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Ag Sector Council Recap: Bringing Technological Advances to the Hands of Farmers

One of the desired outcomes of a successful USAID-funded research program is to bring technological advances out of the test field and into the hands of farmers all over the world. The importance of advancing the skills and technology available to smallholder farmers is echoed throughout USAID. This month's Ag Sector Council Seminar, "Scaling Agricultural Technologies: Bringing Research to Farmers and the Market," sought to answer the question: how can technology-driven scaling efforts increase demand-driven adoption in the field? (You can watch the event recording and access additional resources here.)

Saharah Moon Chapotin of USAID/BFS gave the opening remarks, in which she noted that although USAID has funded research for many years, there has been a recent shift, thanks to a nudge from Administrator Shah, to think more about moving "the research outputs to the field and get them out at scale." She noted a USAID program with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa to begin the Scaling Seeds and Technologies partnership, a $47 million, three-year partnership which is intended to accelerate small holder farmer access to seeds while also "promoting the commercialization, the distribution, and the adoption of promising seeds and other key technologies."

Jerry Glover (USAID/BFS) followed Saharah Moon with an introduction to the concept of sustainable intensificationa systems approach to agricultural development, and the banner which the majority of USAID funded research falls under. Glover pointed out that there is a global consensus about the need for increased agricultural productivity, but also "with a tremendous emphasis on decreasing the negative impacts on the environment and with much greater emphasis on the social and economic conditions of the farmer." Glover mentioned two USAID sponsored sustainable intensification initiatives: CSISA and Africa RISING. He then went on to discuss one particular intervention in particular that showed promise, interplanted pigeon peas amongst maize fields. According to Glover, as a nitrogen fixer, pigeon peas can increase maize yields with fewer inputs, and can also be harvested for human and/or animal consumption. Incorporating pigeon peas shows great promise for intensifying yields, with the caveat that, "you have to have access not only to the seeds, but the information on how to grow it in this system and information on how to process it so that it’s actually usable, marketable, and has positive impacts on nutrition." This was a perfect lead-in to the next two presentations, whose organizations seek to do exactly that.

Bob Nanes (iDE) discussed the importance of human-centered design when planning technological interventions. Too often interventions aren't addressing the basic needs of the community and don't understand the triggers that drive purchasing decisions. Once you have a basic understanding of a community's needs you can go into prototyping and test marketing of technological innovations. He also mentioned the importance of creating the demand at the same time as the supply, as well as a service sector to support these new technologies. Without the entire supply chain in place interventions will be less successful. Nanes cited the AgWater Solutions Project as a successful intervention that found three different types of technology that would help bring irrigation to smallholder farmers. Nanes concluded by saying that "technologies that are good for small holder farmers are quite often not profitable enough to support the R&D and the promotion and the monitoring and evaluation," and called upon the people in the room to make sure that the funding is there. 

Steve New (Fintrac) joined us remotely from Nairobi, and spoke to funding mechanisms available to smallholders. He acknowledged that smallholder farmers often have very little knowledge of markets but nevertheless, income-generating projects make the most sense because land sizes are so small. For this reason Fintrac focuses on higher-valued products, and usually those higher-value products require some research and technology. Fintrac works with many commercial groups of farmers collectively because technology can be shared and it is easier for banks and financiers to provide funds for inputs and technologies if they are purchasing in larger numbers. New concluded that smallholders need research and technology to improve their lot and they can definitely adopt it quickly, but the funding has to be there in order for them to be able to access any of it.