The impact of #ImpactAfrica

Sam Mwangi, ESPA Regional Advisor, Africa
March 30, 2016
  • Africa is the most biodiverse region in the world YET has the highest number of starving people, so we need to make an argument connecting biodiversity and livelihoods.
  • One of the most important steps of impact is recognising the importance of the community. For example, recognising farmers not as end-users, but as co-producers of knowledge.
  • Researchers need to talk to more than just other researchers, and instead focus on those who need to hear the message in order to change behaviour and attitude…in other words stop preaching to the converted!  
  • Collaboration and the removal of silos is vital to translate new knowledge into policy and practice which is central to the social and political processes of change.

‘Impact: the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with one another; a marked effect or influence’ Oxford Dictionary

As the world prepared to celebrate the Easter Holidays, a group of professionals met at ICRAF Headquarters in Nairobi for two days to discuss how ecosystems can contribute to alleviation of poverty.

The discussions ranged from functional ecosystem values, to explorations of methodologies, research philosophy and engagement with government. All these were in lieu of seeking to understand impact from research, a term which is increasing in importance in the global research and development world. Organised by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme (ESPA) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the event attracted 45 professionals from 10 countries.

Occasioned by robust debate and sharing, speakers explored various dimensions of research impact from their own experiences. These dimensions indicated the complexity of the problem, which transcends the traditional understanding of development, scientific research or human well-being. In seeking to unpack some of the issues surrounding this complexity, the workshop recognised that there are new and at the same time old dangers that face the continent, which include economic, political, environmental and food insecurity. Africa suffers from numerous adverse effects, which include external economic shocks, conflict, rapid urbanisation, poor commodity prices and governance deficits, among others, which render many development initiatives inefficient or virtually stillborn.

ESPA research has attempted to adduce evidence on the highly critical nexus between ecosystems and livelihoods, specifically how sound management of the former can be used in addressing poverty. With transdisciplinary approaches, well-grounded research evidence has been produced which may offer useful insights into solving the complex problems that bedevil the region. 

As seen in several projects, the region is the most biodiverse in the world yet has the highest number of starving people. In the keynote address, Dr. Dino Martins 9Director, Mpala Research Centre) pointed out the stark difference between managed ecosystems (agricultural as well as protected areas). He pointed out that agricultural landscapes exhibit greater heterogeneity as well as contribute to food security. A recently released Brookings report agreed with this statement, boldly declaring that although poverty levels are decreasing, the number of the poor in Africa continues to rise steadily. The key scientific question, quite relevant to the workshop, was how to make an argument connecting biodiversity and livelihoods.

Dino outlined several steps needed to ensure impact, which include recognizing farmers not as end-users, but as co-producers of knowledge. Acknowledging that farmer innovations constitute farmer knowledge as well as scientific knowledge, he pointed out that this was critical in order to create ‘impacted’ champions of the local communities. He ended by pointing out that real resilience has components of biodiversity, wondering how sustainable Western countries are considering the dramatic biodiversity loss over time.

An attendee in the workshop, Prof. Christo Fabricius from Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, wondered why development has not delivered much vaunted goods and services to poor people. In driving towards impact, Christo decried ‘self-pollination’, which he defined as instances whereby the research community has conversations between itself, and not reaching those who need to hear the message in order to change their behaviour and attitude. He wondered whether scientists can create a ‘third place’, which would be a platform of trust and sound relationships in which conversations can take place. Since decision makers are key in achieving impact, he asked that participants reflect on the question of packaging meta-concepts in a language easily understood, especially by use of sticky concepts, memes and metaphors.

Various participants acknowledge the need for collaboration. Recognizing that many of our scientific relationships are defined by silos, they reflected on the fact that despite how high the ivory tower is, silo approached are really limited. In contributing to this discussion, Prof. Jesse Njoka (African Drylands Institute for Sustainability) emphasized the need to translate new knowledge into policy and practice which is central to the social and political processes of change. He further pointed out the need to understand the stakeholders being influenced by this knowledge, as well as what changes are expected as a result as these exemplify success.


Three items emerged as essential for research projects to deliver impact to the targeted beneficiaries. These are:


Continuity and Ownership:

Research projects produce results and outputs which must be seen as building blocks. These building blocks are incrementally refined, and in framing development agenda it is necessary to account for many building blocks which fit into each other in such a way as to engender growth, sustainability and mutualistic benefit to all concerned. In this way, continuity means learning from what has been done, understanding the state of play at any particular instance (baselines and contexts) and learning from emergent issues in order to plan relevant interventions. This can only be done well with full participation and co-production with other stakeholders, hence the important aspect of ‘ownership’.


Developing a sound impact trajectory

In designing research for impact, the impact trajectory needs to be understood quite well. Dr. Karl Hughes (Head, ICRAF) emphasized the importance of this understanding, knowing where the projects are at any given time, and using metrics to determine emerging scenarios. As the scenarios change, it may be necessary to negotiate interim results and assumptions feeding into the impact as per the mapped pathway.


Robust decision analysis

Impact happens at different levels, and often some of the impacted sectors may be beyond the scope of the scientist or development partner. Long term impacts are complex in themselves, and require continuous engagement with all relevant stakeholders from the very beginning to ensure that no one is left behind and that ownership is maintained as results come in and intervention spaces change. Of crucial importance are governments, as these are the trustees of human well-being and manage complex components in the development matrix.


The workshop also saw some broader philosophical discussions on research and impact taking place. Dr. Fergus Sinclair (ICRAF Team Leader, System Science) pointed out that from the first instance a scientific intervention starts to take place, the whole scenario morphs in response. Using a metaphor, Fergus reminded participants that in a philosophical sense one cannot step into the same river twice since the water changes every moment. In understanding impact, the object of intervention will certainly not be the system at the end or completion phase.

In concluding, the workshop reflected on how different projects can map their impact trajectories, setting their level of ambition higher and aligning with the ESPA system perspective. It was felt that this would be necessary to help address the Sustainable Development Goals by use of the different data sets which are emerging from different projects.