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Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice)
Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice)

Innovation Systems

The World Development Report 2008 has put agriculture once again upfront as the engine for rural development. As most actors on the ground, apart from the dwindling extension services, have remained the same, one may be tempted to ask “what’s new?”. Rice farmers, processors and traders are still doing business as usual, are they not?

As new forces shape the global scene – climate change, globalization and wealthy philanthropists with little experience in agricultural development entering the scene – their effects gradually trickle down. With varying time lags, regional and national institutions and policies are adjusted. So, although most actors on the ground have remained the same, the nature of the game has changed. How and at what speed a region, nation or even an individual actor responds to these changes influences its future.

A key question posed is to what extent different approaches to agricultural development reduce poverty and improve farmers’ livelihoods. But even more important is to know how capacities to respond to a changing environment (in all its dimensions) have been or should be built within rural communities, R&D, financial and other businesses, and policy-makers. This brings us to the heart of innovation systems research.

What is an innovation? An innovation is a new way of doing things by applying technical, methodological, organizational or managerial knowledge. This knowledge might come from a variety of actors, including farmers, NGOs, public and private sectors. But until applied, it can not be considered an innovation. Innovations require more than creative capacity to invent new ideas; they require managerial skills, talent, motivation and a long-term vision to transform good ideas into practice.

What do we mean by an innovation system? An innovation system has three key pillars: (1) institutions, (2) linkages and (3) learning. Institutions comprise actors and the way they operate and behave. Over time, an actor may remain in the game, but change its role and position. This illustrates the historical perspective in which an innovation system needs to be seen, continuously in motion. One’s past experience shapes one’s current interests and vision for the future. And this is the case for all actors in the system.

In Benin, attracted by the prospects of the recently released New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties, an entrepreneurial car dealer and printer (Tunde) started to engage in the rice sector. The company had no prior links to agricultural institutions and was, and continuously is, forced to learn and adjust in order to succeed. In collaboration with the United Nations University, AfricaRice developed various case studies on NERICA dissemination in Guinea, Siera Leone and Benin.

Innovation systems research emphasizes the relationship between innovations and its evolving political, economic and social context. It provides a framework for:

  1. exploring patterns of partnerships;

  2. revealing and managing the institutional context that governs these relationships and processes;

  3. understanding research and innovation as a social process of learning;

  4. thinking about capacity building in a systems sense (Hall, 2002).

The Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), itself an actor in the system, believes that it is crucial to better understand the dynamics and forces shaping rice sector development. To improve the overall effectiveness of the rice innovation system, complementarity in skills, knowledge and expertise needs to be strived for. A better understanding of forces shaping institutional relationships will help in carving out future R&D strategies for pro-poor development, as well as in redefining AfricaRice’s own role and vision.

Suggested reading and links

  • Barnett, A. 2006. Journeying from Research to Innovation: Lessons from the Department for International Development’s Crop Post-Harvest Research Programme 'Partnerships for Innovation’. The Policy Practice Limited, Brighton, UK. Click here to download full paper

  • Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. 2005. People and pro-poor innovation systems. In: Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. (eds.) Innovations in Rural Extension: Case Studies from Bangladesh. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, pp. 257-296. Click here to download chapter.

  • World Bank. 2007. Enhancing Agricultural Innovation: How to Go Beyond the Strengthening of Research Systems. World Bank, Washington DC. Click here to download entire book

  • Rural Innovation systems KIT portal

  • LINK Innovation Studies

  • Institutional Learning and Change Initiative

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Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice)



AfricaRice is a CGIAR Research Center –
part of a global research partnership
for a food-secure future.
It is also an intergovernmental association of
African member countries.


AfricaRice Headquarters
01 BP 4029, Abidjan 01, Côte d'Ivoire
T: +225 22 48 09 10; F: +225 22 44 26 29

M’bé Research Station
01 B.P. 2551, Bouaké 01, Côte d'Ivoire
T: +225 22 48 09 20; F: +225 31 63 25 78

E: AfricaRice@cgiar.org


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