Advancing innovation on Africa farms
Agricultural innovation can increase the incomes and food security of rural Africans - the challenge is to ensure it achieves its potential impact faster. Evidence from an EU-funded project could help policymakers, donors, researchers and development practitioners better design and manage initiatives to improve smallholder agriculture.
© Adwo #104003190, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com
Innovation happens all the time on African small-scale farms. It helps solve technical problems, produce more food, secure nutrition and take advantage of new business opportunities. That makes it an important priority in schemes to improve rural peoples lives and increase food and nutrition security. At the same time, conventional approaches to promoting innovation through externally funded short-term projects often have little or no lasting impact. The policy brief of JOLISAA recommends to build on innovation in the social wild.
JOLISAA project researchers carried out case studies of African agricultural innovation to understand how to better support it and to develop recommendations for future research, practice and policies.
So much aid money goes into interventions to support development. You have to do this right to learn lessons about where and how to invest properly, and how to build on local initiatives, says project coordinator Bernard Triomphe of the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) in France.
The project found that the most successful policies for promoting innovation need to be flexible, open-ended and engage long term with all stakeholders, particularly smallholders and other local rural actors. This is because innovation is a constantly evolving mixture of small steps either spontaneous or planned that follow a messy pattern, rather than a predictable research-to-market approach.
Researchers also determined that drivers of innovation vary with the kind of stakeholder. While external stakeholders are often motivated to innovate by the possibility of developing a technical solution to a problem and the availability of funds smallholders often innovate to overcome barriers to accessing markets. Supportive laws and infrastructure can be key to an innovations lasting success.
The project team reached its conclusions by characterising over 50 cases that represented a cross-section of recent innovation dynamics in Kenya, South Africa and Benin. These ranged from local to regional initiatives, externally planned to bottom-up processes and small natural-resource farming to agribusiness. Looking at so many cases allows you to identify generic lessons, says Triomphe.
From these, 13 were selected for more in-depth study. Researchers interviewed smallholders, business leaders, development professionals, researchers and policymakers to discover why and how people had innovated, the challenges they had faced in doing so and what changes would help them innovate more easily.
For example, one study looked at the introduction of soybean into Benin in the 1980s, originally to enrich baby formula. First cultivated on small plots, it has become a major cash crop for an increasing number of farmers, and feeds an array of new enterprises. Small-scale food businesses led by women started up first, with large-scale oil processors following later. The soybean sector continues to evolve as producers look for new customers such as poultry keepers.
This underscores the unpredictability of interventions, according to Triomphe. You have to constantly monitor and assess progress accelerate what seems to be working and abandon what is not, even if it was part of the original work plan, he says.
Triomphe acknowledges that this can be a challenge for projects designed by outside stakeholders. It is difficult for external donors to adapt their rules and procedures, which are mostly designed to account for public money, he says, stressing the importance of flexibility and of different types of stakeholders working with each other towards desirable outcomes.
You have to find the correct middle ground it is often the way rules are applied that makes things better or worse.
Triomphe adds that important concepts and expertise, such as social sciences, are too often missing in this field to implement meaningful projects or accompany innovation processes effectively. We need a mix of skills, he says.
Some JOLISAA partners have helped set up the Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovation Systems (CDAIS), an EU-supported partnership to promote agricultural innovation. It currently operates in eight pilot countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
CIRAD now has a research team dedicated to innovation systems, while other JOLISAA partners, such as Wageningen University and Research, work more closely with CIRAD, in part thanks to the project, he adds.