IFAD-CoSAI dialogue highlights the need for greater investment in agricultural innovation

Photo: Metro Media / IWMI

With the rural poor bearing the brunt of climate change, population growth and volatile food prices, the need to invest in agricultural innovation grows increasingly urgent. But how can we ensure that investment not only boosts productivity, but supports environmental sustainability, reduces poverty and inequality, and reaches the most vulnerable? On March 16, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) held a dialogue to discuss these important questions.

CoSAI’s evidence portfolio

Since 2020, CoSAI has been promoting ‘more and better’ investment in innovation to transform agri-food systems in the Global South. Guided by 21 independent Commissioners, CoSAI has amassed a broad portfolio of evidence on how investment can promote farmer-focused innovation and sustainable agricultural intensification (SAI). As an advocacy commission, it has targeted public and private innovators, and research and development organizations, and their funders – those who directly invest in agricultural innovation.

Ms Sara Mbago-Bhunu, Director of IFAD’s East and Southern Africa Division and a CoSAI Commissioner, opened the dialogue by encouraging attendees to make the most of CoSAI’s findings, stressing their relevance to her and her colleagues at IFAD as they consider how best to invest in transformative programming.

Identifying the gaps in innovation investment

Mr David Shearer, Deputy Head of the CoSAI Secretariat, presented an overview of CoSAI’s Innovation Investment Study. This 2021 study explored patterns of funding in agricultural innovation, and especially SAI, for the Global South. Mr Shearer said that the study had reiterated the significance of organizations like IFAD in multilateral SAI. However, the findings also found that just 4.5% of investment in agri-food systems goes towards innovation – a relatively low figure compared to other sectors. If this were 6% like in the energy sector, for example, it would mean an additional USD 20 billion investment every year.

Attendees were also shown the results of CoSAI’s Research Mapping Study, which used artificial intelligence to analyze 1.2 million agricultural research publications. This allowed CoSAI to see which geographic regions and topics are understudied, including post-harvest practices, farmer-led and local seed systems, human health, and gender and inclusivity. IFAD stood out positively from many other agricultural donors in this respect, with 45% of its funding specifically addressing planetary health and 40% contributing to human health and equality.

Principles for innovation

Dr Julia Compton, Head of the CoSAI Secretariat, presented eight principles for innovation in sustainable agri-food systems developed by an international task force convened by CoSAI. The task force hopes that these principles, which are currently in the final stage of piloting, will be adopted by a wide range of users such as national research organizations, donors, the private sector and financial institutions like IFAD.

Other work by CoSAI has highlighted the volume of new public and private sector investment that is starting to fund ‘Paying for Nature’ in low- and middle-income countries. However, Dr Compton expressed concern that the lack of strong, equitable financial instruments for on-farm payments – such as payments for ecosystem services, carbon payments and voluntary sustainability standards – will limit the scaling up of Paying for Nature if there is not significant investment to improve these instruments. Acknowledging that poorly designed instruments can increase inequity and poverty, she encouraged organizations like IFAD to invest more in designing pro-nature payments with farmers and local communities.

Taking the evidence forward

Findings from the CoSAI studies sparked a lively and wide-ranging debate among attendees, facilitated by Ms Gladys Morales, Senior Innovation Adviser at IFAD’s Change Delivery and Innovation Unit. Ms Morales noted similarities between CoSAI’s innovation principles and IFAD’s own definition of innovation, which stresses the need for sustainable, equitable and inclusive solutions to rural development challenges – putting the rural poor at the heart of IFAD’s work.

Ms Morales emphasized that continued dialogue between IFAD and other organizations was important to identify similarities like these and combine efforts for greater impact. With this objective in mind, IFAD plays a co-leading role in Moonshots for Development, the working group of the innovation arms of the International Financial Institutions, and works to enhance partnerships for innovation with the Green Climate Fund, the UN Rome-based Agencies, One CGIAR and the UN Innovation Network. In addition, together with UNSSC, IFAD is championing the application of the UN Strategies, Partnerships, Architecture, Culture and Evaluation Model and UN Innovation Toolkit to foster innovation while systematizing and de-risking the innovation portfolio. Under the 2022 IFAD Innovation Challenge, IFAD collaborates with global leaders in innovation to support winning teams with training and customized coaching on behavioral design, lean innovation and storytelling to advance and accelerate innovation. This training complements the financial resources that winning teams receive from IFAD to test, validate and scale up ideas with potential to deliver better results for the rural poor.

The importance of continued dialogue was endorsed by Dr Compton and Mr Shearer, who closed the dialogue with the hope that organizations like IFAD will incorporate CoSAI’s findings and principles into their future programming. In this way, they concluded, CoSAI’s legacy will be in safe hands.

Find out more about the studies and CoSAI’s evidence: https://wle.cgiar.org/cosai/evidence