What does it take to scale an agricultural innovation? Loraine Ronchi talks with Agnes Kalibata

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Getting science innovations out of the labs and into the hands of millions of smallholder farmers across the Global South is crucial in development work. In October 2023, CGIAR, the world’s largest global agricultural innovation network, hosted a week of discussions on “The science and practice of scaling agri-food system innovations”. The discussions explored three dimensions of scaling: “out” to reach more people, “up” through enhancing policies and regulations; and “deep” to impact culture, norms and behaviours.

The week-long discussions and activities included a conversation on agricultural scaling between Loraine Ronchi, a Canadian economist, World Bank secondee, and CGIAR senior policy advisor, and Agnes Kalibata, a renowned African agricultural scientist, policymaker, and global leader internationally recognized in the arena of food systems transformation.

Agnes Kalibata is president of AGRA, (formerly Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa), an African-led institution founded in 2006 in Nairobi, Kenya, to help move African smallholders from subsistence farming to thriving businesses. Raised as a refugee in Uganda to smallholder parents, Kalibata studied agriculture at Uganda’s Makerere University before earning a PhD in entomology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. She served as Rwanda’s minister of agriculture and animal aesources from 2008 to 2014, during which time Rwanda, a predominantly agricultural economy, reported a decline in poverty levels of 12 percent and reduced hunger by more than 50 percent. The sector’s annual budget grew 15-fold thanks to the government’s work to meet the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) commitment to increase funding to the agriculture sector. More recently, she served as the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for the 2021 Food Systems Summit. In 2023, Kalibata was appointed to the advisory committee of the 28th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Dubai, where she led efforts to get food systems closer to COP28 discussions and to advance food systems globally through the United Arab Emirates Declaration on Food Systems.

Loraine Ronchi, a World Bank lead economist and Rhodes Scholar, studied economics at Oxford University and Sussex University, in the UK. She is now on a two-year secondment to serve CGIAR as a senior advisor on policy impact. Working within CGIAR’s Systems Transformation Science Group and based at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a CGIAR center in Washington, DC, Ronchi works to amplify the impact of CGIAR’s agriculture and food policy research by supporting closer links between CGIAR’s climate research and high-level policy dialogues and investments. Her interests are “the science of scaling”, private-sector scaling of climate innovations, and policy and investment design for a just transition to a 1.5-degree world.

Highlights of their discussion, edited for clarity and brevity, are below.

Determining the ingredients of scaling success

Ronchi: Agnes, you’ve been with AGRA for nearly a decade now, during which AGRA has had extensive experience and many successes in delivering proven solutions, some of them from CGIAR, to problems facing Africa’s smallholder farmers and enterprises. So let me start by asking you, What are the ingredients to AGRA’s successes in bringing those solutions to scale?

Kalibata: Success is a collaborative effort. The work we do at AGRA is deeply rooted in partnerships and shared values, particularly in serving smallholder farmers. The most important players are the farmers themselves. It is they who make decisions to change their lives. We facilitate this by ensuring that they have the needed knowledge and service ecosystem—from the agrodealer to the seed company to the aggregator. You quickly learn that the biggest drivers of scale are the incentives built in each system/ecosystem. The CGIAR’s contributions have been invaluable—farmers have to see the difference between what they usually do and use of new technologies such as improved seeds. Here I speak from personal experience, having worked with CGIAR as a researcher before joining the government and being able to use that knowledge and support system to move my country forward as a minister.

“You quickly learn that the biggest drivers of scale are the incentives built in each system/ecosystem.”

But this journey to scaling success—by building on each other’s work, leveraging partnerships—is not without its challenges! The national agricultural research systems (NARS), which are a critical interface between CGIAR and farmers’ access to improved technologies at the country level, are significantly underfunded and keep losing good capacity as a result. One of AGRA’s biggest successes was investing in 18 NARS in 18 countries by equipping them, by training new scientists, and by supporting their research. More than 100 MSc and PhD fellows have since helped produce more than 700 improved local varieties, have contributed to evidence-based research papers, and have been trained in partnership with 14 African universities.

“The national agricultural research systems (NARS), which are a critical interface between CGIAR and farmers’ access to improved technologies at the country level, are significantly underfunded and keep losing good capacity as a result.”

One way that we address the challenges of bureaucracy and underfunding of public institutions is to support private-sector companies in aligning their work more closely with the needs of smallholder farmers. We focus on empowering local communities and institutions, bridging gaps in skills and resources.

We prioritize solutions that address people’s immediate food and other needs while also fostering sustainability. We plan, monitor progress, and adapt solutions to ensure that effective interventions remained responsive to the evolving challenges faced by smallholders.

We also take a holistic view of agricultural ecosystems and work to identify and strengthen the weakest links. From seed systems to policy frameworks, policies and implementation and regulatory tools, we work to address bottlenecks and to promote innovation at every level.

And we understand that scaling innovations also requires a deep understanding of local contexts.

Navigating challenges in Africa’s agricultural systems

Ronchi: When you talk about assessing agricultural systems, you mention the upstream point where CGIAR innovations need to reach farmers. In the system assessments AGRA is now conducting, how often is this upstream segment the predominant issue?

Kalibata: There are two ways to look at this. One way is to consider the availability of technologies that can make a difference in people’s lives—which is largely the work of CGIAR. But technologies are being produced faster than they are reaching farmers and markets. We talk about lots of technologies still being “on CGIAR shelves”. CGIAR needs to be more creative, to build more partnerships, and to work better with governments to get these technologies to farmers. This is more important now than ever before because of all the climate challenges now facing farmers. Success here is determined by how much, and how often, CGIAR-developed technologies leave the hands of CGIAR and get into the hands of farmers.

“Success here is determined by how much, and how often, CGIAR-developed technologies leave the hands of CGIAR and get into the hands of farmers.”

The other way to look at this is to consider the policy environment and the institutional readiness/capability to allow technology uptake. We often find that policies to guide the uptake of agricultural inputs are outdated or entirely lacking. In the last five years, we have worked to advance 72 input-related policies across 11 countries. These were a mix of policies, laws, and regulatory environments that together establish the rules of business in agricultural input systems. These are critical to the downstream work of seed and fertilizer companies and to the distributors of these and other agricultural inputs.

The private sector is driven by profit needs and requires systems and policies that work for them. (And what works for them in some countries may not work in others, with different subsidies and other policies.)

Navigating these challenges involves understanding and addressing the incentives and resources available to the private sector. Weak incentives for private-sector involvement can hinder system-building. But so would lack of public investments in agricultural extension for farmers. The private sector has limited capacity when it comes to scaling agricultural interventions among smallholder farmers. Such scale has been achieved largely where governments and public institutions like mine have recognized that lack of agricultural extension is the number one constraint to uptake of agricultural technologies.

“Scale has been achieved largely where governments and public institutions like mine have recognized that lack of agricultural extension is the number one constraint to uptake of agricultural technologies.”

Working with smallholder farmers requires the support of robust institutions and systems, which in turn requires strong government leadership—leaders willing to take responsibility and drive necessary changes.

By fostering partnerships and sharing costs (through derisking instruments) between the public and private sectors, we can accelerate and scale the adoption of agricultural innovations.

Promoting evidence-based decision-making

Ronchi: How does AGRA approach evidence-based decision-making in its assessments of agricultural systems?

Kalibata: Despite recent improvements across the continent, the enabling policy environment for agricultural businesses, especially trade across subregions and borders in food corridors between countries, remains weak. Governments need to take increased responsibility for implementing policies that support agricultural development and trade. This requires access to reliable data and research findings, which can inform policy decisions and resource allocation. As we all know, without data, policies tend to be misdirected.

That said, there’s often a disconnect between research findings, policy implementation, and sustaining momentum. Part of this is because government systems are dynamic and subject to change, which can make it challenging to ensure that evidence effectively informs decisions. A common problem is what I call “start-over disease” as governments change. The challenge this presents is huge because change in the agriculture sector comes only from sustained investments over periods of years and decades. The agricultural revolutions in parts of Asia, for example, took 20­–25 years of uninterrupted focus and consistent funding and system building to move smallholder farmers and the agriculture sector from subsistence to the mainstream economy.

“A common problem is what I call ‘start-over disease’ as governments change. The challenge this presents is huge because change in the agriculture sector comes only from sustained investments over periods of years and decades.”

AGRA provides advisory services that consolidate and translate evidence for governments seeking to reform, refine, or develop a clearer policy direction. This work helps to meet the urgent need for timely, evidence-based policy support to the agriculture sector, particularly to ensure inclusive as well as strong growth.

Being agile in responding to evolving challenges

Ronchi: The Food Summit in 2021, for which you served as the UN secretary general’s special envoy, emphasized agility in responding to challenges. Could you elaborate on the need for agility and innovation in navigating agricultural complexities?

Kalibata: We must remain adaptable in the face of changing circumstances; in Africa, climate change is the number one problem. It was made clear at the Food Systems Summit that agricultural systems are defined by local contexts, cultures, and behaviour. Therefore, tailoring solutions to each context is paramount. Equally important is access to accurate information, especially in this era of so much misinformation and the speed with which things change.

“We must remain adaptable in the face of changing circumstances; in Africa, climate change is the number one problem.”

In terms of innovation, we must anchor our vision and work on addressing global and regional challenges from an African perspective, which prioritizes food security and profitable and sustainable smallholder farming systems.

Scaling agricultural innovations is a collaborative effort of governments, institutions, and the private sector. By facilitating partnerships among them, we can accelerate the adoption of innovative solutions and build the profitability and resilience of farming communities and agricultural businesses across Africa.

Note: “Scaling Week” was jointly organized by the CGIAR Ukama Ustawi Initiative on Diversification in East and Southern Africa, the CGIAR Portfolio Performance Unit, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which hosted the event at its campus in Nairobi, Kenya, 23­–27 October 2023. See this article, Why “inclusivity” and “sustainability” must be baked into the science and practice of scaling for the transformation of food systems, for more about Scaling Week.

Thank you to Agnes Kalibata and Loraine Ronchi for contributing to this article.

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