Research and advocacy that benefit entire societies


Government policy plays a huge role in agricultural development. Our Policy team provides research-based advice to improve smallholders’ livelihoods and working environment. In two interviews, we ask Yuan Zhou (YZ) and Alva Kretschmer (AK) for further details. Today’s second conversation concentrates on real-life examples – and why this work remains enormously important.

Why do politicians need SFSA policy advice? Are they incompetent, overworked, or simply not interested in smallholders?
(YZ) The right mix of policy interventions, regulations, and investments can put countries on the right path to agriculture transformation. But many developing countries lack policymaking resources. They often turn to external evidence providers to identify, assess and optimize interventions and investments in agriculture.

Taking some concrete examples, what is the SFSA team’s role in our Policy projects?
We play several different roles. The starting point is to identify and select the right topics. We usually do that in consultation with policymakers, researchers, practitioners, local colleagues, and potential partners. Then we set up the project, choose the research and advocacy partners, manage the deliverables, and help disseminate the results. In some cases, we continue the dialogue with policymakers and advisors to achieve positive change.
(AK) In seed policy work in Africa, we help define the scope, collaborate with NML to deliver the research, and engage in dissemination through workshops at AFSTA meetings. Sometimes, we also conduct the research alongside a partner and jointly write the report. Another example is our collaboration with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), in which we co-fund a joint call for a global climate-smart practices assessment. Our shared roles include preparing the concept note and Request for Applications, holding a webinar about the call, selecting the winner, and managing the project.

How do you keep abreast of all the policy issues we work on in SFSA countries?
(AK) We recently started to track the Foundation’s national policy influence systematically. A new database helps us monitor reforms – actual or pending – and their expected impact on smallholders and others. We also track the engagement steps we take to achieve a policy change, the discussion fora with officials, and the next steps. Taken together, these elements provide a good indication of our policy impact…

And how do you stay up to date on agricultural policy more generally?
In SFSA countries, we monitor and track ag-related policies and trends through our Policy Watch. We produce this monthly update in close collaboration with our local colleagues. They have closer insights into national policy landscapes.

Who should subscribe to Policy Watch, and why?
(AK) Certainly, everyone routinely involved in agricultural policy, or agricultural development more generally. Everybody interested in the area is naturally also welcome. You can (and should!) sign up here. Our newsletter summarizes current and evolving policy and regulatory topics in East Africa, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal, as well as Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. We also typically have a section on global topics, such as new programs or decisions by the international aid community. Policy Watch also features the latest SFSA policy papers or events.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of Policy work?
(YZ) The positive impact you can make! Your research can help create a policy that benefits an entire society or even several countries. I also enjoy listening to policymakers and to stakeholders affected by a policy. That provides a deeper understanding of the complexities involved.

What are the main challenges?
(AK) Frequent institutional shifts at the country level can be a real challenge. They can be particularly frustrating when one has just spent considerable effort building up a working relationship on a certain topic. Another big challenge is that many countries only have poor data. For our studies, we, therefore, collect the data ourselves. But that is time-consuming and expensive. Speaking personally, the biggest challenge is that the ‘evidence-to-policy process’ can often take years. Success requires a lot of perseverance, ‘handholding’, and follow-up – in what is often a changing environment.

What has been SFSA’s most surprising research finding?
(YZ) Meeting global food and environmental needs will require a major increase in agricultural R&D. But our studies on reorienting the agricultural R&D agenda found that several countries have recently cut their spending in this area! This is despite good evidence that the return on investment from R&D is usually higher than for input subsidies or even agricultural extension.

What was the SFSA Policy team’s biggest success so far?
(YZ) I would say the ‘smart subsidy study’ in India. SFSA and ICRIER measured the support channeled into farming and found ways to rationalize subsidies for greater efficiency and sustainable growth. The study suggests policy measures and reform options. We shared these in person with the Ministries of Agriculture and of Finance. Central and state governments took up some of the recommendations. Our findings also formed a book, "Supporting Indian farms the Smart Way", launched by the Finance Minister in 2018.

Why should non-profit organizations like ours run policy work in the agricultural sector? Surely suppliers, buyers, and farmers’ associations are more suitable for this task?
(AK) I don’t think so. By their nature, non-profit organizations can more easily be neutral. With no direct commercial interests at stake, we can surface the issues in a way that others might choose to avoid. We listen to numerous different perspectives. Businesses and professional associations often address policy issues with a clear ‘agenda’, which may be limiting. Non-profits’ voices can add a lot of value to the debate.

How do you coordinate your work with that of Syngenta Group?
(YZ) We are in regular contact with the Public Policy team there. When required, we provide insights on policy issues related to smallholder farming. But policy research is not a company focus, so our projects do not overlap much. And our work on seed policy, for example, primarily benefits small local companies serving smallholders, rather than large organizations. We keep the Group informed but act independently.

Why should a funder put money into our Policy work?
(YZ) Because there is still a huge need for policy improvement. Despite some progress over recent decades, policy barriers and governance issues still hamper many developing countries. They severely hinder agricultural development, particularly for smallholders. So, despite all that we and others have achieved, there’s still a lot to be done. Notable areas for policy improvement include farm inputs (e.g., seeds, mechanization, and subsidies), as well as water use. Another big topic is land tenure, particularly for women. In addition, climate change will continue to affect agriculture significantly. How smallholders can best adapt, and what government and policy support is required, are still major questions.
(AK) Policies are crucial for systemic change and transformation. Funders interested in systemic change in agriculture should support policy work, including ours, that unleashes smallholders’ potential. Improvements here pave the way to a more sustainable and food-secure future.


*Here’s the first interview