Platform for African – European Partnership in Agricultural Research for Development

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Innovation for fashion or action? Building Innovation Capacity

Innovation for fashion or action? Building Innovation Capacity.
Authors: R Mur , Suzanne Nederlof (eds.)
108 pages
Published: 2013

Sustainable agricultural development requires innovation. Due to globalisation and liberalisation, amongst other factors, smallholder producers operate in an increasingly complex and hence uncertain environment. This provides new challenges and opportunities, and requires continuous adaptation and more systemic approaches to agricultural innovation.

There has been a growing interest in building innovation capacity through Innovation Platforms (IP) in recent years. This reflects a trend in agricultural development practice to focus interventions on the support of innovation processes rather than just on the supply of new technologies.

This new focus draws attention to the different sorts of changes that are involved, capacities required and the wide range of actors involved in innovation. These ideas are elegantly articulated in the concept of an innovation system, with its emphasis on the importance of links between different actors and the role of the policy and institutional environment as an enabler of interaction, information flows and learning and change.

This book is about the challenges and practical realities of building the capacity to innovate. It describes the experiences of the Research Into Use (RIU) programme in Africa, a five-year, multicountry investment by DFID that aimed to extract development impact from past investments in agricultural research. The book documents lessons for practitioners and policy-makers in the national and international arenas who are planning and implementing investments to enable agricultural innovation.

Some extracts:

Systems of innovation are rarely self-organising. Weak linkages between key actors are a major disabler of innovation – even where opportunities for mutual benefit exist. More recently, it has become apparent that functional innovation systems are not organised by ‘the hidden hand’ of the market, but often by intermediary organisations that broker linkages, negotiate change and facilitate access to information and other resources needed for innovation. This is increasingly described as an innovation-brokering role. It is from this realisation that the current interest in capacity building, including through IPs and the innovation-brokering function they perform, emerges. (page 10)

Innovation brokers are as those who act as catalysts of interaction. Brokering may include: (1) involvement in the establishment of the platform – for example, by identifying potential members; (2) involvement in the process – for example, by making transactions between stakeholders possible,  by acting as a mediator; and (3) helping to find advice, funding and support for the members. (page 20)

What hampered the the RIU programme in its development was the urge to over-design the pilot efforts from the outside. At the onset of the programme, in particular, the country offices had very little freedom to deviate from prescribed models and were over-advised by external consultants. This led, in some cases, to somewhat artificial Innovation Platforms (IPs), of which a number were abandoned later. In addition, the activities on the agenda were too ambitious for the ultimately fairly modest resources and time frame of the programme in each of the countries. The Mid-Term review forced the abandonment of a substantial number of activities. At the same time, it brought the country programmes more autonomy and control over the remaining activities, allowing them to develop further in a more organic fashion.

The RIU experience shows that there is no right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing a commodity or a theme as the starting point for IP building. What is essential, however, is the identification of a promising opportunity and then engaging the actors who have common objectives  and are enthusiastic to engage. (page 32)

In RIU there was an assumption that in order to achieve a well-functioning IP, the involvement of the private sector was needed. Getting this private sector involvement, however, turned out to be difficult. The degree of private sector involvement varied highly among the different platforms. In Tanzania, the private sector was involved in all platforms because all of the platforms had aspects of value chain and entrepreneurial development. (page 42)

Initially, RIU country programmes made major efforts to build the understanding of stakeholders on the innovation processes and systems. However, this did not seem to lead directly to concrete action. The introduction of rather abstract concepts related to innovation thinking did not provide sufficient entry points. (...) Activities that bind the members of the platform are important. Showing concrete results is part of this process. Therefore, to initiate an innovation process, concrete action is required early in the process in order to create dynamic engagement. (page 44-45)

For innovation to occur in a sub-sector that is dominated by small-scale stakeholders, formation of partnerships has to allow flexible terms for partners to explore new ways of working. In some cases, it is necessary for stronger partners or innovation brokers to support weak (small) partners to move some processes forward and unblock challenges in the value chains, even when the weak partners are not in the best position to negotiate. (page 48)

The RIU case does point to the fact that if the capacity to facilitate IPs is in place then platforms can act as mechanisms to enable innovation. This suggests that the focus of investment and policy support should be aimed at building these capacities and this means focusing first on specialist agencies to perform the facilitation and brokering role rather than focusing first on IPs. (page 63)

It is probably safe to say that RIU interventions were at best inclusive of the poor, but not targeted at the poor. This is likely to be a general feature of innovation support interventions because by their very nature they encompass a range of stakeholders. Indeed a key feature of these initiatives is to provide incentives to individuals and organisations with resources and ideas to engage in enabling innovation with wider benefits. (page 64)

The main impact from RIU will come from the influence these experiences exert on the practices of development investors and policy makers and the resource allocation decision they make. Ultimately this is where success will be judged. (page 64)

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