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Community-Based Research to Harness Benefits of Integrated Production Systems: Challenges Facing Institutional Adoption at Scale

This blog post was written by Dr. Eric Kueneman, a member of the Evaluation Team for the Humidtropics Cooperative Research Program of the CGIAR.

In 2015, I was part of a three-person external review team to appraise progress and development concepts regarding a Cooperative Research Program (CRP) of the CGIAR, branded as “Humidtropics” (HT). Soon after the first program review planning meeting, CGIAR decided to terminate all ecosystem CRPs in the CGIAR’s portfolio, including the HT, regardless of our external evaluation’s findings. However, HT management (IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria) still decided to continue with the appraisal to ensure that important lessons learned in the HT’s innovative approaches would be recorded and incorporated in CRPs (mostly crop commodity-oriented) in the future. The CGIAR’s Independent Evaluation Arrangement recently posted our evaluation report of the HT’s CRP.

HT, first approved in August 2012, was seeking to transform the lives of the rural poor in the humid lowlands, moist savannas and tropical highlands in three major Impact Zones of sub-Saharan Africa and tropical America and Asia. It was expected to impact a population of 2.9 billion people, mostly poor smallholder farmers. Despite its short life, HT was unequivocally making progress. It served well in encouraging and enabling the participating Centers and other HT partners to work together in the same geographical space at the same time. This kind of convergence was creating an atmosphere of cooperation, resulting in synergies that generate outputs much greater than the sum of the parts. Hopefully the spirit of HT’s integration alliance will be one of the HT legacies for future CRPs. The CGIAR’s Cereal Systems Integration for South Asia (CSISA) has also demonstrated the benefits of converging Centers and partners. We must wait and see if the HT and CSISA examples will diminish the "competitive grant" approach to resource allocations that has far too often encouraged divisive competition among Centers.

HT’s program support favored community action that fostered production systems integration: both vertical integration (ensuring functional value chains of a commodity) and hortizontal integration when possible (e.g., crop, livestock, tree, fish systems or robust rotations and/or intercropping). Coupled with the emphasis on synergies from production systems integration, the HT invested heavily in community-based project identification. HT provided support for facilitators, coordinators and recorders to work with the target communities in Innovation Platforms (IPs). Modest, yet significant, operational funds were provided for this, and local public and civil society inputs were also encouraged to various levels of success. 

IPs were meant to eventually replicate, as they were designed to try to address major constraints and opportunities within a geographic "expansion domain."  HT again facilitated a second layer of coordination in the form of Research for Development (R4D) Platforms, which were constituted by representatives of stakeholder institutions working in the wider expansion domain. The R4D Platform was to provide oversight and foster institutional engagement needed for the innovation plan and its implementation (clusters of functional IPs). Wageningen University provided key leadership on this two-tiered institutional innovation process via creating and running the IPs and R4D Platforms. HT/Wageningen staff also ensured data on decisions and activities were recorded and analyzed with the goal of researching the innovation processes and documenting outcomes.

HT’s external evaluation team observed good examples of well-run IPs throughout HT’s diverse Flagship Programs in Nicaragua, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Interviews with IP and R4D stakeholders from Ethiopia and the Mekong Flagship reinforced the review team’s perception that IPs are exciting to the communities who embrace them. My personal take is that HT’s approach to institutional innovation and community buy-in generated strong local enthusiasm and has demonstrated the potential for communities to see themselves as empowered to address constraints and opportunities and thus to affect change. This begets the grandest of jewels: hope.  

The key question that needs far more attention is: How does one scale up the process? A community only a few kilometers away from an IP would not have participated and been inculcated into the process and its ownership. How much of the baseline research of the target population will need to be repeated in each new community? The process of discovering community needs that takes place at the very beginning of the IP creation is integral to building community confidence and developing alignments for the IP internal leadership. One cannot expect a strong effective IP to evolve without some inputs and processes. The fact is that scaling up community empowerment and scaling up adoption of knowledge intensive innovations requires some heavy lifting. Simple extension demonstrations (even those on farmers’ fields) are not enough. It takes a shared vision, planning, human and financial resources, coordination and time.

My strong interest in institutional innovation for rural development and particularly for sustainable intensification of production systems was amplified during my twenty-plus years in the Plant Production and Protection Division of FAO. My FAO colleagues created an adult education process for farmer learning/discovery known as the farmer field school (FFS) approach. Millions of rice, cotton and vegetable farmers (initially across Asia and more recently in many parts of Africa) have learned principles and practices of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) on their own farms. Well-run FFSs generate community empowerment and hope similar to that of the Innovation Platform process of the HT. FFSs may not enable all the broad community decisions that may come from platform approaches, but FFSs approaches have some advantages for many of the production practice innovations–notably, that they are designed for scaling up exponentially. Twenty-five trainers are initially trained and then run their own FFSs. Some become trainers of future trainers, who train, teach and then run their own school. And so the process grows. 

However, each FFS has operational costs, and thus they are considered by some critics to be expensive compared to on-farm demonstrations. Innovation Platforms are likely even more expensive than FFSs per farmer empowered. Yet, quite clearly, different approaches are appropriate for different innovations. For example, to expose farmers to a new variety of a crop she or he already grows, one does not need an IP nor an FFS. A demonstration plot and field day with available seed is enough. But for knowledge-intensive innovations like IPM or Conservation Agriculture, a FFS is probably a very good option. If one hopes to create a strategic alliance to introduce a large community to a horticultural value chain for a competitive market, then the IP approach would seem attractive. I believe there is a need for creative thinking and research to provide reliable information on extension/adoption approaches and the institutional support each needs. I also believe there is, far too often, inadequate investment in the adoption enabling process, and that production scientists should be encouraged to take part in the planning of investment-grade projects for scaling-up innovation adoption.

Hopefully, some of these important lessons from the HT will be brought forward by new phases of continuing CRPs. And hopefully the research and development community will appreciate the need for investment in the scaling-up of adoption processes.