Considerable progress has been made over the past decade in establishing a supranational structure for agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa that is driven from within. An Africa-owned policy framework has been put in place, an innovation system perspective has been adopted, donor funding has been secured through the establishment of trust funds, a programmatic approach has been introduced at the SROs, and competitive grant mechanisms are working. Moreover, CARDESA has finally come on board, completing the supranational architecture. The principle building blocks are in place, and for the coming years it will be a matter of further fine tuning the system and increasing the volume of activities.
What stands out in the design of the supranational agricultural research system in SSA is that it does not envision the establishment of regional or subregional agricultural research agencies (positioning themselves between the NARSs and the IARCs), but instead makes use of the existing national and international agricultural research capacity. In particular donors have shown little interest in pursuing this option.
When it comes to the support functions that FARA and the SROs perform (such as advocacy and policy formulation, coordination, capacity strengthening, and information exchange), they fill important functions that otherwise would go unresolved.12 However, when it comes to the promotion of supranational agricultural research activities, an apparent overlap exists with the CGIAR centers. Both are targeting the same supranational agenda, but approaching it from different angles. The weakness of the top-down approach by the CGIAR is the lack of adequate interaction with local counterparts, while the weakness of the bottom-up approach by FARA and the SROs is the lack of clear leadership in identifying a truly supranational agricultural research agenda. Ideally, one would like to see a mix of both approaches.
The current move within the CGIAR system toward a more centralized management and funding structure under the Change Management Initiative holds the risk of the CGIAR system becoming more top-down and less responsive to local initiatives. For example, the new structure does not favor CGIAR centers participating in research projects initiated by third parties, such as those funded through the competitive grant mechanisms of the SROs. To counterbalance this risk, the CGIAR centers will have to strengthen its collaboration with the SROs and the NARS and develop appropriate modalities to do so.
In the case of the SROs, a more explicit differentiation between national and supranational agricultural research is needed. The programmatic approach adopted by the SROs has been an important step toward getting a better handle on the supranational agricultural research agenda. However, to date the priority-setting process in most programs has not moved much beyond an aggregation of national agricultural research priorities. Most programs still do not prioritize explicitly enough which parts of this aggregate agricultural research agenda would benefit most from a supranational research effort and which parts should be left to the national level. This often results in calls for proposals for research projects that tend to be very generic and not really steering project proposals toward the supranational part of the agricultural research agenda. The consequence of this is that less impact is being achieved as funding leaks away to the national part of the agenda. This can only be amended by stricter priority setting upfront, which gets translated into far more specific calls for proposals.
In relation to this appeal for more specific calls for proposals, CGMs are perhaps not the most optimal funding instrument for fostering a truly supranational agricultural research agenda. In some instances—for example, when you have an immediate supranational problem at hand, such as a disease outbreak—commissioning research may be a far more effective way of achieving a timely impact. Moreover, the CGM (which requires SROs to take a rather impartial position vis-à-vis project proposals) limits the role of the SROs as incubators for supranational agricultural research projects—that is, bringing the different national and international partners together around a particular challenge and developing a joint project proposal.
The funding of FARA and the SROs is still largely based on donor support. Member contributions only cover a very small component of the costs, and in the long run this is not sustainable. Moreover, high donor dependence limits local control over the agenda. It is important for FARA and the SROs to start exploring how they can secure more local funding in the future, but it will be difficult to organize this on the basis of member contributions only. The more logical option would be to collaborate more closely with the regional economic communities and secure funding as part of the political process of regional integration. In addition, it may be worthwhile to explore the possibility of introducing a specific levy to finance supranational agricultural research—for example, a levy on the import of agricultural inputs.
Although a welcome addition, the promotion of national centers of excellence or specialization under the East Africa and West Africa agricultural productivity programs is not an alternative for the supranational agricultural research projects funded by the SROs. It is hoped that these national centers of excellence will be able to play a leading role in promoting the supranational agricultural research agenda for their particular commodity, but it is a strategy that is not without risks.