Director’s update


Best Bets – reflections on West Africa and emerging lessons

20 March 2010



Ian Maudlin writes


We have just completed screening the proposals submitted for the West African round of our Best Bets programme – all 85 of them. The Best Bets initiative aims to put existing agricultural research findings into use at scale through partnerships in which the private sector plays a significant role. Ideally I want RIU to provide a one-off grant which will clear a ‘logjam’ to enabling a sustainable enterprise to be created or an existing one strengthened.

Following the East, Central and Southern Africa round we ended up supporting five Best Bets. All have now passed through due diligence and contracting and are making good progress with their respective logjams – updates on each of them appear elsewhere on the website.

The Best Bet exemplar which is based on new approaches to controlling sleeping sickness in Uganda is also going from strength to strength. The team from the University of Edinburgh, which is one of the key partners in this initiative, has just received a grant for £1 million from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to adapt and extend the approaches used in Uganda to the control of the animal form of sleeping sickness in Nigeria.

To be honest, I was disappointed by the quality of the Best Bets proposals submitted from West Africa. Many of the proposals were rejected because they really wanted to do more research rather than put existing research into use; others were too ‘project’ oriented – it was not at all clear what lasting legacy would exist when RIU funding ended. In the end we selected just two proposals for further consideration.

One of these builds on one of the RIU Best Bets we have already funded by taking private sector experience gained in Kenya and using this to help register the first bio-pesticides in Ghana. This is potentially very important to Ghana; the Ghanaian export horticulture sector has grown significantly over recent years but is now under intense pressure to limit pesticide usage by the EU. Registering bio-pesticides is an important first step to making these greener alternatives to chemical pesticides available in Ghana, which should help to safeguard this important trade.

The other West African Best Bet being considered further is concerned with making available disease-free planting material for yams – a very important crop for the poor in West Africa.

These two teams have been provided with detailed feedback and a list of issues they need to address. They have also been provided with a grant and a format for writing a business plan. The deadline for submission of completed business plans is 9 April and between now and then the RIU team will work closely with these projects to maximize the chances of fundable business plans being developed.

The fact that only two of 85 proposals were shortlisted from West Africa raises important questions about the Best Bets approach. Is there something fundamentally different between East, Central and Southern Africa, on the one hand, and West Africa, on the other?

One possibility is that Best Bets work best in countries with a well-developed SME (small and medium enterprises) sector – such as Kenya, which did well in the Best Bets process. Certainly, the private sector is not so well established and developed in some West African countries as it is in Kenya, although in others, such as Nigeria, it is clearly very strong and vibrant.

Perhaps the issue is that the private sector in West Africa is not used to working with the public sector? But I think another lesson is that it takes time to build up the network of partners needed to mount a successful Best Bets bid. Of the five funded in the first round, four were well established teams of researchers, government officials and private sector partners who knew each other well and had built up the all important spirit of mutual trust over several years.

The exemplar Best Bet on sleeping sickness in Uganda was selected by RIU at an early stage – long before I joined the programme – as representing a cluster of research findings originating from the DFID-funded Animal Health Programme, part of the RNRRS legacy, which had high potential for impact. In fact I know – because I was personally involved in the underlying research – that this Best Bet builds on research undertaken over more than 15 years.

Perhaps more importantly, it also builds on personal friendships and professional relationships between researchers and university teachers and students in the UK and Uganda, Ugandan government officials and senior personnel from Ugandan and multinational veterinary pharmaceutical companies. Friendships established many years ago between junior colleagues in Uganda and the UK have been sustained over the years and those colleagues now occupy senior positions in universities, ministries and companies – they are now leaders and policy makers.

It turns out that economic theory supports my observation. In the on-line version of the UK Times newspaper on 12 March there was an article discussing the value of ‘social capital’, which the writer, Antonia Senior defines as ‘who you know and how you plug into the complex human webs that bind companies and transmit knowledge’. She goes on to write: “There are sound economic reasons for the importance of social capital – this is not just the old boys’ club dressed up. Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for his work on transaction costs. One element of his research found that trust reduces transaction costs – in other words, if you’re doing business with someone you know, the cost of doing it decreases.”

The challenge we now face is finding a way to kick-start the process of building strong and productive multi-sectoral and multi-national partnerships – preferably in less than a decade or more.

Perhaps this is the role that innovation platforms play – fast-tracking the ad hoc and informal process that took many years in the case of the sleeping sickness initiative into a matter of months? If this is the case then there is perhaps less difference between RIU’s African Country Programmes’ innovation platform approach and our portfolio of Best Bets than I had at first thought.

Director’s update


Partnership with AGRA

16 March 2010



Ian Maudlin writes

I am pleased to report that plans for collaboration with AGRA have continued and RIU and AGRA will now jointly fund the forthcoming AWEPA (The Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa) African Parliamentary Support for Agriculture mission to Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

In brief, the mission is part of a pilot programme to help develop and strengthen the institutional capacity of parliamentary committees overseeing agriculture and food security. As AGRA’s Vice President, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina commented, “our partnership with AWEPA is critical because any improvement that occurs in farmers’ fields cannot be sustained over the long-term without a supportive policy framework. This is the time for political leadership across Africa to develop and implement comprehensive policies of support for African farmers”.

I am looking forward to reporting on their progress

Director’s update


StopStriga

1 March 2010



Ian Maudlin writes

I was recently reminded why the RIU programme is so important. Keith Sones, who leads our excellent communication team, recently returned from a visit to western Kenya to check in with one of the projects funded under the RIU Best Bets initiative. On his return he wrote to his communications team as a reminder of why their work was important:


“Together with Nik [Wood, the RIUtv correspondent], I flew to Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to see what one of our Best Bets is doing and to meet some of the farmers they are working with. These are poor, small-scale farmers struggling to feed their families. They have tiny plots on which they grow traditional varieties of crops – maize, sorghum, cowpeas – saving their own seed and using no fertilizer or any other purchased inputs. Their fields were full of the deceptively beautiful Striga plant – also known as witchweed. This is a parasitic weed that has few roots of its own and instead taps into germinating cereal seeds, sucking the goodness out of them as they grow and leaving the resulting plants stunted and with little or no yield. Tellingly, we visited a local homestead – mud huts, bare-footed children – and saw the traditional round granary, intricately constructed with sides made from woven sticks and a thatched roof, falling in to disrepair; there simply wasn’t enough harvest to make it worthwhile keeping it is good order. One of our Best Bets provides the promise of a simple affordable package of technology that could transform these farmers fields: soaking the seed corn overnight to hasten germination; adding a tiny amount of fertilizer to the soaking water to give the germinating seed a boost and to counter local soil deficiencies; and then next day, prior to sowing, treating the seed with a natural fungus that attacks the Striga weed. Once Striga is under control these farmers might consider trying improved, higher-yielding varieties of seed and other better practices, such as correct spacing and use of small amounts of properly targeted fertilizer: their granaries might again be repaired and full!”

Follow this link to the Best Bets Striga page to see this film.


These simple interventions could transform the food security and lives of these farmers, who live in one of the poorest parts of Kenya.

The research that is being put to productive use in the above example was completed in the 1990s, but to date has not been commercially exploited; excellent scientific papers but the technology remains on the shelf. The Real IPM company is based in Thika, Kenya. Its core business is supplying biological control agents to the highly successful, large-scale horticultural industry in Kenya and beyond. The grant awarded through the RIU Best Bets initiative has allowed Real IPM to diversity into a completely new market segment. This has meant applying their existing expertise, resources and facilities but complementing these with new partnerships with NGOs, local community leaders, agrovet kiosks and local FM radio stations to enable them to reach out to and engage with small-scale traditional farmers in western Kenya.

This Best Bets clearly shows one of the vital ingredients needed to put research into use – a highly committed champion. Henry Wainwright, the MD of the Real IPM Company, was until 10 years ago enjoying the life of an academic in the UK. Today he is at the helm of a successful, growing and highly innovative company which employs 80 Kenyans. He even sold his house in the UK to finance the establishment of his company – that’s real commitment and it made a big impression on the panellists at the Best Bets event, held in Nairobi last November.

It is early days yet, but I will be following the progress made by Real IPM and their partners, and all the other Best Bets projects, with great interest. You too can follow their story through the short RIUtv films posted on the RIU website- see, for example, the latest update on striga/Real IPM story.

And building on the success of the first round of Best Bets, which focused on East, Central and Southern Africa, we are now forging ahead with round two, focused on West Africa. By the closing date on January 29th, 85 proposals had been submitted. We are currently in the process of drawing up a shortlist and an announcement on this will be made soon. The first round of Best Bets yielded five very interesting projects which show great promise and I am really looking forward to seeing how Best Bets develops.

Director’s update


Caterpillars, comics and contexts

18 February 2010



Ian Maudlin writes

An update on three Best Bets working on armyworm, sleeping sickness and communicating agricultural messages to young people.

The first few weeks of 2010 have been a busy time for RIU. The four Best Bets projects selected for funding late last year have now all passed due diligence and contracts have been issued. One of these is concerned with armyworm and combines community-based forecasting of an attack with control using a bio-pesticide.
Our decision to back this project has turned out to be extremely timely – major armyworm outbreaks occurred in central Tanzania during December and, soon after, in parts of Kenya. Farmers, many of whom had just emerged from the drought, have witnessed their pasture and crops being devastated by ravenous hoards of armyworm – which is actually the caterpillar of a migratory moth. Our RIUtv correspondent, Nik Wood, lost no time in getting out in the field to document the outbreak and speak to the farmers concerned – his report and film from the frontline is included below.

At first, the pastureland in the Rift Valley looked simply dry and barren. But a closer inspection revealed armyworms – millions of them. They had devoured much of the grassland and with it, the livelihood of farmer Moriaso Kindi.
“I keep cattle on this land and now, after the armyworm have been, they will probably die and that means I will lose my animals and my family will go hungry,” he told me.
In one square metre of grassland, up to 1,000 of the armyworms can be found, eating their way through pasture and crops. The moths that lay the eggs that become armyworms can also travel long distances. Thousands of hectares of land across Kenya and Tanzania have been hit by the outbreak, which caught farmers and the agricultural authorities by surprise.
A few fields away, Moriaso’s neighbour, Mary Naini had planted a field of beans and maize. As the armyworms went on the move, they stripped the maize, leaving only half her crop. I filmed as the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture began spraying the area with pesticide but by then it was too late, the voracious eaters had already had their fill.
However a project, funded by Research Into Use, which will help to predict the onset of the worms, is now underway.
After a long drive through Nairobi, to a farmer training centre near the town of Machakos, I saw real progress in the programme aimed at establishing a network of community-based forecasters, which will help the authorities and farmers fight back in the war against armyworm.
Thanks to the funding from Best Bets, a group of Ministry officials were being trained to use special traps that predict the infestations and, in turn, to train up the community-based forecasters so that farmers across countries like Kenya and Tanzania, can be better prepared.
You can see details of the training in the RIUtv report linked to this blog but it was so pleasing to see the Best Bets programme having a direct impact on the fortunes of small farmers and laying the foundations for the agriculture ministries to take up the idea of using the traps and having more manufactured in the future.

Follow the link to the Best Bets armyworm page to see this film.

This was only the latest in a series of Best Bets projects which Nik has visited while in Africa and I am looking forward to seeing more of his films on RIUtv.

Meanwhile our exemplar Best Bet project on sleeping sickness control in Uganda – selected at an early stage of the RIU programme as one of the high-potential clusters of research outputs from previous DFID-supported agricultural research – is going from strength to strength. It involves the use of two new approaches to the control of sleeping sickness: block treatment of cattle (which carry the human-infective sleeping sickness parasite as well as related parasites that cause a similar disease in cattle) with drugs and then regular spraying of cattle to control tsetse flies, which spread the disease from cattle to cattle and also from cattle to people. This week the BBRSC announced a new round of awards for animal health projects in developing countries Amongst these was a £1 million award to enable the approach being used in Uganda to be tried out in Nigeria for the control of the cattle form of the disease. A major issue with learning lessons about creating better links between research and innovation is that so much appears to be context specific. We are now in the very fortunate position of being able to compare experiences of putting similar research into use in two very different contexts, which should generate some very useful lessons. Having devoted most of my life to working on sleeping sickness I will follow in Uganda and Nigeria with particular interest.

Shujaaz emerged from the Best Bets processas a partner to another project, FIPS but we quickly realized that that it had greater potential. So, RIU made Shujaaz a Best Bets in its own right. This arrangement allows us to make wider user of the Shujaaz platform – which includes monthly comic books distributed via a leading Kenya newspaper and Safaricom’s nationwide Mpesa money transfer agents network, regular radio and television broadcasts and interactive text messaging. The first issue of Shujaaz is being distributed with the Daily Nation on Saturday 20 February: in total half a million copies of the first issue will be distributed via the two complementary distribution networks.

The West Africa round of Best Bets is underway. By the closing date in late January we had received 85 concept notes and we will soon be announcing the shortlist. The Best Bets process worked really well for round one, but for round two we are going to try out a slightly different approach, adopting a more ‘virtual’ approach in place of the ‘real’ event we staged in Nairobi in November. More details will be announced soon.

Director’s update

Director’s update

January 2010


Ian Maudlin writes

I believe RIU has really turned a corner recently. We now have:

  • the new organizational and management structure in place
  • developed and shared the programme’s overall research design centred on a set of innovation narratives
  • the African Country Programmes  working towards the recommendations made by the Technical Review Team
  • the Asia Programme have been rationalized and re-grouped into three complementary clusters
  • the new RIU Best Bets underway
  • and much more effective internal and external communications

The result of all this hard work is that RIU is now much more focused. We have a much clearer idea of what we are trying to achieve (and it is much more achievable). And, crucially, we are able to communicate this more effectively to our key partners and audiences. I think we now have an RIU that is fit for purpose and of which we can be proud.

As many of you will know, I have long been of the opinion that an essential component in getting research into use is the active involvement of the private sector. I am therefore especially pleased that our new private-sector led initiative, RIU Best Bets, has now taken off. I have said it before, and doubtless will say it again, that I strongly agree with one of my heroes, Adam Smith – the father of modern economics, who wrote well over 200 years ago: I have never known much good done by those affected to trade for the public good’.

The Best Bets initiative taps into the knowledge that entrepreneurs have about making innovations work. The process has been designed to bring together researchers and the private sector to form effective partnerships to turn promising research products into viable goods and services which meet the real needs of the poor. Increasingly businesses have come to realize that the poor represent a vast, largely untapped market – the concept of the fortune at the base of the pyramid.

The first round of RIU Best Bets, which focused on East, Central and Southern Africa with the climax of the process occurring in Nairobi on the 27 November, was a great success. We have received highly complimentary feedback , even from those whose proposals were not funded! Finally, four of the eight short-listed proposals were recommended for funding by our excellent independent panel, made up of leaders from the East African business, finance and research and development communities. There is good coverage of the Best Bets process and selected proposals elsewhere on the RIU website, including some great short films. We are now actively working on the second round, which will be focused on West Africa and is scheduled to take place in Accra, Ghana in late March 2010.

Another recent achievement which I am delighted by is the much needed improvement in internal and external communication. The website has been improved recently, and this is just the first step – we will have a completely new website early in the New Year which will be much better suited to supporting, facilitating and promoting our work. Our websites very own television channel, RIUtv, was launched at the RIU Best Bets event in Nairobi – some of the participants were surprised to see themselves on the RIU website just hours after the event. We have also succeeded recently in sharing some research into use success stories throughout the world via radio, television and the web.

The Central Research Team has also made great progress with the development of RIU’s research design. This is a based on a set of innovation narratives, each of which has a hypothesis and set of key research questions. We are now close to finalizing the recruitment our team of Research Fellows who will be critical to capturing the lesson from RIU’s work.

As the year comes to an end, new challenges await the RIU team in 2010. These include the external review which DFID will be conducting in March. Prior to that the RIU management team, the Central Research Team, members of the communication team and the coordinators of the African Country Programmes will be meeting in Nairobi on 27 and 28 January. Then, amongst other important business, we will jointly explore how the research design and learning component of the programme will be operationalized.

On behalf of the RIU team I would like to wish you all a very happy holiday period and a highly productive and prosperous New Year.

<!–[if !mso]> <! st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –>

Director’s update

December 2009

I believe RIU has really turned a corner recently. We now have:

· the new organizational and management structure in place

· developed and shared the programme’s overall research design [link to about RIU] centred on a set of innovation narratives

· the African Country Programmes  working towards the recommendations made by the Technical Review Team

· the Asia Programme have been rationalized and re-grouped into three complementary clusters

· the new RIU Best Bets [link to Best Bets]underway

· and much more effective internal and external communications

The result of all this hard work is that RIU is now much more focused. We have a much clearer idea of what we are trying to achieve (and it is much more achievable). And, crucially, we are able to communicate this more effectively to our key partners and audiences. I think we now have an RIU that is fit for purpose and of which we can be proud.

As many of you will know, I have long been of the opinion that an essential component in getting research into use is the active involvement of the private sector. I am therefore especially pleased that our new private-sector led initiative, RIU Best Bets [link to BB], has now taken off. I have said it before, and doubtless will say it again, that I strongly agree with one of my heroes, Adam Smith – the father of modern economics, who wrote well over 200 years ago: I have never known much good done by those affected to trade for the public good’.

The Best Bets initiative taps into the knowledge that entrepreneurs have about making innovations work. The process has been designed to bring together researchers and the private sector to form effective partnerships to turn promising research products into viable goods and services which meet the real needs of the poor. Increasingly businesses have come to realize that the poor represent a vast, largely untapped market – the concept of the fortune at the base of the pyramid.

The first round of RIU Best Bets, which focused on East, Central and Southern Africa with the climax of the process occurring in Nairobi on the 27 November, was a great success. We have received highly complimentary feedback [link to BB Process section} , even from those whose proposals were not funded! Finally, four of the eight short-listed proposals were recommended for funding by our excellent independent panel[link to BB panel], made up of leaders from the East African business, finance and research and development communities. There is good coverage of the Best Bets process [bb process] and selected proposals elsewhere on the RIU website, including some great short films. We are now actively working on the second round, which will be focused on West Africa and is scheduled to take place in Accra, Ghana in late March 2010 [link to BB advert for round 2].

Another recent achievement which I am delighted by is the much needed improvement in internal and external communication. The website has been improved recently, and this is just the first step – we will have a completely new website early in the New Year which will be much better suited to supporting, facilitating and promoting our work. Our websites very own television channel, RIUtv [link to RIUtv], was launched at the RIU Best Bets event in Nairobi – some of the participants were surprised to see themselves on the RIU website just hours after the event. We have also succeeded recently in sharing some research into use success stories throughout the world via radio, television and the web.

The Central Research Team has also made great progress with the development of RIU’s research design. This is a based on a set of innovation narratives [link to what is RIU], each of which has a hypothesis and set of key research questions. We are now close to finalizing the recruitment our team of Research Fellows who will be critical to capturing the lesson from RIU’s work.

As the year comes to an end, new challenges await the RIU team in 2010. These include the external review which DFID [ ext link to Dfid] will be conducting in March. Prior to that the RIU management team, the Central Research Team, members of the communication team and the coordinators of the African Country Programmes will be meeting in Nairobi on 27 and 28 January. Then, amongst other important business, we will jointly explore how the research design and learning component of the programme will be operationalized.

On behalf of the RIU team I would like to wish you all a very happy holiday period and a highly productive and prosperous New Year.