From research to impact: the stories behind the successes

ID-100133984A recent Montpellier Panel Briefing Paper, Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa, highlights the need for change in the way we innovate and do research if we are to increase food production while protecting natural resources (in other words sustainable intensification). Added to this need for change is the increasing focus of donors and civil society to measure success as the level of impact. International aid has come under criticism for failing to ensure long-term impact of research investments.

In a new report by Joanna Kane-Potaka of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) entitled The Story Behind the Success, 10 case studies are presented, which exemplify how research for development (R4D) can be translated into real results and uptake by people on the ground.  Some broad lessons from the case studies were the need for monitoring and evaluation to feed back into the uptake planning process, the need to design a proactive uptake strategy that is informed by and informs the research itself, and the need for effective engagement, ultimately aiming for stakeholders to take ownership of the research and become ambassadors for the outputs. Effective communication and the integration of cultural factors in uptake planning were also important.

In one case study, farmers in Northern Thailand who use termite mounds on poor quality soils to help them retain water and nutrients, were looking for an alternative as natural termite mounds began to become scarce. International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Khon Kaen University scientists began trialling the use of bentonite clay, found by Australian researchers to help conserve water and nutrients in soil. Researchers found that in Northern Thailand the use of bentonite clay helped reduce crop failure due to drought and increased crop yield by 73%. Three years after the trials around 600 farmers in Thailand and Cambodia had adopted the practice and increased their yields by an average 18%. In this case adoption took a long time but was driven largely by targeting early innovator farmers, in particular members of the Farmer Wisdom Network (FWM), which individuals at Khon Kaen University had previously built a relationship with. Another key relationship, between IWMI and the Thai government, built over time, aided in the early trials, which were conducted on government experiment stations. The government is now developing a plant where waste bentonite from the production of vegetable oils is converted to composting for use on soils. This product is to be free (excluding transportation costs) to farmers. Farmer field trials and Farmer Field Schools were not only used to communicate the technology but to obtain feedback used in the research process. Identifying early innovators, building strong relationships with local farmers and partners and having meaningful engagement with them were key to ensuring this solution actually had impact.

As the Montpellier Panel Briefing paper states, farmers should be central to the innovation process. By the very nature of their work they must be innovative to respond to changing environments and market demands. A recent policy brief, Building on Local Dynamics, resulting from the work of the EU-funded Joint Learning in Innovation Systems in African Agriculture (JOLISAA), carried out in Benin, Kenya and South Africa between 2010 and 2013, identifies five key lessons for enhancing innovation by African smallholder farmers:

1)      Build on innovation “in the social wild” – or in other words recognise innovations by farmers themselves, who are more aware of opportunities and constraints, and avoid developing external innovations that fail to consider context. Innovations should be joint projects targeted at the local level.

2)      Combine local and external knowledge and ideas to enhance innovative capacity (1+1=3) – which is about using all sources of knowledge available to us to enhance opportunities to innovate by all. This can be done through various communication fora and platforms.

3)      Encourage access to diverse value chains to lower the innovation risks – innovating, particularly around a single crop or product, can be risky for resource-scare and small-scale farmers should the endeavour fail. Instead if farmers are able to access multiple formal and informal markets they will be more able to respond and adapt to market and other changes.

4)      Support unpredictable innovation processes – funders in particular should be open to financing more flexible, open-ended R&D processes to support non-linear innovation systems that allow learning, adaptation and new possibilities to be explored along the way. This recommendation prescribes a process-oriented rather than outcome-driven approach.

5)      Address the multiple dimensions of innovation –Technologies exist in social, economic and environmental contexts and for that reason the wider dimensions of innovation such as social and institutional change, which can be the source or cause of innovation themselves, may be needed before technologies can be integrated into local practice.

While the Brief recognises that these recommendations are not new it does offer suggestions for how to put them in practice, namely by:

  • Convincing governments and donors to change the way they fund interventions
  • Supporting innovation platforms and other multi-actor alliances at different levels
  • Developing innovation brokerage capacity
  • Strengthening the pivotal role of agricultural advisors
  • Integrating innovation systems approach in education
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