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The quest for the elusive research-in-development impact

Africa Rising, Babati, Tanzania
A farmer from Long village, Babati, Tanzania. Photo Credit: S. Malyon/CIAT

The project on Restoration of Degraded Land for Food security and Poverty Reduction in East Africa and the Sahel: taking successes in land restoration to scale seeks to reduce food insecurity and improve livelihoods of poor people living in African drylands by restoring degraded land, and returning it to effective and sustainable tree, crop and livestock production, thereby increasing land profitability and landscape and livelihood resilience. 

Recently, the IFAD-funded project hosted a research community of practice workshop with scientists, monitoring and evaluation experts, and communication specialist from the CGIAR  in Nairobi, Kenya from 19-20 May 2016. The goal of the workshop was to develop a clear Impact Pathway and Monitoring and Evaluation Framework and collective understanding of the concrete actions required to help the project track its progress and effectively demonstrate the research and development outcomes and impact of its interventions. Hosted at the campus of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dryland Areas (ICARDA), workshop participants from these and other CGIAR centres (ICRISAT and ILRI) worked  to:

  • Clearly outline the theory of change that informed the development of the project Impact Pathway
  • Identify the critical elements of the project implementation plans that will ensure success
  • Outline the communication needs and opportunities to support uptake and effective delivery of project impact on intended beneficiaries and other stakeholders

Discussions centered around two fundamental issues. The first is the importance of the underpinning lessons learned from previous research work and development intervention, and establishing a coherent system where consolidating local practices from various stakeholders in all the project target countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali and Niger) is more a matter of walking  the walk than talking the talk. The second point relates to the notorious challenge of charting and effectively attributing the elusive impact that takes time to materialize in the context of long term interventions such as land restoration, and the complex factors that affect it along the way.

The overriding question in everybody’s mind was: “Which are the best SMART indicators that should be used to track and evaluate project outcomes and impact?”

Indicator sets were drawn from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Framework), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the CGIAR frameworks, among others in order to select an appropriate set of indicators that is aligned well with the overall CGIAR research strategy and the global development agenda. Rather than inventing the wheel, the value of this approach is about situating the project firmly in the wider context of the global research and development agenda in order to make its impact relevant and easier to communicate and demonstrate to the relevant local stakeholders in a language they already understand. The project is very much premised on designing options for local contexts, which means, that its indicators must also be robust enough for the varying contexts at local level.

An additional challenge is agreeing on the indicators where understanding of key terms and definitions varies depending on who you speak to – an ecologist versus a development partner; a policy maker versus a farmer; etc.The term impact will differ very widely between stakeholders. For example, we spoke with some farmers who had been part of an ICRAF-led regreening effort in the county of Machakos, Kenya, in 2013. Mr. Wambua and his granddaughter, who had just finished watering their seedlings, proudly showed us around their well diversified, tree covered, terraced shamba (field), where pockets of seedlings were arranged by use, such as fruit, soil improvement, commercial sale, home use, etc. 

Restored land is the shared impact target of both research and development, but, for the seasoned farmer and his young granddaughter, the livelihood impact they had anticipated when first joining the project was primarily related to gaining extra income by selling seedlings.

 “A major issues is that setting impact indicators is usually more of a top down exercise with little consultation at other levels,” notes Sumera Jabeen of World Vision Australia, an ICRAF development partner.

Her colleague Ronald Ngetich also adds that quantitative indicators do not always tell the whole story. There are certain qualitative indicators that are inherently difficult to track and measure, such as knowledge and behavioral changes of farmers and farmer groups. Hence, the systematic monitoring and evaluation of both quantitative and qualitative indicators can be a challenging and at times costly exercise.

“What has been lacking is a process of social learning whereby successes and failures are analysed scientifically, and where this is supplemented by the context based learning that has been gathered from the various communities and their experience socially... this is precisely what the project is seeking to accomplish,” says Leigh Winowiecki, project lead on engaging partners in an iterative co-learning cycle throughout project implementation.

Leigh Winowiecki, ICRAF scientist presenting at the impact pathway workshop. Photo Credit: Tana Lala-Pritchard/Dryland Systems

Challenges aside, the workshop participants were able to define an Impact Pathway for the project, which is already helping to establish a better understanding amongst project partners for developing site-specific impact pathways that are relevant to the actual situation faced by farmers on the ground in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali and Niger.

These are all difficulties that researchers, development practitioners, and policy makers face on a constant basis in their quest to affecting real change and progress on people’s livelihoods.  

To learn more about the project, please visit the website and watch this video on farmers of Mwingi, Kenya, where they talk about some of the land problems they face.

About the author

Akefetey Mamo is a Communications Specialist based in Nairobi at the World Agroforestry Center.


The project on Restoration of Degraded Land for Food security and Poverty Reduction in East Africa and the Sahel is conducted under the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems. The project is funded by International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and its implementation is led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).