Which problems should scientists solve first and which solutions are more likely to have a positive impact on food security and livelihoods?
Agricultural scientists often assign priorities to the many possible research options they can pursue. They also sometimes meet with scientists from other institutions to identify global productivity constraints and discuss approaches to address them. While these exercises help build consensus around important issues, they stop short of exploring the relative impact of research projects or the trade-offs from investing in some kinds of research versus others. These kinds of insight usually come from the type of formal priority setting exercise on which the CGIAR research program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) has embarked for each of its mandate crops, including bananas.
“Investing into research is a bit like placing a bet or selecting a stock for investment”, says the RTB Director Graham Thiele. “We need to make sure we follow the best – and this means well-informed – bets when setting our priorities and investing funds. This is exactly what this study will help us with.”
For the exercise on bananas, scientists and economists from Bioversity International, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) have teamed up to assess the impact of the research options that will be identified as part of the process. They are also looking beyond yields to estimate the impact on poverty, health, gender equity and environmental sustainability.
The approach rests on the participation of a broad range of stakeholders and takes advantage of the electronic communication channels and tools that have been set up or will soon be accessible from the various banana network websites, including a trilingual Priority setting section on the ProMusa website.
The methodology draws heavily on the one developed by Fuglie and collaborators for the International Potato Center, with some modifications to better incorporate impacts on health, gender and the environment. It starts with a participatory mapping exercise to identify target areas (intervention hotspots), that is areas where banana research has the greatest potential to alleviate poverty and increase food security. The top constraints in these target areas will then be matched with research options. The impact, over the next 20 years, of these research options will be assessed using different methods, depending on the indicator, and the findings will be used to guide research investment decisions.
In addition to better respond to the needs of poor farmers and other vulnerable groups, the exercise is meant to raise the efficiency of research to achieve desired goals and to increase the relevance and adoption of technologies developed by the RTB research program. Donors, for one, are looking forward to the results. “I am very excited about these studies. In order to better allocate research funding, we really need demand-driven approaches like this”, says Lawrence Kent, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
National and regional stakeholders are also expected to benefit, not only from the findings, but also from access to the methodology and tools, which they will be able to use to prioritize their own research agenda on bananas.