Africa: Global Alliance to Strengthen Research-Farmer Links

An international alliance of research institutions will try to implement the results of agricultural research and to communicate findings to smallholder farmers in developing nations.

The Association of International Research and Development Centres for Agriculture (AIRCA) was launched last month (30 October) at the Second Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development in Uruguay.

The partnership's overall aim is to improve food security and help communities meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

By looking at how agriculture works across broad areas containing a range of ecosystems, such as forests and pristine habitats, AIRCA hopes to strike a productive balance between livelihood improvement for small-scale farmers and long-term environmental sustainability.

According to AIRCA's chair, Trevor Nicholls, the alliance will work towards this goal by forging links with other research groups and the private sector, while keeping the alliance's bureaucracy to a minimum.

The alliance hopes that grouping together will raise the profile of members' work and improve the visibility and recognition of research and development (R&D) capacity building at grassroots level - elements of which are already being pursued by individual centres.

For example, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), an alliance member based in Costa Rica, has been developing biodiversity awareness among local farmers.

Meanwhile an alliance member in India, the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI) has been improving farmers' access to agricultural information through mobile phone services.

Serving more than 60 countries, as well as partners from across the Americas, Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, the new alliance has collective access to a wide variety of crops and ecosystems.

During a pilot phase, a common online gateway will aim to improve collaboration and allow members to share library and information tools, and reports.

Currently, all centres manage their projects independently, but AIRCA hopes to develop joint project proposals for demand-driven research and capacity-building programmes.

Opportunities to identify research gaps and to collaborate with other organisations such as the CGIAR Consortium and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as well as the private sector, have also been mooted, although these are dependent on securing financial support.

Nicholls said the alliance will complement other agricultural research initiatives, including CGIAR, which often pursue more basic research.

"We will focus more on the implementation of research: how to communicate research and innovations effectively to poor rural farmers," Nicholls told SciDev.Net.

Andrea Sonnino, chief of the FAO's Research and Extension Branch, said the alliance would make it easier to collaborate with other organisations, but expressed concerns that because of its loose organisational structure, the alliance might struggle to create the same impact as organisations like CGIAR.

But this perceived weakness was highlighted by Nicholls as being one of AIRCA's strengths the limited organisational structure of AIRCA will allow it to avoid the burdensome bureaucracy that yokes other research initiatives, he said.

The nine founding members of the alliance are: Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center, CABI, CATIE, Crops for the Future, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, African Insect Science for Food and Health, International Fertilizer Development Center, and International Network for Bamboo and Rattan.

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