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Identifying holistic interventions in smallholder agriculture through systems analysis and tools

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Buffalo shower. Photo Credit: Fasseh Shams/IWMI

Use of computer based simulation tools for systems analysis helps target efforts and devise tactics for coping with climate risk in the highly variable climates of semi-arid regions -- this was the key message that emerged from an international workshop on systems analysis, held 9-11 May at ICRISAT in India and attended by about 30 research scientists from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The focus of the workshop was on how such tools are being applied in research for development (R4D) and particularly for identifying market-led opportunities for development. Some of the workshop topics were:

  • Why systems modelling: Examples of its application in the real world
  • Value chain models
  • System dynamics approaches in analyzing and developing value chains in agriculture
  • Transitioning smallholder farm systems in the semi-arid to cope with climate variability and more frequent extreme events
  • Modelling adaptation strategies for crop-livestock systems in Southern Africa and South Asia
  • Tradeoffs and implications for sustainable intensification in dryland agriculture
  • Tool for supporting stakeholders' assessment and planning of sustainable land management (SLM) at landscape level
  • State-of-the-art in model based approaches

The workshop included hands-on training on System Dynamics (SD) tools using the iThink software to illustrate SD concepts in a modeling context.

"The timing is perfect for bringing increased focus on understanding the potential of value chain modelling, to bring about market led innovation," said Dr. Quang Bao Le, Agricultural Livelihood Systems Expert at the GCIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.

The concept of an innovations systems approach to the challenge of improving farm productivity recognizes the importance of conditions that are needed to create demand for technologies and how knowledge may be used to bring about such changes. An important component of innovation systems thinking is that innovations most often emerge when actors collaborate and communicate.

“The key to facilitating such dialogue with farmers, service providers, extension agencies and policy makers, is the use of systems analysis using computer based simulation tools,” said Dr. Anthony Whitbread, Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands, ICRISAT.

In the context of smallholder resource poor agriculture, widely used examples of computer based simulation tools include climate-based crop risk management tools (e.g. crop-soil farming system models APSIM, DSSAT), household bio-economic models approaches (e.g. optimization, cash-flow budgeting), coupled farm-region-national bio-economic models (e.g. value chain model), and whole farm dynamic models (e.g. NUANCES, APSFARM) to mention a few.

The first day of the workshop covered state-of-the-art in systems analysis, while the next two days focused on value chain modelling using the iThink software. Participants were introduced to a toolbox containing relevant analytical methodologies for undertaking R4D in smallholder settings.

Participants built their own value chain models drawing on examples from their on-going work: the role of small ruminants and fodder in dry areas of Zimbabwe; medicinal plants as cash crops in Rajasthan; high-quality sorghum in Nigeria, etc. Participants identified key strategies to increase prices received by farmers or to create new demand for products, and discussed how innovation platforms might be applied to overcome constraints.

Resource persons included: Dr Neil Macleod, Dr Ben Henderson and Dr Kanar Diyzee, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia; Dr Quang Bao Le, CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems, Jordan; Dr Anthony Whitbread, Dr Vincent Vadez and Dr Peter Carberry, ICRISAT-India.

The workshop was held  as part of the Modern Approaches in Systems Analysis of Resource Poor Farming Systems with a Focus on Value Chains for Market-led Innovation Project, conducted under the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems in partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

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