Farmers, agri-business and service providers have to innovate continuously to adapt to an ever-changing environment (including markets, climate and resources). Innovation is about putting ideas that are new to a certain location into practice, and in this way changing the situation of those living in this area for the better. These “ideas” can be a new way of irrigating a field (i.e. a technology), a new way of organizing women farmers to bulk their produce (i.e. an organizational innovation), or a new policy that supports smallholders in getting bank loans (i.e. an institutional innovation). In agriculture, innovation often involves a combination of these different types of changes. For example: a new way of diverting water to fields requires that the farmers organize themselves in water use associations, which must in turn be supported by the local authorities.
Innovation is stimulated when multiple actors (farmers, NGOs, service providers, traders, agro-dealers, researchers, policy makers) interact and share their ideas, knowledge and opinions to come up with new solutions. Innovation platforms can be used by advisory services and other actors as a means to bring different actors together to discuss and negotiate collective or coordinated action.
Philosophy and Principles
- Diverse composition of stakeholders.
- Address a shared problem or opportunity, not the agenda of one or two members only.
- Facilitation by a neutral person/organisation with convening authority.
- Initial success motivates the members to commit to the platform.
- Change resulting from the innovation should benefit multiple members.
- Exchange and learning should remain central.
- Platform members must show respect to each other despite of diverging opinions and knowledge.
- Systems for ensuring transparency and accountability must be in place.
1. Ask yourself: is an innovation platform the best tool? Consider the costs to be incurred, the issues at stake (i.e. do you want to disseminate an idea or to solve a problem? - the former can probably be done in much cheaper ways), and whether platform members are willing to work together (see Case 2). If an innovation platform looks right to you, then define your (general!) topic or theme, and at what level the platform should operate, e.g. district level, provincial level, or national level.
2. Look at what is already in place - do not start from scratch if not needed. Build on previous partnerships and initiatives. Ask potential partners which initiatives they have been involved in, and whether the innovation platform will add value to on-going initiatives. (Re-)consider, on that basis, whether a new innovation platform is really the best tool to use - or if existing multi-stakeholder structures could be used instead.
Recommended tools: interviews with key partners, stakeholder analysis.
3. Identify potential platform members: This step can be done either in a meeting with several initiators, or prior to that. It includes:
Identify which actors (individuals, partner organizations, etc.) would add value to the platform. Do not limit the choice to like-minded partners or usual suspects; but do realize that the agenda needs to move forward quickly (i.e. not be dragged by endless discussions with actors unwilling to cooperate).
Select the most appropriate actors and secure their active involvement by discussing with them, prior to the meeting, about their interest and concerns.
Recommended tools: stakeholder analysis, interviews with key partners.
4. Jointly develop an action plan: this step is best done in a meeting/workshop; but can be prepared by discussing with key actors - and marginal actors likely to be excluded from the discussion, such as women farmers - beforehand. It includes:
- Define main concerns and opportunities the platform could focus on.
- Prioritise these - focus on a few, concrete, and tangible issues; for which there is energy and enthusiasm in the group.
- Define a few concrete activities, and define who is responsible for making those happen, by when. One way to define activities is to let actors themselves say what they want to do, or be responsible to do, to help solving a certain problem.
Recommended tools: action planning, ranking of priorities.
5. Define roles and responsibilities: in a meeting, define the platform’s governance structure and the general division of responsibilities (see section on governance below).
Recommended tools: open discussion at meeting.
6. Keep partners engaged: a common challenge of innovation platforms, as partners may stop coming to the meetings after a few initial well-attended gatherings. A few tips:
- Commitment grows from successful first actions: the earlier platform members start seeing benefits of the platform, the better.
- Choose the “right” individuals to participate; those preferably not sitting too “high” in an organization hierarchy (and who will probably not have the time to attend the platform’s meetings) nor too “low” (with little or no decision making power, frustrating him/herself and others by taking too long to make things happen).
- Task the facilitator to make an additional effort to engage those who may not be at ease to speak out at meetings, such as women farmers.
7. Revisit, re-plan: a platform may start with a specific problem. Once this is solved, it needs to move on. Re-planning is therefore an important step, to be taken often. It involves:
- Check how far you are in solving the problem (or taking full advantage of an opportunity) prioritised. What has gone right so far? What hasn’t? What could we learn from that?
- Discuss whether it is time to choose other topics, and go again through a process of prioritisation and action planning.
8. Plan for the long term: often, innovation platforms start up as part of a project. What happens after the project ends? It is important to say that a platform has its existence justified only if it continues to catalyse positive action. So once that positive action ends, the platform may as well be dissolved. If the platform partners intend to continue working together, they have to make agreements - as early in the process as possible - on how the functioning costs of the platform (meeting venues, broker, implementation of activities) will be covered.
Governance and Management
The existence of a well-working coordination body (core group, board or committee) which is accountable towards platform members (and donors where present) makes the innovation platform more transparent and trustworthy. These can be rotating functions, so to allow actors to change roles throughout the process.
Platform members need to be kept up-to-date, and they need to know what other members do. This is a challenge when activity implementation is in the hands of many individuals/organizations. It can be improved through the following activities:
- Making sure platform members feel part of planning, implementation and discussion of achievements.
- Holding regular meeting in which partners report on their activities. There is a risk of overburdening the platform members, so keep it simple and pragmatic. Asking platform members to write reports every month is simply not realistic.
- Circulating information through e-mail/text messages, visits to platform members.
- Organizing a meeting with platform members’ managers once in a while (if appropriate).
- Organizing joint field days to see what other platform members are doing.
Capacities required of providers and participants
The costs of an innovation platform vary greatly. The operational costs can range between zero to several thousands of dollars per year. Platform members also incur costs; all members have to commit time to the meetings and activities of the innovation platform. Costs to consider for sustaining an innovation platform are:
- Facilitator (salary or at least payment for incurred expenses such as travel)
- Venue and refreshments for meetings
- Travel costs of participants
- Per diems for participants to attend meetings (only if strictly required as this can create wrong incentives)
- Communication costs (e.g. phone bills, printing)
- Funds for experiments with new ideas
In principle, there is a good argument for public funds to be used to support start-up of platforms, provided that some co-funding (in cash or kind) from other stakeholders are in place.
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Centre for Development Innovation. Knowledge co-creation portal: Multi-stakeholder processes. Tools
Ramsar CEPA. A Guide to Participatory Action Planning and Techniques for Facilitating Groupsand Techniques for Facilitating Groups: Supporting people taking action for the wise use of wetlands and other natural resources through an integrated approach to planning communication, education, participation and awareness raising. Page 77-85
Tennyson, R. 2003. The Partnering Toolbook. The International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).