Accountability for actions, GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact, Research in society

We’re all in this together: Putting farmers and youth at the center of #AgInnovation

A participant in the session “Youth as Drivers of Innovation”, a side event to the FAO Innovation Symposium. Photo credit: FAO

Agricultural innovation – Is it only about technology? Or can broadening participation be innovative in itself? Key takeaways from FAO’s International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers resonate strongly with the Partners in GFAR: Innovation must be done by and with farmers and youth.

The International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers, held at FAO Headquarters in Rome 21-23 November 2018, was conceived to help in understanding the socio-economic potential of innovation, its key drivers and processes, and why it is critical to unlock its potential to achieve the transformative change required in agriculture and rural development. The Symposium recognized that innovation is not just about technology, which on its own may simply remain on the shelf. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, about social, economic, institutional/organizational and policy processes, and having an impact on the lives of family farmers. The Symposium was highly interactive and effective, attracting around 540 participants.

In the run-up to the Symposium and in the 26th Committee on Agriculture (COAG26) hosted by FAO earlier this year, GFAR Partners and Secretariat gave important input into FAO’s process of conceptualization of “innovation”. In a world inundated with new technologies and undergoing digital transformation, it can be easy to equate innovation only with the uptake of technology. But the Partners in GFAR know that if we are to make agri-food research and innovation systems work more effectively and responsively, we also need to innovate in the way we work. Equitable and inclusive partnerships that are truly equitable and inclusive of all actors in this complex system are an innovation that ultimately enables farmers’ uptake of research and technologies. These principles have been well articulated among stakeholders in the three GCARD processes organized previously by GFAR and the CGIAR. The Symposium provides a welcome recognition by FAO and its member countries of the importance of agricultural innovation being centered on the needs and involvement of family farmers.

Watch this short video produced for COAG26, highlighting GFAR as an example of Innovation in Partnership achieving impacts for smallholder farmers and producers.

Several of the Symposium’s panelists and keynote speakers have key roles in GFAR as members of our Steering Committee, committed to take forward collective actions among the Partners in GFAR and comprising 13 sectors in agri-food research and innovation. In this blog post, we’ll share with you their common notion, in their own words, that agricultural innovation is primarily about generating inclusive processes for adoption of technologies, techniques and approaches by and with farmers—not only for them.

Right from Day 1 of the Symposium, during the first segment on Sustaining and catalysing innovation, a common theme emerged that demand for innovation has to come from farmers. Chairing a parallel session on Putting family farmers at the centre was Mr. Fernando Lopez, Managing Secretary of the Confederación de Organizaciones de Productores Familiares del Mercosur Ampliado (Coprofam) and member of the GFAR Steering Committee representing Farmers, cooperatives and agricultural workers. Mr. Lopez set out the frame for the discussion, pointing to the International Decade of Family Farming as a good opportunity to make recommendations that will translate into concrete policies for every country. For us, he said, the concept of family farming includes the recognition that farmers should benefit, not only economically, but also in terms of bettering their lives.

“For me and for Prolinnova, innovation in family farming means turning around the title of the whole symposium: Innovation should not be for family farmers but with and by family farmers.” Ann Waters-Bayer, Senior Associate of Prolinnova International, kicked off the panel on The key role of family farmers with this telling observation. Ms. Waters-Bayer explained that Prolinnova aims to make use of farmers’ own creativity and the resources they have at hand, to enable them to do things better than have been done before. The first entry point is therefore seeing how farmers are innovating themselves already, what they’re experimenting with, and to put that at the center. In this model, farmers pose their own questions, so it’s not a matter of researchers imposing their own agenda, but listening and learning from farmers about what they can support.

She went on to explain that a particular innovation may be good for a specific time and place, and may only be relevant for a certain period of time. In addition, most local innovations are context-specific so cannot be transferred directly. The upshot is that what farmers need is the capacity to adapt and innovate. It’s about respecting and getting inspired by farmer’s own innovations, she emphasized, to inspire others to do the same where they live.

In a parallel session, Mark Holderness of GFAR Secretariat offered insights on transforming research and education for farmer-centered innovation. He highlighted the cyclical nature of innovation, including appropriate expression of demand, knowledge generation by multiple actors, enterprise development from innovation and societal demands driving new priorities. In reality, innovation is rarely a linear pathway from research to farmers but involves complex webs of interaction, knowledge exchange, inspiration and partnership between multiple actors. To sustainably feed the world while lifting rural people out of poverty, he stated, agricultural and food research are essential. But they’re not sufficient by themselves. We need to embed research in wider systems of innovation; innovation within wider rural development investments; and rural development in wider societal changes, in order to achieve real sustainable development impact. “And we need to act fast,” Mr. Holderness urged. It takes 25-30 years for research to get full uptake: “We don’t have the time.”

Reaffirming the need to put farmers at the center, he called on session participants to look at family farmers as people, not just producers, who are themselves innovators and should be informing wider processes. GFAR is leading this change in thinking by engaging all sectors to participate in setting the research and innovation agenda, using foresight tools to capture farmers’ desired futures, and changing how the governance of research and innovation works by putting family farmers at the center of our innovation processes.

Mr. Holderness further noted that investment is needed across all sectors. But we have to develop new  metrics  that take account of the full cost and value of different production systems and factor in environmental, socio-economic and health effects, using development measures that go well beyond productivity alone. We should also consider the counterfactual – What is the cost implication of not investing in agricultural research and innovation, and how can we show this to policy makers and funders? It is not just more investment that is required, but also smarter investment processes, in which smallholder farmers and consumers themselves are part of the shaping, use and accountability for these investments.

“Family farmers have always been innovators; they are the ones who will get us to the SDGs.”

  • Viviana Palmieri, Executive Secretary of the Forum for the Americas on Agricultural Research and Technology Development (FORAGRO)

The next panel addressed strengthening and reforming bridging institutions to accelerate innovation. A bridging institution is typically an extension organization that plays an important role in bridging the divide between researchers and producers, helping to bring scientific research and knowledge to agricultural practices through farmer education. However, Rasheed Sulaiman, Chair of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), and representative of Advisory Services on the GFAR Steering Committee, quickly put this definition into question. “Traditionally, extension only played a bridging role between researchers and farmers,” he said, “but now we realize that that’s not enough.” There is a need to find more coordination between increasingly diverse actors. This realization is why GFRAS is part of the multistakeholder movement of GFAR, and has been selected by the Partners in GFAR of the Advisory Services constituency to represent them on the GFAR Steering Committee.

“Family farmers face a number of challenges, but when they’re organized into collectives they are in a better position to get responses from other organizations to their demands, and they start playing better bridging roles,” Mr. Sulaiman noted. “They are empowered to address problems collectively. Most of the new challenges today—such as adapting to climate change—all require collective action, collective problem solving, engagement with other actors.” 

Empowerment for innovation

How do we build effective agriculture innovation systems when the system involves a multitude of actors, and how do we empower each one of them to be part of delivering innovation? These were the overarching questions addressed during parallel session 3 on Day 2 of the Innovation Symposium.

Agricultural innovation systems were described as “a continuum of action” by Ms. Irene Annor-Frempong, Director, Research and Innovation, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), a regional forum represented in the GFAR Steering Committee. Echoing Mr. Holderness who defined innovation as a cyclical process, Ms. Annor-Frempong laid out the modality of innovation as seen in GFAR Collective Actions: knowledge is generated by multiple actors, transformed into enterprise and opportunity, with evolving societal thinking driving demand in the next phase of research and innovation. Putting farmers at the center of these processes is so important, she told participants, because they are thereby enabled to transmit their learnings to other farmers and the process of scaling out is escalated. Elaborating on an earlier reference to a triple helix of cooperation, Ms. Annor-Frempong spoke of the “quadruple helix” of universities, business, research and policy which need to be brought together with farmers to ensure co-creation of innovation.

Accordingly, “we should break away from teaching farmers what they should do, to doing outreach that informs curricular development,” she advised. GFAR’s Collective Action on Transformative Education and Student Leadership has exactly this goal: to turn conventional higher education on its head, to open out university curricula to farmers and enterprise and move away from teaching towards comprehensive learning processes that develop students holistically and prepare them to be the agricultural leaders of tomorrow.

An important means to strengthen capacities to innovate is by making research processes truly participatory. In 2018, as part of wider advocacy for the International Decade of Family Farming, GFAR, with World Rural Forum and a number of partners, launched a Collective Action on empowering rural communities as drivers of agricultural innovation. The initiative recognizes the crucial contribution of family farms and the need to continue to strengthen and focus on the participation of family farmers, civil society organizations, rural communities and their small and medium enterprises across value chains from production on farm, through storage, processing and marketing and to the consumers. A particular focus is rethinking the meaning of “participatory research” to make the dialogue between farmers, researchers, donors, etc. truly effective in setting the research agenda according to the needs and desires of rural communities.

Stephanie Barrial, Knowledge Management Coordinator, World Rural Forum, is a member of the GFAR Steering Committee, who was invited by FAO to participate in the panel discussion on strengthening capacities to innovate. She reminded that though there are different models of Family Farming, in all models active participation and co-creation are key. What’s more, it is essential to be able to monitor and measure the impacts of partnerships, to demonstrate the effectiveness of real collaboration in the field and the impacts for rural communities. If we want to measure impact, we need to create our indicators together with all actors and with the farmers—indicators co-created by looking at social, environmental and economic impacts.

What do we mean by scaling-up innovation?

Bernard Rey, Minister Counsellor, Head of Cooperation, Delegation of the European Union to South Africa, chaired the parallel session “Reaching millions of family farmers: Scaling up successful innovation”. The session aimed to propose processes, pathways and interventions needed to overcome bottlenecks for the adoption of innovation on a large scale by family farmers and other actors in the value chain. Mr. Rey noted that accelerating the pace of innovation has many dimensions: it can be about faster processes; reaching a larger number of farmers; a question of applying technologies at scale; it can be disruptive or gradual. In reporting back on the session, he cited “catch words” that were repeatedly used by panelists: Demand, participatory and peer-to-peer processes, contextualization of innovation, risk mitigation for upscaling of innovations. There was a strong feeling that innovations should not be imposed, but rather farmers should be given choice among many options. Development of technologies needs earlier involvement of the beneficiaries: more participatory research, putting the needs of farmers at the heart of development. Mr. Rey highlighted the GCARD processes, organized by GFAR and the CGIAR, as constructive efforts to influence the research agenda with the voice of farmers. A recurring sentiment was also that not all innovations are the result of research, and that environment can be much more important than the innovation itself: the physical, financial, social context.

Finally, Mr. Rey spoke to a need which the Partners in GFAR have long recognized. Given the increasing number and variety of actors involved in innovation processes, there is a clear need for knowledge on who is doing what. If we had a “‘soft power’ to inform public entities who the relevant actors are, what kind of tools they use, and how they operate in the system”, this could help them develop better strategies. Mapping of roles, responsibilities, modalities would help everyone to work more efficiently. This is where the innovation cycles of collective action, governance reform and knowledge sharing that characterize GFAR, have a real added value.

Nikki Pilania, Director, Chaudhary agriculture Services Pvt. ltd., speaks on the panel of the session “Youth as Drivers of Innovation”, a side event to the FAO Innovation Symposium. Nikki was also a finalist in GFAR and YPARD’s Youth Agripreneurs Project in 2016. Photo credit: FAO

The vital need to involve youth

The Young Professionals in Agricultural Development  (YPARD), the Global Coordination Unit for which is hosted by GFAR Secretariat, co-organized a side-event with FAO on ‘Youth as Drivers of Innovation’. This lively event was extremely well attended and featured presentations from a range of young professionals, particularly highlighting IT applications, but also featuring several farmer-entrepreneurs from around the world. The passion and commitment of these young people came through loud and clear, showing how imaginative and innovative they have been in their various fields. The session called for particular attention to linking innovation with enterprise through favourable policies and access to resources such as land, credit and business mentoring, needs that are often denied to young people.

The session also made a powerful call for a strong voice for youth, as the ‘owners’ of the future, to be better represented in the governance of agricultural innovation and into international policy making processes, such as those of FAO. In the Chair’s summary of the Symposium, the event was highlighted, noting the “need to create a Youth Forum or Council where youth representatives from different nations of the world can discuss their insights and work, including those related to agricultural innovation, directly with FAO.” The Chair urged that youth be recognized as “custodians” of the UN Decade of Family Farming, towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Way Ahead

After two days of fruitful discussion setting the context and laying bare the challenges, Day 3 of the Innovation Symposium was dedicated to unlocking the potential of agricultural innovation for the millions of family farmers.

“We’re all in this together,” stated Ms. Viviana Palmieri, Executive Secretary of FORAGRO, another regional forum whose representative sits on the GFAR Steering Committee. She was alluding to the fact that ultimately, all of us involved in agri-food research and innovation are part of one system. It is a “multi-stakeholder network with multiple relationships in all directions” in which new ways of doing things are identified to empower actors to work together. It is crucial, she said, to co-design, co-create and engage in collective action building on all sources of knowledge, to identify new opportunities.

“We have to change research priorities, but to move into the future, we need to look at other sources of information. Otherwise, we’ll only be addressing the challenges of today, but not of tomorrow.”

  • Viviana Palmieri, Executive Secretary of the Forum for the Americas on Agricultural Research and Technology Development (FORAGRO)

Mr. Rey also presented his overall takeaways from the proceedings. He voiced our shared obligation to revisit the approach of promoting of technology and innovation, balancing it with greater attention to the demand of farmers. In order to bring change in complex value chains, he said, we must also “foster capacities to use technologies much more than we promote the technologies themselves”. In other words, “while sharing knowledge is necessary for innovation, it is not sufficient”. For example, a growing number of digital platforms are making information and knowledge available like never before, but family farmers need to be equipped to manage the risks and potential dangers associated with this free and open access.

During the High Level segment which closed out the Symposium, Mr. Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, highlighted that innovation systems are not having the impact we need them to have if we are to meet the 2030 Agenda. However, through the DeSIRA Initiative, the European Union is doing something to change that. The EU has pledged 600 million Euros to boost development-smart innovation through agricultural research, capacity building and more public-private partnerships and investment. Most support will be at country level where agriculture knowledge and innovation systems will be strengthened with targeted actions directly involving family farmers. Innovation systems analysis will be an important part of this plan, and Mr. Mimica pointed to EU support GFAR will receive within the DeSIRA framework to carry out work in this area. “Together, we can build the institutional architecture to enable innovation to flourish,” he said. This is exactly where GFAR can play its unique role in reforming governance structures and partnership modalities of the wide range of actors in agricultural development.

The Symposium identified the need for coordinated action among sectors to strengthen impact – and the need for participatory dialogue among diverse stakeholders and decision makers, to develop new partnerships and business models that involve the public and private sectors, civil society, research and extension and farmers. GFAR provides the ideal multi-stakeholder platform for such dialogues and to catalyze collective actions for change among all sectors, putting smallholders and family farmers at the center of processes of innovation and in the process transforming and strengthening agricultural research and innovation systems for greater development impact around the world.

By the end of the FAO International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers, it was clear that research and technology by themselves are not enough to meet the growing challenges we face. As FAO Director-General Jose Graziano Da Silva highlighted in his closing remarks; Family farmers are at the center of innovation, are the most affected by development challenges and yet have least reserves to deal with these issues. The Director-General called for new approaches across the board and a farmer-led inclusive innovation system not for farmers, but with farmers and for opportunity for youth to participate and have opportunities to participate.

We’re all in this together, so we’d better start acting collectively to make agriculture a connected, sustainable and profitable system for family farmers and the world.


The Symposium Chair was Dr. Shadrack Moephuli, CEO of the South African Agricultural Research Council, who hosted the 3rd GCARD Conference in 2016. Read Dr Moephuli’s summary of the Symposium proceedings and recommendations HERE.

For more information about the FAO International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers, visit the dedicated page on the FAO website.

Blog post by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat

Photo credits: FAO


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