Capacity, contextualisation, patience, and partnerships: keys for successful innovation scaling

An agricultural worker near Madurai, India uses the Parambu tool to prepare the field for paddy plantation. Photo credit: SR Sasikumar

On Wednesday, October 20, 2021, CoSAI Commissioner, Dr Rasheed Sulaiman V participated in the Borlaug Dialogue Side Event on Achieving adoption of climate-smart innovations at scale through market systems. The event unpacked successes and failures of scaling climate-smart agricultural technologies. It highlighted that capacity building that goes beyond simple knowledge transfer, processes supported by partnerships, contextualisation, and funding patience are critical for scaling innovations.

Snapshot of lessons and examples:

  1. Functional capacity development – Capacity development must go beyond simple knowledge transfer to include building the capacity to collaborate, having the capacity for careful need assessments, and building the capacity to mobilise different groups. These elements of capacity building filter through the following ‘essentials’ of successfully scaling innovation.
  2. Contextualisation and the enabling environment – Question end-users on their concerns and needs to ensure they can be addressed. What are the hesitations of farmers in engaging and implementing the innovation? Understand the risks that those adopting innovations are taking on. Is it profitable enough to make those risks worthwhile?  Do farmers have the know-how to use the innovation? How does the innovation fit within farmers’ existing environment? Is the innovation readily available for those who are interested?
  3. Partnerships – Develop business-led partnerships for longevity. Capacity building, input supply, dissemination, and output market access supported by partnerships allow for longevity and sustainability of innovation. How can finance and policy actors become partners in successfully scaling innovation?
  4. Funding patience – Taking a market-based approach is key to innovation success. Though patience is required in order to let things evolve to the point that market mechanisms can take over.


Dr Sulaiman drew on emerging CoSAI evidence to highlight functional capacity development as an important factor in getting CSA innovations to scale. Functional capacity building goes beyond knowledge transfer to include building capacity to collaborate, having the capacity for careful need assessments, and building the capacity to mobilize different groups. Dr Sulaiman also highlighted the need to combine interventions in a non-linear manner. He noted that successful cases of innovation scaling bring together several interventions that do not necessarily follow a linear ‘research to scaling’ approach. Flexibly and ‘simultaneously’ combining interventions such as technology adaptations, value chain development, policy development, platforms for bringing people together, and market-led processes, is crucial for successful scaling.

Dr Dominik Klauser from the Syngenta Foundation focussed on the enabling environment and contextualisation. He gave an example of introducing new soybean genetics in East Africa. The project looked “perfect on paper”, but adoption of these varieties remained low. This was mainly due to missing contextualised information. Dr Klauser noted that country-level demand estimates were not sufficient. “Farmers won’t plant if they’re not confident that they can sell”, he said. Farmers also need the know-how to grow a new soybean variety and the variety has to fit with their existing equipment. In this particular case, seed supply also wasn’t always available for those who were interested, preventing keen participants from engaging rapidly. The lessons learned from this project underlined to the Syngenta Foundation the importance of the enabling environment. The team adapted project plans to focus more on creating value chain and farmer demand for soybean crop rotations. 

From N2Africa, Peter Ebenyat highlighted four pillars to the success of its Putting nitrogen fixation to work for smallholder farmers in Africa project. Each pillar - capacity building, input supply, dissemination, and output market access - had to be supported by partnerships to ensure that they were business-led, Mr Ebenyat said. For example, in terms of dissemination strategies, the project had to partner to find quality seeds that were relevant to each project location. Underpinning the pillars with partnerships was the key to the projects’ scaling success and allowed long-term impact.

Where development partners are involved in innovation, taking a market-based approach is key to innovation success. Having patience to let things evolve to the point that market mechanisms can take over is an important part of the process.  External donors often like to see quick numbers and results, but it is important to have patience and avoid large-scale introduction of implicit subsidies (for example below-market prices for training or inputs) that cannot be sustained after the funding is finished.

Click here to find out more about the event.

A snapshot of Dr Rasheed Sulaiman V's presentation during the event