Knowledge for Development

CTA Top 20 Innovations that Benefit Smallholder Farmers

Author: Judith Ann Francis

Date: 29/04/2016


Over the years, CTA has contributed to building ACP capacity to understand innovation processes, strengthen the agricultural innovation system and embed innovation thinking in agricultural and rural development strategies. The CTA Top 20 Innovations project set out to prove that innovation is taking place in ACP agriculture and in the process has demonstrated that smallholder farmers are beneficiaries as well as partners in agricultural innovation. The CTA Top 20 Innovations that were selected from among the 251 submissions that had been received from 49 countries showcase the ingenuity of numerous stakeholders who are innovating and by their collective efforts are making a difference in the livelihoods of ACP smallholder farmers and their families.


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We are publishing here below the overview by Her Excellency, Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius, and the Lessons Learned, by Judith Ann Francis.


Innovation, entrepreneurship and governance for sustainable agri-food systems

Her Excellency, Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius
Key messages

  • Build the human capital.
  • Take advantage of growth in urban markets.
  • Provide an enabling environment for innovation.
  • Strengthen public-private partnerships and research collaboration.
  • Increase public investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure.

Modernization of the agricultural and food sectors in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States is a priority for responding to the challenges and opportunities associated with increasing urbanization, growing international competition and changing consumer needs and market demand. While high-level political leadership and commitment provide a sound foundation for entrepreneurship and agricultural-led socio-economic development; higher investments in education, research and innovation in products, processes, markets and services are needed. The disparate elements of science, business and capital need to converge and be collectively energized.

Bringing science and innovation to the centre of the economic renewal in the ACP region will require bold executive leadership, innovative science and innovation policies and financing models, and highly motivated social capital to drive the desired changes. Redefining the crucial role of the private sector; local, regional and international and the mechanisms for strengthening their partnership with governments, research, academia and the farming communities, is now critical.

Innovation systems
The key element of innovation is learning and this is linked to the uptake and use of knowledge products. Innovation systems encompass the interactive processes involving multiple stakeholders; government, knowledge institutes, industry and civil society to produce, diffuse and use knowledge for societal and economic gain. Innovation, continuous learning and adapting to changing circumstances are therefore synonymous.

Significant upgrading of society’s knowledge base for adapting to societal challenges – including economic, energy, food, nutritional and climatic challenges – will allow trends to be identified and responses to be designed. Promoting prosperity, creating robust economies and building resilience of communities; farmers, farm families and the wider society should be a central concern of leaders.

Technological innovation and infrastructure development
Unlike in the 1950s, when developing countries faced enormous technological challenges, the phenomenal growth and rapid penetration of modern information and communication technologies have increased access to the world’s pool of scientific and technical knowledge. Relative successes in several countries have demonstrated that there is a clear link between technological innovation, improved productivity and income growth and that such linkages are benefiting smallholder farmers and their families.

The CTA Top 20 Innovations demonstrate numerous cases of the ingenious and innovative ways that farmers, the scientific and academic communities and other partners are collaborating in the generation, use and uptake of new and existing knowledge, and overcoming resource constraints to increase agricultural productivity and improve livelihoods. For example, improving supply chains and adding value to fresh produce (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Climate-Smart Hydroponics; M-Fodder; and POMP), can give producers and processors a comparative advantage on domestic, regional and international markets as well as curb imports of some commodities. Improved data analytics and reliable long-range (multi-month) weather forecasting models will help farmers adjust their agricultural operations to climatic conditions by determining the optimal time for sowing or transplanting, maximising their use of inputs and increasing yields (CTA Top 20 Innovation: Innovative Tropical Weather Forecasts).

No new technology, however cutting edge and effective, can improve production and process efficiencies, if people are unable to access and use it (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Controlling Aflatoxin in smallholder groundnut systems; and Chelelang – The Wonder Bean). Farmers need to have the capacity to understand new technologies and the system must empower them (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Farmerline; Low-cost Feed for Chicken Farmers; and Cassava Drying – From Sun to Steam). Since most ACP smallholder farmers are women, an important component of the system will be to include women in all parts of the process: education, capacity building and technological innovation.

Infrastructure development stimulates technological innovation and is also a strategic way to build technical capability. This is best achieved by linking technical training institutes and universities to large-scale infrastructure projects. A lesson that ACP countries can learn from more advanced economies is the importance of linking investments in infrastructure development (especially in key areas such as transportation, energy, water and telecommunications) to specific programmes including those in the agricultural sector. ACP leaders must think and act creatively on how best to mobilise the requisite human resources. For example, engineering capabilities of militaries, as is done in Senegal, can be harnessed to implement infrastructure projects.

Traditional knowledge, human capital and entrepreneurship
Traditional knowledge and practices, though neglected during the colonial era, is increasingly valued, recognised as effective and considered a powerful tool for strengthening agricultural innovation systems. Lost, neglected and underutilised crops and livestock have been determined to have commercial and social value.

Advances in science are casting new light on the innovation potential of indigenous traditional crops and livestock. The ACP academic and research community, in partnership with researchers and the private sector from the North and South, can build on the genetic makeup of indigenous species to produce higher yielding, nutrient-dense, drought-resistant and heat-tolerant varieties (CTA Top 20 Innovation: More Productive Local Chicken), control pests and disease (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Barakuk; Protecting Mali’s Rivers; and Biological Control of the Millet head Miner) and improve on traditional practices (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Cowpea then Maize; and Chinadango Local Fertilizer).

Acknowledging that sustainable agriculture is more than a valued traditional lifestyle, but a knowledge intensive activity as well as a driver of economic growth, also requires changes to educational programming. ACP agriculture has to expand beyond the informal private economy and governments need to prioritize education in a holistic way and adopt more community-driven models (CTA Top 20 Innovations: Rural Resource Centres; and Extension goes Digital). Encouraging basic education – both primary and secondary – and eschewing fundamental reforms in existing tertiary learning institutions, especially universities and research institutes, and strengthening partnerships with the private sector, will go a long way towards achieving these goals. A better understanding of the network relationship, as well as clustering of enterprises and actors, is critical.

Entrepreneurship has the potential to spur innovation and steer innovation processes and can be better exploited. The New Rice for Africa (NERICA), which was a scientific break-through in rice breeding, has been a success because the private sector was able to convince the government to adopt new policies. This resulted in more economic opportunities, attracted more self-organised entrepreneurs and completed a ‘healthy’ cycle of economic and technological improvement thereby bringing much relief to the people in terms of access to an important staple. Two of the CTA Top 20 Innovations have been effective in reforming farmers’ organizations such that farmers can participate more effectively in all aspects of the agricultural value chains and influence policy processes (CTA Top 20 Innovations: The Farmer Ownership Model; and Producer Business Group Model for Value Addition).

Governance in complex environments
Agricultural innovation will take place in an even more complex and uncertain world. Long-term responses to the complexity of transforming agri-food systems will require foresight and political, social and technical changes. Leaders and other stakeholders will have to anticipate the scientific, technological and other developments (e.g. intensive crop breeding; new protein sources for livestock feed; migration corridors to facilitate ecosystem integrity etc.) as well as profile and project future consumer needs for products and services. More fundamentally, issues related to science, technology and innovation will need to be addressed in an integrated way and strategically at policy level. A state- of-the-art systems approach to problem solving will need to fuse monitoring, modelling, simulation, forecasting, forward planning and experimentation to confront the emerging and projected scenarios. It also requires high-level coordination and Heads of State may have to take on the role of ‘concept champions’.

Policy-makers should also be aiming at innovation systems approaches that shift economies towards low-carbon, fuel efficient, and multiple product and diverse pathways (CTA Top 20 Innovation: Sunflower Water Pump). The essence of traditional agriculture will change and the process of social and technological innovation will increasingly be recognised as key to resilience building and transformation. Governments will need to give increasing priority to science and innovation as part of their sustainable and economic development strategies, and inclusive approaches should be integrated into governance strategies, especially the adoption of technology-oriented agreements. Fundamentally, the ability to innovate will possibly be the greatest test of a country’s capacity for social learning. The promotion of local innovation will contribute to the emergence of sustainable, well-integrated agri-food systems that can withstand shocks and deliver socio-economic development.

Agricultural innovation has the potential to transform ACP agriculture but only if robust structures are put in place to build and energize the human capital base to create, disseminate and optimize critical best practices and technological breakthroughs. Linkages between farmers, fisher folk, firms, universities, schools, research and training centres, and governments could be much stronger. Although new telecommunications technologies such as mobile phones have the potential to strengthen linkages, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that geography will continue to matter, regardless of the new forms of communications. Local, national and regional authorities must carefully assess where agri-food and other agro-industrial clusters may prove most successful and lay out clear plans for cluster development. Clusters need to be nurtured, and throughout the process, public and private institutions must work cooperatively. Regional integration will provide greater fl and geographical space for such learning processes.

The private sector, foundations and philanthropists must be willing to transfer knowledge and encouraged to make funding and even personnel available in the early stages of cluster development. But for innovation to be mainstreamed in all facets of the socio-economic growth and development agenda, the public sector should further support collective action and broader public-private partnership programmes. Synergies need to be created by combining market-based and knowledge-based interactions and moving beyond stronger linkages within and beyond the value chain to an innovation strategy that is holistic in nature and that focuses on, in particular, strengthening the interactions between key public and private and civil society actors in the agri-food system. Governments must provide the enabling policy and regulatory framework.


Lessons learned and implications for research, innovation and policy

Judith Ann Francis, CTA, The Netherlands

Key Lessons

  1. When scientific, technical, local and business knowledge converge to drive innovation in agri-food systems, smallholder farmers benefit.
  2. Clustering of smallholder farmers into producer business groups provides economies of scale and fosters learning and innovation.
  3. For innovations to be scaled-up, they must be validated within a given  context; deemed relevant, practical and cost effective, provide multiple benefits and attract investments.
  4. An enabling policy, legal and regulatory framework, access to financial services and a well resourced knowledge infrastructure are critical for sustaining innovation processes.

The CTA Top 20 Innovations project has demonstrated that innovation is taking place in agri-food systems and that smallholder farmers in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States are benefiting; socially and economically. All the characteristics normally associated with innovation – ‘new creations of knowledge’, have been exemplified. Stakeholders have optimized resources, scientific discoveries and technologies and created new forms of organization which have contributed to higher earnings, efficiency gains and cost savings; although in a nuanced way. Smallholder farmers have led the direction of search, in some instances, and have partnered with scientists and other stakeholders to overcome challenges and take advantage of opportunities.

The goal of the CTA Top 20 Innovations project was to boost awareness of the many innovations, ‘low hanging fruits’ that were benefitting ACP smallholder farmers. A sub- objective was to unearth research and development outputs including technologies that had been generated by universities and research organizations and were being used by smallholder farmers. The 251 ‘innovations’ that were received in response to the global call for submissions, were evaluated using different lenses and the final  top twenty have been endorsed by the ACP farming, academic and research communities.

In a nutshell, the CTA Top 20 Innovations had to have value, not only for those who have generated and creatively used the available knowledge but also for a wider cross- section of agricultural stakeholders across multiple continents. These innovations are to be widely promoted to farmers, researchers/scientists, government officials, donors and the private sector, and so too the lessons learned, to attract increased public and private sector investment for research and innovation. This responds to commitments that have been made by several ACP governments to enhance the performance of agriculture and related agro-food industries, improve livelihoods, increase incomes, achieve food and nutrition security targets and ensure eco-system sustainability. Scaling-out and scaling- up successful innovations is essential.

The 251 submissions
Within the last two decades, innovation systems thinking has pervaded the international science, technology and innovation agenda as well as the agricultural transformation agenda in ACP countries, but to a limited extent. This conceptual approach promotes innovation as a process and is much broader than technology adoption and technological change. In analyzing innovation processes, consideration has to be given to the inputs, the outputs and the context – specifically the stakeholders including their competencies and the policy and institutional framework that affects their behaviour. The farm/firm is central to the innovation process; it is the enterprise that makes the fi decision to innovate or not.

CTA received 251 submissions through the open call that was launched for innovations that were benefitting smallholder farmers in ACP countries. These were  categorized, inter alia by, ‘type of innovation’, lead agency,  intervention  area  and  commodity focus. Four ‘types of innovation’ were identified: technological (53%), process (24%), organizational/institutional (19%) and social (4%); five submissions were not classified. The innovations were either; farmer-led (31.5%), research-led (28%),  university-led (17%), NGO-led (15.5%), private sector-led (5%) or government agency or ministry-led (2.5%). Four main ‘intervention’ areas were determined: production including land and water management (53%), extension (15%), marketing (15%) and post-harvest (14%); and three percent (3%) were not classified.

Sixty-nine percent (69%) of the innovations were commodity specific, namely livestock (14% e.g. cattle, pigs,  poultry,  small ruminants), cereals (13% e.g. rice, sorghum, wheat), legumes and high value crops (12.5% e.g. soybean, cashew, sunflower fl    root and tuber crops (9% e.g. potato, sweet potato, yam), vegetables (7%), fruits (5%), integrated crop/livestock/fish production systems (5%) and indigenous crops, oil palm and fodder (3.5%). The other 31% of the submissions addressed other agriculture related issues (e.g. irrigation, packaging, soil fertility). Women and youth were mentioned in 5.5% of the submissions in relation to technologies for reducing drudgery, empowerment, and skills development.

It has emerged, from the review of the submissions, that there is no ‘blueprint’ guiding the agricultural innovation process and more so for the benefit of smallholder farmers. The diversity has underscored the challenges to and opportunities for enhancing innovation in smallholder agri-food systems. Multiple and complex issues have to be addressed (e.g. cost of inputs – feeds, fertilizers, irrigation; versatility of equipment/ machinery; quality of seeds/breeds; pest control; weather forecasting). Several sources of knowledge (e.g. scientific, local/indigenous) and entry points have to be exploited, demonstrating that both ‘the demand’ and ‘the offer’ – two important innovation drivers – and other enabling factors have to be addressed in a more integrated manner to fuel the agricultural innovation process. A more joined-up approach is needed.

The CTA Top 20 Innovations
The rigorous evaluation process – firstly, by having the multi-disciplinary team of ACP and EU experts develop a shortlist of forty innovations and secondly, by having farmers’ organizations in Africa and the Caribbean, select the final top twenty from the shortlist – had its challenges. Agreement had to be reached on what constituted an ‘innovation’ and whether it had gone beyond the proof of concept phase. Consensus was also needed on the score and weight to be assigned to each evaluation criteria; technical/scientific merit, impact, originality and scalability. There were differences between the rankings of the African and Caribbean farmers’ organizations and between those of the farmers’ organizations and the multi-disciplinary team of experts. These were resolved through discussion and consensus building and resulted in general concurrence on the final CTA Top 20 Innovations. The difference in farmers’ innovation priorities between regions and those of the experts confirm that the context, the supply and demand and inherent biases of the various stakeholders are relevant when guiding the innovation process and in scaling-out and scaling-up innovation.

Technological innovations led by universities and research centres were dominant and have generally responded to challenges impacting on farming communities. Farmer-led innovations were either organizational, process, social or technological in nature and driven by their need to overcome specific constraints, minimize risks, reduce costs, improve yields and increase earnings. Private sector-led innovations responded to commercial interests but were also underpinned by science and knowledge of the market conditions. The different motivations; scientists, farmers, private sector, as have been exemplified, correspond to the ’science or technology push’ or the ‘demand pull’ nature of the innovation process. Yet, when all things are considered, smallholder farmers used the innovations and benefitted. A key lesson is that a combination of science, technology, local knowledge and business interests as well as organizational realignments, is needed for pursuing an innovation-led agricultural transformation agenda.

Scaling-out and scaling-up the CTA Top 20 Innovations
A wider group of multi-disciplinary experts, including  intellectual  property  rights (IPR) lawyers, reviewed  the CTA Top 20 Innovations,  interrogated  the  case  owners, and determined that the majority could be scaled-out and scaled-up but under certain conditions. These essentially include, inter alia, capacity building, marketing and promotion, product and process standardization, additional research, product development and wider validation trials, IPR protection where applicable, and building partnerships with other actors especially the private sector for commercialization (going to scale) – expanding product offerings, ensuring reliability of supply and increasing market share even beyond national boundaries. The importance of science, good governance (e.g. regulations and standards), market research, economic analysis and involvement of the private sector are critical for scaling-up innovations.

The CTA Top 20 Innovations project has demonstrated that agricultural innovation is taking place in diverse ACP smallholder agri-food systems and that multiple challenges are being addressed. Smallholder farmers are generating, adopting and modifying technologies, creating new forms of organizations, improving processes and expanding options. While the capacity to generate and/or access knowledge and use it creatively and effectively exists, and is contributing to improving livelihoods and ensuring the sustainability of ACP agri-food systems, the cumulative impact of innovation; be it technological,  process,  organizational/institutional  or  social,  is  small.  The  capability to innovate and scale-up innovation needs to be strengthened if the ambition of ‘leap- frogging’ ACP agriculture into the 21st  century is to be realized.

The CTA project has also confirmed that technological innovation alone, even when technologies are combined (e.g. CTA Top 20 Innovation - M-fodder; hydroponics  and mobile phones), will not deliver the much-needed agricultural transformation and socio-economic development. For smallholder farmers to take advantage of knowledge and technologies including ICTs and innovate, an enabling policy and institutional framework and a well-resourced knowledge infrastructure are also necessary, especially when going to scale. For example, to scale-up M-fodder, private sector investment and IPR issues must be addressed. The CTA Top 20 Innovation NUCAFE also showed that by restructuring and strengthening the farmers’ organization, farmers access to inputs, technologies and markets was increased, which enabled them to capture more profit along the value chain. Hence,  while  a  technological  push  is  necessary  to  modernize ACP agri-food systems, other forms of innovation – organizational, institutional and social – as well as the supply and demand factors, including a well-resourced knowledge infrastructure and well-functioning markets, must be addressed to drive the agricultural innovation process.

The CTA project has also shown that the genesis of innovation does not only lie in scientific and technological breakthroughs. While research and technology development remains important, farmers’ knowledge, traditional practices and willingness to experiment, confirm that local knowledge is valuable in driving innovation. For example, the CTA Top 20 Innovation  - Barakuk powder for reducing pest infestation on stored onion seeds; CTA Top 20 Innovation - Cowpea then maize, and the CTA Top 20 Innovation - Chinadango low cost organic-inorganic fertilizer mix, all had their genesis in farmers’ and traditional knowledge and farmers’ willingness to experiment. However, scientific research, product and process development and validation trials under varying conditions and economic and market analyses are vital to support the business case for commercialization and scaling- up these innovations. On the other hand, the CTA Top 20 Innovation - Innovative tropical weather forecasting, though underpinned by science and offering a technological solution for addressing a major challenge, needed to be validated at the farm level to attract additional public and private investments for going to scale.

Farmers’ willingness to purchase technologies (e.g. CTA Top 20 Innovation - Sunflower water pump), pay for accessing services (e.g. CTA Top 20 Innovation - Innovative tropical weather forecasting) and replicate innovations (e.g. CTA Top 20 Innovations - Cowpea then maize; Chinadango local fertilizer and Climate-smart hydroponics), demonstrate the need for innovations that are affordable and for innovative financing mechanisms when scaling-up. The policy and institutional framework for attracting and sustaining investments for enhancing agricultural innovation in ACP agri-food system must be strengthened.

In conclusion, the agricultural transformation agenda must be in tandem with education, trade, fiscal, science, technology and innovation policy priorities. Policy instruments and programmes should be responsive to the peculiarities and the differing contexts of the ACP agri-food system which is populated by smallholder farmers. They must be flexible and ensure that all stakeholders especially smallholder farmers can take advantage of the opportunities for ‘leap-frogging’ ACP agriculture into the 21st century. The agriculture innovation process must be inclusive; take on board, farmers’ circumstances and adopt a longer term perspective. New capacities for research, science, innovation and business need to be developed and nurtured and the knowledge infrastructure to support the domestication of the innovation systems approach, strengthened. Policy coherence, strategic visioning, increased investments in research and innovation are urgently needed.


Press release: CTA Top 20 Innovations

More content on the CTA Top 20 Innovations project can be found here (K4D search results):

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