Improving livelihoods at scale

This is the first in a series of blogs showcasing the new Flagship Projects of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). By Amy Rogers Nazarov

As bulwarks against hunger, as economic engines, as health-giving foodstuffs – roots, tubers and bananas are fundamentally changing lives.

Improved Livelihoods at ScaleFlagship Project 5 (FP5), which works together with RTB’s other four flagships – seeks to weave together disparate threads of knowledge around everything from multicropping techniques adapted to climate change; research around which crops confer more powerful health benefits or display greater resilience; new storage technology that reduces losses via spoilage; post-harvest marketing tactics that are culturally sensitive and gender-equitable, and much more, according to Marc Schut, social scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University (WUR) and the Rwanda-based leader of FP5.

“Roots, tubers and bananas are important crops that enhance farmer livelihoods in different ways,” he notes. “How depends on the exact geographical location and the related challenges and opportunities for farmers, as well as their production objectives in terms of ensuring household food, income and nutrition security.”

Different crops may serve different ends within a given region. Consider Central Africa, where Schut pointed to cassava’s role as a key crop in terms of food security; Irish potato and banana positions as valuable income generators; and orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) as a critical tool in terms of bolstering household nutrition, particularly in young children. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, nearly one-third of the population suffers from Vitamin A deficiency – OFSP, rich in that nutrient and in beta-carotene, is a powerful foe with which to combat the problem.

Selling OFSP in Ndalu Market, Western Kenya. Photo credit: HKI

What’s more, “roots and tubers [of all types] are relatively tolerant to mid-season drought, which makes them an important crop in strengthening farmer resilience in dealing with climate change.”

FP5 seeks to disseminate the innovations uncovered in the other FPs across larger populations in regions where RTB crops grow. Program leadership will know FP5 has met its goals “if it has enabled other RTB Flagships and projects in moving forward towards having impact at scale,” Schut notes.

That goal “can be achieved through:

  • Providing decision support to make the ‘right’ research and development investments (CC5.1);
  • Understanding diversity among our clients in terms of their gender, age, social status and farming objectives and how to best respond to these differences (CC5.3);
  • Better insight into how interventions will create trade-offs and synergies across farmer and other stakeholder groups, farming objectives, and farm- community-, and policy level decisions (CC5.2); and,
  • Providing support to RTB in terms of developing scaling strategies so that our innovations can positively impact the lives of many more people (CC5.4).”

One key piece of scaling will involve working closely with local stakeholders – including governments, universities and other institutions – to capture and propagate knowledge, Schut observes. Another will be acknowledging that not only female and male farmers, but those of differing age and socio-economic status, differ in needs for technologies to overcome their farming challenges and preferences for communication, for example face-to-face or ICT based access to information.

Community leader, Mr. Sefu Pokwe Rwambo, inside the village meeting hall where community members meet to discuss and make decisions – including about farming related matters. Mkuranga district, Tanzania. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

“Technology uptake affects and is affected by gender relations,” Schut says. “For example, the introduction of a technology for early banana disease identification and control (a process usually managed by men) during the growing seasons of annual crops (one usually managed by women) created competition for labor between men and women in the household (Blomme et al. 2017). It is important to understand such dynamics when thinking about how innovations can benefit farm households.”

Regardless of what Flagship they are attached to, the scientists, farmers, researchers, policymakers and technicians “need to start thinking much more realistically and strategically” about how their efforts will bring about meaningful, long-lasting change.

“There exist many examples of how change occurs in society, and these are very complex and lengthy processes, in which science fulfills just one of many roles alongside governments, public and private sectors,” Schut concludes. “We need to be realistic of what science can and cannot do, and collaborate intensely with those other sectors that have the mandate and capacity to achieve impact at scale.”

The next blog in the series will explore Flagship Project 4 on ‘Nutritious food and added value’ 

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