Recently, several CGIAR staff and national partners from the Africa RISING project and the Humidtropics Program in Ethiopia travelled to Kisumu, Kenya (from 22-27 June 2014) to attend a training organized by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) on how to set up and operate innovation platforms (IPs). Participants included local IP facilitators from both Humidtropics and Africa RISING research programs. Bringing together this group of people who have diverse experiences with IP’s allowed us to see how different partners and researchers understand the conceptual and practical dimensions of IPs.
Do we really understand the concept?
During the training, it became clear to me that we as CGIAR partners have not spent sufficient time building understanding of the underlying agricultural research paradigms that led to the emergence and use of IPs in agricultural research and development and that this somehow left our local partners rather in the dark about what IPs are and how they function.
This lack of understanding of the principles that guide how IPs are set up and operated has affected the successful integration of these platforms in our local partners’ research systems. Agricultural research approaches have evolved over the years and brought us to the brave new world of ‘innovation systems research’ where ‘system thinking’ is now a core driving principle. Innovation platforms are mechanisms to bring about positive change through application of this recent agricultural research thinking. Regardless of the name we give to such fora–‘innovation platforms’, ‘R4D platforms’, ‘learning and practice alliances’ or ‘multi-stakeholder platforms’– the platforms have, in my view, become indispensable parts of any research engagement within the realm of ‘innovation systems approaches’.
The facilitators in this training, Moses Tenywa and Wole Fatunbi, are well-known scholars whose names feature in the IP-related literature. We enjoyed various stimulating discussions around the concepts underlying innovation platforms and spent time talking about innovation systems, R4D and integrated agricultural research for development (IAR4D).
The event left various participants and particularly our local partners wondering whether any ‘demand-driven’ agricultural research would even be possible without innovation platforms. At one of the breaks, an Ethiopian research partner said, ‘We have been talking superficially about “innovations systems approach” for years but now I realize how little we knew about it; had we known what we now know,we would have used these approaches more efficiently.’
The conceptual part of the training took two days and it helped bridge gaps and forge a shared understanding before the start of the training.
Commodity-based versus system-based IPs
On the last day of the training, a field trip to Sabatia Sub County in western Kenya brought another opportunity to harmonize our thoughts around the process of setting up IPs with our partners from Humidtropics Program sites in Kenya and Uganda. Our Ethiopian local partners actively took part in initiating IPs based on existing platforms where three commodities and three entry points were systematically identified.
We could witness how commodity-based IPs operate strongly in ‘business mode’, and they seemed simpler to start and easier to sustain than the Natural Resource Management (NRM)-based platforms we have been running in Ethiopia. This is because using a business mode, IP members can easily answer the frequently-asked question ‘what is in it for me?,’ and they reap income benefits from the successfully functioning IP.
The trainers expressed their interest to visit Ethiopia Humidtropics sites to share experiences around system-based innovation platforms.