ICRISAT: innovation broker working with private sector An interview with Ram Dhulipala

ICRISAT’s iHub platform was recently highlighted in the Food & Business Knowledge Platform for its role as a connector – an innovation broker – between technology innovators, the private sector and other stakeholders. Mr Ram Dhulipala of iHub speaks to Dr Sarah Cummings of Wageningen University and Research on the importance of public-private partnerships, especially in the context of on One CGIAR.



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“The Digital Agriculture team at ICRISAT is constantly looking for a range of innovative solutions that benefit the smallholder farmer by working with the agri-tech startup ecosystem in India”. – Dr Anthony Whitbread, Research Program Director, Innovation Systems for the Drylands, ICRISAT.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is an international, public sector research centre, part of the CGIAR network, based in Hyderabad, India. ICRISAT’s Digital Agriculture program, which has received considerable support from senior management, is a self-sufficient research program with a radical approach. In this program, ICRISAT plays the role of innovation broker, linking farmers with public-private partnerships (PPPs) and tech startups. ICRISAT has focused on digital agriculture since 2015 with a formal Digital Agriculture program since 2016.

The Digital Agriculture team launched the iHub, namely the innovation hub for agritech entrepreneurs, in February 2017. The iHub is an innovation broker that creates partnerships between technology innovators and ICRISAT research programes. The ihub plays a critical role in strengthening connections between researchers and the private sector by encouraging tech startups to reconceive their products for the agriculture sector.

Digital tools like Plantix and Kalgudi (see textboxes) create two-way information flows between researchers and farmers, increasing transparency. Ram Dhulipala is Theme Leader, Digital Agriculture & Youth, and is research leader of the iHub incubator. On Friday 16 October 2020, Ram Dhulipala was interviewed to try to understand ICRISAT’s interaction with the private sector. Initially, I asked about the main lessons of working with the private sector and to what extent these lessons are potentially applicable to other CGIAR institutes and programmes.

Plantix, developed by German startup Progressive Environmental and Agricultural Technologies (PEAT), uses deep learning to detect more than 300 diseases, from images of crops uploaded by farmers. Besides diagnosis, the automatic image recognition app geo-tags uploaded images to monitor crop health across regions. Large-scale data is made available to users through maps. Detection is followed by detailed and easy-to-understand diagnostic suggestions. By October 2018, Plantix had grossed 3.8 million downloads and has been rolled out in over 10 languages Source: ‘Plantix’ now in Kannada

Ram Dhulipala considers that there needs to be a conscious effort to take the private sector on board within the CGIAR and that this involves a programmatic approach, rather than an ad hoc one. This is one of the lessons that ICRISAT has learned and it is a useful experience for other CGIAR centres who have not yet done this. Although there are some useful activities by the CGIAR, for example the Big Data community of practice, in reality behaviour change takes more than annual meetings. Ram Dhulipala explains that cultural change is needed within the CGIAR because, at the moment, there is a tendency to ‘look down’ on the private sector. He argues that although the private sector is driven to seek profit, it still needs to create value so in that sense it is not so far away from the CGIAR itself: ‘Working with the private sector takes practice and experience, and we need to learn from each other in the ways to go about it. In particular, working with the private sector needs soft skills of managing partnerships and relationships between tech companies and CGIAR researchers.’ Ram Dhulipala explains that one of the problems of working with the private sector is that digital agriculture startups tend to be very technology-minded: ‘Tech startups need to fall in love with the problem and not with the solution. In my experience, some of the tech multinationals have the tendency to create the solution and then find the problem, forcing the solution on others.’

Kalgudi is a free online platform developed by Vasudhaika Software Solutions, India, for producers, traders, service providers, and others. Users post and answer questions, access news and agricultural recommendations, and make market linkages, all in their own language. Kalgudi provides an opportunity for ICRISAT to rapidly deliver trustworthy information like the weekly ISAT messages or pest alerts to more farmers. Researchers can analyze how users interact with posts to see what is popular, if users disagree with information, and what additional material users want. Kalgudi has encouraged a culture of curiosity in agriculture. Farmers trust the information because it is in their local language and provided by reputable sources, including ICRISAT. Still, smallholders have a low tolerance for risk. Members reported that one person tests a new advisory, and if it succeeds more farmers will adopt a recommendation for farming decisions. Widespread use of Kalgudi would allow ICRISAT researchers to reach many more farmers with time-sensitive information. Source: https://kalgudi.com/

If there was a research agenda on working with the private sector, what are the most important issues from your perspective? First, the recognition that the partnership management framework has many dimensions: legal, scientific but also soft skills. Second, although interlinking between seed companies and the CGIAR research institutes is already clearly defined, the case of digital agriculture is very different. For example, digital agriculture has challenges in terms of intellectual property and research outputs. Given that digital agriculture processes are very diffuse, it is better to take an ecosystem approach, enabling the community of startups at the ecosystem level (see Textbox). Third, donors increasingly acknowledge the role of the private sector but they want the CGIAR to do the science and the private sector to take the innovations further. In practice, seed companies won’t be able to make the business case themselves and they rely on the CGIAR to provide data that they need to be able to invest: ‘This data is not available anywhere else and, without it, the private sector cannot make investments. There needs to be a systematic agenda for making business data available to the private sector to support their investments.’

The CGIAR is currently undergoing a reorganization, merging the current 15 research institutes into OneCGIAR. What are the implications of OneCGIAR for working with the private sector? According to Ram Dhulipala, the implications of OneCGIAR are very promising for CGIAR’s work with the private sector because startups don’t know about the 15 different CGIAR centres. OneCGIAR and the common branding of all the centres will make it much easier for startups to work with many different centres. At the moment, a clearly defined hierarchy within the CGIAR means that contacts with like-minded professionals either go through personal contacts or need to go through hierarchical relationships from research institute to institute. The CGIAR institutes based in Hyderbad and Washington DC, such as ICRISAT and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), have an advantage in working with startups and other tech companies because there are more of them in their immediate environment. According to Ram Dhulipala, location will become less important under OneCGIAR as the centres will be able to benefit from greater numbers of horizonal linkages and shared communications systems in their contacts with the private sector.

ICRISAT’s ecosystem approach

‘An ecosystem approach essentially embodies our intent of taking a systems approach in understanding and dealing with digitalization of agriculture. Therefore, any digital innovation (either by an incumbent agbusiness, agtech, farmer etc) , deployment, rollout and impact is nested in the social, economic and politic environments/contexts in which the innovation occurs.  It is our belief that neutral research organizations like ICRISAT can anchor such an ecosystem and be the orchestrator/innovation broker in this space. We have attempted to play this role through ihub which we call the ICRISAT’s digital agriculture innovation platform.’ Ram Dhulipala

Would a community of practice (CoP) working on interactions with the private sector within the CGIAR be useful? Such a CoP would be seen as highly desirable by Ram Dhulipala who one could easily see as becoming a leader or champion within such a community. He considers that such a CoP could benefit from including members of other CoPs within CGIAR, such as the Big Data CoP, because interfaces between CoPs would be very valuable as spaces for innovation. According to Ram Dhulipala, working with PPPs needs to be institutionalized and cannot rely on physical or virtual meetings every few months. Instead, PPPs need a ‘house’ within the CGIAR and a CoP would be a potential place for this to take place. There are many different incubators within the CGIAR, for example the Business Incubation Platform at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), and the CoP would be a good place for these incubators to share their experiences in a systematic rather than an ad hoc way.

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