Bringing Climate Smart Agriculture to scale

Within scaling pathways of Climate Smart Agriculture, practices and businesses essential components are agro-technological practices, a viable business environment for value chain development, and enabling policy and institutional conditions.

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Achieving Zero Hunger by 2030, the target of SDG 2, is a daunting challenge. Food and nutrition security should be attained within the safe operating space of the planet with agricultural and food systems adapting to a changing climate, a growing and urbanising population, and changing diets. Climate Smart Agriculture is increasingly promoted by research and policy as a solution to the far-reaching implications of climate change on agriculture and Food and nutrition security. Based on the insights and outcomes of fourteen interdisciplinary projects funded under NWO-WOTRO’s Food & Business Research programme, the full paper reviews the challenges and potential of three pathways towards improved Food and nutrition security, which all start from Climate Smart Agricultural Practices. The focus of the paper is on Sub Saharan Africa, where thirteen of the fourteen reviewed projects were implemented. 

Dissecting Climate Smart Agricultural pathways

The synthesis started with the development of a Theory of Change that visualises the possible relationships and routes from Climate Smart Agriculture to Food and nutrition security. This framework integrated the Theory of Changes of the Netherlands Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) and the CGIAR programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), complemented with value chain business components. Onto this Theory of Change, we mapped the pathways that the projects had envisaged from activities (proposals) to outputs (articles, papers and policy briefs) and anticipated outcomes and impact.


The synthesis revealed that the projects predominantly pursued an agro-technological pathway, focusing on technical innovations that support Climate Smart Agriculture and the training needed to enable their adoption; or an institutional pathway, focusing on raising awareness on the need for Climate Smart Agriculture, empowerment trainings, managing multi-stakeholder platforms for dialogues and other interventions for a better institutional environment to support Climate Smart Agriculture (e.g. enhancing inclusivity of financial institutions). Certain projects aimed to combine interventions along the agro-technological technological and institutional pathway. The business development pathway of food systems interventions that focus on business development, smart entrepreneurship, value chain development, or marketing for Climate Smart Agriculture, was much less targeted by the reviewed projects. See the visualisation of these pathways in Figure 1. Some key insights for each of the pathways are listed below.

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Theory of Change

The agro-technological pathway

  • Local varieties of climate-smart seeds and community seed banks can be vehicles for scaling Climate Smart Agriculture, but require clear protocols on use and benefit sharing as well as connections to national seedbanks;
  • A consideration of multiple risks for smallholders is needed to encourage adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture. Given that the poor farmers have highly complex financial lives, it is insufficient to only minimize investment risks directly associated with, for example, new seeds, crops or practices;
  • Fertiliser recommendations – to increase nutrient use efficiency and consequently yield - need to be tailor-made as generic recommendations are not appropriate given Africa’s diverse agro-ecology.

The institutional pathway

  • Insufficient access to finance and markets for inputs (especially improved seeds) and/or outputs presents an obstacle to adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture. Markets for climate-resilient crops that are newly introduced in the area need to be guaranteed for farmers to be willing to invest;
  • The cultural value of specific food items needs to be taken into account as this may provide a barrier for farmers to change to other crops or breeds that are better adapted to changing climatic conditions;
  • It is not always necessary to raise awareness among target populations to achieve knowledge uptake. Often farmers are well aware of the benefits of Climate Smart Agriculture practices such as improved seeds, irrigation, intercropping, erosion control and conservation agriculture. Capacity development among extension services as well as awareness raising of the local government may be more important for Climate Smart Agriculture adoption;
  • Well-functioning community-based organisations are important for scaling as they act as a driver for innovation adoption. That individualistic approaches may not be appropriate as they may conflict with the traditional social obligations and thus have repercussions for farmers’ resilience. Reflection on who are the potential ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ within and beyond organisational structures that are introduced to promote Climate Smart Agriculture is essential.

The business development pathway

A thorough market or value chain analysis is imperative for proven Climate Smart Agriculture innovations and business opportunities to be taken beyond the validation stage. However, if the opportunities for profitability are not clear to market chain partners, as is often the case in a scaling context, private sector actors may feel little incentive to conduct a thorough value chain analysis.

Lessons and reflections

  • The key drivers and barriers that influenced project opportunities for scaling Climate Smart Agriculture technologies and approaches all relate to organisational structures and stakeholder relationships. In particular, the projects revealed the important role of well-functional local organisations and cooperatives, the difficulties of getting private sector on board, and the often positive but also limited influence of local governments.
  • Technical knowledge and availability of Climate Smart Agriculture technologies are not sufficient to achieve large-scale adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture practices. However, given the dominant attention that was given to the agro-technological and institutional pathways, the synthesis cannot draw conclusions on how business and financial incentives can be most effectively leveraged to catalyse this adoption. Nor can it be concluded from this study under which conditions there is a business case for Climate Smart Agriculture. The implementation of a comprehensive approach that encompasses all three pathways, which indeed is expected to have the highest probability of delivering actual changes on-the-ground in terms of improved FNS, calls for long-term efforts, which were not within the financial and temporal scope of the F&BR projects.
  • Climate Smart Agriculture approaches can cause trade-offs or synergies between different SDGs. For instance, optimising fertiliser application to increase yield and enhance nutrient use efficiency is considered climate smart, but consequent high or increased fertiliser use still raises overall emissions – as happened in the EU over the past decades – when no efforts are made to innovate the fertiliser products themselves. Trade-offs were noted between SDG 1 (poverty reduction) and SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land). Potential synergies were noted too, for instance, increased women’s empowerment and control over production assets (SDG 5) may enhance nutrition security (SDGs 2 and 3 on good health).
  • Taking a food system perspective allows the discovery of trade-offs and synergies and points at the possibility of such interactions in future research and interventions. A food systems approach positions Climate Smart Agriculture as one of the solutions to the implications of climate change on agriculture and food and nutrition security.

This is an executive summary of the full article ‘Climate Smart Agriculture for Food and Nutrition Security Pathways for impact at scale’. The article was published as part of the synthesis study of the Food & Business Research programme led by Ellen Lammers and Daniëlle de Winter.

Authors: Dr Lia van Wesenbeeck, Dr Ellen Lammers, Daniëlle de Winter, Dr Prem Bindraban

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