5 takeaways for navigating the waters of agricultural innovation: Charting a course for responsible scaling

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By Hanna Ewell  

To advance CGIAR’s efforts to transform food systems in a responsible way, a two-day workshop was held 21–22 March 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya. It was triggered by interest from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) to integrate “responsible innovation and scaling” into the “Innovation Packages and Scaling Readiness” (IPSR) approach developed by CGIAR. The workshop was funded by the BMGF and jointly organized by innovation and scaling experts at the International Livestock Research Institute, Wageningen University and Research, and the University of California at Davis. 

Five takeaways stuck with me: 

  • Start designing with scale in mind and be intentional – that means using methods that ensure that agricultural innovations are developed, implemented, and scaled responsibly and inclusively all along the innovation-to-impact pathway, from first “ideation” to last-mile adoption.
  • Be pragmatic and meet researchers where they are. The amount of time that scientists have to think through “responsible scaling” using CGIAR’s IPSR methodology is tightly limited; use it efficiently and wisely.
  • Make use of the power of interdisciplinarity and diverse participation. Those developing plans for scaling agricultural innovations should always include diverse expertise and representatives of all the major groups of people targeted by an innovation, e.g., women as well as men, older as well as younger people, Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous people.
  • Reflect early on both goals and “anti-goals.” Consider who an intervention will target to understand what groups of people it will likely help the most, what groups it will likely neglect, and what groups it might harm.
  • Scale for outcomes rather than returns alone. At least some innovations with little promise of financial returns should be scaled broadly due to their large potential social benefits (e.g., protection of natural resources, empowerment of women), which lay the groundwork for long-lasting benefits.

Since the early 1970s, CGIAR has set out with a mission to transform agricultural development. But unlike the chaotic “lego room” of the past, where innovations were scattered like loose bricks after a toddler’s playtime, CGIAR now navigates with organization and evidence-based precision—thanks to Innovation Portfolio Management. 

IPSR was introduced as a funnel system to channel innovations toward achieving transformative solutions and carefully identifying and addressing bottlenecks along the way. As innovation groups navigate the waters of innovation, the organizers said, using stage-gates of decision-making, “they should keep a keen eye on potential winners and losers, mitigating unintended outcomes and fostering responsible scaling.” 

The workshop participants had diverse definitions of scaling strategies and perspectives and how these should be set up yet acknowledged the need for ‘responsible’ scaling strategies, recognizing that every innovation must be approached with context-specific nuance. 

As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that responsible innovation and scaling go hand in hand. The participants embraced the principles of anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, and responsiveness presented by Wageningen professor Cees Leeuwis as key dimensions of responsible innovation, which can ensure that the implementation of an innovation leads to equitable outcomes for all.  

The participants recognized the importance of diversity and social differentiation among users, understanding that one size does not fit all in the world of innovation, presented by Erin McGuire, Director of the Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab. Gender considerations took center stage as the participants worked to integrate responsible scaling into every stage of CGIAR’s IPSR approach. From innovation ideation to innovation portfolio management, the need to implement gender-responsive strategies that empower marginalized communities and challenge existing norms along all four steps of IPSR was emphasized. Furthermore, the responsibility dimensions should be revisited within regular “pulse checks”, along the entire scaling journey. 

Of course, balancing cost-effectiveness with inclusivity, navigating the complexities of the governance required for scaling, and fostering a culture of continuous learning and adaptation is not without challenges. The path toward responsible scaling is clearly not a linear one but a continual evolution, guided by the principles of equity, inclusion, and sustainability. But armed with a newfound commitment to responsible scaling, these workshop participants departed the meeting with renewed purpose and determination. And with each step researchers and their partner networks take, CGIAR draws closer to its ultimate goal: a world where agricultural innovation leaves no one behind. 

See more information on the CGIAR Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems here.

Photo credit: Workshop attendants from the Sustainable Animal Productivity for Livelihoods, Nutrition and Gender Inclusion (SAPLING), Excellence in Agronomy (EiA), East and Southern Africa Regional Integrated Initiative (Ukama Ustawi), Accelerate for Impact Platform (A4IP), and Low Emissions Food Systems (Mitigate+) Initiatives, as well as the IRLI Impact at Scale Team, Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and UCDavis / Marvin Masonga / ILRI

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