IFPRI's call to shake-up research
This year certainly is the time for the big guns to affirm the importance of agriculture in development. First came the World Bank's World Development Report 2008, which cast agriculture as a major tool for reducing poverty. It was the first time in over two decades that the organisation had ranked farming so highly.
Next, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) made a similar call, encouraging a nuanced approach to agricultural research and practice. Now the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has joined the growing chorus, issuing its own "roadmap" for development, which champions the importance of innovation and the pressing need to make scientific research relevant to farmers.
Addressing 200 delegates at the Advancing Agriculture in Developing countries through Knowledge and Innovation conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, recently, IFPRI's Director-General Joachim von Braun set the agenda for change.
"Under the current condition of high global food prices, new initiatives to accelerate agricultural innovation and improve smallscale farmers access to technology inputs and markets are vital for growth and poverty reduction in developing countries," he said.
"By identifying and promoting better research, policies and extension systems, this conference will ultimately help to improve the livelihoods of smallholders throughout the developing world."
Innovation has always been a tough nut to crack in agricultural development. The academic accomplishments of isolated laboratory staff have often found no practical use, with new findings often failing to trickle down to smallholders. If and when they have, some technologies have either been inappropriate or farmers have lacked the human and financial resources to implement them.
To address these problems, IFPRI's division director Kwando Asenso-Okyere urged universities and research bodies to encourage students to talk to farmers and find ways of linking indigenous knowledge with the education system. IFPRI has made a wider call for education systems to change fundamentally, so that research is tailored to the needs of farmers and scientists have the technical skills to deal with them.
"Let us come out of our silos and work together," said Okyere. "We need to make research impact positively on the poverty reduction and improve livelihoods of the rural poor."
"We need an integrated agricultural research for development. We need to put farmers and other users at the centre of innovative practices."
Experts at the conference also acknowledged that "knowledge creation" should not be confined to research institutions, stressing its importance in the agricultural chain as a whole - from farmer groups, to national agricultural research institutions and universities, to international research bodies, the private sector and civil society.
Delegates were also urged to take seriously the need to promote and replicate successful innovations. In India, for example, a farmer-led, market-driven extension system has helped producers diversify into high-value crops; demand-driven extension services have been well-received in Uganda and Nigeria, proof that innovations can and do work. Successful adoption of privately-developed insect-resistant cotton in India and China was also used to demonstrate the importance of successful innovation across all sectors.
Waiting for the benefits
While for some, IFPRI's focus on changing systems is likely to raise eyebrows, since the organisation has tended to favour the invest-and-analyse approach to agricultural development, the need to tailor innovation is important. But equally important is how long it takes to turn the ship around, as well as how many more will join the fleet.
With contributions from: Ochieng' Ogodo
Date published: July 2008
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