The Innovation Revolution in Agriculture: A Road Map to Value Creation

This past month, our Director of Research, Hugo Campos, released an edited, open-access Springer book entitled “The Innovation Revolution in Agriculture: A Road Map to Value Creation.” The timeliness and importance of this book is significant as all the CGIAR centers focus on our evolution to the OneCGIAR next year.

This volume also emerges on the eve of the CGIAR’s 50th anniversary, a recognition of five decades working closely with farmers and the latest technology to enable significant improvements in food and nutrition security for vulnerable populations. CIP’s work with biofortified sweetpotato is just one example of many throughout our institution.

But as Dr. Campos and the authors in this volume insist, technology and innovation are not the same and understanding this distinction is vital to our future work in breeding, agroforestry, food system resilience and climate change adaptation, among other concerns.

The different chapters in this book discuss the concept of innovation from a practical and academic points of view, updating traditional ideas about innovation and placing them in a modern context relevant for agricultural research for development.

Dr. Campos sat down for an interview with our managing editor, Christopher Butler, for the following conversation about the book. We hope this conversation is just the first of many, inspired by the book, to focus on enhancing our efforts to innovate tools and technologies to improve the lives and the well-being of smallholder farmers around the world.

  • Barbara Wells, Director General, International Potato Center

The point of this book is to “reframe the role of innovation in agriculture.” And that phrase reminds me that people may not be accustomed to hearing the words innovation and agriculture linked together. I think we usually associate innovation with industry and technology. Why is it so important – and urgent – to think about agriculture as a place for innovation?

Campos: For starters, there is a huge need for livelihood improvements among smallholders in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And, regretfully, the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the need for what we must deliver. Secondly, I think there are many misconceptions about what innovation is all about.

Innovation and R&D are two different things. Sometimes people get them mixed up. You can be very effective at innovation with only modest investments in R&D and vice versa. Not only in agriculture, but in any sector. If look at a company’s worth, those with the largest R&D budgets are not necessarily the most innovate. For instance, the most innovative company worldwide is Apple, although several companies  outspend Apple in terms of R&D budget. To some extent, the same concept applies to breeding programs since, if well managed, even a relatively modest breeding effort can deliver large genetic gains.

We need to think more carefully about creating enabling environments in which innovation can thrive. For example, there used to be two ways to watch home videos: VCR and Betamax.  Betamax was far superior in terms of image and sound quality. But Betamax failed to meet the needs of its customers.   Within a few years, most customers were watching VCR. The best technology is not always the technology that wins.

However, when a given technology is matched with the right business model, such a combination is very hard to beat and almost impossible to replicate. A business model does not necessarily have anything to do with money. It is a representation of how an organization is going to create and distribute value to users and, ultimately, to the market. Any successful business model must address the concept of the job to be done, and both concepts are well described on the book. For example, the rental car company Zipcar was more successful than any competitor, mostly because Zipcar’s business model was superior, not because they had most capital, experience or resources.

Think about this… even though R&D activities are increasingly targeting end user needs, sometimes that link is not explicit, and consequently, the value of the research does not generate value for farmers, members of the supply chain, or the consumer. With innovation, your first and foremost responsibility is to consider the point of view of the user. What does that person need to get done in his or her day to day life? You really need to understand the “pain” of the customer. Steve Jobs of Apple said: “One of the things I have always found is that you have got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You cannot start with the technology and then try to figure out where you are going to try and sell it.”

Sometimes scientists have issues with the word “business” because they associate the term with profit. But the etymology of the word has nothing to do with money or profit. It’s about being “busy” pursuing objectives. In the same way, I personally don’t have any problem referring to farmers as customers. When you think of the farmers as “customers,” you immediately begin thinking about serving them and addressing their needs beyond their expectations. I would invite scientists in the CGIAR to consider using concepts such as business and customer as well, as they help to create a mindset about serving the needs of others.

The CGIAR has an explicit focus on smallholder farmers. However, a recent article in the journal Nature found that 95% of agricultural research has not benefited small farmers. How can the concept of innovation in this book change that?

Campos: The framework of this volume addresses just this question. Unfortunately, as the Nature paper points out, a lot of top-quality research from talented scientists doesn’t currently meet their needs in an explicit way. Too often, research prescribes what it thinks the customer needs. We need to turn that thinking around, and fast.

As already mentioned,  a better understanding of the needs of smallholder farmers and their families is essential. I am passionate about this. From an innovation perspective, the OneCGIAR needs to be run like a business. Not profit-seeking but still as a business. This means we strive to understand what is the job to be done of smallholder farmers; we direct our attention to addressing what the customer needs; and we operate efficiently.

Let’s talk about innovation more generally. The term “innovation cascades” implies that one advance creates another. Can you give us an example from this book that illustrates that principle?

Campos: Innovations create value in innovation ecosystems. They interact with many other people and partners. Let me give you an example.

Let’s think about smartphones. It’s not just a phone; it is an enabler and a business model. That innovation enabled many other innovations in the form of services and apps that we now enjoy, including many apps used in agriculture. Now that smart phones are much more common, other innovations can benefit from this enabling environmental and generate added  value.

Here’s another example from the CGIAR: biofortified crops. I will refer to the story of pro-vitamin A sweetpotato, because I am familiar with that crop. Biofortified sweetpotato is a wonderful innovation that has enabled additional innovations. In Kenya, there is a leading chain of supermarkets called Tuskys that is working with CIP to find ways to use sweetpotato puree in baked goods. They produce bread that substitutes sweetpotato puree for flour and create a healthier product that has become quite popular in Kenya. Sales are soaring! What is the value proposition of that bread? It helps Kenya reduce the import of wheat and keep more foreign currency in country. The puree increases the fiber content of the bread. And the consumers, especially children, benefit from that fiber and vitamin A. This is just a small example in which an innovation was created in an innovation ecosystem and then one innovation led to another – creating an innovation cascade. Without biofortified sweetpotato, there would not have been ways or inspiration to create the puree for baking. Of course, the vast majority of people who use pro-vitamin A enriched sweetpotato varieties are smallholders and their families, as they are the main targets of our work. Regardless, the story of the sweetpotato puree is a good example about how innovation cascades unfold.

Next year, the CGIAR will celebrate 50 years of research for development on behalf of farmers and food systems in developing countries. And a recent report by the SOAR Foundation found that CGIAR research over that time has generated a 10 to 1 return on investment – an impressive figure. How can innovation improve that ratio?

Campos: Sometimes we may not realize how compelling, enthralling and powerful our value proposition is. We deliver food and nutrition security. And in many cases, better income for smallholder farmers. But I deeply believe our value proposition goes far beyond those outcomes. We deliver something much more novel, inspiring and human. We deliver well-being and a better quality of life. We provide the means for smallholder farmers to send their children to school, and to get them vaccinated. We deliver the means for women farmers to get better medical care for themselves and their children, and so forth. This is how we create value. Innovation is about addressing human needs that are sometimes deeply rooted in emotional and social factors.

Going back to your question, I think we should be very proud of that ratio.  Still, we can further increase that impressive ratio. How? By paying more attention to their job to be done and understand more carefully what smallholder farmers are trying to get done day by day. Also, we need to consider elements of behavioral change and behavioral economics and how these drive the long-lasting adoption of our technologies. At the end of the day, we need to secure long-lasting behavioral change if we want the adoption of the varieties and technologies we develop to increase.

In many countries, farmers continue to use 20- and 30-year old varieties instead of switching to newer ones. Though there may be sound logical, agricultural reasons for that, in some cases such attachment may also be emotional. And we human beings are hard-wired to place a lot of value on emotional bonds. So to increase the adoption of new varieties, we need to better understand whether smallholder farmers are failing to adopt these varieties because they lack access or resources – or if they are motivated by strong emotional bonds to older, more familiar varieties.

Change is never easy but fortunately we know a lot about change management. For instance, at CIP we pay a lot of attention to our genetic work and technologies through the lens of change management. Within our SweetGAINS project (an investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), we are deploying not only the latest genetic and breeding technologies to sweetpotato but doing so in step with principles of change management. So, , we have devoted a significant amount of time to discussing how to become a high-performing team and manage change in our operations. To get our job done, we are aware that genetic and breeding technology upgrades are a necessary but insufficient condition to claim success.  The combination of change management skills with deep science and technology expertise is hard to beat. It only increases the likelihood of delivering what our customers expect from us.