Applying the science of scaling

Applying the science of scaling

A new RTB initiative is applying the science of scaling to accelerate promising agricultural technologies, showing researchers how to reach more farmers, much sooner.

Scaling up agricultural innovations is one of the biggest challenges facing research and development organizations. Projects have often tried to scale technologies at the end of the intervention, in an ad hoc way such as by giving flyers to farmers, or briefs to policy makers. However, the successful scaling of a new technology depends largely on the enabling environment and needs to be considered from the outset.

The Scaling Readiness Approach treats innovation as a flexible package of technological, organizational and institutional components that may include crop varieties, equipment, management practices, legislation and marketing. An innovation may be ready in a technical sense, for example a new crop variety may thrive in the local environment, but if farmers lack funds to buy seed or if the policy environment discourages the uptake of new varieties, it may not be adopted. This approach assesses the potential of technologies and other innovations supported by RTB to be used at scale, and guides researchers and other stakeholders in implementing these innovations in practical contexts.

“Agricultural researchers often think their innovation is ready to go to scale, and sometimes it is in a way. However, an idea can be technically sound and fail because it is not affordable, or too different from what farmers are used to,” said Marc Schut, senior social scientist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University, who is RTB’s Flagship Project 5 Leader. 

“Innovations often consist of technological, social, capacity development and market components, that together form the innovation package. Scaling of innovation is like filling a barrel with water. The water will only rise as high as the shortest slat of the barrel, in other words, the limiting innovation dimension in the package. To enable scaling, we need to invest in raising the height of those shorter slats”, he explained.

The Scaling Readiness Approach was developed and tested in four case studies in 2016 and 2017: 1) scaling best cassava agronomy practices in Tanzania and Nigeria 2) scaling a method to control banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) in DR Congo and Uganda; 3) developing a national policy for a sustainable and resilient cassava sector in Cambodia; 4) decision support tools for potato late blight management in Ecuador.

In 2017, the program established the RTB Scaling Fund, which awarded its first grants to three teams of scientist who will share $US2 million to scale three promising technologies.

One innovation, led by Bioversity International, is ‘single diseased stem removal’ (SDSR), a method for managing BXW. Earlier innovations required destroying large numbers of banana plants but with SDSR, by removing a single diseased stem, sterilizing tools, and removing male flowers from healthy plants, smallholder farmers can manage BXW while still producing fruit and earning money.

Another innovation funded, Triple S (Storage in Sand and Sprouting), is a way of storing sweetpotato roots in sand during the dry season and planting them in seedbeds six to eight weeks before the rains start. This allows farmers to produce enough vines to plant during the rainy season. Triple S, under the leadership of the International Potato Center (CIP), is proposed for scaling in nine African countries.

The third innovation is a technology to turn cassava peels – waste from food production in Nigeria – into a high-quality ingredient that can be substituted for part of the maize in livestock or fish feed. Led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the technology can simultaneously create a new source of employment for half a million Nigerians each year, while eliminating harmful waste from the environment.

“We have put scaling of innovations center stage in this second phase of our program. The Scaling Readiness Approach provided us a lens so we could take stock of what are our most promising innovations,” said Graham Thiele, RTB Director.

“The approach has allowed RTB to interrogate our innovation portfolio and see what’s truly ready to go to scale, considering the weakest or limiting element in the innovation package. We’ve invested in three really promising technologies that have the potential to benefit millions,” he added.

Photo: The successful scaling of a technology depends on the enabling environment and context. Credit: H.Rutherford/CIP