How ag research can reduce poverty


On the dusty back roads of Kenya, farmers with one or two acres of land talked about some of the difficulties they face — a disease in cassava, inadequate fodder for their animals, degraded soils and moulds in maize.

And in two world-class research centres nearby, scientists from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) talked about their research into these very problems.

It should be no surprise. CGIAR, which aims to “innovate on behalf of poor people in developing countries,” conducts much of the agricultural research that drives progress in developing countries.

The organization is made up of 15 research centres, each specializing in a central aspect of developing country agriculture, encompassing commodities such as rice, maize, wheat, fish, potatoes, forests and livestock, agro-ecosystems such as tropical agriculture, semi-arid tropics and agroforestry, and cross-cutting agricultural issues such as climate change, food policy and gender equity.

This past summer I visited two of these centres in Kenya: the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the World Agroforestry Centre. I also met with other organizations and hundreds of small-scale farmers who are direct beneficiaries of such agricultural research and development work.

The World Agroforestry Centre has identified trees that improve the crops with which they are planted. 

For example, faidherbia leafs out in the dry season, which reduces evaporation from crops, and sheds its leaves in the wet season, which contributes mulch and fertility to the crops. 

Similarly, ILRI is tackling livestock-related problems faced by small-scale farmers in Kenya and elsewhere and finding sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger.

For example, its scientists are researching livestock disease vaccines and fodder crops as ways to improve animal and fodder technologies, species and farming systems that will work for small-scale farms raising a few animals.

ILRI is home to the Biosciences east and central Africa (BecA)-ILRI Hub, a high-tech facility where scientists from about 40 countries work in state-of-the-art laboratories doing research that provides a foundation for eventual application in the field.

Among the many BecA-ILRI Hub topics are those looking for maize varieties and storage systems that minimize contamination by moulds and techniques for identifying moulds before infected maize can make people or animals sick.

A key goal of the BecA-ILRI Hub is to build the capacity of African scientists to solve African agricultural problems.

Over the past 15 years, the BecA-ILRI Hub has trained almost 300 African scientists, at least one-third of whom are women, and worked with more than 50 partner organizations on the continent.

Amidst the lab coats, pipettes and autoclaves, I found scientists working on cassava and banana breeding, milk production and processing, and insurance systems to enable small crop and livestock farmers to withstand climate shocks.

With a strong agricultural sector at home, Canada has long recognized the importance of agricultural research in achieving development goals and has been a significant donor to CGIAR. In fact, it was a major contribution from Canada that enabled the establishment of the BecA-ILRI Hub in the early 2000s.

One of the current projects that Canada supports at ILRI seeks to improve the livelihoods of 135,000 smallholder households in Ethiopia. This project focuses on im-proving the production and marketing of livestock products (everything from bees to beef) and irrigated crops. 

Farm couples are trained together to encourage gender-equitable wealth creation. 

Global Affairs Canada has indicated it plans to re-focus its international assistance on the poorest and most vulnerable people, especially women and girls, and to seek clean economic growth while dealing with the realities of climate change.

A significant new investment in small-scale agriculture would be an excellent way to achieve these goals with support for agricultural research through groups such as CGIAR and ILRI as a key component.


Paul Hagerman is director of public policy at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. He led a tour of 11 Canadians to Kenya in July to learn about food security issues.

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