During the December 2014 MilkIT project (Enhancing dairy-based livelihoods in India and Tanzania through feed innovation and value chain development approaches) workshops in Tanzania, we caught up with two Indian participants who had been invited in their roles as significant stakeholders in dairy development in the state of Uttarakhand. Conversations revealed they planned to take up several innovations and products of the project.
Since one major aim of the project is precisely to have its outputs taken up ‘at scale’ by other agencies, the opportunity to explore their interests in the project was too good to miss.
Ahmed Iqbal is chief development officer (CDO) for Almora district in the Uttarakhand state government. In this role, he supervises the rural development and poverty alleviation operations of state and federal government departments as well as a vast set of governmental schemes and services provided in the district. This includes aspects of livelihood related to agriculture, horticulture, animal health, fisheries, dairy development, and the dairy cooperative amongst others. In all this, he says that “livestock is at the heart of farmers’ livelihoods, so animal health and dairying are very central” to his work.
He sees one of his key roles as to make sure the intended beneficiaries are aware of the various schemes and that they are taking up the services. “My job is to help make sure that farmers are really accessing these services. The innovation platforms [of MilkIT] seem to play a positive role in this. By bringing people together in a similar platform, informally, it was easy to convince them to take up the schemes.”
Connecting communities with service providers
Like his colleague B.K. Bhatt from the IFAD-supported Integrated Livelihood Support Project (ILSP), it was the local MilkIT coordinator Thannamal Ravichandran who brought the platforms to his notice. He said that he was at that time especially interested in overcoming challenges of inter-departmental coordination, which is a major implementation challenge, and he saw a potential in innovation platforms to facilitate this.
After initial discussions with MilkIT and ILSP staff (early November 2014), he saw the platforms in action, linking dairying communities and cooperatives. They looked like good mechanisms to help identify local problems and devise local solutions (specifically for dairying – which has a large potential). Moreover, he realized they might also be vehicles to connect government services to people. His concern was however not to overload the platforms. Let them keep a dairy focus and “let’s try and scale these.”
Since then, he was approached by the state dairy cooperative (under the brand ‘Aanchal’) asking that the approach be taken up elsewhere.
He immediately convened a district level stakeholder workshop to analyze the complete dairy value chain and obvious bottlenecks and come up with a strategy and roadmap. It served as a sensitization event where various stakeholders expressed interest in these approaches and ideas, notably the dairy cooperative. He says the group plans to meet every month …
“The MilkIT team sold a mix of demonstrable interventions, maybe also the innovation platforms as one of the interventions. Now we need to decide the best approach, and maybe select some other needy clusters.” He reflected that they “could perhaps build this approach on to the existing 260 mini-cooperatives under Aanchal, perhaps with funds from IFAD or the cooperative itself. We need to find the right interventions and the right institutional entry points.”
He further emphasized two points: that a lack of good communications among the big stakeholders is a big issue and, most importantly, that they need to show tangible results.
“But one of my primary concerns concerns is who should play the role of the facilitator of the Innovation platforms? We need to keep it informal and avoid becoming rule-bound but at the same time there is a risk of making the entire process appear as very casual and amateurish.”
That’s the process so far.
When asked to reflect on what it was about MilkIT that interested him and what the future holds, he said: “MilkIT grabbed my attention particularly because we were already conceptualizing a mechanism to identify possible causes of declining milk production in the district, particularly by the cooperatives. MilkIT acted as a catalyst in our efforts; the most promising aspect was probably the outcome that simple and small interventions could produce visible and immediate effects on the value chain provided they were carried out with clinical precision. So I thought that we could really scale this up. I found something like this that could really trigger wider behavioral changes…”
He argued that the biggest challenge he sees is to make the platform sustainable. The stakeholders are critical in this and he pointed to the need to instill a sense of ownership, and “choose some areas where we have a good chance to make progress.” He mentioned that the strong interest by the dairy cooperative and the IFAD project may provide the flexibility in pursuing such approaches, “that we don’t usually have.”
One path to sustainability he saw was to integrate the platform approach with existing systems and services so it is taken up easily. He noted that there are many existing schemes in the district, perhaps the “only thing lacking is a platform for getting to specific local constraints and to help target these.” The advantage he saw is that joining forces would help to overcome previous piecemeal interventions that have not given good results. He cautioned that the tradeoff in joining the larger schemes is that ‘innovation’ may fall off.
Solution-oriented action research
Finally, our conversation shifted to other areas, looking at the contributions of agricultural research more generally to his work in the state government.
From his perspective Iqbal suggested that there’s a “huge disconnect between research and extension and people.” He observes much research in silos and not well-connected to the district or to farmers. There seems to be a “huge time gap between lab to land.”
MilkIT, he said, kind of “reverse engineered the research process.” Research would be more relevant if it was more context-based and with tangible results.
Pat of the challenge is with the ways research interacts with government. He described much of the dialogue with research and academia as very formal and rigid and cursory. He took some responsibility however: “We as government are not very proactive with academia and research.” He also recognized the potential benefits of better engagement with research. He and other development officers do meet and exchange with one another. But they struggle to access past knowledge and research. They are literally “starving (for knowledge).”
He concluded by reminding us that districts are where the (development) action is. And “what I need is solution-oriented action research.”