Shifting focus to Climate-Smart Agriculture: The Importance of Stakeholder Engagement

Bangladesh workshop
Stakeholders from various sectors utilizing a newly developed climate-smart agriculture decision-support framework in Dhaka, Bangladesh. 


The term 'Climate-Smart Agriculture' (CSA) refers to farming methods that promote sustainable production, resilience to climate-related risks and climate change mitigation. In collaboration with NRI (University of Greenwich, UK), we have co-created a digital tool to facilitate CSA decision-making (currently under scientific review for publication). We evaluated the tool at experts’ workshops in Bangladesh and Kenya to evaluate the 'climate-smartness' of our interventions, bringing together partner representatives, academics, and experts from our teams. 

We asked NRI’s Prof. Conor Walsh*, the primary author of the study, to share his insights on the importance of the “Climate-Smart Decision Guide tool”**. 

**The Climate-Smart Decision Guide tool is an Excel-based method for evaluating Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) interventions in a specific setting. It examines five different result pathways (agricultural production, income and assets, value chains, human capital, and natural capital) to see how they impact a project's success in Sustainable Production, Adaptation, and Mitigation, the three pillars of CSA.

Can you talk about your previous experience and how it contrasts with your current role?

Conor Walsh (CW): Before my current position, I worked in a very isolated setting, dealing with high-level global models around resource flows and economics. While interesting, it felt removed from the real impact on people's lives. My work was either at a very large or very small scale, and I felt that the scale in between, which interacts with human decision-making, was missing.


How has your involvement in this project impacted your approach to research and development?

CW: Working at NRI at a farm or regional level has allowed me to directly collaborate with individuals like farmers and government officials. This has made the output of my work feel more tangible to these stakeholders. My work with SFSA has further emphasized the value of co-creation in research and development.


Why do you believe co-creation is important in research?

CW: Co-creation involving different stakeholders helps retain focus on important aspects that might be overlooked if we only rely on academic sources. It also adds significant value to research framing. It helps us take something that would otherwise be more idealized and perhaps a little bit less relevant, to something that hopefully has greater relevance to those whom we're ultimately hoping to benefit with our research efforts.


Would you say that Climate-Smart Agriculture is an idealized concept?

CW: Climate-smart agriculture is often discussed at a high level, focusing on agricultural productivity, climate impacts, and adaptation. However, bringing these concepts to local scales helps us understand the trade-offs and challenges at a micro level, which are not as apparent at the macro level. This approach also prevents falling into the trap of assuming that all interventions are inherently climate-smart, as real constraints and trade-offs become more visible at the stakeholder level.

By moving away from high-level discussions, we realize that many climate-smart interventions may result in reductions in yield due to the scale of climate challenge. In some cases, the best that CSA can do is find a way of trying to stabilize the impacts on yield. Engaging stakeholders in the CSA interventions helps to ensure more realistic expectations.


As a product, how do you see the Climate-Smart Decision Guide tool's usability? How do you think you can call it robust from an academic perspective?

CW: The tool is a method to bring together existing understanding and perceptions around a CSA intervention. It does not have any ability to measure or quantify impacts. However, it was intended to be usable by stakeholders within situations where robust information is available. In an ideal scenario, externally validated information would inform user choices. The initial version of the tool aimed to explicitly quantify CSA impacts, but we found it unrealistic to expect the necessary level of quantification across all pillars of CSA (Sustainable Production, Adaptation, and Mitigation). Nonetheless, the tool is transparent, allowing users to decide what elements to include and choose different weighting systems. It serves as a heuristic tool, facilitating decision-making and learning within a group, particularly for portfolio management of agricultural projects. It also helps understand the extent to which different actors can meet wider climate-smart agriculture objectives. The tool provides a clearer picture of climate-smart agriculture from micro to larger scales and helps design a mosaic of projects at a regional level.


What was your take on the workshops in Bangladesh and Kenya?

CW: The workshops were challenging but crucial in refining the tool's design and gathering feedback for improvement while measuring the climate smartness of the case studies. The main goal was to test the tool on different project types and identify important differences between projects at a detailed level. 

For me, it was surprising to realize the effort required to provide a full complement of answers for each project. This holistic view was attained thanks to the subject specialists present, who added rigor and robustness to the results. This reemphasized the need for collaboration in assessing CSA.


How do you think that these results can support the scalability of these projects?

CW: The tool can help identify areas where individual projects excel and where they have weaknesses. This understanding can aid in designing a portfolio that compensates for the weaknesses of individual projects. Certain project strengths may be dependent on small-scale actors, and therefore, it poses a challenge in terms of how we replicate that level of commitment or interactivity or management at a larger level.


Finally, what are your takes on this joint project with SFSA?

CW: I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support and co-creation with SFSA. It felt like being part of a project team working towards the same goals, which was encouraging. Working with individuals who are genuinely inspired by the work and its impact, rather than solely driven by academic pursuits, was refreshing. The Foundation's involvement at every step, from process formulation to manuscript production, was consistent and supportive, unlike anything I had experienced before. This genuine commitment to making a difference is not something that happens every day.

I have also been hugely encouraged by the deliberate inclusion of national experts in the process. Their involvement is not just a formality but a vital contribution that validates the representation of individual projects and the wider operation of the tool. This inclusion ensures that their inputs result in tangible outputs, preventing the trap of “parachute research” and instead fostering genuine collaboration and leadership from national teams. 


* Prof. Conor Walsh, PhD, leads an MSc program entitled ‘Global Environmental Change’ at NRI. The program is based on the land/water/climate nexus, emphasizing the relevance of global processes to local decisions. 

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