Fostering Innovation through Co-Creation: A Journey Towards Farmer Inclusion

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In a world facing the challenges of climate change and the need for sustainable food systems, innovation and collaboration have become indispensable. One approach that holds great promise is co-creation, a dynamic process that brings together diverse stakeholders to design and develop solutions collaboratively. The CGIAR Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems conceived the ‘Living Labs for People’ as a framework to include farmers and other stakeholders in the co-creation process. Through this process and with support from the EU-IFAD project “Agroecological Transitions for Building Resilient, Inclusive Agriculture and Food Systems (TRANSITIONS)”, farmers and field agents participated in the co-creation of a suite of three digital tools to support climate-informed agroecological decision making. The aim is to promote inclusion of farmers, especially women and marginalised groups, and other stakeholders through innovation at various levels and stages, supporting low-emission transitions in food systems. Food systems are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, necessitating a transformation in practices all along the value chain from production to consumption. The goal is to ensure that solutions not only protect the environment but also support food security and economic sustainability, particularly for disadvantaged farmers.

Co-Creation: Unleashing the Power of Innovation

Co-creation is an effective means of driving innovation. Different to conventional top-down approaches, it places users and beneficiaries of the technology at the centre of the design and development process. This inclusive approach ensures that the resulting solutions are not only relevant and effective but also equitable, addressing the diverse needs of those who benefit from them. At the heart of any successful co-creation initiative is the establishment of a collaborative user ecosystem. This ecosystem encompasses a wide array of stakeholders, including farmers, researchers, policymakers, technology experts, and local communities. Each stakeholder brings a unique perspective and experience to the table, fostering inclusivity and diversity throughout the co-creation process.

To achieve these ambitious goals, we identified and invited relevant stakeholders, especially farmers and field agents at grassroots levels, to participate in the co-creation process. Stakeholder engagements commenced in 2022 and continued through 2023 in various forms, including key informant interviews, surveys, focus group discussions, trainings, feedback sessions, and meetings to identify the digitalization needs of various user groups in rice farming and gaps in existing tools that require improvement.

As a result, a suite of three digital tools is being developed, tested, and improved, consisting of 1) RiceMoRe – a rice production monitoring and reporting system at multiple governance levels; 2) a rice production management smartphone application to collect seasonal farming activity data at field level to support accreditation of emission reduction; and 3) a water-level sensor that automatically records and sends water-level information to farmers by SMS to support low-emission management practices. These tools support decision-making at different levels along the supply chain and will serve as catalysts for change by providing farmers with the knowledge and resources they require to transition to more sustainable practices while enabling linkages to new markets.

At the field level, we collaborated with a local company to develop an automated water level sensor that sends daily SMS messages to farmers, allowing them to monitor and manage the water level in their fields with confidence. This simple yet impactful innovation enables farmers to implement low-emission and water saving practices that reduce GHG emissions from rice cultivation by 30-45%. This transition in practices reduces emissions on an average of 4tCO2e per hectare. For perspective, the emissions generated by a typical passenger car in a year are 4.6tCO2e.

The smartphone app is a performance assessment app that enables field agents and farmers to report on seasonal farming activity data through a simple survey that connects via an application programming interface (API) to a specialised and localised GHG calculator for rice. The data helps farmers to assess and record their performance in terms of input use, management practices, yield, and GHG emissions.

The performance assessment application is integrated into a digitised rice production monitoring and reporting system known as RiceMoRe, an initiative of the Department of Crop Production of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, that supports accurate and transparent reporting for the national GHG inventory. RiceMoRe aims to standardise rice production data from the commune to national levels, facilitating evidence-based production planning, technical advisory, and climate-change adaptation strategies.

Empowering end-users with knowledge and decision-making power

Recognizing that not all farmers have access to smartphones or the internet, the tools have been designed to cater to a wide range of users. For example, the water level sensors can benefit farmers with or without smartphones, and the performance assessment application strengthens the reporting of field data by field agents and enables access to new carbon markets to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. Training sessions will be conducted to introduce these tools to various stakeholders, boosting digital literacy and skills, thus enabling them to harness the full potential of digital resources for rice farming and management.

One of our key goals is to facilitate community learning among farmers and field agents. The performance assessment application provides farmers with benchmark information based on other farmers’ inputs on their farming practices, allowing each user to assess their performance in comparison to other farmers. To harness local knowledge and improve sustainable farming practices, a feature has been included in the performance assessment application that allows flexibility in setting benchmarks for various farming practices. This feature is expected to enable farmers, local agricultural officials and private companies to actively participate in setting location-specific benchmarks for various farming practices based on empirical data combined with scientific data from other sources. This provides reference points for self evaluation, as well as benchmarks to measure change, and fosters a spirit of collaboration and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Additionally, the application is linked to a specialised GHG calculator, providing site- and season-specific data on seasonal GHG emissions. This incentivizes farmers and rice enterprises to engage in low-emission rice production, aligning with government initiatives to promote sustainable, low-emission rice farming, particularly the recently launched initiative to transition one million hectares to low-emission and high-value rice in the Mekong River Delta region by 2030.

For a successful future for agriculture, the mission is clear – inclusivity, co-creation, and innovation are required for a just transition that avoids the pitfalls of the first green revolution. A sustainable food system requires harnessing the power of digital tools to empower farmers at every level to benefit producers, consumers, the environment, and the global community.

The ‘Living Labs for People’ approach supports and fosters co-creation of inclusive innovations. At the heart of this transformation is the commitment to empowering smallholder farmers and ensuring equitable access to the tools needed to succeed in the face of climate change.

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