How do we Make Sure Agricultural Research Will Really Improve People’s Lives?

The adoption rate of agricultural innovations among poor farmers is often inadequate. One key reason is that solutions nurtured by scientists are not always adapted to the local needs of farmers. Constraints from inside or outside the agriculture sector, such as poor infrastructure or dysfunctional institutions, can also prevent access and adoption.

This was one of the major themes debated at a recent two-week workshop held by the CGIAR network of international agricultural research institutions, where donors, researchers and development partners discussed challenges, opportunities and ways forward for CGIAR Research Programs.

Agricultural research has generated many innovations in the past decades to help small farmers grow better crops and raise more meat and fish. Efficient pest-control techniques, a super tilapia breed and fertilizer microdosing to boost yields of dryland cereals in the Sahel have improved livelihoods for many.

But the scale of these successes is not enough. To reach the ambitious outcomes set for each program, CGIAR and its partners must find faster and more sustainable ways to scale up effective agricultural innovations.

Dissemination is not always linear from labs to fields, and we need to better recognize the role of farmers themselves in developing new ideas. For instance, Simon Masila, a smallholder farmer from Machakos in Kenya, invented a finger millet seedlings nursery-and-transplanting technique to deal with a drier climate and less reliable rainfall. With rainfall being erratic at the beginning of the rainy season, Simon decided to grow the seedlings in a small plot so he could water them regularly and transplant the young plants into the fields when rainfall was more established. This prevented the seedlings from perishing during the period of unpredictable rain and enabled him to have a harvest while crops on neighboring farms had failed due to lack of water in the critical growing stages.

Researchers from the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute are now helping test and improve the technique, which will later be spread by local extension agents.


International research has started involving farmers – for instance to test new crop varieties. Temegnush Dhabi, a 50-year-old Ethiopian farmer, has worked with researchers to test improved varieties of chickpea on her field. Before that she grew mostly teff, a traditional cereal, which demanded hard labor and expensive fertilizer.

Pleased with the results from one of the new high-yielding, drought-tolerant varieties, Temegnush started planting chickpeas on half of her land. Today, chickpea is her main crop and she is particularly pleased about it naturally fertilizing the soil, needing less water and being highly demanded at markets.


Goats have a big role in improving rural livelihoods, directly through the meat and milk they give and also through the money they bring in. Income from goats is used for buying food, paying school fees and medical bills, and is also re-invested on the farm.  As many women own goats, improving goat production and market value is also a means to support women’s assets and household security.

Although farmers appreciate goats for their multiple functions, in Southern Africa goat mortality is high and herd re-generation is low. Farmers do not invest much in technologies and strategies that would secure goats’ survival or even improve their herds since lack of infrastructure and market access give them little or no incentive.

To identify the problems in production and marketing, researchers came up with the idea of an ‘innovation platform’ bringing farmers, traders, transporters, processors, retailers and development organizations around the same table to listen and talk about what was needed. The platform also tests the most possible feasible solutions for that particular context.

Ndidzulafi Nodu was part of the innovation platform in Gwanda which decided that constructing a sale pen where formal goat auctions would be held each month, would increase the value of the goats. And they were right as Ndidzulafi now gets $50 a goat compared to $10 she would get through informal markets. The routine sale pen attracts buyers from the closest large city Bulawayo, where there is an unmet and growing demand for goat meat.

“With these auctions, the prices do not fluctuate as much and we can negotiate the price beforehand,” says Ndidzulafi. “The buyers look at the condition of the goat so I make sure mine are in top condition. If it is fat and well-fed, then I can get a better price for it.”

Other NGOs have taken up this idea and are constructing more sale pens in neighboring districts. Goats are beginning to attract the attention of the private sector and national policy makers. The national smallholder farmer agriculture inputs extension and market support program now includes goats to enable farmers to generate income and meet their food requirements.

Where things really work information spreads rapidly throughout communities. These platforms get the farmers and the other players in the value chain together so we can look at why technologies are not being taken up and come up with new ideas on how to do things. It forces us as scientists to consider process and not single technological interventions.  We need to look at the cause and effect relationships between what farmers (and markets) need and how we can contribute to that with science.

This kind of community driven system approach sets a new paradigm for CGIAR, proving that when research supports and meets local needs, it delivers greater impact.


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