By Dirk Hoekstra
The Livestock and Irrigation Value chains for Ethiopian Smallholders (LIVES) project and the Improving the Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers (IPMS) project that preceded LIVES have used the impact-oriented research for development approach ‘demanded’ by the donor community and beneficiaries.
Different implementation models can be used under this approach. The most common one is research supporting a project led by a development partner. In this model one does not have to worry about funds for implementation and impact, but its use may restrict innovations in case the development partner does not have funds to pilot new interventions and/or is mostly interested in scaling out ‘known’ interventions. Since IPMS and LIVES were moving into new territory using a value chain approach to create impact, we opted for a project design in which freedom to innovate was the focus. The implication of this choice was that the donor (the Canadian government), also allocated considerable funds for piloting and initiating the scaling out of successful interventions.
Transitioning from IPMS to LIVES, we continued using the value chain approach, but put more emphasis on technological and institutional interventions for a selected number of commodities. Based on internet searches and individual knowledge and contacts we managed to come up with several new interventions as compared to the IPMS phase. Over time we learned that using these advanced technological interventions is not only needed for market-oriented smallholder development but is also useful in attracting educated youth to engage in the agriculture value chain development. It is interesting to note that the government of Ethiopia and many development partners are now putting emphasis on youth involvement in agriculture as value chain actors or public or private service providers. This new beneficiary focus will require new interventions especially high-tech diagnostic tests, labour saving techniques, information technology (IT)-based credit and payment arrangements and IT-based knowledge sharing.
During LIVES we moved up the commercial ladder which brought a number of new issues to the forefront of the research and development agenda i.e. (i) national regional policy/strategies accommodating the transition from subsistence to (semi-) commercial smallholder and (ii) customer demand for quality inputs and food outputs. First steps were made to address these emerging issues during LIVES, but future projects should explore this further.
An interesting question is the role of research in projects like LIVES and IPMS. Most of our research was focused on actions (diagnosis, effect/efficiency and impact). Due to the nature of our project funding, we had limited feedback to controlled research, which could have generated information to design/improve interventions. To address this issue, future research and development projects may include funding for experimental research and/or linkages should be established with projects and organizations in a position to conduct such research. At the same time, a future research for development project could also play a supporting role in knowledge sharing and capacity development to separately a funded development program based on well-tested approaches and interventions.
All in all, plenty of opportunities exist to assist in the development of a commercial smallholder sector in Ethiopia and beyond. However, unlike a decade ago, when we started our value chain work, there are now many more actors who are trying to do the same and we clearly have to establish our comparative advantage in tackling the emerging and future research challenges.