’t often mix. In New Delhi, we heard heated discussion between government regulators and Internet Service Providers. In Silicon Valley, the development experts explained more about the procurement process to members of large technology companies. Creating these networks within the process of the report brought to light a key element of our recommendations: in order to create a fully successful system that allows effective business models to scale, we need to encourage and develop relationships within finance, information-sharing, and technological expertise. As we write in the report:

Bringing together the resources of donors, philanthropists, investors, industry, and local communities means that scaling last billion connectivity business models and closing the digital divide does not require substantial new infusions of funds or the creation of entirely new tools.

The entrepreneurs and financing bodies represented at the launch event were a perfect complement to this thesis. Lauren Kickham of Vulcan, and Jim Forster, Chairman and angel investor in Air Jaldi and Mawingu, discussed the way they came together to finance one successful connectivity business model called Mawingu. As he introduced the 12 grant recipients of the new Affordable Access Initiative, Namema Amendi, of Microsoft, detailed the reasons why, as a firm, increasing connectivity not only provided social good, but also increased the company’s potential market. Michael Ginguld of Air Jaldi shared his hope of connecting the Internet infrastructure that he was building with other forms of infrastructure, including water and electricity, and Paul Talley, of ViRural, discussed his realization that working on a connectivity play in Nigeria meant that he could not only focus on more traditional types of investment, but that he could also look for types of financing interested in supporting the social impact his model would have as well. Philip Zulueta, of Wi-FI Interactive Network (WIN), described the investment opportunity, by declaring that “data is the new oil.”

In the launch event, we saw the excitement surrounding the recommendations we lay out in our report. We found models that work, the technology that already exists, and the potential partners who are ready to be a part of a broader network to support the scaling of these models. We hope to see the momentum for this network building, and continued support from members interested in connecting the last billion.

Want to learn more? Start by reading our report.

2015: What A Year We’ve Had!


At SSG Advisors, we believe in the work we do to deliver innovative development solutions that improve people’s lives, and we also believe in communities this creates, within our company and beyond. Looking back at our achievements in 2015, we’ve had a number of accomplishments we’re proud of, so we thought we would share with you our own reflections on the past year, both in terms of our work, and our people:

We Grew

  • Over the past year, our company has grown significantly. We welcomed on board more than a dozen new members of staff, in Burlington, Washington and overseas. We’re also moving into a bigger, brighter space in DC, to match our big bright office in Burlington.
  • Throughout the year, we launched eight new projects across the world, including in Haiti, East Timor, Somalia, and Liberia – all new markets for us. We also moved into new areas of technical expertise, for example with two new projects in fish catch traceability innovation and integrated water management.

We helped clients launch and scale many new partnerships

Mara Partnership

The Mara Serengeti Hoteliers and the partners after Signing the Resource Efficiency Partnership.

  • Together with Microsoft, USAID, the Government of the Philippines, and Tetra Tech, we won the 2015 P3 Impact Award for our TV Whitespace Partnership.
  • We launched a partnership in the Mara Serengeti that will allow hoteliers to save water, and operate in a more environmentally friendly manner.
  • We also ran three Rapid Partnership Appraisals, in Ghana, Timor Leste and the Mara-Serengeti region (in both Kenya and Tanzania.) In the process, we interviewed over a hundred businesses and other stakeholders and refined our discussions down to specific partnership ideas, which are now being explored.
  • With the US Global Development Lab’s Center for Transformational Partnerships (CTP), USAID’s Office of Private Capital and Microenterprise (PCM), and USAID/Nepal, we conducted a private sector engagement assessment that identified opportunities to collaborate and partner with the private sector to help Nepal ‘build back better’ after the 2015 earthquake in the agriculture, tourism, and construction sectors.
  • With CTP and USAID/Malawi, we identified opportunities to partner with the private sector to achieve food security, economic development, and climate change resilient outcomes to support ongoing program strategy development and programming.

We worked to counter violent extremismIMG_2629

  • This year, we facilitated several workshops on development approaches to countering violent extremism (CVE) in Africa and the Middle East. Using an innovative participatory methodology, SSG guided U.S. government staff, development practitioners, youth leaders, and other stakeholders through training on CVE strategies and action planning to implement CVE programming in their communities and projects. SSG also guided participants through workshop sessions dedicated to exploring new thought areas, such as the role of women in violent extremism.
  • Considering the tragic attacks that have taken place throughout the world over the past year, we recognize the need for greater discussion from a wide range of stakeholders on new efforts and innovative strategies to counter violent extremism. With this in mind, SSG facilitates the USAID-funded CVE Forum, which provides a platform for practitioners to collaborate, share lessons learned, and discuss CVE strategies. The Forum also posts project insights, highlights new research, and provides a weekly rundown of thought, news, and ideas related to CVE.

We supported sustainable investments

  • We developed a billion-dollar pipeline of agribusiness investment opportunities in two markets in West Africa.
  • We facilitated the launch of the PFAN-Asia platform, which will mobilize investment for small-scale renewable energy projects across SE Asia.

We provided deep insights


  • We conducted an evaluation of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) project this year and in doing so developed an online monitoring platform that will enable the State Department to glean real time programmatic insights.
  • With CTP, we co-authored a ground-breaking paper on the role that local private sector partners play in development partnerships around the world.
  • We conducted an evaluation of early grade reading programs in the Dominican Republic.
  • We prepared a Case Study of a major USAID partnership with Coca-Cola.
  • With the CTP, we wrote four How-To Guides that USAID Missions around the world are now using to integrate private sector engagement and partnerships into into their strategies, planning, and programming.

And on top of it all, our staff members welcomed three new babies, graduated from business school, started Master’s degrees and were accepted to top tier business schools.

We’re grateful for the year we had, for the hard work of our staff, and for the hundreds of experiences, interactions, and opportunities to learn that 2015 brought us. We know there is more to come in 2016!

Gender Sensitive Early Grade Reading Strategies Take Shape in Peru

Reading is quite possibly the most fundamental component to furthering subsequent education. In fact, it is the gateway that allows individuals to tap into knowledge embedded within their respective cultures. Regrettably, it is often girls who face the biggest challenges in the classroom, particularly in more traditional cultures. To address this challenge, local universities and NGOs are working together, with support from bilateral donors, to strengthen early grade reading with a focus on increasing gender awareness. At a recent workshop, (part of our work on LAC ED,) the organizations gathered to enhance pedagogical skills and increase gender sensitivity in one of Peru’s most impoverished regions.

education training in peru

Participants practice new techniques at an educational training workshop in Peru

Ucayali and San Martin, the two regions of focus, sit in the transition zone where the Andes meet the Amazon. Steeped in beauty and rich cultural heritage, these two regions are emblematic of the natural splendor found in Peru. However, what is often left out of view are the resources required to achieve educational objectives at a standard necessary for development. Moreover, literacy and school completion rates are greatly imbalanced between genders, boys experiencing the positive side of the asymmetry.

To address this, SSG and local partners implemented two, three-day reading and gender workshops in these regions. The workshops were intended to strengthen pedagogical approaches and technical knowledge and skills in early childhood reading and gender education. Participants attending the workshops work within one of the two regional government educational departments and a local NGO. These educational professionals are in a unique position to influence curriculum, classroom management, and teaching techniques of the teachers and the schools where they work.

Each workshop was characterized by participatory, experiential knowledge building and skills development activities. Participants not only strengthened their own capacities, but also developed mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the implementation of these skills in the classroom. Additionally, the trainings provided space to collect information regarding the external technical assistance needed to accomplish educational goals, an essential component to developing future programs in the region.

There are many obstacles to education such as crime and insecurity, family dynamics, and poverty. However, these workshops helped topple some obstacles by addressing gender and early childhood reading, two crosscutting themes that have the propensity to reinforce the improvement of other social conditions, that without, would make development a much more challenging task.