We've heard a lot at Africa Agriculture Science Week about the complex problems facing African farmers, particularly as climate changes, populations boom, and ecosystems degrade. Boosting crop yields is simply not going to deliver the needed solutions.
We’ve heard repeatedly that Africa has a lot of potential to scale-up productive agriculture practices to feed its population while mitigating climate change.The continent still has a large areas of uncultivated land that could be used if farmers are provided micro-irrigation techniques and fertilizers. We've also seen compelling evidence that Africa can feed Africa now and into the future, with examples from across the continent of farmers planting fruit trees, women keeping bees for sweet honey, farmers joining villages considered ‘climate-smart’ where they can test practices that will build their resilience.
So what's the common thread behind these successful initiatives?
Complex problems call for new ways to address these problems, said Michael Victor who coordinates communications and engagement for the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food and its successor the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).
Michael and his colleagues were sharing lessons and reflections from 10 years of CPWF work in a side event on "Engagement Platforms for Food and Water Security". The event brought together many partners including farmers, scientists and policy makers, who have been actively engaged with the program inthree major river basins in Africa, the Limpopo in Southern Africa, the Volta in West Africa and the Nile in East Africa. They highlighted what they believe has been the key to the program's success: working in close collaboration with partners and stakeholders. "We are in this together," said Victor, kicking off a discussion on how the program used 'engagement platforms' to help achieve water and food security in major river basins around the world.
Platforms to facilitate engagement and innovation
But what is a 'platform'? Olufunke Cofie, who leads CPWF research in West Africa's Volta river basin, broke down the concept. A platform, she told me, is something that "creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange." It brings stakeholders together to identify challenges and define solutions together. But really, she said "there is no blueprint".
Platforms can be built on existing community organisations or groups, or can be set up to bring together groups that had previously not worked together. The point is to facilitate a learning and engagement process with stakeholders. The aim is for stakeholders to change behaviour because they themselves see an advantage, not because they are compelled by outside forces. The only way to ensure long-term, sustainable success, is for a community to feel ownership and see the benefits of doing something differently.
Doing research differently
"Innovation is not about inventing new things, but instead it means dealing differently with a problem" said Alain Vidal, who leads CPWF. And it is only through CPWF's commitment to engagement that innovations have been achieved.
Indeed "we as researchers we can't assume we know what's best," said Olufunke. "We need to agree together on the solutions." CPWF has embraced a social learning approach, where research questions are continually redefined based on what they learn through engagement.
Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of FANRPAN - the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, helped kindle a lively discussion among participants from the three basins, who shared how they have used the engagement and innovation platforms to improve their lives and resilience.
A platform is like… a bicycle wheel?
So who participates in a platform and what do they work on? In the Volta Basin, for example, which stretches from Burkina Faso to northern Ghana, the platform is focused on promoting value chains related to crops such as maize, and livestock including chicken and sheep. It includes agricultural and livestock producers, food processors, financial and technical services, agricultural input suppliers, traders, buyers, and NGOs that focus on building capacity along the agricultural value chain.
Members of the Limpopo basin team likened the platform to a bicycle wheel: the agricultural service providers are the bearing housing; the other players become the spokes; the rim could be the agreed boundaries or objectives of the group. But the bicycle wheel needs to keep rolling; it needs a good facilitator to ensure that things move forward.
In the Volta basin, the CPWF has helped to build a network of trust among stakeholders, and opened the door for communities to take advantage of opportunities such as new varieties and technologies, as well as new markets.
Joseph, a farmer from Burkina Faso, shared how the platform helped farmers in his community bring their produce to markets.
"We were poorly organised," he said. "We were not planting at the same time and we were all using different varieties. But now we have good quality seeds, we can work with less water, we are using short cycle maize."
From water-smart to climate-smart
The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is also embracing a social learning approach. At the local level, CCAFS is helping communities implement and test climate smart farming practices through the climate smart village model.
The Climate Smart Villages are not only demonstration and learning sites, but they are also local innovation platforms, where stakeholders and service providers help define and participate in the entire research process. At the national level, CCAFS has helped set up learning platforms or link with existing platforms in several countries including Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia and Kenya. The aim is to help ensure that knowledge gained through research on the ground links with national-level climate change mitigation and adaptation policy development.
CCAFS and the other research programs of the CGIAR can only succeed if they adopt and innovate upon the engagement approaches that have helped made CPWF and other similar programs successful.
"Science without the bottom-up process for engagement will not change Africa" concluded Lindiwe Sibanda.