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Dryland Systems: Developing an enhanced science and implementation agenda


To consolidate progress and plan the road ahead, the ICARDA-led CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems recently brought leading world scientists and the Program’s International Science Advisory Committee to Amman, Jordan, where lively and productive discussions helped to identify on-going challenges and initiate the development of an ‘action plan’ to facilitate the transition to a new phase of research.


The five-day meeting (June 30-July 4) provided an opportunity for research teams to report on the implementation of activities across the Program’s five flagship regions: West African Sahel and Dry Savannas, North Africa and West Asia, East and Southern Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and South Asia.


The past 18 months have seen considerable progress as the Program entered its research phase with a number of key initiatives taking off. Program scientists have been consolidating the ‘systems approach’ to agricultural research-for-development, and participants noted a number of positive trends: a shift from descriptive to diagnostic approaches; increasing participation from a broad range of actors; the emergence of a ‘value-chain’ approach; and increasing recognition of enabling institutions and good governance.


Subsequent debates helped to review lessons learned – positives and negatives - to inform and strengthen this approach as the Dryland Systems program moves ahead. Implementation will be assisted by the development of ‘Agricultural Livelihood Systems,’ activities focused around sets of farm and human activities that also encompass food and nutritional security, health and well-being, employment, and income-generation.


While it was recognized that a ‘systems approach’ is challenging, a number of recommendations were put forward, including: continual efforts to share lessons; the development of standard performance indicators; strategies for scaling-out beyond individual ‘action sites;’ and greater integration – encouraging partners to enhance collaboration on joint project proposals.


The meeting included a field visit to the Program’s El-Karak ‘Action Site’ in southern Jordan where participants were able to get an appreciation of the challenges that face rural communities in dryland areas. The visit covered milk processing activities, sheep management, and the tending of small-scale olive orchards, all against the backdrop of family farming.        

The Dryland Systems science and implementation meeting provided an opportunity to review progress and plan the transition to a new phase of research




Increased productivity, better income for families


A first wave of Dryland Systems projects has demonstrated significant promise for smallholder farmers and communities. Program scientists are now rising to the challenge of trying to understand how integrated technologies and interventions can be scaled-up within a systems perspective and applied across the Program’s five global target regions. 


In Eastern Africa, researchers have compiled information related to the resilience-enhancing potential of trees in the dry areas of Eastern Africa – trees are a significant contributor to rural livelihoods, enhancing resilience during periodic climatic shocks. ‘Treesilience’ is a package of practical technologies and knowledge for practitioners and policymakers, helping to guide development efforts and raise awareness about the importance of managing these valuable resources sustainably.


Also in Eastern Africa, pastoralist-policymaker dialogues have enhanced understanding and generated mutual benefits for both groups: pastoralists are given a forum to articulate their needs, and decision-makers now better understand the livelihood choices made by pastoralists and the impacts they have on rangeland environments.


Across the continent in West Africa, three wheat value chain platforms have been established in Kano State, Nigeria, where the successful introduction of improved, high-yielding wheat varieties is convincing policymakers that the answer to their country’s growing dependence on wheat imports is sustainable domestic production – the new varieties are yielding 5-6 tons/hectare, significantly higher than the 1-2 t/ha generated by traditional varieties.


Efforts are also underway to empower women through the strengthening of key value chains. Two research-for-development partnerships in Central Asia are successfully linking rural communities with high-value, global markets for wool and yarn. The impact: increased incomes for villages and households, and business models that can be applied to dryland communities worldwide.


Applying experience shared from research and development projects in Afghanistan, Morocco, and Turkey, women in Jordan are also cultivating medicinal plants in their home gardens as a means of reducing land degradation, protecting biodiversity, and increasing household income.        

‘Treesilience’ – compiling knowledge  related to the resilience-enhancing potential of trees in the drylands of Eastern Africa




Innovation platforms: partnerships that encourage research with communities


An important milestone for the Dryland Systems program over the previous eighteen months has been the creation of 15 ‘innovation platforms’ across the Program’s five global target regions, which bring together the partners needed to link research to action at the policy and community levels – including  researchers, NGOs, community-based organizations, local and national authorities, academia, farmer organizations, and extension agencies.


In the North Africa and West Asia region, three innovation platforms were established in Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. Community dialogues permitted researchers to demonstrate technology packages, and communities were given the opportunity to raise their needs. In Karak, Jordan, crop-livestock solutions, improved crop varieties, and olive production will be pursued, and in the Nile Delta and Meknes action sites, the benefits of integrated pest management will be explored, as part of an integrated agro-ecosystems approach.


Research teams in Central Asia concentrated on improved coordination between local agencies and communities to explore and agree on integrated solutions. In workshops, researchers and development partners presented and discussed the potential of new technologies: higher-yielding disease and pest-resistant crop varieties, diversified cropping options, pest management, and increasing irrigation efficiency.


Elsewhere, in East and Southern Africa innovation platforms are hosting on-going dialogues between all stakeholders in the research-to-market value chain, investigating constraints to improved livelihoods and targeting technologies, practices, and policies to community needs. The overall goal is to achieve effective crop-livestock integration for all participating communities. The integrated value chains being researched include goats, groundnuts, maize, and beef cattle marketing.        

Innovation platforms are testing, validating and disseminating new technologies capable of strengthening resilience and raising productivity across dryland area




Bridging the gender gap: Involving more women in dry land agriculture


The gender team within the Dryland Systems research program is moving ahead in the five global target regions to enhance the involvement of women in decision making and strengthen their benefits in the food production system. These efforts have been consolidated over recent months with the finalization of a gender strategy and a workshop to discuss practical approaches to implement, mainstream and track the involvement of women across all research sites and regions.


There has also been progress in each of the target regions as researchers initiate efforts on-the-ground. In Mali, gender-related interventions are being incorporated into projects, including: focus group discussions involving men and women, an inventory of diverse plants and animal species, ethno-biological surveys, village household surveys to assess women’s roles and enhance the benefits they receive from agriculture. Other analyses focus on food security, the food consumption behavior of mothers and children, and their adaptability to dry areas.


In South Asia, a ‘farmer facilitator’ approach specifically targets women farmers, providing training on appropriate land, water, and soil management. “Engaging a larger number of women farmers is extremely important, as – once they are better informed – they show more dedication in the field,” says K. H. Anantha, a team member of the Bhoochetana Program in India. He adds that some ten percent of the facilitators hired are women:

“They appreciate other women’s situations better and improve the circulation of information to other women active in smallholder farming.”


In Southern Africa’s Chinyanja Triangle, gender studies are examining which farming technologies are currently used by men and women. A baseline survey pinpoints the specific demand-driven requirements and technology preferences of female versus male farmers.


This data reveals that most of the technologies are delivered without looking into the specific requirements of how women also use these technologies. Everisto Mapedza, Team Leader for gender research in East and Southern Africa, explains: “Technologies need to be gendered. Today there are more women working in farming than ever before, as men are migrating to seek higher-paying employment opportunities.”


Gender issues, trends and needs vary and are defined by existing socio-economic situations in target regions and action sites. Analysis in east and southern Africa has shown that the percentage of women with access to land and other resources can be relatively high – with men working and living in other locations for most of the year. But, men continue to take responsibility for key decisions when they return home for planting and harvesting activities, which limits the influence of women considerably.


Gender activities in Central Asia are also starting to gain momentum. Upcoming activities will analyze gender roles and access to knowledge for communities on marginal lands – for example, knowledge on the availability of quality seed and stress-tolerant crop varieties – and assess the impact of gender involvement in water management.        

‘Bridging the gender gap’ – enhancing the potential of women farmers




Q&A: Richard Thomas, incoming Director of Dryland Systems


Dr. Richard Thomas, the incoming Director of Dryland Systems, joins the Program from the United Nations University-Institute for Water, Environment, and Health where he was Assistant Director of the Institute’s Dryland Program. No stranger to the CGIAR, Dr. Thomas spent his early career with CIAT, and later at ICARDA and ICRISAT. He recently shared his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for improving the livelihoods of people in the world’s dry areas.


The challenges facing dryland communities are well known. What positive aspects do you see in the years ahead?

Dryland communities do face harsh realities. But, it is also true that we can learn a lot from the ingenuity and resilience of these communities – something that will become critical for developing solutions in the future. An innovative aspect of the program is its aspiration to effectively integrate new science with indigenous knowledge.


What do you see as unique about the Dryland Systems program?

Science programs like ours are bridging the science-policy and science-practitioner divides, and adopting more inclusive, inter-disciplinary approaches to research for development. We are helping to create innovations, and successfully adapting them to specific contexts – this is a unique approach in the sector. Our ‘systems’ approach offers great potential, providing a combination of interventions that can effectively deal with the myriad problems facing dryland countries.


What are some of the challenges that may affect the Program’s development in the years ahead?

A key challenge is convincing the private sector to invest in drylands. The private sector plays a crucial role in providing investments that both create and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. It is also a critical actor in efforts to scale-up successful interventions. This potential has not yet been tapped.


How can we encourage the private sector to play a bigger role?

The private sector will be reluctant to act without clear and encouraging signs from the public sector. This could mean, for instance, new markets for ecosystem services, more accessible data, or subsidy schemes that help farmers shift to sustainable land management practices. This is one area where the Program can provide evidence to convince private investment in drylands development.


What is your vision for the future?

A number of our current activities demonstrate the Program’s comparative advantage and we plan to build on these strengths in the years ahead. They include trans-disciplinary integrated approaches that are driven by countries or communities; a credible evidence base for sustainable land management interventions (technical, financial, political and social aspects); the design and testing of new approaches and technologies that include the private sector; and capacity building for national partners to develop their problem-solving skills in finding solutions to drylands and climate change issues.