Why ‘inclusivity’ and ‘sustainability’ must be baked into the science and practice of scaling for the transformation of food systems

Share this to :

For more than half a century, CGIAR and its many research partners in development have worked to improve agricultural practices, technologies and policies globally, in contexts still dominated by millions of smallholder farmers and herders. These innovations can generate better livelihood outcomes. The trick is how to best reach and benefit farmers, processors, retailers and consumers as part of the greater food system. How to have bigger impacts, and how to ‘go to scale’ in a sustainable way, with communities.

Those were the overriding questions of some one hundred people participating in a ‘week of scaling’ in Nairobi, Kenya, last October (24–26 Oct 2023). The participants kept circling back to three themes: the need for (1) inclusive and context-relevant innovations – those that meet diverse users’ needs and priorities, while accounting for their constraints, (2) incentives for the private-sector to be social impact as well as profit oriented, and (3) ensuring that the scaling work is sustainable – or lasting beyond project time frames.

The three-day event, fully titled “The Science and Practice of Scaling for Transformation of Food Systems”, brought together CGIAR scientists and their partners from such reputed African institutions as AGRA (Sustainably Growing Africa’s Food Systems) and ASARECA (Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa) as well as funders, government officials, humanitarian workers, private company staff and representatives of farmers’ organizations. This second annual “Week of Scaling” held was organized by the CGIAR Regional Integrated Initiative for East and Southern Africa (also known as Ukama Ustawi), jointly with two CGIAR centres— the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)and the CGIAR Portfolio Performance Unit (PPU).

Inclusive by design

While the discussants agreed that transforming the world’s food systems requires effective, equitable and sustainable innovation scaling, they also concurred that big social, cultural, economic and environmental hurdles remain in the way. These obstacles, they said, should be addressed up front—early and collaboratively—in agricultural development projects. In this way, the various stakeholders could best understand the specific context for an innovation’s introduction, including the specific needs the innovation aimed to address, and could best define their scaling ambition. The first questions while developing a scaling strategy should be: scaling for whom? and why to scale?

Several participants raised the need for research and development organizations and private companies to provide many alternative options to the challenges faced by small-scale food producers. Farmers should not be pushed, as they too often are, to adopt single solutions. It was argued that this can be remedied only by gaining sufficient understanding of the local context, including the local networks and norms dynamics that impinge on any new method, through ex-ante needs assessments, stakeholder engagement, and power analyses. Only by integrating these can CGIAR and its partners be confident that they are working on innovations with sufficient local demand and buy-in to sustain use of the innovations beyond the project’s timeframe. Importantly, the scaling participants said, this analysis should not be a snapshot; it needs to be revisited and validated regularly. Co-creation and co-ownership should also be central to the design and implementation of a project, even if it creates a trade-off for economies of scale.

Novel agricultural technologies, processes and management practices unfold effectively only when they respond to the real needs of a target community, are made affordable and accessible to the innovations’ intended end-users in a timely fashion, and offer a useful alternative to the status quo, with viable business models and productive partnerships among other needed ‘ingredients’, as laid out in Scaling Scan. It is equally critical to include complementary innovations and bundle several approaches, particularly for vulnerable groups, such as access to training, credit, and information, that enables communities to truly benefit, as proposed in CGIAR’s Innovation Packages and Scaling Readiness method.

Preventing “mal-scaling”

The concept of “mal-adaption”, or in this case, “mal-scaling”—producing unintended negative outcomes—was also raised as important. To prevent this, assessments must be made of the potential effects of scaling an innovation on its immediate and larger environments, while also recognizing that every intervention will have trade-offs of some kind. Unintended consequences, both positive and negative, need to be identified early to adjust project work plans accordingly and scale responsibly.

Groups of people too often (unintentionally) marginalized where an innovation is introduced—e.g. women, girls, very poor or remote tribal people—should be included early and throughout an innovation’s introduction and roll-out, and scaling strategies designed for and with diverse social groups, e.g. applying the GenderUp tool.

Failing forward… to bold action with partners

Rather than being fearful of failing, the scaling week participants encouraged each other to use failures as lessons to tailor better programs. This, they said, requires being intentional and becoming active listeners to farmers, to processors, to consumers, to our partners. Listening to colleagues, to researchers and practitioners of national and non-governmental bodies alike.

Scaling that engages the private as well as public sectors to advance social inclusion and sustainable solutions—these are not boxes to be ticked, the participants argued, but indispensable components of successful agricultural scaling work. “For whom and with whom are we innovating?” must be asked, and all along the scaling journey.

Call for collaboration

The reason we haven’t moved the needle on these goals is because it is hard. But let’s be intentional and bold. Let’s break siloes and take full advantage of CGIAR’s interdisciplinarity.

We can’t do this alone, so please join us in this movement!

Reach out if you have ideas on how to move the needle and/or if you’d like to be included in upcoming conversations related to inclusive and sustainable scaling of innovations: performanceandresults@cgiar.org.

Featured photo: A few of the participants at the “Week of Scaling” held in Nairobi, Kenya in October 2023 (left to right): Idil Ires (IWMI), Evan Girvetz (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT), Inga Jacobs-Mata (IWMI), Julian Barungi (ASARECA), Ana Maria Loboguerrero (Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT), Nicoletta Buono (ILRI), Adane Tufa (IITA), and Elizabeth Cameron (New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Photo credit: IWMI Southern Africa


Hanna Ewell, Marc Schut (PhD), Susan MacMillan and Agnes Schneidt


Further reading/viewing:

Share this to :