Locally Led, Globally Supported: A Not-So-New Approach to Horticulture Development
As we celebrated localization month in April, it seems fitting to look back on the whirlwind of activities that have taken place to establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture (ILH) at the University of California, Davis. Last year, we began a 5-year project lifecycle to fund horticultural research projects in four Feed the Future focus regions: West and East Africa, South Asia, and Central America. However, we chose to do it very differently than we have in the past. We pivoted away from the often-employed Agriculture Research for Development (AR4D) models, which typically take a globally led, locally supported approach, and stepped into the background to make room for local organizations and experts to take the lead on the research process. This process has thus far positioned local researchers to identify research priorities, design and review proposals, and now, implement research in its beginning stages.
Local Voices Choose Local Priorities
Research priorities were selected at four regional workshops last summer — multi-day events in Ghana, Kenya, Honduras and Nepal, which brought in local horticultural experts from both the public and private sector to discuss what they believed were the greatest challenges and opportunities involving horticulture in each region. Through presentations by experts, breakout sessions, and larger group discussion, each workshop produced a list of research priorities that were then narrowed down in October at an all-partners meeting at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. This meeting, attended by UC Davis Management Entity, ILH Consortium, and Regional Hub Managers, used a rigorous prioritization process in which researchers from each region assessed their list of research priorities (that came from the summer workshop) based on the potential for that research to meet the needs of a chosen regional archetype.
For example, the West Africa working group chose a 30-year-old mother of three as their archetype, so after group discussion it was decided that research focusing on health and nutrition would most improve her life. Sub-themes to the research priority were then determined by each group, so in the example of West Africa, they were to better understand: 1) Behavior change through nutrition education that benefits youth, 2) Culturally relevant production and marketing of indigenous vegetables, and 3) Economic leverage points in accessing healthier diets. Requests for Applications (RFAs) were then designed based on the priorities and sub-themes that resulted from the summer workshops and October all-partners meeting.
Locally Selected Research Priorities Hit Home
In releasing the ILH RFA for sub-awards, we chose to allow only local Principal Investigators (PI) to be eligible as lead PIs on the sub-awards. As usual, we prioritized sub-awards that advance regional and global partnership. The incredible number of full applications we received following the RFA — 125 in total — are a testament to how much the research priorities resonated within local academic networks. In addition, local experts didn’t just submit applications — they also reviewed them. Using the LASER PULSE (Long-term Assistance and Services for Research Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine) platform, a diverse team of horticultural experts from around the globe assessed each application for scientific rigor and feasibility, culminating in consensus panels that chose the top applications to move on to the final selection process. Ultimately, 11 applications were chosen for funding out of a fiercely competitive pool of applicants — demonstrating the deep pool of local expertise available to lead and conduct this research.
The successful projects represent a diverse portfolio of horticultural research topics, including but not limited to: testing technology for adaptation to climate change, facilitating women and youth participation in horticultural enterprises, improving horticulture production and marketing in urban and peri-urban areas, refining production and marketing of indigenous fruits and vegetables, and developing evidence that will demonstrate to smallholder farmers the advantages of planting indigenous fruits and vegetables alongside staple crops. All project activities will be headed by top researchers from each of the four focus regions, who will not need the extensive onboarding that would be necessary for outside scientists less familiar with local languages, customs, and challenges because they are already accustomed to local contexts. This will not only allow researchers to hit the ground running, but local familiarity will also facilitate an effective problem-solving model in which researchers are able to more easily identify challenges that arise and local solutions that can be innovated.
Local Expertise Has Been Missing from the World Table
As climate change increasingly threatens global food security and community resilience, especially in lower and middle-income countries (LMICs), the expertise of local researchers will be essential to finding solutions for their localities. Their perspective is not just needed locally — they offer diverse and specialized knowledge that is an asset to the global effort to mitigate climate impacts and food insecurity. If AR4D models are to be more effective in the long-term promotion of healthy, resilient populations, they need to be led by local actors who are deeply rooted in the places they work and thus are more adept at innovating long-term solutions for those places.