When it comes to innovation for development, success stems from local ownership. It’s not enough for organizations to introduce new, exciting solutions and technologies for agricultural problems. For long-term success, key actors need to be engaged throughout the life of the project and encouraged to hold some stake in these innovative tools and solutions.
At the recent ICTforAg conference, bright minds from DAI, the Nature Conservancy, and the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency came together to chat about their unique take on local actor participation. Here are their tips:
Let local actors run the show from the beginning
As an ICT consultant at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), Elias Nure works side-by-side with the private sector to transform the agricultural sector. ATA leverages the experiences and expertise of local private organizations, working with them and the ministry of agriculture to come up with sustainable solutions that can be incorporated by local governments.
The important thing, notes Nure, is to remember that this is not ATA’s business. Local ownership is private sector organizations owning the entire development project, from working with unions to identifying different partners and agents. “We should only be guiding with tidbits of information [e.g., who they should work with] to be successful,” said Nure. In other words: Offer local actors a guiding hand and don’t hog the spotlight.
Let local actors design the technology
The DAI Maker Lab wants to give people in developing countries the tools and resources to create technology that tackles local challenges. Not a technology specialist? Not a problem. In the collaborative space, non-specialists can design complicated equipment and produce them in quantities from 5 to 100+.
In the ag context, the DAI Maker Lab recognizes that technologies don’t necessarily fit or succeed in all types of environments. Said DAI’s Robert Ryan-Silva, “What if we were able to engage your beneficiaries in a user-centered design process around their own equipment?” That’s what the Maker Lab wants to do. It seeks to engage beneficiaries in the development of their own equipment to make sure it works for them and empowers them to continue using that technology after the project ends. This way, they own the innovation from start to finish and integrate these technologies into their own lives.
For example, in Honduras, the Maker Lab is testing Hidrosónico, a sonar-based stream gauge prototype that measures water height in a stream, canal, etc. to produce data for hydrological models. It also sends SMS and email alerts downstream about potential flooding. While commercial products for this service are available, they come at a higher cost ($5,000) and often charge to send and manipulate downstream data. Maker Lab’s prototype does it cheaper ($200) and can send data through low-cost services and cell phone networks.
Local ownership trickles down from national ownership
To push local technology ownership, David Cleary of the Nature Conservancy says to start bigger: national ownership, which trickles down into local ownership, promoting the best enabling framework and environment to help local, community initiatives get off the ground. To get the national government on board, Cleary recommends a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional approach—an institution with the technical, social and economic know-how to get buy in within the country.
What “multidisciplinary institution” might this be? Cleary said it could be a university research institute or an independent organization with in-country authority: a “free standing center…[with] links to both private sector, to the government, and civil society organizations … to get information science out to the field and act as a scaling institution for successful project-level experiments… [and] hook into policy frameworks and high-level private sector strategizing.”
A tall order, to be sure: Cleary actually hasn’t seen a multidisciplinary institution that has efficiently pushed for technologies in a culturally-sensitive way. Close examples have come out of Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Sokoine University in Tanzania, he said, but institutional capacity is still needed.
Exciting outlook for next year in ICT for ag
What are these panelists most looking forward to in the next year? Cleary is excited to see if the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) in December will create more national interest in making climate-resilient agricultural services. Nure expects even more private sector partnerships in ATA’s projects to make big changes in local community initiatives. Ryan-Silva looks forward to seeing how rapidly changing platforms and tools will bring small-scale tech production closer to people.
The key takeaway? To maximize impact of your innovation in the communities you are investing time and effort in, engage national and local actors and give them the tools and resources to own the process from the very beginning.
Joan Steiger is communications assistant in the International Economic Growth division at Abt Associates. She derives inspiration from @iamkidpresident and @melindagates. Follow Joan on Twitter @JoanofAbt.
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