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How to Reach Millions of Poor Farmers by Scaling Up Agricultural Technology

By Senior Resident Scholar at Emerging Markets Forum and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution

The world faces huge challenges: according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), about one billion poor rural people live in developing countries; and, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), global food production will have to increase up to 80 percent by 2050 in order to meet growing demand.

But there are also great opportunities: IFPRI has identified a number of proven agricultural technologies that are not yet widely utilized in the developing world (including no-till farming, integrated soil fertility management, precision agriculture, water harvesting and drip irrigation).

Thus there is great scope for increasing agricultural production, especially among smallholders, and with it great potential to reduce rural poverty and hunger. To realize this potential, the use of agricultural technology must be rapidly scaled up. Unfortunately, disconnected, one-off, short-lived, unsustainable initiatives in support of technology adoption have been the rule. To achieve the needed productivity improvements, governments, aid agencies, foundations, NGOs and the private sector need to focus interventions systematically on scaling up the use of agricultural technologies.

What do we mean by scaling up? It simply means that more poor farmers benefit from access to and effective use of agricultural technology. This can be achieved by horizontal scaling up, i.e., by geographical spreading of innovative practices; by vertical scaling up, i.e., when higher level actors, especially national governments, pursue appropriate policies in support of adoption of appropriate technologies; or by functional scaling up, i.e., extending the scale-up process from one technology to another.

What do we know about how to pursue scaling up of agricultural technologies? While scaling up is a simple concept, it’s generally not a simple process. Spontaneous diffusion of good ideas happens, especially in the private sector, but this is not the rule for adoption of proven technologies by poor farmers. Successful scaling up usually involves, in addition to farmers, many different public and private actors and institutions along a complex value chain.

What are the key ingredients of successful scaling up? First, it requires a vision of the ultimate scale of successful adoption of a technology. Second, to achieve this vision, key actors must explore and implement scaling up pathways that involve bringing a known technology to farmers, testing introduction at the local level, evaluating the impact and process of adoption and, based on the lessons learned, pushing forward with replication and adaptation.

Third, we need drivers to push the scaling up process forward: champions (like the leaders of the microfinance giants BRAC and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh) and incentives that assure that all the key actors and institutions pursue a scaling up agenda.

And, fourth, we need to create an enabling environment. This means creating the space (i.e., fostering the right conditions) for scaling up, which may include building effective extension systems; policy reform; expanding access to credit and financing; conserving natural resources; accounting for social, cultural and political realities on the ground; and building local cooperation and partnerships.

Finally, throughout the scaling up process, we need an effective learning process through systematic monitoring and evaluation focused not only on impact, but as importantly on the effective deployment of the drivers and enabling conditions for the scaling up process.

There are many examples of successful scaling up of the use of agricultural technologies by poor rural farmers, notably the Green Revolution in Asia. And there are others: the Loess Plateau watershed rehabilitation program in China, the introduction of rice intensification in Vietnam, and the development of poor communities in the highlands of Peru and of pastoralists in Ethiopia. Reviews of these and other experiences of scaling up sponsored by IFAD and IFPRI show that key drivers and enabling conditions were in place to allow success.

For the future, the question is whether we are able to assure that these success factors are systematically brought to bear to help scale up the use of agricultural technologies for greater productivity by poor farmers in the developing world. Feed the Future can play a path-breaking role in making this happen.

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