Agrilinks at Ten Years: Reflections from the Beginning
This post is written by Paul Weisenfeld, executive vice president for international development, RTI International.
When I heard that Agrilinks was celebrating its tenth anniversary, I had three thoughts. First, my mundane and self-absorbed thought was, "Oh my, I really am getting old." Second, and more profoundly, I recalled the early days of Feed the Future (FTF), when I supported providing resources to stand up Agrilinks. And third, I thought about how incredibly valuable Agrilinks has been and continues to be as a knowledge-sharing platform for agricultural development, nutrition and food security.
Before delving into the details, the most important place to start is giving credit where credit is due — to Zachary Baquet, the innovator behind Agrilinks. Baquet had a vision of a platform that would encourage reflection, disseminate learning and best practices on key topics and curate content in an easily accessible way. As important as these goals are to successful programs, it was not a foregone conclusion that funding for Agrilinks would be approved. In the wake of the food price hikes of the late 2000s, which were the impetus for FTF, it took some explaining to justify why it made sense to spend resources on what might be perceived as just a website.
For me, Baquet’s vision provided a well-thought-out answer to a challenge inherent in scaling up large initiatives. The strength of USAID’s decentralized mission structure, which allows for tailoring programs to specific country contexts, made it challenging to share lessons learned across the different missions. Scaling up programs for consistently high impact across different countries and contexts required a way to ensure that critical best practices from one project could be rapidly propagated and adapted around the agency’s global portfolio. At that time, if an innovation had been developed by a program in Nepal, the ability of a team working on a similar program in Guatemala to learn about that innovation in real time tended to depend on luck — for instance, if someone in Nepal happened to know someone in Guatemala. I had certainly seen effective knowledge sharing at USAID over my career, but it was all too often slow and inconsistent. Agrilinks made it intentional by accelerating and smoothing out the knowledge transfer. It became a vital resource not only for staff in the Agency, but also for stakeholders across agricultural development, nutrition and food security.
As Agrilinks evolved over the past decade, by sharing knowledge and best practices, it has helped break down barriers to integrated programming and has promoted a more inclusive vision of agriculture, nutrition and food security. Through Agrilinks, we have a robust forum for dialogue among agricultural economists, nutritionists, market systems specialists, resilience and climate change experts and finance professionals that allows these experts to collaborate to address the complex challenges of hunger in the modern world. It is an at-the-ready body of knowledge that implementers can tap into and build upon. It allows us to crowdsource technical solutions across projects, areas of expertise and regions in a cohesive, coordinated way. In this way, Agrilinks has helped build the highly cooperative culture that exists in agriculture, nutrition and food security, encompassing different implementers and stakeholders throughout the sector and spurring the type of inclusive initiatives needed to achieve our goals.
As we celebrate Agrilinks’ 10th anniversary, it’s also important to think about the future: what’s next for Agrilinks and how can it remain relevant and impactful?
Two key areas come to mind for me. First, the digital revolution and what it means for development will likely be a major theme for the foreseeable future. I recall that when Agrilinks started, I was using a Blackberry (which I loved, by the way). The ubiquity and power of smartphones, today, create new opportunities for actionable, real-time insights from data. The explosion of data from new sources — various types of sensors, drones and more — combined with greater availability of traditional data is creating a wealth of information. We are still figuring out how to utilize this data to its full potential. Agrilinks can play a role in making it readily available to researchers and implementers. It can also help us explore how to think about blending such agricultural data with data on nutrition, climate, markets and finance to generate even more innovation. In the USAID-funded Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay project, RTI empowered farmer organizations to self-manage datasets they exchange electronically with input suppliers, banks and insurance companies. This data was later aggregated for deeper trend analysis or to refine index insurance products. Cereal consumption data was repurposed by a Senegalese research institute and linked to georeferenced market infrastructure and cellphone traffic to evaluate patterns in food consumption. These examples only scratch the surface of the rich potential of data generated by FTF activities.
A second area of potential future focus is localization. As FTF and its implementers seek to strengthen local autonomy and local solutions, Agrilinks has great potential to grow as an accessible resource for local organizations. It can become an even larger platform for a wider ecosystem, empowering local organizations and the up-and-coming new generation who will benefit from the rich knowledge of the Agrilinks community. In past years, some important knowledge repositories in the sector have been taken offline, making the contributions of Agrilinks even more important.
Happy birthday, Agrilinks. Although 10 years is a landmark achievement, I know you’re still writing your story. I’m excited to see what Agrilinks will do next, and how the next generation of Agrilinks staff will innovate.
At RTI, we’re not just fans of the platform — we rely on it. RTI’s mission is to improve the human condition by turning knowledge into practice — that’s also a fantastic description of what Agrilinks does. We’re grateful for this valuable resource and look forward to the next 10 years.
Paul Weisenfeld is executive vice president for international development at RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute. He leads RTI’s international development practice, which designs and implements programs across a wide range of sectors to help lower- and middle-income countries and communities address complex problems and improve the lives of their citizens. Mr. Weisenfeld served as a foreign service officer for USAID, achieving the highest rank of career minister. From 2011-2013, he directed USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, which led the administration’s highest-profile international development initiative, Feed the Future. He serves on the board of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition and is a member of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation’s Development Advisory Council.