Taking agricultural innovations to scale: RTB scaling fund awards first grants

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Researchers who develop new technologies often face challenges in translating them into adapted innovations that people and enterprises will use. The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) consequently created a flagship project dedicated to improving livelihoods at scale (Flagship 5), which is facilitating the design and implementation of strategies for scaling innovations to achieve the greatest possible impact.

One of the mechanisms created for this is the RTB Scaling Fund, which recently awarded its first grants to three teams of scientists as part of a broader effort to help them take their innovations to scale. Those teams will share approximately US$2 million to scale three promising technologies: 1) an approach for controlling the banana disease BXW known as single diseased-stem removal (SDSR); 2) a method for conserving sweetpotato roots to produce planting material known as Triple S; and 3) a technology for turning cassava peels into an ingredient of animal feed.

A woman reads a flyer as part of efforts to increase the uptake of the SDSR technique. Photo: B.vanSchagen/Bioversity International

“The scaling fund is truly unique in the CGIAR and it shows RTB’s commitment to the scaling of innovations,” says Dr Marc Schut, a researcher with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University & Research (WUR) who leads Flagship project 5.

Schut observes that researchers tend to invest much more time and energy in developing and improving technologies than in understanding the market, policy and cultural aspects of the enabling environment that can facilitate or hinder their efforts get those technologies to farmers or other end-users. He explains that in addition to the funding awarded for the three technologies, the Flagship 5 team will provide guidance in the design of scaling strategies and monitoring progress toward impacts, while drawing lessons to inform critical thinking about scaling processes in agri-food systems.

According to RTB Program Management Officer Claudio Proietti, the Scaling Fund adds value to and works in synergy with existing projects and ongoing partnerships. He explains that RTB management sent out a call for concept notes on innovations seeking Scaling Fund support in August that resulted in 12 submissions. An independent panel assessed the scaling readiness of those technologies and asked five of the teams to submit full proposals. Those five innovations were assessed and scored, and the three with the highest scores were awarded funding.

SDSR allows smallholders to reduce BXW incidence without destroying large numbers of plants. Photo G.Blomme/Bioversity International

One of the innovations to be funded is SDSR: a method for managing BXW by cutting down symptomatic banana plants, sterilizing tools, and removing flowers from healthy plants to prevent insects from infecting them. SDSR allows smallholders to reduce BXW incidence to very low levels without destroying large numbers of banana plants, which means they can continue producing fruit and earning money.

Dr Boudy Van Schagen, a social scientist with Bioversity International, explains that while approximately 20,000 households in Central and East Africa have adopted SDSR, more than 20 million households in the region have been impacted by BXW. The initiative’s goal is to get approximately 100,000 households in Burundi, DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda to adopt SDSR while making it more gender-responsive and adaptive to farmers’ needs.

Another innovation funded, Triple S (Storage in Sand and Sprouting), involves storing sweetpotato roots in sand during the dry season and planting them in seedbeds 6-8 weeks before the rains are expected, which allows farmers to produce enough vine cuttings to plant when the rains resume. Margaret McEwan, a social scientist working on seed systems at the International Potato Center (CIP), explains that Triple S has been successfully tested in varied agroecologies and used by farmers across nine sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries. CIP and partners will use the Scaling Fund grant to train trainers and run gender-responsive mass media campaigns with the aim of getting 80,000 farmers in Ethiopia and Ghana and other spillover countries to take up the technology.

“We want to institutionalize Triple S into existing programs,” she says, adding that the scaling efforts will piggyback on other sweetpotato vine dissemination interventions.

Triple S involves storing sweetpotato roots in sand during the dry season and planting them in seedbeds 6-8 weeks before the rains are expected. Photo: E.Abidin/CIP

McEwan notes that the process of applying for the Scaling Fund included assessing Triple S’s scaling readiness and developing a theory of scaling. This led her team to modify the approach to include training in best agronomic practices and positive selection of roots, in order to produce better harvests. She adds that because Triple S scaling will be done in collaboration with the Sweetpotato for Profit and Health Initiative, which works across 17 SSA countries, there is potential for using strategies developed and refined in this initiative to scale Triple S elsewhere.

“Scaling requires a certain level of standardization, but we need to learn how to ensure that scaling can also be adaptive and responsive to local contexts,” says McEwan.

The third innovation funded is a technology to turn cassava peels – a waste product from garri and lafun production in Nigeria – into a high quality cassava peel (HQCP) mash that can be substituted for 15-60% of the maize in livestock or fish feed. According to Dr Iheanacho Okike, an agricultural economist consultant with IITA, Nigeria’s cassava processing industries produce more than 12 million tons of cassava peels annually, the disposal of which constitutes an environmental problem but holds potential for income generation. While a few factories in Nigeria have already adopted the HQCP technology, IITA and partners plan to engage government institutions, cassava processors and feed producers to scale it out for greater economic and environmental impact.

“Involvement in the competition for the Scaling Fund helped us to deepen our thinking around what we should be doing, our scaling strategies and/or models, and who we should be engaging with,” says Okike.

HQCP powder can replace 15-60% of maize in animal feed. Photo: I.Okike/IITA

Proietti notes that the two innovations that weren’t funded this year are also quite promising and should be top contenders for the next round of funding. Those innovations are: 1) an initiative to expand the use of OFSP puree in baked goods in East and Southern Africa; and 2) the promotion of a technology for waxing cassava roots to increase their shelf life in Tanzania and Uganda.

According to Proietti, the process of developing proposals and assessing technologies’ scaling readiness served as an exercise that helped researchers better understand their innovation’s adaptability to the conditions in target countries. “We’ve encouraged scientists to take a more systems view of their technologies and address how well adapted they are to the real world,” he says. “This process is resulting in new insights on how to improve scaling strategies, partnership arrangements and a learning process that can support adaptive management.”

Schut notes that while each context is unique in terms of agroecology, end-user needs, market, infrastructure and policies, there will be lessons learned from these scaling experiences that can be applied to other crops or technologies. He adds that the Scaling Fund contributes to critical reflection on the return of RTB investments, helping to determine which investments have the highest potential for scientific progress towards achieving agricultural development.

“We have already learned a lot, and many scientists have provided us with feedback that the scaling fund has made them much more aware that scaling requires other types of approaches, capacities and partnerships,” he says. “However, the principle objective is to ensure that the initiatives funded contribute to achieving the RTB outcomes.”

by David Dudenhoefer