4 steps to lasting food security innovations

The introduction of greenhouse technology and vertical farming in Haiti have allowed farmers to make 10 times the income with far less land. Photo by: USAID and Chemonics

It started with a simple idea: Offer monetary incentives to jump-start entrepreneurial activities in Armenia’s rural north. However, once our initial pilot was completed and we gathered data and shared experiences, we found that the incentives actually made participants less interested. Overall, our pilot project met our expected targets, but as we discussed what worked with our staff and beneficiaries, we found that the incentives structure actually caused distrust within our local team.

Although nearly a decade has passed, I’ve often reflected on this experience while working with a wide variety of teams in different locations around the world. No matter the field, in one way or another we all face similar challenges: how to take systematic approaches to innovation, how to design locally appropriate solutions and how to bring those approaches that show the most promise to scale.

If we are going to meet the needs of the expected population of 9 billion by 2050, a 70 percent increase in food production will be required, and these same questions will become increasingly important to answer. Game-changing innovations drawn from a variety of fields and disciplines are going to be crucial. To scale these innovations in places that have a wide assortment of constraints — including varying levels of conflict, drought and infrastructure — enabling environments will be essential. Ironically, a model that’s almost 70 years old, called TRIZ, might provide a simple four-step approach that offers answers to some of these pressing questions:

Step 1: Identify the specific problem

On the surface, this probably seems like the easiest step for most of us. We see challenges every day. Too often, though, we move straight to identifying a solution without taking the time to truly analyze the situation or to use available data to fully understand the specific problem faced.

Take, for instance, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. On FEWS NET, we have been tasked with identifying indicators of possible food insecurity and famine to help decision-makers deploy resources. In the past year, alongside its long-standing integration of agroclimatology, markets and trade and livelihoods information, FEWS NET has expanded to conduct nutrition studies to help explain the underlying causes of acute and chronic food insecurity.

With the integration of these analyses, we can now understand nutrition more comprehensively and measure patterns and trends that predict, for example, who within a given population is particularly vulnerable to malnutrition. This new level of analysis is invaluable to understanding the root problems of crises in order to address longer-term nutrition challenges.

Step 2: Define the general problem

To figure out how other disciplines can offer solutions to specific problems, it’s useful to generalize the identified problem into a more abstract challenge.

A basic TRIZ concept is to identify inherent contradictions in order to better generalize the problem. Take Haiti, for example, where we are working with USAID to increase agricultural productivity. As we began to work with the farmers in Haiti, the general problem became obvious: More production on small, hilly land that is often devastated by deforestation and soil erosion has made productive farming nearly impossible. Although seemingly contradictory, this generalization led to a search for solutions from other developing countries or new ideas that could be adapted to Haiti.  

Step 3: Identify the general solution

TRIZ is based on the idea that many underlying root problems found in steps 1 and 2 have already been solved — often in unrelated industries or places.

For instance, in Haiti, we looked at places with similar landscapes and challenges and researched their solutions. Greenhouses were identified as a possible solution. With just 70 square meters, greenhouse farmers can make 10 times the income as regular farmers. How? The greenhouses allow for the use of vertical farming, a practice common in developed countries, and the enclosed growing area allows three harvests per year. They also allow the rest of the farm to be used for agroforestry to combat erosion.

Greenhouses aren’t a catchall solution, but for the farmers introduced to greenhouses in Haiti, the technology was a game changer, and today they have higher incomes and are contributing to their country’s growth. With the right tailoring, greenhouse technology had the potential to substantially increase farmer productivity in Haiti.

Step 4: Tailor your general solution to your specific challenge

Tailoring innovations to the local context is perhaps the most crucial step and what we missed in designing financial incentives in Armenia. Here we are taking our general solution and adapting it to the local setting. In Uganda, for example, we are working with USAID to improve the maize, beans and coffee value chains in order to increase incomes and bring farmers out of poverty.

While value chain work is not new, our approach within the value chain in Uganda is relatively new. We are working to strengthen the role of middlemen traders, a group that has traditionally been circumvented in value chain interventions because they were perceived as predatory, squeezing farmers’ margins for their own gain. In Uganda, however, research indicated that middlemen had the potential to transform those sectors and contribute to the country’s long-term agricultural development.

The effort is far from over, but so far, the key has been building trust among these diverse groups and promoting greater transparency around market pricing and demand. Farmers know what their crops are worth and middlemen provide essential services, like training in post-harvest handling.

By taking a well-established methodology — the facilitated value chain approach — and adding a new element specific to Uganda, we are seeing results. And because this is a new approach, we will continue to test and adapt it to ensure it continues to improve Uganda’s agricultural sector.

Eureka? No, discipline

Often innovation is thought of as Archimedes’ “eureka!” moment in the bathtub — in other words, fleeting and unpredictable. In fact, no matter if it’s TRIZ or other frameworks, the pursuit of innovation needs to be systematic and disciplined if we are going to consistently find and implement game-changing innovations and solve the most pressing agriculture and food security challenges that lie ahead.

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Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • James Butcher

    James Butcher is the executive vice president of Chemonics International's global health and supply-chain office and currently oversees the USAID global health and supply chain program — procurement and supply management project. A private sector development and supply-chain specialist, Butcher has spent more than 20 years at Chemonics where he launched Chemonics' first knowledge and innovation department, and served as senior vice president for the global health division, strategic solutions and communications division, and Africa and Haiti, East Africa, and Europe and Eurasia regional business units. He has also conducted technical assignments worldwide and served as a regional representative in Southeast Europe, and as chief of party of the Armenia Micro Enterprise Development Initiative.