Message from the Chair of the System Board: Recent Travel and Meeting Highlights, and Focus on Excellence in Agronomy Initiative

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Warm greetings to the CGIAR community. 

For this edition of my blog, I’ll start with a quick update on my travel and meetings, and then explore one of CGIAR’s Research Initiatives, Excellence in Agronomy.   

Recent highlights included spending time with teams at the System Office in Montpellier, France, where I had the pleasure of taking part in spirited debate during a Staff Town Hall.  

The System Board also held an intense, timely retreat where Board members delved into CGIAR’s leadership transition, the system-wide governance review and the review of our current funding modalities.  

And of course, we celebrated the last mile of the robust, globally competitive EMD selection process, which led to the welcome news that Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, currently Chief Scientist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, will become CGIAR’s next Executive Managing Director on 1 December, 2023.  

Now I’m very pleased to share a fascinating exchange I had with Mandla Nkomo, Chief Growth Officer and Work Package Lead for CGIAR’s Excellence in Agronomy Initiative.   

Excellence in Agronomy partners with research institutes, local businesses, and farmer organizations. Together, they use big data, analytics, and digital platforms to deliver insights that boost incomes, food security, and ecosystem health in smallholder farming communities. 

Note: this is an expanded text version of the above video interview. 

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda (LMS): Hello Mandla, it is great to speak to you.  

Mandla Nkomo (MK): Thank you so much, Madam Chair! It is a real pleasure to be talking to you today.  

LMS: Please share a little bit about Excellence in Agronomy. 

MK: In my role as Work Package Lead for Excellence in Agronomy, or EiA, a lot of my focus is on one of the most important challenges we face at CGIAR: delivering good quality agronomic science to farmers who need it. 

LMS: I understand EiA is a global initiative with a very local impact. 

MK: It’s important to discuss our footprint, and here’s why: the challenges we face are global. To properly respond to them, we need to harness global talent. EIA excellence in agronomy is indeed a global initiative that is active in all of the six regions where CGIAR operates. We bring together experts from over 10 Centers into global teams – it’s exciting because I feel we’re a great illustration of One CGIAR in action.  

LMS: At COP 27, you said: “Smallholder farmers don’t have the luxury to wait for the world to figure things out. They need immediate actionable solutions now to help them adapt to climate change.”  

MK: Lindiwe, you raise a very important point. My belief is that we cannot afford to be debating and deliberating when farmers need answers this season. For example, in southern Africa, where we both come from, what does it mean for farmers that it’s an El Niño year? Should they still plant the same variety they planted last year? When are the rains likely to come? What are the pests they are likely to encounter? And because of reduced rainfall, what are some challenges they should expect?  

“Farmers are not interested in what we will deliver 10 years from now, they’re interested in what their current season is going to look like.”

This is really what we’re saying about the urgency for us to deliver now, and not tomorrow, otherwise our agronomy solutions will be irrelevant. 

LMS: A basic dictionary definition of agronomy is the science of soil management and the production of field crops. Mandla, I believe you have a very holistic, farm to fork perspective on agronomy, that encompasses everything from technology to marketing to farm management, and beyond. 

MK: I’m glad you raise the classic definition of agronomy, versus how our farmers and our partners see agronomy.  

At EiA our view is that for farmers, it’s really about those 10 to 20 decisions they need to take every season. What crop am I planting this season? What variety will I plant? What will the inputs cost me? Will I be able to make a profit, at what yield, who are the off takers that will come into my area and buy my product?  

“We can’t go to farmers purely with agronomy science, without understanding all the other interactions they are facing.”

At EiA we find that for solutions to really scale, to really impact farmers, we need to take the input side into account. What inputs are available if we’re responding to acid soils? If there is no lime, what are alternative solutions we can recommend in that area? If we’re recommending fertilizers, who are the suppliers?  

But more importantly, if we are successful in helping farmers improve productivity, they need markets. So we find that among our most effective partners in delivering agronomy science are the off takers, the aggregators and the processors, because they create demand for the product. And that demand is underwritten by knowing farmers have access to good agronomic science whenever they need it.  

We take a fully holistic approach to the question of agronomy! 

LMS: One thing I love about this Initiative is the focus on collaboration and cross-learning, among CGIAR Centers and beyond.  

MK: I think some of the magic of EiA lies in its ability to bring more than 10 CGIAR Centers together, and within those Centers, to put together a global team of over 100 experts, from agronomists to climate scientists, to socio-economists. EiA brings them all together to respond to one of the biggest challenges of our time: how do we improve soil health, improve climate resilience, improve resource usage and efficiency, and ultimately help farmers achieve better yields and profitability? That’s where the secret sauce comes from, and it’s a game changer. 

LMS: How can my colleagues and I at the CGIAR System Board help EiA flourish and grow into the global powerhouse we know it can be?  

MK: For me, what has been helpful is realizing that you as the System Board, are committed to creating a CGIAR that is one – one because of the way it is working, the way it is being experienced by the outside world, by our partners and farmers. I believe your continued modeling of this ethos and approach at the System Board is helpful. Secondly, I think your ability to convince our partners to continue to support the work we are doing is key. And to really make sure that our agendas are aligned from a strategic point of view is also extremely important. 

LMS: Is there a final message you’d like to share?  

MK: I guess my final message is that we now have an opportunity to really advance agronomic gain.

“This is a now or never moment. And I think if we take hands and work together, transformation of smallholder agriculture in the Global South is possible in our lifetime.” 

Let’s enlist more and more supporters to this vision. Let’s be disciplined in how we are executing. And let’s really keep our focus on the farmers who need the work that we are doing.  

Thank you – it’s been a great pleasure talking to you. 

LMS: Thank you so much Mandla. What you have said is music to my ears.  

Kudos to you and everyone who is part of the EiA global team.  

You are really making a difference – keep the focus on smallholder farmers with all the expertise of One CGIAR behind you, and I am sure to hear great examples of impact the next time we meet.   

Take it to the farmer! 

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