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.

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