GFAR blog

Getting from Point A to Point B


Have you ever used Uber to get around town? Uber proudly declares that it’s “The best way to get wherever you’re going”. That may well be, or may not be, but there’s no disputing Uber’s ubiquity and utility. In 2015, enough customers had been connected with drivers worldwide that Uber completed its 1 billionth ride.1

Uber Technologies Inc. is a peer-to-peer ridesharing, food delivery, and transportation network company headquartered in San Francisco, California, with operations in 633 cities worldwide.1

I believe I have the Uber app on my phone, but I haven’t opened it since I was on a work trip in South Africa in 2016 (#GCARD3). Here in Rome only UberBLACK, UberLUX and UberVAN are available. I find other transportation options to be more wallet-friendly. Still, in Pretoria I would have been stranded without UberBLACK.

So why is Uber so innovative? What’s the idea and how did it skyrocket to global proportions?

When we call an Uber, we want to get from point A to point B. And we want to do it without jumping up and down to get a taxi driver’s attention. As long as you have the app on a working smartphone (and your credit card details uploaded), you can most likely get picked up within a few minutes. Uber is easy to use and it fills a need.

Uber also makes a simple business proposition to private individuals: avail your services and you have the potential to make pretty good money. No investment required. Your customers only stand to benefit because they’ll get where they need to go. It’s a win-win.

Maybe you’ve already considered all these features of Uber. But have you thought of these?

  • Almost everything that makes Uber, “Uber”, was already there. The “Uber system” includes myself, a driver, a car, a smartphone, an app, another system linking the app to my bank account, server(s), and a team of people who make sure it all runs smoothly. The system was built almost completely with pre-existing pieces (aside from app development).
  • The founders of Uber are pros at advertising and marketing. But actually, because of the nature of the service, it sells itself. The Uber brand is essentially a quality control stamp, a seal of approval, a guarantee that you are being offered a functional system that benefits everyone. And when you know you are being offered a car in good working order, driven by a verified driver, it’s a no-brainer.

But more on this later. I’m not here to sell you an Uber ride. I’m here to make a harder sell. Now, I’d like to convince you that all this can teach us something about Agricultural Innovation Systems. Stay with me.

Our collective GPS

Agricultural Innovation System (AIS): a network of actors (individuals, organizations and enterprises), together with supporting institutions and policies in the agricultural and related sectors that bring existing or new products, processes and forms of organization into social and economic use.2

What are our Points A and B in an agricultural innovation system?

Point A is the current state of the agricultural system, and Point B is where we want to get to. Point B is where our system functions optimally, enough good food is being produced sustainably, and far fewer people around the world are going hungry.

Quite a hefty challenge, you say? Yes, it is.

But that’s why agricultural innovation systems involve so many individuals, organizations and enterprises. And hopefully, if they are truly innovative, they make use of plenty of new technologies that facilitate not only the agricultural work itself, but help all the actors work more efficiently together.

Fortunately, we already have the destination set in our collective GPS, and we are trying to get there by 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a common course to follow, with signposts and all. Of course, getting to a world that can feed everyone by 2030, while coping with climate change, migration, degrading soils and more, is much harder than calling an Uber. We aren’t just using an app and walking to the curb. It involves vast numbers of people doing wide-ranging activities, and who don’t all stand to gain.

Farmers—especially small farmers in developing countries—are putting in back-breaking work in hopes of being able to feed their families and make a little extra money on the side. Agriculture ministers and officials are in seemingly endless talks in international arenas. NGOs and CSOs are working tirelessly to advocate for farmers, with few resources.

The system that all these different actors comprise seems inefficient at best, broken at worst. Some 795 million people in the world today do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. At the same time, the world loses or throws away one-third of what it produces. Much more money goes in than we see results coming out. If this system were an automobile, it would be the worst gas-guzzler.

Building and driving the system

The rest of the definition of AIS states:

Policies and institutions (formal and informal) shape the way that these actors interact, generate, share and use knowledge as well as jointly learn.2

Formal policies and institutions have so far failed to deliver a world without hunger. But they have been driving the system for so long that it’s hard for us to imagine what could work better in their place.

So what about informal systems? Those outside of, or overlapping with, standard institutional, diplomatic and bureaucratic channels? What if diverse actors—producers, researchers, company heads, university professors, activists, extensionists, young aspiring farmers—could all work together to get us to Point B? What if what drove them were not policies, but common values, like openness, inclusion and a willingness to share the load?

This is exactly what GFAR is about.

The Partners in GFAR identify with these values, and see clearly that mending our broken food system is the only way to get to Point B. We ask ourselves how we can best interact with each other and generate, share and use knowledge to achieve food security for all.

But we don’t set about reinventing the wheel: we offer our own talents, resources and capacities for the task. We already have all the elements we need, they just need to be fit together.

The farmer is the driver.

His land and tools are his vehicle.

The smartphone and app are like the links in the supply chain, access to markets by the producers and the consumers.

The rider is us, all trying to get to a place of zero hunger.

And then there are teams working to help make it all run smoothly. In GFAR, this team is a multistakeholder group of people who have committed to engage the GFAR constituencies—research institutions, private sector, farmers’ organizations, youth and women’s associations, higher education and more—in Collective Actions. This team is the GFAR Partner Assembly and Steering Committee, working in a more efficient, more straightforward way with the Partners in GFAR. They understand that Collective Action fills a real need in the world, because it does away with institutional barriers that hold us back. (Read more here.)

Collective Action: A multi-stakeholder programme of work at national, regional or international level initiated by three or more Partners and prioritized by the Partners in the Global Forum, always including producers and with a particular focus on women and youth.

Unlike using Uber, though, setting out on a Collective Action towards a development outcome involves no financial obligation. What it does require is putting your heads together—and maybe some in-kind resources—to take big challenges head-on.

A brand that conquers the prevailing system

Uber has competitively undercut prevailing systems of taxis and private cars by offering cheaper services. In some cases, the regulations in force in a jurisdiction, or taxi unions, have put a spoke in Uber’s wheel. In several countries, Uber has been banned or has had to voluntarily pull out.

But the Uber brand remains strong and is known worldwide. Most people understand that when a better service is introduced, there is going to be resistance from the businesses currently dominating the market. Disrupting a system is not going to please everyone.

Like Uber, GFAR is disruptive. It is a movement advocating for change in a well-established system. By working together openly, the Partners in GFAR reorder the existing agri-food system into a more functional system that benefits everyone. In GFAR there are no direct employees and no customers per se, but the Partners in GFAR bear a brand of common values. They continue to do their own work as pieces in the AIS, but with a common purpose.

And above all, they believe that without an open forum like GFAR where they can share their learnings, it will be a lot harder to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

So, next time you call an Uber, think also about where you’d like to be in 2030.


Blog post by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat

1 Source: Wikipedia

2As defined in the Common Framework on Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovation Systems, Tropical Agriculture Platform

Photo credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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