I’m just back from Hyderabad where I attended the final conference of the Fodder Innovation Project, a sister project to FAP which has been funded by DFID for work in India and Nigeria. This project takes as its premise that fodder scarcity is an “innovation capacity” problem rather than a technical problem. They have been experimenting with the use of “boundary organizations” to facilitate local networks to catalyse change in the livestock/fodder sector. In FAP we have followed the progress of FIP with interest over the years and found our interactions with project partners in FIP to stimulate our thinking. This meeting was no exception. Here are a few impressions I came away with:
– Facilitating networks of local actors is hard work. In FIP the whole first year of the project was spent identifying partner organizations, explaining the innovation concepts, setting up baselines and establishing local networks. Such activities took a lot of time and hence resources. The transaction costs of such activity are not trivial and these need to be considered in assessing whether the use of actor networks to stimulate change is viable and sustainable in mainstream development practice.
– Monitoring project progress in innovation projects is also challenging. Discussions with FIP colleagues made me realise that our difficulties in monitoring change are not unique. Innovation processes take longer time spans to mature than the conventional 3 year project cycle. Also, the change we are seeking is behavioural change at system level – finding indicators for such change is a real challenge. Conventional socio-economic baselines have limited value in such situations.
– Attribution is also hard. Even if change can be effectively monitored, drawing causal links between such change and project activity associated with supporting networks of local actors is always open to challenge.
– Markets are a key element in innovation systems. Most of the study cases in FIP had a strong market element. Innovation appears more likely in systems where markets are strong. In some of our more marginal FAP sites in Ethiopia where the system is food insecure, the configuration of actors is thin and the potential for stimulating stakeholder networks to facilitate change seems limited.
Despite these challenges, the case for a change in approach away from conventional technology-led approaches is, to my mind, overwhelming. Business as usual will lead to business as usual. After several decades of following a technology-driven approach feed scarcity is still a major constraint in smallholder systems across the developing world. We need new approaches but we need to continue to look for ways of overcoming the various challenges in projects which adopt an innovation approach.
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