Agricultural economist and World Food Prize Laureate Jan Low joins CGIAR innovation scaling team

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    20.05.24

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Jan Low, an American agricultural economist, has just joined the CGIAR Portfolio Performance Unit (PPU) to support the co-design of a protocol for taking agricultural innovations to scale across the smallholder farming systems of the Global South.

Low will work with teams of agricultural scaling experts from CGIAR, the University of California at Davis, Wageningen University & Research, and elsewhere, along with research innovators, donor agents, and public and private organizations to codify the key ingredients of highly effective and responsible strategies for scaling innovations.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and executed by CGIAR’s PPU in collaboration with CGIAR’s Initiatives on Excellence in Agronomy and Sustainable Animal Productivity and CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the project will harness information from other organizations with the aim of developing, piloting, and mainstreaming a scaling strategy design process for CGIAR-wide use.

CGIAR’s innovation systems approach to scaling

An innovation systems approach that builds on partnerships with governments and private- and public-sector partners is at the heart of CGIAR’s mission. CGIAR is mainstreaming an “Innovation Packages and Scaling Readiness (IPSR)” approach to support researchers and partners in co-designing and co-implementing optimal ways of broadening use of their innovations. IPSR builds on a Scaling Readiness approach developed by CGIAR and Wageningen University (see www.scalingreadiness.org).

A strength of IPSR is that it enables innovation groups to identify and address up front potential bottlenecks to scaling innovations in a particular context. Jan Low’s main contribution will be to develop a protocol that guides innovation teams in tackling these bottlenecks to scale innovations through partnerships and doing so in a responsible and inclusive manner.

Photo credit: Jan Low/CIP

About Jan Low

Jan Low brings a wealth of relevant experience to scaling strategy design. She is intimate with the agricultural challenges in low-income countries, has deep understanding of development finance in those countries, has long experience in working with governments and private partners to pilot agricultural innovations, and has succeeded in taking one of those innovations to scale.

Low is a believer in “learning by doing”, in “action research” that builds the evidence base for an innovation while at the same time working with partners to take that innovation to scale. “I always used to tell my research teams,” she says, “that there’s no point in doing this work on this new variety or technology or policy if we can’t get it out. And the only way to get it out is to work with partners on scaling the innovation at the same time as we work on refining the innovation itself. We have to learn as we go.”

What excites Low about working with CGIAR’s PPU team, she says, is that “they’re thinking through systematically what it means to scale an innovation. That helps innovators think strategically from the outset about how they’re going to take their innovations to scale. It helps them identify the bottlenecks they may face. It helps them think about who they need to partner with to have wide impact.”

“The IPSR is a very useful tool”, she says. “I wish I’d had it back in 2010!”

Between Low’s undergraduate zoology education at Pomona College, in California, and her graduate studies in agricultural economics and nutrition at Cornell University, she spent four years in the Peace Corps working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with thousands of farmers and government officials to build a highly successful urban fisheries program.

Photo credit: Jan Low/CIP

On obtaining her doctorate from Cornell, Low became a Rockefeller post-doctoral fellow with the CGIAR’s International Potato Center (CIP) in Kenya, and then moved to Mozambique, where she worked for the next 9 years as an agricultural economist and policy advisor, first with CGIAR’s International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and then with Michigan State University.

It was during her Michigan State University work that she raised funds to conduct a nutritional agricultural research project on orange-fleshed (vitamin-A-enriched) sweetpotato in central Mozambique that demonstrated impact on young child nutritional status. Sweetpotato has been the focus of Low’s research for some 25 years now, including heading CIP’s large African sweetpotato projects for over 15 years. For her many successes in getting vitamin-enriched sweetpotato varieties widely adopted in African countries, Low was co-awarded the coveted World Food Prize in 2016.

For the rest of this year, Low will be closely working together with three CGIAR and partner innovation teams to co-design responsible scaling strategies. “As an economist”, she says, “I’ll be interested to see how we can get more attention paid to economic feasibility analyses. As a nutrition-focused agriculturalist, I’ll be interested to analyze the wider societal benefits of taking an innovation to scale. Some of CGIAR’s technologies are ripe for getting private-sector support. Others will need more government / public-sector support. Some will need a mix of both. We’ll need highly effective strategies for each of them.”

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