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Strategies for scaling agricultural innovations

Dossier: Scaling

Cooperation between agricultural value chain actors is necessary if locally successful innovations are to succeed at scale

© IFAD/Carina Giorgi

Agricultural innovations must have a more substantial impact to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 – which call for a concerted effort from the public and private sectors, as well as farmers and processors. To meet the SDGs, impacts at all levels of the agricultural value chain will need to be increased, with the involvement of all stakeholders in the sector.

Big problems need big solutions. In response to the significant challenges posed by climate change, population growth and environmental degradation in many ACP countries, increasing numbers of agricultural experts are stressing the importance of ‘scaling’ in order to meet the SDGs and create a better world.

Scaling in a nutshell

Scaling means maximising the impact of agricultural interventions through horizontal or vertical approaches. Horizontal strategies often reach more project beneficiaries by, for example, increasing the size of farms or implementing a service or technological innovation over a wider geographical area. Vertical approaches are focused on national agricultural policies or funding mechanisms in collaboration with national authorities, to create conditions that will be conducive to large-scale acceptance of a change in practices or use of an innovation. A balance must be struck between horizontal and vertical scaling to ensure that the impacts will be sustainable.

In practice, key elements of successful scaling strategies can vary markedly: a commercial business case, development of a value chain, collaboration with the public sector, promoting the adoption of new techniques or technologies, etc. Despite many possible entry points, the goal of scaling is to increase the impact of an innovation by drawing on the influence of key stakeholders. In Ethiopia, for example, the government formed an army of development volunteers to implement its ‘1-to-5’ strategy where farmers trained in good agricultural, nutritional and hygienic practices are each responsible for training five other farmers, who in turn will train five others, and so on. Ideally, a ‘tipping point’ will be reached whereby scaling of a technological, social or economic innovation will generate a critical mass of users, thus guaranteeing widespread adoption of the innovation, which then becomes the new ‘standard’.

In Madagascar, between 2006 and 2018, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) funded several projects geared towards the promotion and scaling of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). It focused on encouraging changes in farming practices by setting up farmer field schools to train farmers on using improved seed, fertiliser and crop protection products, as well as innovative tools such as biodegradable germinators. Agricultural technicians provided training and follow-up supervision.

One of IFAD’s projects was conducted in the Menabe and Melaky regions of western Madagascar. While 16,000 households were initially targeted, 26,600 households benefited from the successful investments. Innovative tools and training in agricultural practices via ‘school farms’, as well as better hydro-agricultural management, resulted in substantial expansion of irrigated areas (3,393 ha of new irrigated rice fields, in addition to 2,195 ha where irrigation systems were improved). Average yields also more than doubled and the mean annual income of beneficiary households increased from Ar 1,308,700 (€325) to Ar 2,851,461 (€710), representing an overall increase of 118%.

The SRI approach – which has been implemented in Madagascar since the early 1980s – has been successfully replicated and adjusted to the Menabe and Melaky regions, where it has reached a large number of beneficiaries and improved their production. To successfully scale this project, IFAD has had to overcome many stumbling blocks, including: poor water resource management, difficulties in adopting the new tools because it disrupted ancestral practices, and the need to tailor some techniques to local conditions (e.g. soil type, cropping calendar and spacing for transplanting). Project managers have had to build new irrigation infrastructure or rehabilitate old ones to meet these challenges, while sometimes also setting up microfinancing networks to provide access to funding and thus ensure the sustainability of the initiatives. Ensuring that farmers have access to reliable services by supporting agricultural service centres has also been necessary. The private sector has helped by supplying some harvest storage equipment, building small input supply shops, while training their owners and seed farmers.

Many challenges

“Scaling often calls for large changes which may have wide implications for society and the environment, both positive and negative,” warns Lennart Woltering, a scaling expert at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). “For example, while an irrigation project may benefit specific farmers, others in the community might suffer from lower water availability or higher pollution levels in the long term. One should not look for ‘maximum potential scale’ but for an ‘optimal or responsible scale’.” Woltering also stresses that it is important, “to assess the impact of reaching the scaling ambition and the associated risks beyond the geographic, social and time boundaries set by the project.”

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) analysed 11 climate-smart agriculture (CSA) cases in developing countries that exemplify three primary strategies to scale up CSA: value chain and private sector involvement, ICTs and advisory services, and policy engagement. The report also identified three major scaling challenges: the difficulty of estimating the costs and benefits of scaling activities to gauge the economic efficiency of different scaling activities; mainstreaming knowledge across local and national levels to move from small-scale projects to informing and implementing policies with a broad reach, while also ensuring that national interventions are appropriately contextualised and locally viable; and addressing equity considerations in scaling up CSA interventions to establish who is benefitting and whether disadvantaged groups are being excluded.

“The tension between the context and specificities of smallholders with the need to reach very large numbers of them is a real challenge,” says Philip Thornton, a researcher at the International Livestock Research Institute and CCAFS. Thornton describes this tension using the example of radio broadcasts to inform farmers on weather conditions so as to help them make effective decisions. These radio messages, “have to be fairly generic [to reach a wide audience] and you can’t tailor them necessarily to the local farmers and their actual conditions…. You can reach tens of thousands of people but you can’t necessarily provide them with the message that will help them manage their crop.”

Scant technology adoption

In Africa, smallholder adoption of agricultural technologies is another problem that stalls scaling. “This is attributed to farmers not being aware of the benefits new technology can provide, the technologies not being available at the time they are needed, or not being profitable due to land and labour allocation,” concludes the Partnership for Economic Policy’s study, The Impact of Agricultural Technology Adoption on Farmer Welfare in Uganda and Tanzania. Other reasons include a lack of market access, insufficient funds to purchase improved seed or pay for a mechanised service, insurance policies that are not tailored to farmers’ needs, or a preference for lower-yielding but better-tasting traditional seed.

Taking local particularities into account “is the massive tremendum [mystery] about scaling up,” adds Thornton. “We know that the farmers have different soil conditions, they have different objectives, they have different kinship networks that help them deal with life. How do you go from that sort of context and complexity to reaching the millions of smallholders that we need to reach?” Moreover, a successful project in one location will not necessarily have the same results elsewhere.

CIMMYT has opted to focus its scaling effort, particularly in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, on developing a small tractor service for poor farmers who cannot afford to buy one. The Farm Mechanization and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification project is coordinated differently depending on the specific features of the target country: in Ethiopia, where the state is omnipresent, marketing is overseen by the government since mechanisation is a key political priority; while in Zimbabwe, which has a more liberal economy, the private sector supports the project. “Once we have evidence that a particular piece of machinery can increase labour productivity (and land productivity in some cases) and can constitute a viable business for a rural service provider, we basically support the market system around this piece of machinery,” explains Frédéric Baudron, a Zimbabwe-based CIMMYT agronomist. This involves creating demand through demonstrations and start-up investment support, training value chain stakeholders, especially rural mechanised service providers and crafts people, providing market information and coordinating importers, processors, service providers and vocational training centres. Over a hundred service providers have so far been trained in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe since the project launch in 2014.

Role of the private sector

The private sector is taking on an increasingly important role in scaling projects, but only as long as the market remains attractive. For instance, in CTA’s Scaling up climate-smart agricultural solution for cereals and livestock farmers in Southern Africa project, insurance companies and telephone operators have partnered to provide farmers in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe with solutions to cope with the impacts of climate change. They all ask, “what are the business opportunities?” says Oluyede Ajayi, Senior Programme Coordinator of CTA’s Agriculture and Climate Change Programme. And the answer is, “Insurance companies want to have their market space. If they are part of a programme, the chance that their products designed for it are adopted is higher. It is also a way for them to reach out to customers for other products like life insurance,” Ajayi adds. Seed companies may have a fantastic variety and demand from farmers for it, but if the seed is only available to purchase in cities, it is out of farmers’ reach. “The idea is that this gap can be bridged if the companies work with us through small agro-dealers in rural areas,” Ajayi explains. Telephone companies also benefit because, to get access to ICTs and weather-based services, farmers have to buy SIM cards and airtime.

“Private sector players are very important for efficiency and sustainability,” says Floortje Jacobs, public-private partnership adviser at SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. “NGOs often have project funding that is available for 3-4 years. When the funding ends, the project ends too, along with the impacts. If you manage to build a business case together with a company that can earn profits, they will continue investing in the business case or innovations, and even expand it. So the impact will keep scaling, even after the project funding ends,” she says. “But things are obviously more complicated in the field.”

Striking the right balance

The cost of reaching farmers located in remote areas without infrastructure is often prohibitive, thus discouraging business investment. In the coffee and cocoa sector in Ghana, farmers located far from markets and business activity locations are being left behind, Thornton explains: “The private sector obviously has a major role to play but may not be able to reach everyone, particularly the poor in rural areas.”

To tackle this challenge, CTA’s programme has been built on a partnership between four pillars, Ajayi says: farmers’ organisations, “who could tell us when we do something wrong”; researchers and breeders who generate the technologies; private sector stakeholders who build the platforms or market seeds; and policymakers who can change the laws and regulations. As a result, 4 years after the programme was launched in 2014, the profiles of 4,200 farmers have been digitised to ensure that they receive tailored weather information, 10,000 have purchased or learned about improved cereal varieties at seed fairs, 1,000 extension agents have been trained on agriculture-oriented insurance schemes, and 500 small agriculture product retailers have received training on the fundamentals of ‘supply and demand’ market dynamics.

To assess whether the conditions for sustainable and efficient scaling have been met, the PPP Lab initiative – in which SNV is involved – has developed the Scaling Scan tool, in collaboration with CIMMYT. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) were questioned on their scaling ambitions and methods. “We found out that PPPs engage in 10 different types of activities,” explains Jacobs, “which we now call the 10 scaling ingredients”: technology/practice, awareness and demand, business case, value chain, finance, knowledge and skills, collaboration, evidence and learning, leadership and management, and public sector governance. The Scaling Scan tool is basically a self-assessment that helps PPPs reflect on the extent to which all of the ingredients are sufficiently addressed in their scaling strategies. The success of a scaling initiative, however, “still depends on the type of innovation, and the economic and political context, etc.” says Jacobs. “Unfortunately, there is not one recipe.”