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Scaling-up food and nutrition innovations by mobilizing the “unusual suspects” and fostering collaboration

This is the (edited) transcript of the keynote speech of our Director at the “Scaling for Impact” workshop organized by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP) from 20 to 21 November 2019, in Cotonou, Benin.

Good morning dear participants at this public day. It’s always a great pleasure for me to address such a high-profile audience on issues related to food security and nutrition. I am very honored today to share my perspective on the topic of scaling up innovations in the food security and nutrition sector. It is a topic I am passionate about because I am convinced that it is the next step in our development efforts.

In fact, the development world is now clear about the fact that we have lot of innovations, very interesting research findings, new products and services that could solve most of the challenges we are facing today including food insecurity and malnutrition.

The biggest challenge that remains is how we scale out/up – how we make sure that more farmers make use of that climate resistant seed or practice agroecological techniques that are good for him/her and good for the planet or how more women adopt solutions that improve maternal and child health and nutrition.

The ARF projects have successfully developed many of such innovations and the next step is how we collectively scale out these innovations to transform the systems, to reach more people, especially those of the last mile who are difficult to reach but are the most in need.

This is a challenge I particularly face in most of my work at ACED; our initiative supported by NWO generated interesting knowledge on sustainable fishing regulations and techniques. The fisher communities we worked with were highly motivated to adopt those techniques and implement the regulations at the community level.

Our next step is to work on scaling that project-level success to drive a systemic transformation in inland fisheries in Benin. I am going to share with you three lessons we have learnt that would help us on that trajectory.

First, we do acknowledge the transformative power of (local and central) governments. No matter what, we as nonprofit organization do, the government is the single actor that can foster or hinder rapid scale out of innovations. It has the mandate, the resources and the power to do so. It may not be successful in it all the time but governments at local and central levels are critical in scaling out innovations and solutions. They should be involved before, during and after the solution or innovation is developed. To do so, proactive steps should be taken to influence legislation, strategies, plans and programs to mainstream evidence, findings and lessons that would help scale out innovations.

Mobilizing the “unusual suspects”

Second lesson that will be critical is that we should demonstrate a business case. That is where the private sector, most of the time, an “unusual suspect” in scaling out agricultural innovations intervene. Some argue that the private sector is the most efficient actor for scaling out innovations. In fact market driven approaches are likely to produce more sustainable solutions as they are driven by business cases. When people know the financial benefit they can get from an innovation, they are more likely to adopt it. Therefore, involving the private sector and ensuring it sees a benefit in adopting the innovation is a critical step to scaling out.

Finally, the brokers are also very important in developing strategies for scaling. By brokers, I mean actors who can serve as intermediaries between researchers/innovators and end users. They have the capacities to digest and translate complex knowledge into assimilable messages. In a recent workshop ACED organized with evidence generators, my colleague Dr. Castro Gbedomon asked an open question to know if we were not asking too much to the researchers. The point was that it could be more effective to let the researchers “research” and develop an ecosystem of capable brokers who can translate their findings into more appealing messages to various audiences such as policy briefs for policymakers, business plans for private sectors, technical guides in local languages for farmers, etc. It is still an open question and I would love to hear your views, but it does show the additional value that brokers can bring in the quest to move from innovations to impact at scale.

Fostering collaboration to scale out innovations

So far, I made the argument that the public sector, the private sector and the brokers are very important in developing and implementing successful scaling strategies. But what is even more impactful is the collaboration among them together with the researchers. That’s why learning from our experience, we have launched the Evidence-Policy-Action (EPA) Network that seeks to establish a functional platform between evidence generators and evidence users. For this to happen sustainably, we are working on three aspects.

First is the access – we are working to ensure that researchers and innovators have access to what research questions policymakers and practitioners are struggling with; and when evidence and innovations are generated from these questions, we also work to ensure the users have access to them.

The second point is on capacities – we are working to build the capacities of policymakers, practitioners and the private sector, so that they have the capacities to demand and use evidence, and adopt innovations to scale them.

Finally, and the most important, we collaborate with all the actors to support effective implementation and scaling out/up the solutions developed by evidence generators. This can follow different pathways including formulation of business cases to market the solutions or influencing the policy systems to direct more resources towards the solutions.

We are one decade to the deadline of the SDGs. The Goals are so ambitious that it needs transformation at scale. The good news is that we have many innovations and solutions that are just waiting for the best routes and mechanisms to reach those who need them the most. There were still 800 million people who were affected by food insecurity in 2018 globally. Scaling innovative and effective food security and nutrition solutions, inclusively, is the next milestone in curbing this number.

I remain confident that we know the challenge ahead are and cognizant of the importance of working together, pooling resources and knowledge, mobilizing the unusual suspects who are the private sector and brokers to deliver the solutions to food insecurity and malnutrition at scale.

Thank you.

Frejus Thoto, Director ACED and Coordinator of the EPA Network.