Agricultural research has generated many innovations in the past decades to help small farmers grow better crops and raise more meat and fish. Among them, efficient pest-control techniques, a super tilapia breed and fertiliser microdosing to boost cereal yields in the Sahel have improved livelihoods for many.
But the scale of these successes is not enough. Marginal farmers who face many development threats - including climate change, population growth and access to water and other natural resources - urgently need more capacity to be able to adapt and innovate in their complex and challenging environment.
This was one of the major themes debated at a recent two-week workshop held by the CGIAR network of international agricultural research institutions, where donors, researchers and development partners discussed challenges, opportunities and ways forward for CGIAR’s research programmes.
To reach the ambitious outcomes set for each programme, the CGIAR and its partners must find faster and more sustainable ways to scale up effective agricultural innovations.
BARRIERS TO SUCCESS
The adoption rate of innovations among poor farmers is often inadequate. One key reason is that solutions nurtured by scientists are not always adapted to the local needs of farmers. Constraints from inside and outside the sector, such as poor infrastructure or dysfunctional institutions, can also prevent scaling-up.
Ann Waters-Bayer, representing Prolinnova, a network that facilitates farmer-led innovations, said dissemination is not always linear from labs to fields, highlighting the need to recognise the role of farmers themselves in developing new ideas.
For instance, Simon Masila, a smallholder farmer from Machakos in Kenya, invented a nursery-and-transplanting technique for finger millet seedlings in response to a drier climate and less reliable rainfall.
Masila realised that growing the seedlings on a small plot meant he could water them regularly, and transplant the young plants into the fields when rainfall was more established.
This stopped the seedlings perishing during the period of unpredictable rain, and enabled him to bring in a harvest even when crops on neighbouring farms had failed due to lack of rain at the critical growing stages.
The Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute is now helping test and improve the technique, which will later be popularised by local extension agents.
To ensure crop improvement programmes address the major limitations faced by smallholder farmers, Noel Ellis, director of the CGIAR grain legumes research programme, insisted that breeding efforts must be organised within a “systems” perspective.
This means looking not only at biological constraints, but also logistics, such as seed production and access, environmental aspects and any other factors affecting crop production.
International research has started involving farmers - for instance, to test new varieties.
Temegnush Dhabi, a 50-year-old Ethiopian farmer, has cooperated with plant breeders to test improved varieties of chickpea on her field. Before that she grew mostly teff, a traditional cereal, which demanded hard labour and expensive fertiliser.
Pleased with the results from one new high-yielding, drought-tolerant variety, Dhabi started planting chickpeas on half of her land. Today, chickpea is her main crop and she is particularly pleased about its water-efficiency, given the scarce and unpredictable rainfall in the East Shewa region where she lives.
Dona Dakouo, a researcher from the Environment and Agricultural Research Institute (INERA) in Burkina Faso, said it was important that farmers, as well as other actors along the crop-value chain, participate from an early stage of research.
Professor Wale Adekunle from the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), which is organising the Africa Science week this month, said he hoped that CGIAR research programmes would ensure that scientists engage with partners working on the ground and align their work with national research agendas.
Under the CGIAR’s Sub-Saharan Africa Challenge Programme, an innovation platform was able to solve a problem of sorghum market saturation in Uganda after 5,000 smallholder farmers adopted improved sorghum varieties.
Following discussion between researchers from Makere University and CGIAR, farmers, the private sector, NGOs, extension and education services and the government, it was decided to process and market mamera, a traditional non-alcoholic beverage made from sorghum, which until then had been produced mainly for home consumption.
This increased demand for sorghum as the bottled or canned mamera has become popular all the way to the capital city Kampala.
Demand-driven approaches like these set a new paradigm for CGIAR, suggesting that when research supports and meets local needs, it delivers greater impact.
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