The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has a mission to “reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in the dryland tropics.” The institute’s research in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is focused on resilient dryland systems, grain legumes, dryland cereals, and markets, institutions and technologies. Headquartered in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India, ICRISAT works to facilitate inclusive market-oriented development that seeks input from farm families operating in dryland areas.
Dr. William Dar, Director General for ICRISAT, recently addressed Food Tank’s questions about ICRISAT mandate crops, farmer prosperity, priorities for agricultural improvement in Africa, gender equality in farming, and open source data sharing.
ICRISAT focuses on six “mandate crops,” including chickpea, pigeonpea, groundnut, pearl millet, sorghum, and small millets. What criteria does ICRISAT use to classify crops in this way? Are other crops considered for inclusion?
We are now faced with the enormous challenge to produce 70% more food to feed 10 billion people by 2050 using scarce resources amid the threat of climate change. Today, a billion people are hungry and about 3 billion are not eating well.
ICRISAT works in the semi-arid (dryland) tropics of the world covering 55 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and are inhabited by 2 billion people, 644 million of whom are the poorest of the poor. These regions are most vulnerable to climate change with very little rainfall, degraded soils and poor social infrastructure. One of the most disturbing statistics in the tropical drylands is the high rate of childhood malnutrition. About 42% of the children of dryland Asia and 27% in dryland Africa are malnourished.
In the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition amid the threat of climate change, highly nutritious, drought-tolerant crops like chickpea, pigeonpea, groundnut, pearl millet and sorghum are the best bets for smallholder farmers in the drylands to survive and improve their livelihoods, and for them to be part of the solution to global food and nutrition security. These crops are also vital to the sustainability of mixed crop-livestock farming, and provide genetic resources for adaptation to harsh, marginal environments.
Grain legumes like chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut supply up to 60% of the daily protein intake for the poor in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and 13% for hundreds of millions of poor in South Asia. They are affordable, protein-rich foods that balance cereal-based diets and are the least resource demanding option to improve the nutrition of poor people, especially children and women. Farmers both consume and sell grain legumes, benefiting from food and income gains.
Meanwhile, dryland cereals like sorghum and pearl millet are drought tolerant, often the only food and fodder crops for smallholders in the dryland regions. Highly nutritious, dryland cereal crops contribute to reduction in malnutrition. They are easy to produce and has high multiple uses (food, fodder, biofuel, beverage) – offering many livelihood opportunities for farmers and agribusiness entrepreneurs.
ICRISAT works along the whole agricultural value chain to develop, adopt, disseminate and promote research for development (R4D) innovations on its five mandate crops, and this includes – from developing and promoting better varieties and farm management practices, down the value chain such as post-harvest practices, policy support, market access, building interest from the private sector and farmers, building consumer knowledge, and developing suitable products.
ICRISAT while working on its mandate crops, also promotes crop diversification – or a more diversified farming systems and a variety of rural employment to enable dryland farmers to better manage risks and improve their livelihoods. This involves a shift in the cropping system, for example, towards high-value commodities like vegetables or more drought-tolerant crops; mixed farming systems such as crop-livestock and agroforestry; on farm food processing; and non-farming activities and rural jobs such.
ICRISAT is leading the implementation of the CGIAR Research Programs on Grain Legumes and on Dryland Cereals, two of the 16 multi-Center CGIAR Research Programs and the most comprehensive research-for-development efforts undertaken thus far on these once ‘orphan’ or neglected crops.
The CGIAR Research Programs tackle cross-cutting issues in agricultural development across the globe, aligning the research of 15 Research Centers who are members of the CGIAR Consortium and their partners into efficient, coherent, multidisciplinary programs to realize the full potential of collaborative research for tackling complex development issues.
Upon receiving the MS Swaminathan Leadership in Agriculture award, you described ICRISAT’s Inclusive Market-Oriented Development (IMOD) strategy as a movement that “compelled us to put priority on innovations that would move farmers from poverty to prosperity, instead of innovations that would leave them only a little less poor.” Do you consider IMOD to be an efficiency strategy? Is the goal to achieve more farmer prosperity more quickly?
Yes, we firmly believe that IMOD is an efficiency strategy to move farmers from poverty to prosperity, not just quickly, but permanently. Let me explain.
For over four decades, we have learned a lot but haven’t found a single “magic bullet” technical solution to solve hunger and poverty or to stimulate prosperity in the drylands. We’ve learned, though, that including smallholder farmers in market-oriented development could be the key.
IMOD highlights the power of market opportunities to offer more prosperous lives for smallholder farmers and their families. What we need to do is to give smallholder farmers assistance to gain access to innovations designed for the poor, to help them connect to markets, but in a way that builds their own resilience rather than creating dependency. The IMOD approach builds on three powerful principles: (1) that markets motivate growth; (2) that innovation accelerates growth; and (3) that inclusiveness ensures that the poor benefit.
IMOD is a process of movement along a development pathway from impoverished subsistence farming, to prosperous market-oriented farming. To make the strategy efficient, there must be research innovation, which improves productivity, reliability and sustainability of smallholder farming. These steady improvements should help farmers generate food surpluses and cash, some of which is invested in improving the resiliency of the farm.
There is a reason for smallholder farmers in the drylands to be optimistic about the future. ICRISAT is validating its “Hypothesis of Hope” that potentially offers vast opportunities for the dryland tropics through a combination of improved crops and management practices that will lead to significantly higher farm productivity, even in the face of climate change.
Achieving resilience for smallholder farmers will require investment in research-for-development so that farmers gain access to improved management practices and inputs, and to all possible options for a more profitable agriculture. IMOD is ICRISAT’s strategy for increasing this access.
IMOD also offers to provide more strategic opportunities for women (by improving their livelihoods and well-being) and children (by combating childhood malnutrition) in the drylands. We will intensify our focus on women’s needs and opportunities, their participation in decision-making on choices of crops and crop varieties, input and output marketing, and household food management.
I have given a number of successful IMOD cases in my acceptance speech for the MS Swaminathan Leadership in Agriculture award, all illustrating what we need to do and change in order to become effective in helping hundreds of millions of desperately poor in the drylands.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of the United Nations, recently released a technical report, Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Agricultural improvements in Africa are among the key areas of focus in the report. Given ICRISAT’s presence across the continent, what does the Institute consider top priorities for agricultural improvements in Africa?
West and Central Africa has the highest proportion of subsistence-oriented smallholder farm households among our three focus regions (which includes Eastern and Southern Africa and Asia) and the highest dependence on our focus cereal crops, sorghum and pearl millet. Of our grain legumes, only groundnut is a major crop. Rates of both poverty and population growth are highest in this region. Market connections are weaker than in the other two regions, although this is changing with urbanization.
For WCA’s sustainable agricultural development solutions, we will place a relatively heavier emphasis on helping subsistence farmers to improve their natural resource base, achieve food security, improve their access to inexpensive inputs (especially fertilizer and seed) and form initial market connections in this region.
Sorghum, pearl millet and groundnut are now receiving crop improvement emphasis. We also emphasize on crop-tree-livestock integration in partnership with our sister centers AVRDC, ICRAF and ILRI. Local traditions of using trees and diverse crops such as sesame, sorrel and indigenous vegetables will be built upon to help the poor diversify into high-value, market-oriented, nutritious fruit and vegetable cultivation and marketing. Innovations in small-scale drip irrigation, tapping vast groundwater and riverine resources that can transform dryland agriculture if used sustainably, are also being explored.
Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) is agro-ecologically more complex than the other regions that we focus on because of a wider range of geological, soil morphological, altitude, latitude and climatic attributes. Maize is the predominant grain in human diets, and livestock is important to rural incomes. Pigeonpea, chickpea and groundnut are all important crops.
Climate change is considered by some to already be aggravating droughts in the southern part of ESA, and the threat of climate change on food security will continue to receive significant research attention.
In ESA, we are addressing the disease and insect problems and seed supply issues that plague important grain legume crops so that the region can further explore export opportunities. We will continue to enable poor smallholders and especially women to take increasing advantage of the grain legume cash-earning opportunity, including emphasis on mycotoxin control and grain quality traits to meet export standards, and to capitalize on the benefits of maize-legume rotations in collaboration with our sister institute, CIMMYT. Hybrid sorghum could also find a niche paralleling the region’s success with hybrid maize. Finger millet also has an important niche.
Because of agro-ecosystem diversity and climatic variability, we are continuously breeding for diverse adaptive characteristics in crops in this region. Raising livestock causes perennial shortages of fodder that will be addressed from a systems perspective. Small household livestock, such as goats, that especially benefit women will receive particular attention.
ICRISAT’s strategic plan highlights specific support for women “to access more resources and benefit more from markets.” What are some current ICRISAT programs that work to benefit women in the agricultural sector?
ICRISAT gives gender a high priority in all its research programs. We look at gender as a cross-cutting issue in all our research-for-development initiatives. The focus is to implement agricultural and agribusiness solutions working through women so as to build their capacity, expand their livelihood options, educate them about nutrition and, overall, empower the women. Through the strength of earning more income and being more knowledgeable and healthier, women can take more control of their lives and change them for the better. Through this income and knowledge they can educate their children and take care of their nutritional needs.
Our first approach is participatory analysis and solution building at the village level. Here we bring together the women and the broader community in a village, the players along the whole value chain and scientific and business experts to develop solutions that are science based and owned by the community.
Second, we implement the solutions by training the women, giving access to needed assets, creating/strengthening self-help groups, and building knowledge on nutrition and health.
Third, we continuously monitor the approach, developments and impacts.
Some of our works that illustrate these approaches, wherein women have been consulted, involved and supported to drive improvements in agriculture are as follows:
- Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands in west Africa, where most women have no or few rights to agricultural land. ICRISAT worked with local NGOs to help women form associations and gain access to communal village wasteland; trained to revitalize barren lands by using simple water and soil conservation techniques, to plant drought-tolerant trees and crops, and applying small amounts of fertilizer to the plant root, a technique known as microdosing.
- Identifying and working with strong women role models, like Maimouna Coulibaly, Mali’s first woman seed entrepreneur. She is ICRISAT to promote high yielding sorghum and groundnut varieties adapted to the climate, needs, and tastes of local farmers, particularly women.
- Groundnut is a major staple crop in Africa grown mainly by women and contributes to up to 64 percent of household cash revenue in Mali, 66 percent in Niger and 54 percent in Nigeria. This is why ICRISAT and a range of partners, including public institutions and NGOs, are involving women in research to test and then cultivate resilient groundnut varieties.
- ICRISAT and its partners have been working with women to try progressive technologies to ease their work burden. As part of the HOPE Project, women farmers like Zénabou Halilou from Niger are replacing manual pestle and mortars with grinding machines that save time and labor. This has freed up their time for other activities such as poultry farming and cooking the evening meal so the children eat before going to bed.
The drought, displacement, and famine in east Africa and the recurrent food crises in the western Sahel region clearly shows how urgently we need to find long-term solutions to improve people’s lives. Small-scale women farmers need to be a central part of the process. They grow up to 90 percent of the food in some African countries, so innovative ideas and partnerships need to improve their harvests and incomes. Gender strategies need to guide agricultural research, and we must ensure that these translate to visible results to sustainably change the lives of women and their communities.
In October ICRISAT launched EXPLOREit, a navigational system designed to allow better access to important scientific, agricultural information. What has been the response to this new tool?
In just over a month after its launch, EXPLOREit continues to gain positive responses from the public and our partners and stakeholders alike. The launch itself gained massive media coverage and positive write-ups globally, shared and picked up by various newspapers, media outlets, and on social media.
Sharing publicly-funded agricultural information in the most accessible way is critically important to achieve our agricultural development goals of reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources.
We are confident that EXPLOREit will optimize our contribution to the open access movement, which is trying to provide free access to scientific information, a major factor for researchers in developing countries who cannot afford the subscription fees to costly scientific journals. As part of the CGIAR consortium, ICRISAT is committed to ensuring publicly funded agricultural research is at the fingertips of those who need it most. Addressing the limitations of information access has a big role to play in enabling national researchers to tap into the knowledge they need to promote development.
EXPLOREit gives the public easy access to all of ICRISAT’s 40 years of agricultural scientific knowledge and information for the first time. We have achieved this through the MultiProfiler concept, a revolutionary way that provides information through multiple navigations and creates easy to view profiles on the subject areas.
EXPLOREit is in line with ICRISAT’s open data/access policy. ICRISAT’s other major initiatives on open access include our Library and Information Services’ Open Access Repository (OAR), our unique Village Dynamics Data that provides a wealth of information collected in rural communities over three decades, and the plant genome sequencing datasets for two crucial smallholder farmer crops, pigeonpea and chickpea.
Intellectual property and patent considerations play a major role in scientific research, development, and discovery. What is the goal of ISCRISAT’s Open Access Repository and how does it operate in the context of today’s patent culture?
In today’s world, where the value of information increases with the number of people sharing it, we believe that making our agricultural research, knowledge and information widely available to users worldwide for better development impacts. ICRISAT is a member of the CGIAR Consortium, and all the knowledge, information and scientific innovations we generate are considered as global public goods.
Open access to research information related to agriculture is critical as it has the power to promote greater distribution of knowledge and enhances the potential for innovation.
We have initiated Open Data in genomics and modern breeding vital in developing superior crop varieties with traits important to smallholder farmers towards food security and improved livelihoods. Managing and openly sharing extensive data from genome sequencing and re-sequencing projects will revolutionize molecular breeding works for crop improvement.
The Open Data movement leveraging on data, collaboration, and innovation will definitely accelerate crop improvement for sustainable food production particularly in the marginal environments of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Shared knowledge and data can cut time and cost in developing high-yielding, nutritious, and drought-tolerant crops that are the best bets for smallholder farmers to survive and improve their livelihoods amid the threat of climate change.
ICRISAT’s Green Open Access Policy is being adopted by the Institute since 2009. The policy advocates the availability of research results by posting them free onto a repository/website (in the form of publications, data, videos, audio, images, etc.) for the global community to access to achieve greater impacts. This is realized through ICRISAT’s Open Access Repository (OAR), where research publications and outputs are made available for partners and stakeholders particularly in the developing world without any restriction. This OAR is now complemented by the recently-launched EXPLOREit.