Can communities of policy practice spur food systems innovation?

We need to make our food systems more productive and resilient if we are to meet growing demand and cope with environmental shocks such as extreme weather events. However, agrifood policies are often poorly coordinated. To tackle this problem, One CGIAR has established an initiative on National Policies and Strategies (NPS). A key component involves supporting Communities of Policy Practice (CoPPs).

The role CoPPs can play in transforming food systems was explored at a virtual FAO Science and Innovation Forum side event on October 12, 2022. Chaired by Michael Victor, head of communications at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the wide-ranging discussions provided a stimulating overview of how CoPPs could improve policy making in Kenya, India, Colombia, Nigeria, Egypt and Laos, the six countries involved in the NPS initiative.

“We live in an unstable and complex world and responding to crises – the energy crisis, the food crisis, the cost of living crisis – is critical,” said NPS co-lead Alan Nicol of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). “Communities of policy practice can help different constituencies work together to respond to these crises.” The programme will be working with 32 initiatives to build greater coherence in policy-making. Nicol outlined a series of key principles when forming communities of practice. Ideally, they should build on existing structures, establish a coalition of the willing, foster trust and encourage diverse and inclusive participation.

Photo credit: Karen Conniff/IWMI

Fatma Abdelaziz of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) talked about the experience with CoPPs in Egypt. One of these, Development Partners Group, involves 46 participants who meet regularly with the objective of promoting dialogue and cooperation to support national development. Another group, the Regional Network of Experts, involves people from a variety of organisations convening in their capacity as individuals. Their main focus is on improving agricultural trade. “The group serves as a knowledge powerhouse on research, capacity building and policy pathways,” she explained. “We also believe we have a role to play in helping to foster public debate on policy issues.” Recent seminars organised by NPS in Cairo looked at One CGIAR’s response to the global food crisis and Egypt’s plans for the COP27 climate meeting.

The role of policy hackathons was described by Jonathan Mockshell of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “Hackathons can help us respond to the three Cs – conflict, COVID 19 and the climate crisis,” he said. At present, policies tend to be fragmented, with different sectors and ministries failing to come up with a holistic response. “Hackathons provide a collaborative space and the tools needed to help professionals work out innovative policy options.”

Policy hackathons involve a three-day learning process, with participants coming from government ministries, think tanks and research institutes.   CoPPS, Mockshell suggested, provide an excellent platform to engage participants, who can then work in teams to identify problems, work out what matters, evaluate policy options and package solutions to meet national and local demands.

A panel discussion chaired by Joyce Maru of the International Potato Center in Kenya provided a lively insight into how CoPPs are working in different parts of the world. She began by asking Ganesh Neelam of the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives in India about the role civil society can play. “They’re directly connected with the people on the ground, and they understand their voices and how they are affected by policy,” he said, “so it’s very important to get them involved.”

“We all know what we think works, but do we know how to implement it?” asked Ahmad Mukhtar, who is based with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Egypt. He said that policy-making in Egypt was often undemocratic and frequently outsourced to bureaucrats. This is one of the reason why CoPPs have a key role to play in bringing together government staff, researchers, the development sector and civil society. “We need to have a continual brainstorming of ideas and the discussions should be open, innovative and inclusive,” he said.

In Laos, the experience of the Policy Think Tank, established in 2012 and led by a government research agency, provided some lessons for CoPPs. “One of the things we’ve learnt is the importance of establishing a network of researchers and experts who can share evidence and information,” explained FAO technical adviser Sengphachanh Sonethavixay. This was one way of avoiding duplicating research. She also said that the effective functioning of CoPPs requires a strong commitment from senior officials. It is also important to create platforms where women, including women farmers, feel comfortable.

A key point about accessibility was made by by Ahmad Muchtar. “There’s a lot of semantic noise in policy circles and we need to remove that,” he said. “The development sector often comes up with terminology  that alienates people. We need to use simple language.”

Two experts provided an overview of the discussions. Godfrey Bahiigwa of the African Union Commission said it was difficult to generalise about CoPPs, which come in various shapes and sizes. The concept was nothing new: communities of practice exist in every country. Some are formal, others are informal; some are led by government, others by the private sector or civil society. Their strengths lay in the continuous flow of ideas. The challenge is to clearly explain them to key actors have clear objectives.

Enrique Mendizabel, the Peruvian founder of On Think Tanks, suggested that homogenous CoPPs, where everyone thinks more or less the same, may be easy to manage, but it is better to have a diverse membership which includes many different viewpoints. It was important, he concluded, not to think of CoPPs as simply being technocratic entities. In a country such as Peru, which is currently gripped by political instability and rampant corruption, the very existence of communities of practice which bring together a diverse and inclusive range of people is a good thing in itself.

You can view the whole webinar here:


This work is part of the CGIAR Research Initiatives on National Policies and Strategies (NPS). CGIAR launched NPS with national and international partners to build policy coherence, respond to policy demands and crises, and integrate policy tools at national and subnational levels in six countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. CGIAR centers participating in NPS are The Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (Alliance Bioversity-CIAT), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), International Water Management Institute (IWMI), International Potato Center (CIP), International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and WorldFish. We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.


By Charlie Pye Smith and Joyce Maru