March 21, 2019 | By Paul Castle

Guest Commentary - Saving Water with Three A’s and Three P’s

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on today on March 21.

By Paul Castle, Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture

When we talk with other people working in agricultural development, what are some continually recurring topics? On the farm, they include water, as the Chicago Council well knows, and soil. On the ‘social’ side, governments and governance give cause for concern, doubt, hope – and sometimes even delight! And then there are more technical nuts to crack – how best to scale initiatives up, for example. Closely related to that comes another recurring topic: the difficulty of taking a good idea all the way to the marketplace. And by that I mean a sustainably profitable market involving smallholders. 
So what happens if we combine the last of these with the first? Surely a good product idea that saves water must be an easy sell? After all, as the Economist recently put it: “The best way to solve the world’s water woes is to use less of it”.
What sounds so obvious, often isn’t. Listening to keen young irrigation innovators can quickly become a tale of serial setbacks or even hair-raising hurdles. And other technology often does no better. Forget large-scale commercial farming for a moment: getting ‘less thirsty’ crop varieties to market in developing countries is a worryingly rare feat. The reasons vary, but the effect is the same: lack of commercialization success still bedevils those investing in the much-needed crop science to breed more drought-tolerant varieties. The risk is that many of them could therefore stop doing so.  
But why are you hearing this from a non-profit organization? (And one with neither labs nor greenhouses).
The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture believes firmly in the importance of market solutions to development challenges. Some NGO’s disagree, occasionally fiercely. But we simply don’t view free hand-outs as sustainable. Contrary to widespread belief, smallholders are happy to pay for technology that brings real benefits. Development professionals should make it easier for them to do so.
The other reason that you’re hearing the ‘selling a water-saver’ story from the Syngenta Foundation is that we’ve actually achieved it. As always, not alone, but together with partners. Join me on a visit to India.
Receding groundwater levels and climate change are plaguing farmers in many parts of South and South-East Asia. Water issues have all sorts of consequences there, some of which often get overlooked elsewhere. They affect not only economic development, but also public finances. For example: When drought causes crop losses, governments often spend large sums to ensure both immediate food supply and subsequent production. In India, those sums come in addition to huge subsidies for rural energy users. With no incentive to save running costs, farmers keep their pumps pumping – and the water tables falling. All in all, that makes for one of the world’s largest economic sieves!
Measures to reduce water use are vital. Kalyan Guntuboyina is telling the Global Food Security Symposium about some of our irrigation work in India. Another key focus of attention are appropriately ‘climate-smart’ crops and technologies. These help reduce harvest losses, and make production systems and farmer communities more resilient. Especially in drought-prone areas, one such climate-smart crop is water-efficient corn. Varieties that require less water enable smallholders to maintain yields better during drought, and generally reduce their use of irrigation resources.

AAA is a PPP

With this in mind, our Foundation started a program in 2014 to incorporate drought-tolerance traits from African varieties into Asian corn. (An unusual route for technology transfer!) To do so, we brought together a public-private partnership for crop breeding. Its task was to develop hybrids that could do two things: be more productive than conventionally used varieties and hybrids in normal weather, and offer acceptable yields during dry spells.
The program was dubbed ‘AAA’. The third ‘A’ alongside Africa and Asia is ‘Affordable’, i.e. the varieties have to be within the financial reach of smallholders. Working towards AAA corn were the international research center CIMMYT and our corporate backer Syngenta. CIMMYT provided drought-tolerance traits from its African germplasm collection; Syngenta contributed hybrid parents, molecular screening facilities and know-how. Together, the partners developed several promising lines.
Crucially, they also set out to keep the seed readily affordable for smallholders. Preparations therefore included cost-efficient seed production. Two Indian seed companies signed licensing agreements in 2017, and were joined by others in 2018. They will ensure local seed production, and availability in eight relatively dry Indian states. The first two companies’ pilot output was two tons of seed, which served 1200 farmers. The target for 2018 was 40 tons; production is expected to reach about 1200 tons by 2021.
With AAA corn, smallholders can protect their yield in drought. Some grow up to six tons per hectare, about double the normal amount under those conditions. At around $2 per kilo, the seed price offers smallholders very good value. The new varieties enable farmers to sustainably intensify production, and improve the resilience of their livelihoods to the effects of climate change. The promising results so far have encouraged the partnership to go a step further. Next up are varieties with disease-tolerance traits as well.
But let me stop the trumpet-blowing. The point here is not that the Syngenta Foundation is involved. The drought-resilience of food production is an increasingly urgent priority worldwide, and we can’t help every time. (Nor can CIMMYT or Syngenta!) What matters is for many more such partnerships to get going and thrive. Whether for water-efficiency or any other improvement, it is essential to overcome the historical separation of public and private sector research.
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can accelerate the delivery of outputs from agricultural research and development. The Syngenta Foundation aims to encourage new PPPs that create unique outcomes unachievable by individual parties alone. (And whose results ideally form more than the sum of the parts). But developing, negotiating and establishing productive partnerships is not easy. Sometimes, alignment difficulties prevent them getting off the ground at all. Negotiations can often become lengthy and costly. Some partnerships seem to start well, but then never deliver their true potential. And that can even happen despite major financial, intellectual and emotional investment by all involved.
If a PPP’s perceived benefits are attractive enough, then the parties usually find creative ways to overcome ‘material blockers’ – but these can waste a lot of time and money on the way. Individual strategies and approaches, institutional core values, history, stakeholder positions, personalities and operational differences can all cause problems. It may sound smug for a foundation to say that the public and private sectors tick differently – but time and again, it’s true!

The clue is a crew

As we’ve been talking about water, let me use an aquatic analogy to highlight the challenges. I’ll take my favorite sport of rowing. Getting PPPs to work well is a bit like getting a rowing crew to move fast. As in the boat, there are eight main drivers that decide between success and failure. For success, they all have to run smoothly. If one element gets caught up, they all do.
As in a rowing boat, the heaviest members are in the middle of this list. And like their athletic analogues: to release their potential, they need finesse ‘fore and aft’. Here are the topics we think every PPP needs to get right:   
  • Strategic goals and alignment
  • Intellectual property
  • Commercial rights
  • Operations and project management
  • Product outputs
  • Stewardship and liability
  • Trust and mutual respect
  • Communication and confidentiality
So far so good – but in a rowing VIII, only one person steers. In a PPP, every partner is a coxswain! Together, they have to agree on where they want to go, and how to get there. With only three members, the AAA Corn partnership had it relatively easy in this respect. But to move products all the way from the drawing-board to millions of smallholders often requires a large group of partners. Coordination is crucial.
Sound like a lot of hard work? It is. But very much worth it, in all sorts of settings. Helping smallholders to grow more corn with less water is just one good example.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.