How to ensure climate-smart agriculture research products contribute meaningfully to the challenges of poverty and climate change.

Many agricultural technologies and practices, including those qualifying as climate-smart, are not achieving their full potential impact because of low levels of adoption by farmers in developing countries. Despite successful pilot projects, uptake of new and innovative agricultural technologies and practices has often been poor, and we have still not been able to resolve problems of food insecurity and rural poverty.

The key challenge is to scale up promising pilot initiatives so that they can have a substantial impact on poverty

It is this need to show real impact beyond the plot or site level to impacts for more people over wider areas, and for institutions and policies, that drives the interest in scaling up. The key challenge is to scale up promising pilot initiatives so that they can have a substantial impact on poverty.

A new paper by scientists at the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) addresses the advantages and disadvantages of specific approaches that hold out promise for scaling up climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to contribute meaningfully to the challenges of poverty and climate change. The paper builds on the existing agricultural adoption and CSA literature to unite the concepts under a common framework and draw from the learning to inform future actions.

The authors draw on eleven case studies that were selected from a portfolio of climate-smart agriculture projects undertaken by CCAFS. The case studies exemplify three strategies for scaling up based on:

  1. value chains and private sector involvement,
  2. information and communication technologies (ICT) and advisory services, and
  3. policy engagement.

The case studies were chosen to facilitate learning within the program and draw lessons from a range of different situations. They were analyzed using a simple conceptual framework, originally developed for scaling up nutrition-related interventions in developing countries. 

The case studies

Case studies based on value chain and private sector strategies

Case studies utilising ICT and agro-advisories

Case studies utilising policy engagement


The eleven case studies evaluated describe a wide range of activities at different stages of completion and at different places on their respective impact pathways. The three scaling strategies they represent appear promising in terms of their ability to scale up CSA to contribute meaningfully to the challenges of poverty and climate change. At the same time, the work has highlighted three outstanding challenges:

One is the issue of estimating the costs and benefits of different scaling activities. The case studies provided little robust information on the costs of the different strategies, but while challenging to estimate, cost comparisons would be very useful for gauging economic efficiency. While it may be envisaged that strategies for scaling up based on value chains, ICT/agro-advisory services and policy engagement could be highly cost-effective, more rigorous information is needed, and this warrants further work.

A second challenge is that of integrating knowledge across multiple levels. This vertical coordination across scales has also been recognized as a challenge in the nutrition arena. This is not only just the challenge of moving from successful small-scale projects to informing and implementing policy with broad reach; it also requires devolving action from national levels to local levels (or scaling down) to ensure that interventions are appropriately contextualized and locally viable.

The third challenge is that of addressing equity considerations in scaling up CSA interventions. Most of the case studies have not included explicit consideration of equity issues to date. This makes it difficult to establish who is benefiting from the adoption of CSA interventions and whether disadvantaged groups are being excluded.

The paper demonstrates that different strategies for scaling up have different characteristics. There may thus be tradeoffs to consider when choosing one strategy over another. For example, policy engagement strategies can be effective in overcoming barriers and may be better suited to address equity concerns than strategies based on value chains and ICT-based agro-advisories, but by themselves, they may not be well-suited to addressing farmers' challenges in relation to policy goals. ICT-based agro-advisories can reach large numbers of farmers, but there may be trade-offs in relation to lack of clarity around stakeholders' goals and limitations in marrying great reach with context specificity. The value chain case studies exhibit clarity as to what is being scaled and are relatively effective in addressing cross-level governance issues through close involvement of the private sector, but they are less effective in addressing learning and equity concerns than the other strategies.

Knowing some of the limitations from these case studies can help program designers create better-structured scaling mechanisms appropriate for specific future interventions to address some of the shortcomings.

Read the study: Scaling up agricultural interventions: Case studies of climate-smart agriculture (preprint version)

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This work is based on Westermann et al., CCAFS Working Paper 135 (2015), with a modified and expanded analysis. We acknowledge the input of many people, including Pramod K. Aggarwal, Debisi Araba, Deissy Martinez Barón, Osana Bonilla, Graham Clarkson, Peter Dorward, Jim Hansen, Jonathan Hellin, Andy Jarvis, Mangi Lal Jat, Daniel Jimenez, Pramod Joshi, David Kahan, Arun Khatri-Chhetri, Ana Maria Loboguerrero, Mark Lundy, Ngo Duk Minh, Michael Misiko, Ousmane Ndiaye, Rathana Peou, Leocadio Sebastian, Paresh Bhaskar Shirsath, Claire Stirling, Jeimar Tapasco, Timm Tennigkeit, Suzanne van Dijk, Marieke Veeger, Joost Vervoort, Andreas Wilkes, and Robert Zougmoré. We acknowledge the CGIAR Fund Council, Australia (ACIAR), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Netherlands, Switzerland and UK for funding to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). We also thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an early draft of the paper.

Philip Thornton is the CCAFS Policies and Priorities for CSA Flagship Leader.