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Harnessing Applied Research to Promote Climate-Smart Farming
Danielle Niedermaier and Alyx Ruzevich share how applied research can help farmers and agribusinesses adopt adaptive, climate-sensitive agriculture practices.
Banner photo: Smallholder farmers in Mozambique visit the farm of Jose Sanguirone, a model farmer, to learn about the benefits of intercropping pigeon peas, lablab beans, and cowpeas.

Although it may sound like an easy ask, getting smallholder farmers to make climate-smart improvements like intercropping or planting improved seed varieties isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. What does it take for farmers to adopt climate-sensitive practices, without sacrificing productivity and income? And, what is the role of agribusinesses that supply necessary inputs like seeds and fertilizer in promoting those practices?
 
Despite the potential for long-term benefits, smallholder farmers are especially wary of taking up new practices too quickly. They depend on a good harvest to subsist for the whole year. Beyond the farm, agribusinesses need the right information to make appropriate investments, such as scaling up sales of lesser-known crop varieties. To aid farmers and agribusinesses in making informed decisions that are both environmentally and commercially sustainable, leveraging applied research with local partners presents a key opportunity.
 
Two Venture37-implemented projects in Mozambique and Malawi are increasing the adoption of climate-resilient practices by focusing on applied research with local partners. Applied research is used to investigate how well certain practices and technologies perform in specific contexts, and to come up with innovative solutions to agricultural challenges.
 
In southern Africa, for example, irregular rainfall and drought is a major issue that affects people differently depending on their specific needs, agro-ecology, and available resources. For that reason, the two projects take different research-based approaches, with one or more of the following goals: build upon existing local capacities, improve market relationships, and empower agribusinesses with more options. By building skills in these areas, local farmers and project partners feel confident in taking up new technologies or practices and promoting it more widely.
 

Build Upon Existing Local Capacities

The first goal — building upon existing local capacities — means organizing and providing ongoing technical support and guidance to farmers, universities, and government agencies in the applied research process. In Mozambique, the Feed the Future Resilient Agricultural Market Activities - Beira Corridor (RAMA-BC) project puts this into practice in a variety of ways. To start, the project maintains strong partnerships with Eduardo Mondlane University, Zambezi University, and the Mozambique Agrarian Research Institute. They work together to publish original research or student dissertations on the impacts of various farming practices on soil health, drought tolerance, crop yield, and pest resistance.
 
Additionally, the project engages with lead farmers to demonstrate locally appropriate practices and technologies in the farmers’ own fields. In 2015 in the district of Barué, central Mozambique, lead farmers Françisco Jo and Adelia Sirosi started participating in RAMA-BC’s “field days” to demonstrate the effects of intercropping. Over several seasons of conducting trials and making observations, they discovered that a dense intercropping system of maize and pigeon pea works best for them and their fields. Now, when they compare the yields of this system against a control plot during field days, other community members see that they can get a two-to-three times larger harvest compared to planting maize alone on the same amount of land. Françisco estimates that over half the farmers in his community have since adopted their system.
 

Strengthen Market Relationships

Strengthening market relationships can also encourage farmers to adopt climate-sensitive practices. This means expanding market access for farmers and developing formal and informal market actors and the market system more broadly. For example, because the intercropping research projects showed such impressive results, RAMA-BC worked with private Mozambican companies, such as Phoenix Seeds, to develop seed kits that include a proportioned mix of maize and legume seeds.
 
Seed kits make it easy for farmers to adopt intercropping, because everything they need is packaged in suitable sizes at affordable prices and is marketed appropriately for small farms. Phoenix Seeds markets the kits at farmer field days and works through local retailer or agrodealer networks to provide follow-up training to farmers, as needed. Agrodealers also showcase the intercropping scheme on a demo plot for their customers. At each of these venues, the research findings are cited as evidence, which increases seed sales and incentivizes more farmers to take up intercropping.
 

Empower Market Actors

Beyond the farm level, applied research can be used to empower market actors. The private sector uses research findings and data to make investment decisions and promote climate-smart farming. In Malawi, the Centre for Agricultural Technology (CAT) project collects and provides reliable information that help agribusinesses scale up the use of improved agricultural technologies. When businesses can make informed decisions, smallholder farmers get the support they need to diversify and commercialize their farming systems to realize greater profits and improved food security.
 
CAT’s innovation challenges are a foremost example of its use of applied research. As part of a yearlong program, groups of primary, secondary, and university students, farmers, and rural youth compete for cash prizes to design novel solutions for a pressing agricultural challenge. In 2021, participants developed their business ideas related to the conversion of agricultural waste into energy. Winners made biogas and briquettes from locally available organic waste, such as animal manure and crop residues. Besides incubating ideas for alternative fuel sources, the program also provoked continued business development, boosted job skills, and increased exposure to applied problem analysis and innovation.
 
CAT also helps encourage investment in existing solutions by providing the private sector with agronomic and financial data. For example, crop input companies believe that establishing a distribution channel in Malawi is cost prohibitive. To ease this barrier, students at CAT’s partner universities developed a market segmentation tool and a market access tool to leverage data that helps agribusinesses right-size their investment. Some preliminary findings from these tools suggest that these types of farm-to-market linkages lead to greater crop diversification on farms, which ultimately enhances food security and climate resiliency.

Lastly, CAT partners with One Acre Fund in employing on-farm remote sensors to understand weather, soil, and other environmental conditions. This information opens the door to offering crop protection insurance at lower cost and with greater accuracy. These types of Malawi-specific datasets are incorporated into the University of Minnesota’s Genomics, Environment, Management and Socioeconomic (GEMS) platform, which allows data to be compared with other available datasets (e.g., spatial distribution of population, sales volumes of key commodities by district, etc.). Students and researchers use GEMS to share and analyze data, with further plans for agribusiness access to better tailor their products and services for farmers with differing needs and contexts.
 
Between developing the existing capacities of local partners and farmers, supporting market linkages, and empowering market actors to make informed decisions, RAMA and CAT each emphasize a distinct approach to building skills for the adoption of and investment in climate sensitive farming. Moreover, in both case studies, we see how applied research can be used as a platform for cross-sectoral collaboration in finding adaptive solutions to locally specific challenges.
 
With that in mind, how might development practitioners, researchers and policymakers foster stronger connections between research institutions and markets to build skills and utilize research, both in southern Africa and beyond?
By Danielle Niedermaier, Alyx Ruzevich 08/29/2022