Understanding partnership dynamics to facilitate innovation scaling

Research for development organizations like the International Potato Center (CIP), which develop science-based solutions to the challenges faced by millions of smallholders, introduce and test those innovations with communities before taking them to scale. But taking even the most promising innovation to scale can be a challenge in and of itself, which is why researchers are increasingly focusing on approaches to scaling early in the research process.

An article by scientists from CIP and partner institutions recently published in the journal Agricultural Systems is an important contribution to this area of research. It offers compelling insight on this enduring challenge through analysis of recent experiences with Farmer Business Schools, a complex innovation promoted in several Asian countries.

Farmer Business School, a methodology developed by CIP building on the Participatory Market Chain Approach for fostering innovations in roots and tubers value chains and integrating elements from the Farmer Field School methodology, comprises a series of group-based, experiential learning activities over the course of 8–10 months that include market assessments, identification of opportunities and product development. The process culminates with participants launching a community enterprise based on adding value to one or more local products.

In the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, CIP collaborated with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture to work with an array of partners to implement Farmer Business Schools in Asia under FoodSTART+, a research initiative funded by the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to introduce innovations and add value to six large IFAD-supported investment projects.

Gordon Prain, the lead author of the article in Agricultural Systems and a technical advisor of the FoodSTART+ project, noted that effective partnerships between research institutions and development organizations are key elements for developing demand-led innovations and taking them to scale. He and the other authors consequently studied partnership dynamics in six case studies of FoodSTART+ interventions that included Farmer Business Schools. They examined the stages through which partnerships tend to pass and identified key drivers for a successful research-development partnership, for instance highlighting the importance of the right ‘fit’ between research expertise and development demand.

“Taking a complex innovation like the Farmer Business School approach to scale demands a systems understanding of innovation and scaling,” Prain observed.

Diego Naziri, a co-author of the journal article, coordinated FoodSTART+. He explained that around 150 Farmer Business Schools were completed in remote communities of India, Indonesia, and the Philippines between 2011 and 2018. Thousands of farmers and fisherfolk – more than half of them women – completed the schools and developed products for local markets. However, the most important achievement was the adoption of the Farmer Business School approach by partners and, in some cases, the institutionalization into national programs, which should ensure its continued use.

“The Farmer Business School has good scaling potential, but it is always a challenge to take an innovation from the protected niche of a research project to a wider scale,” Naziri explained. “In the traditional approach, an innovation is validated at one stage and then handed over to a larger group for potential adoption. However, rather than keeping these two stages distinct, we believe that by establishing a more integrated approach and maintaining strong partnerships during a project, we can increase the likelihood that its innovations will be appropriate to the local conditions and taken to scale.

Prain noted that taking a systems approach can improve scientists’ understanding of the scaling process.

“Our research underlines the importance of looking at innovation and scaling as organically connected processes, of which partnerships are an integral part,” he said. “Understanding the drivers of partnership and the way they are intertwined can greatly enhance the likelihood of establishing and maintaining the kind of effective partnerships that are needed for scaling innovations.”

A full copy of the article in Agricultural Systems is available here.