Whereas private companies have successfully rolled out new technologies in less-developed countries, innovations developed by research centers to help smallholders improve their food security and incomes often reach only a fraction of the people they were created to help. As the stakes for agricultural research for development rise in an increasingly warm and crowded world, this gap between research and impact is becoming a major concern of governments, international organizations and donors.

In an effort to help researchers develop innovations that people are more likely to use, the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) has teamed up with Wageningen University & Research (WUR), in the Netherlands, to develop, test, and apply ‘science of scaling,’ in order to make better decisions about which kinds of innovations, research and partnership investments will lead to development impacts. Scientists who are involved in these efforts will share their insights and research on scaling during a symposium this Sunday, December 3, as part of the Third International Conference on Global Food Security, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Entitled “Science of scaling: connecting the pathways of agricultural research and development to improve rural livelihoods,” the symposium brings together scientists and development professionals from several international research centers and companies. Their presentations will cover cases ranging from work to improve smallholder cocoa and coffee production in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to an International Potato Center led partnership initiative that has gotten nutritious, improved sweetpotato varieties to more than 2.8 million households in SSA.

Getting the products of agricultural research to the smallholders who need them can be a major challenge. Photo H.Rutherford/CIP

For Dr Marc Schut, a researcher with IITA and WUR and the leader of the RTB Flagship on Improved Livelihoods at Scale, the first lesson is that “scaling does not happen just like that. It requires strategizing, competence and investment.”

Schut adds that the good news is that a growing number of tools are available to help research-for-development scientists make better decisions in terms of the type of research they do and the partnership investments they make. “Evidence-based design, implementation, and monitoring of scaling strategies can help us to achieve better impact,” he says.

One of the symposium’s presenters, Dr Elisabetta Gotor, who heads the Development Impact Unit at Bioversity International, observes that most scientist don’t know how to go about getting the innovations they develop into the hands of large numbers of users. She explains that when a researcher develops a new agricultural innovation – whether it be an improved crop variety or an approach for managing a crop pest or disease – it is important that they start by analyzing and measuring the likelihood of its success in the given context.  She adds that this is a complex task, because there are gender and cultural elements that must be taken into account, but it is essential for an innovation to be successful.

“As researchers, we have the obligation not only to develop technologies, but also to ensure that those technologies are transformed into products that are usable by the populations we want to influence,” Gotor says.

Scaling agricultural innovations requires understanding local demand and cultural elements, a well designed strategy and investment. Photo G.Smith/CIAT

Gotor’s presentation will cover efforts by RTB scientists to connect foresight research and impact assessments in order to establish feedback loops through which those methods can inform one another. She notes that this will enhance the scaling of innovations while producing information that donors or policy makers can use to guide future investments in research for development.

Adebowale Akande, an Agribusiness Development Specialist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), will give a presentation on scaling the Alfasafe bio-control product in Nigeria, in order to reduce aflatoxins in agricultural value chains, as well as current efforts to turn that technology over to the private sector. He recommends that researchers demonstrate the proof of concept of their innovation to the private sector, engage both the private and public sectors to create an enabling environment, and gain access to financing to successfully scale their innovations.

Dr Graham Thiele, Director of RTB, will present an overview of the measures that RTB has taken to help scientists assess the readiness of their innovations for scaling and work toward getting them widely adopted. “There is huge interest right now in scaling and RTB is ahead of the curve on its thinking,” he explains. “Scaling is right at the top of the agenda for many donors as they look for enhanced impact.”

People attending the International Conference on Global Food Security can learn more about scaling by attending the “Science of Scaling” symposium this Sunday, December 3 at 12:30. It will be held in Aloe Hall, in the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

“This is a great opportunity for us to share our approach on scaling with a broader group in an important forum, to show people what we have and get feedback to improve further,” says Thiele. “I’m really looking forward to this event!”

RTB is applying the science to scaling to ensure that agricultural innovations have the greatest possible impact. Photo H.Rutherford/CIP

More details on the symposium are available here.
Learn more about RTB’s work on scaling and participation at the event here.