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Is the innovation systems approach the answer to inclusive development?


According to a new publication from CTA, adopting an innovation systems approach to agricultural and rural development can support inclusive development. Smallholder famers will benefit if the right policies and institutional mechanisms are in place.

In this approach, learning takes centre stage. Farmers and other agri-entrepreneurs are actively involved in the generation of knowledge and technologies. They are also part of the decision-making processes for overcoming challenges as well as creating and taking advantage of knowledge, technologies and opportunities.

A new CTA publication Innovation Systems: Towards effective strategies in support of smallholder farmers jointly produced with Wageningen University and Research / Convergence of Sciences: Strengthening Innovation Systems (WUR/CoS-SIS) details the latest knowledge on and lessons learned in applying the innovation systems (IS) approach to agricultural and rural development (ARD) in developing countries.

So what does this mean?

“Innovation systems approaches move thinking about smallholder development away from yields per hectare and technology adoption, to a level where farmers, other entrepreneurs and organisations (including universities, research institutes and government agencies) interact to create and improve institutional frameworks for innovation.” [1]  

The publication charts the way forward for improving policy and practice in support of agricultural-led economic growth fuelled by smallholder farmers in developing countries. The concept has found great relevance for defining policies and programmes for “strengthening agricultural innovation systems and facilitating adoption at the farm and agri-food firm level in OECD countries”. However, applying it to ARD is more challenging, especially in the context of smallholder farming systems.

Divided into 18 chapters, the book is a rich collection of theoretical underpinnings, expert opinions, case studies, reflections and lessons learned on applying the IS concept in real life situations. It builds on a 2013 CTA-WUR/CoS-SIS expert consultation that brought together international experts, many of whom are contributing authors.

Programmes such as those featured in this volume need to be institutionalised in the farmer population and transferred from generation to generation. Professor Merle Jacob of Lund University, Sweden and UNESCO Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems

“This collection of papers engages with a variety of issues arising from organising and improving innovation in agriculture,” notes Professor Merle Jacob of Lund University, Sweden and UNESCO Chair in Research Management and Innovation Systems, one of the reviewers. Whilst supporting the need to embed the approach in development policies and programmes, Professor Osuma-Mugabe, also a proponent of the IS approach and the other reviewer, recommends vigilance to avoid it being “invoked or used to justify projects that exclude and disfranchise poor farmers to the advantage of powerful agencies and individuals”.

Inclusive development

A key focus of the book is on inclusive development. Professor Lynn Mytelka, who has collaborated with CTA since 2003, when the Centre embarked on its capacity building programme on analysing and strengthening the agricultural science, technology and innovation (ASTI) system, is a strong advocate of inclusive development. Mytelka recommends “adopting a long-term, multi-goal perspective” for meeting today’s challenges. A “different management and ownership model” and a long-term view of development should guide policy-making. If not carefully managed, as science and technologies advance in response to emerging problems and to market opportunities, the new and improved knowledge and technologies may be priced out of the reach of smallholder farmers.

Successful adoption of the IS approach

The IS approach will benefit millions of smallholder farmers, thereby increasing their contribution to agricultural innovation and socio-economic development, but only if we believe, listen to farmers, adopt a system-wide approach and continuously monitor progress. Judith A. Francis, CTA Senior programme coordinator for science and technology policy

The book showcases several experiences drawn from Africa, Asia and Latin America where the approach has been adopted in research, education and development programmes. The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the West and Central Africa Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF/WECARD), the WUR/CoS-SIS and CTA's ASTI have very effectively implemented the approach. This has resulted in policy and institutional change and the development of new/improved capacities, technologies and market linkages, with the active involvement of key stakeholders. Innovation platforms have played a major role as farmers have become more confident in directing and implementing programmes that benefit them.

As Fulvia Farinelli, economic officer at UNCTAD points out in her chapter, the Chilean and Argentinian wine industries have become increasingly competitive with industry world leaders as the national IS have grown stronger. Developing countries will continue to face difficulties to penetrate international markets if governments do not implement learning and innovation policies, promote public-private partnerships and develop local capability. According to Biggs and Justice, Bangladesh and Nepal have made quantum leaps in agricultural productions due to wide-spread small-scale mechanisation. If the goal of sustainable intensification is to be achieved there is need to apply the IS concept to understand the rural and policy context and minimise any bias for large-scale equipment. The Research Into Use (RIU) programme sponsored by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) also managed to shift the focus of attention away from research and the generation of new knowledge to the ways in which an existing stock of knowledge could be put to productive use.

"We hope that this publication will lead to transformative change in agricultural policies, research, extension and development programmes," said CTA's Judith Francis, the coordinating lead editor.

Francis and Van Huis also acknowledge that applying the approach as a policy instrument requires the development of IS capacity and complementary supportive research; and evaluation of options (e.g. innovation triggers such as incentives). In 2016, the Tropical Agricultural Platform of the G20 released the Common Framework for Capacity Development on Agricultural Innovation Systems.

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[1] Francis, J. (ed); Mytelka, L. (ed); van Huis, A. (ed); Röling, N. (ed), 2016 ‘Innovation systems: Towards effective strategies in support of smallholder farmers’ : 8.


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