Like in any relationship, a partnership needs to grow and evolve

CIP interview

CIP has been a longstanding strategic partner of SFSA, with current ongoing efforts focused on the second phase of a public-private partnership aimed at developing climate-resilient potatoes for tropical and subtropical conditions. We asked Simon Heck* and Hugo Campos** on CIP’s prioritization strategies, its work, and the ever-evolving landscape for potato and sweetpotato farming.


Syngenta Foundation: In one of our partnerships with CIP, we recently praised the very fast progress. What do you see as the key to accelerating the development and market introduction of new potato varieties?  

 Hugo Campos (HC): There were two main factors in Vietnam. We designed a very fast breeding program. That helped identify potential elite varieties very quickly and combine elite germplasm from HCPZ and CIP. The other key component was that right from the start, we thought about how to accelerate the hand-over from research to registration and seed multiplication and commercialization. We're very proud of what we’ve achieved as a result. The first variety has already been released, and the second is due out next year.


Together, CIP and we have concentrated on potatoes. But you also work on sweetpotato. What is recent big news here, and what can growers and consumers expect over the next ten years?  

Simon Heck (SH):  Sweetpotato is hugely important for food security in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It’s tasty, healthy, and amongst the most affordable foods in many countries in the Global South.  Sweetpotato thrives under drought and can cope well with saline soils. With soil and water salinity increasing in Asian deltas, farmers there are shifting from rice to sweetpotato. Similarly, sweetpotato production is expanding in the drylands of Africa when other crops retreat. As the crop gets planted in more and more places, CIP is developing varieties adapted to new environments. 

As well as being a staple for many poor people, sweetpotato also taps into premium markets as a “superfood”. Snacks and other processed products are increasingly popular, for example substituting for wheat flour and refined sugars in bakery items. Sweetpotato therefore offers good returns for smallholders. It’s robust enough not to need many inputs but can attract good prices at the higher end of the market. 

HC: We predict further expansion of production and more investment in processing. CIP’s role is therefore twofold. We need to provide varieties that meet ever-changing demands. We must also work with other parts of the food sector to make sure that the processing technologies are accessible where we operate. We have good examples of that happening in Africa and Asia. For the first time, sweetpotato is going into commercial baby food. Kenya and other countries can now produce that locally and reduce their dependence on imports.


CIP puts strong emphasis on “looking beyond research”, notably for smallholders. What are good examples of this? How do you choose what to focus on? 

SH: We work closely with farming communities and see them as partners in research. For example, in the Andes, we strive for equitable partnerships with communities cultivating native potato varieties. In these areas, CIP and other international organizations have been doing research and collecting potato germplasm for decades – following international protocols and involving communities in the research process. But more is needed in terms of empowerment and benefit flows. For example, through what we call “repatriation”, we share back varieties we received many years ago and that communities have since lost. As a consequence of climate change, communities in the Andes struggle with keeping their farms productive and are very keen on cultivating potato varieties they may have lost in the past or entirely new ones that have developed with our national partners in Peru.  The communities are actively involved in repatriation. 

For some other crops, repatriation can be more difficult. Then one needs to find other ways for equitable benefit flows. Typically, communities then receive payment for sharing their property, the agro-biodiversity of their heritage. Fortunately, CIP is not the only international organization to acknowledge that we owe benefits to the communities providing varieties in gene banks. Our operations follow the ‘International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’, and we work closely with UN partners such as the FAO, and with the Global Crop Diversity Trust.


What about food security and nutrition? 

HC: In Africa, we collaborate with humanitarian agencies like the World Food Program. We help ensure that refugees, particularly children, benefit from nutritious varieties developed at CIP. Examples include sweetpotato rich in vitamin A and iron-enriched potatoes. These are not usually available to refugees via “normal” markets; maintaining supplies requires major aid efforts. But as well as the humanitarian benefits, smallholders also gain: Aid programs are big customers. The high demand additionally raises farming communities’ appreciation for the nutritious new varieties. All our work in such areas goes way beyond classical R&D. 


The CGIAR’s Executive Managing Director recently called for more "gender investment" to transform food systems. What can CIP do for gender equity? 

SH: Our crops provide very good opportunities for women. Potato and sweetpotato are often locally produced and marketed. As owners of local businesses, women play a big role in these crop value chains. That is much less the case with internationally traded commodities such as cereals. Potato and sweetpotato are important sources of female income.  Sweetpotato, indeed, is often a “women’s crop”. Men frequently have better access to prime farmland and to membership of agricultural cooperatives. Sweetpotato grows on poorer soils not served by large irrigation systems. Women can therefore manage this crop independently. They can make their own decisions because cultivating it doesn’t require membership of an association. Potato and sweetpotato are also less capital-intensive than many other crops. Even a small business with limited access to credit can participate successfully. 


In 2021, a CIP employee co-authored a White Paper by the Crops to End Hunger initiative. It suggested, for example, the creation of a single seed delivery unit for all of One CGIAR. What has happened in this area so far? 

HC: It’s an important vision. But realistically, this will take time. Seed commercialization routes vary hugely by crop and region. Convergence and exchanging experience are certainly desirable. But I think of the White Paper more as a directional guide than a blueprint for current operations.


Externally at least, things seem to have gone a bit quiet around One CGIAR. It was hailed as a "dynamic reformulation [...] for greater integration and impact". Where has this process got to, where is it going, and what does it mean for CIP?

SH: The big picture remains: All Research Centers of the CGIAR are committed to working together more closely to address the tremendous challenges of global food security under climate change. We want to become one science and innovation partner to the countries where we operate and to our international partners. CGIAR offers one comprehensive value proposition as a research partner. We want to deliver best value for money for our funders and for our beneficiaries, avoiding fragmentation and duplication. We are now learning more about how best to manage this change process, what steps to take first, how to align and update our priorities, and what steps can wait for the next stage. As we pace ourselves better and sequence our steps correctly, we'll make more progress. 


Why do you think progress has been slower so far than originally expected?

HC: One reason is that consolidation is hard work! Lots of different projects have been combined into “Mega-Programs”. Getting their design right takes time. We must find the right balance between efficient simplification and the diversity of our contributions. CGIAR centers like CIP are tackling huge and urgent global challenges such as food security and climate change. We need to be nimble. Heavy bureaucracy is out of place. But I think One CGIAR has realized that. Another reason for apparent slow progress is that the One CGIAR project perhaps underestimated the weight of our partners’ views. This is particularly true of countries in the global south, and their national ag R&D systems with which we closely work with. They have lots to say about their needs and the role they believe CGIAR should play. We can't meet every demand. But we needed to get better at collecting, analyzing and jointly discussing countries’ feedback. 


Whether with us or the many other organizations with which you work: What makes a good partner for CIP? 

HC: The most important thing is having a common vision and understanding that we are going in the same direction. A partner is a good partner when there is an equitable partnership and mutual respect. And also, to keep the partnership becoming healthier and stronger in the future, not only the work, and the effort has to be shared, but also the attribution of impacts.

SH: Like in any relationship, a partnership needs to grow and evolve. It's not a static agreement. You need to learn together, and you need to be able, willing, and excited about adjusting your roles. So, in five or ten years from now, all partners need to be stronger than they are today. And that's something for which I think we need to have performance indicators and targets. How do we want to improve ourselves by working together? A partnership is a journey, and we need to map that out, given the challenges ahead.

HC: SFSA has been a wonderful partner for us, an outstanding one. We have been working together for many years and we have grown together and have achieved success, that's important. But also, now we are thinking very seriously about ways of building on the previous success, and we came up with different ways of partnering between the two organizations.


Why and how CIP seeks to look beyond smallholder agriculture – into external drivers of food system change such as rapid global urbanization, and its impact on root and tuber crops.

SH: The number of smallholder farmers is declining, and while smallholder farming will continue to be important locally, its share for global food security is diminishing. This is just part of larger transformations, such as urbanization and other economic development drivers. With this transformation in mind, we need to ask ourselves how the food systems will look like in 20 or 50 years from now. And what do we need to do today to build for that future?

As much as CIP is truly committed to working with smallholder farmers, there are other constituencies we are also concerned about, such as urban consumers. More than 3 billion people live in cities in low- and middle-income countries and this number will increase sharply. Many of them struggle to afford a healthy diet although they spend most of their income on food. Their food does not come from smallholder farmers; it is nutritionally poor but still expensive. So we need to ask ourselves, how do we break out of this dilemma? How do we provide food to everybody in the growing cities of the Global South that's nutritious, that's safe to eat, and still affordable? We need solutions beyond smallholder farming to cater for what will be the majority of the world's population – poor urban people living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As an international research organization, we need to be open-minded about that future and say, how do we start today to construct partnerships with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture and other valued partners, to address those future challenges?


*Simon Heck is, PhD is the General Director of CIP and CGIAR Senior Director. Dr. Heck is widely recognized as a leader of successful international multi-stakeholder research-for-development programs focused on improving food and nutrition security, breeding climate-smart crops, and fostering inclusive value chains. 

**Hugo Campos, MBA, PhD is the Deputy General Director for Science and Innovation at CIP. Most of his professional career has focused on plant breeding in industry  and he is an advanced practitioner of topics such as innovation and entrepreneurship.