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Action-led Research for Smallholder Farming in Southeast Asia

To increase the application of research in agriculture value chains, Grow Asia is committed to helping researchers build products and pioneer innovative ways of working that put user needs at the center of the design process. We hope to catalyze scalable, applied, collaborative, pre-competitive research that will support the transition towards more sustainable food systems in the region.

CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources. CGIAR consists of a global network of 15 research centers, including the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), WorldFish, and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Southeast Asia. CGIAR recently announced their 2030 Research and Innovation Strategy (“One CGIAR”) which will provide an opportunity for CGIAR to shape a stronger, more coherent and relevant science agenda for today’s dynamic world. One of the key ways that this strategy will be implemented is through leveraging the digital agriculture revolution currently underway.

In the second session of Grow Asia’s Digital Learning Series for 2021, we will provides an opportunity for startups and agribusinesses in the Southeast Asia AgriTech ecosystem to learn more about CGIAR’s existing digital work. Participants will be broken into breakout rooms for open discussions with CGIAR researchers on how the private sector and researchers can collaborate more effectively to scale up these digital agriculture solutions.


Guest Blog

Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Agri-entrepreneurs

By Jawoo Koo, Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

“You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future,” said Bill Gates in his 2019 blog post. Many in Grow Asia’s Digital Community of Practice might not have been familiar with CGIAR when I introduced myself at the recent Digital Learning Series event on “Action-led Research for Smallholder Farming in Southeast Asia”. CGIAR is hardly a household name (my daughter thought for years that I worked for a cigar company), but we have made important contributions to increasing food security and improving nutrition.

CGIAR is a global public research organization that was founded in 1971. CGIAR’s crop breeding research launched the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, saving more than a billion people from hunger. CGIAR consists of 15 international agricultural research centers with 10,000 staff in more than 100 countries, focusing on many agricultural sciences ranging from crops, livestock, fisheries, forestry, farming systems, to economics. In order to better tackle the climate crisis and other complex global challenges through a systems approach, CGIAR is currently going through a reform process, called “One CGIAR,” that will unify the governance and management of all CGIAR centers and programs.

One of the key elements of the new CGIAR is the launch of 34 new pan-CGIAR research initiatives. For the last six months, I have been working with my fellow researchers to propose a new research initiative for our stakeholders to adopt digital technologies and real-time monitoring of data for managing risks (e.g., climate, pests, market) and promoting sustainable and equitable food, water, and land systems. Throughout my 15-year career as a researcher, I probably have written as many research proposals as papers, but this proposal has been different. The primary goal here is not to get published, as is often the case with academic research - it is to co-design and co-develop solutions needed in food systems, and deliver them to partners (e.g., producers, retailers, markets, and consumers) for their continued use. This approach is certainly not novel, but I found it refreshing.

This process necessitated meeting with digital innovators and practitioners outside of our usual circle of research institutions to better understand their challenges in the digital innovation ecosystems and identify what role researchers can play in addressing them. The Grow Asia Digital Learning Series webinar provided us with a great opportunity to directly interact with many new potential partners in Southeast Asia by giving CGIAR researchers the opportunity to share about the solutions we are developing and to understand from Grow Asia’s Digital Community of Practice where are some of the current research gaps. Quite critically, we wanted to understand how researchers might need to change our ways of working to scale the impact of action-oriented research.

Articulating our Value

Research organizations still need to do a better job of clearly articulating their work and expertise available to practitioners. We left the session acknowledging how hard it is for market actors to find the information they need and connect with experts who can help to work out how to apply research findings to practice. I shared some resources (e.g., GARDIAN and Expert Finder), but I felt those might still be lacking from a practitioner's viewpoint. Moreover, even if practitioners are able to find the right academic papers, many research publications embed nuances that are not easy to interpret. Although I hate hearing “well, it depends...” in response to questions, I also find myself answering in a similar way because the research context is so specific. It is also true that many research papers tend to conclude that “more research is needed.” As the scope of agricultural research is broadened to food, water, and land systems, our research questions are more complex than ever, and it is increasingly challenging to draw conclusive research findings. While researchers still try to produce outputs with practical value, probably a more immediately useful approach to address this challenge would be to get researchers and practitioners to interact with each other more frequently, in order to better understand each other’s problems and interests through a common language and using plain terms. Hopefully, this will lead to co-creating more potential solutions. Even in the age of digital transformation, I think it will take a while for A.I. to mimic researchers’ convoluted minds. Much better for humans to talk things through!

The Commercial Potential

Research organizations also need to market our research products better. It may surprise many of you, but researchers also make apps and provide services that allow us to communicate with producers and collect data. A recently published report, “CGIAR’s role in digital extension services,” highlights 15 such use-cases ranging from the identification of pests and diseases, providing climate services, advising best management practices, linking farmers to financial services, and receiving farmers’ feedback. Most of these are designed as research tools by researchers. My colleagues and I were excited to hear from practitioners that our research tools presented at the event (e.g., Rice Crop Manager, ClimMob, RIICE) could easily be incorporated into their businesses in different ways. This would require some re-design, repurposing, and expansion of existing workflows and institutional arrangements. Perhaps it would be interesting to establish public-private partnerships with the intention to co-design and co-develop such applications with multiple uses.

We are very grateful to have gotten to know many digital innovators beyond our usual circle of research organizations and to learn more about their work and shared mission. We are also looking forward to engaging further with the Grow Asia community to transform our food systems together, digitally!


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