Generating and applying new knowledge is important for all enterprises, including farming. But, quite often, new knowledge that can enhance productivity, competitiveness, and sustainability in farming is not widely adopted at scale. This lack of innovation in agriculture has led to the search for new frameworks such as ‘innovation systems’ that help in understanding how the process of agricultural innovation takes place and how its relevance and quality can be enhanced.
An innovation system is nothing more than a metaphor to help understand the process of innovation, and to help consider how capacities for innovation can be developed. (1)Though originally developed to understand industrial innovation, this framework has been increasingly used to understand the process of knowledge generation and use in agriculture. Recent research has resulted in new and better understanding of the structure and functions of the agricultural innovation system (AIS), which is defined as “a network of organisations, enterprises, and individuals focused on bringing new products, new processes, and new forms of organisations into social and economic use, together with the institutions and policies that affect their innovative behaviour and performance”. (2)This interactive system is made of individuals and organisations that demand and supply knowledge, as well as the policies and mechanisms that affect the way different agents interact to share, access, and exchange knowledge (Figure 1).
Under the AIS framework, innovation is not merely concerned with technical innovation (e.g. adoption of a better variety). It also includes organisational innovation (e.g. organisation of farmers as groups) and institutional innovation (e.g. addressing uncertainties in land leasing through policy changes). Donors and national governments currently recognise the importance of enhancing the capacity of all actors in the AIS instead of just research or extension. This arises from the realisation that neither research knowledge nor extension activities alone drive innovation. There is greater emphasis on investing in strengthening the capacity to innovate or the process through which different types of knowledge are combined to address specific issues. (3)