An insight into evaluating agricultural innovation challenges and prizes

©Md Mehedi Hasan

An insight into evaluating agricultural innovation challenges and prizes

6 min.

Innovation challenges and prizes are mechanisms that use incentives and rewards to encourage innovation. They generally have one problem, however. While they should aim to bring about innovation that is sustainable long term, they generally fall short because of their limited timeframes and one-off approach.

From 2017 to 2019, I worked for Nesta Challenges with Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), supporting the delivery of two agricultural prizes ‒ the Data Driven Farming Prize and the Fall Armyworm Tech Prize ‒ run by the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Feed The Future initiative. 

The goals and outcomes of the two prizes were fairly similar, though the context differed. The Data Driven Farming Prize focused on improving the livelihoods and agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers in Nepal, while the Fall Armyworm Tech Prize aimed to support smallholder farmers tackling the fall armyworm across sub-Saharan Africa. Both prizes emphasized data-driven digital tools and approaches in their definitions of desirable innovation. 

It's important to understand that innovation for these agricultural prizes (and, in my experience, more generally) largely centres on technology. Such prizes are generally open to anyone (academics, tech startups, NGOs, civil society, entrepreneurs and so on) and whoever solves the problem first, or in the most effective manner, is rewarded.

Impact and lessons learned

The evaluation of the agricultural prizes focused on three categories: the innovation itself, the innovators and the ecosystem. The Table below outlines the impact categories and associated outcomes. These outcomes were largely the same for the two prizes, though some were a bit more context-specific than others.

Table: Agricultural prize impact
Impact categoriesImpact explanationImpact outcomesData Driven Farming Prize resultsFall Armyworm Tech Prize results
(and, as a result the “user”, people and community)
To understand whether the prize attracted new innovation and how those innovations were applied and receivedAttracting novel approaches and tools (innovation)13 new solution prototypes sourced with complete business plans20 new solutions sourced with complete business plans
Generating innovations that solve the problem2 000 farmers responded positively to innovations4.5 million people across sub-Saharan Africa used/benefited from innovations
Innovators To understand whether the innovators developed their capacity and commitment in the specific topicMobilizing new actors in agriculture6 of 13 innovators were new to the agri-business sector in Nepal6 innovators were new to agriculture and created new solutions due to the prize; 14 innovators adapted existing innovations 
Building innovator capacity (including agricultural context-specific knowledge)100 percent of innovators gained agricultural context-specific skills and knowledge92 percent of innovators reported that the prize contributed to their technical knowledge of fall armyworm in sub-Saharan Africa
Generating partnerships and/or collaborations15 new partnerships were developed by innovators during the prize process17 new partnerships were developed by innovators during the prize process
EcosystemTo understand if the prize raises awareness of the specific topic, influences policy and marketsSupporting innovators and innovations to enter the market11 innovators entered the market after the prize ended17 innovators intended to enter African markets immediately
Supporting innovators to gain investment and/or funding3 innovators confirmed they had access to new funding due to the prize3 innovators gained investment/funding as a result of the prize
Raising awareness of the specific problemGovernment ministries, telecom companies and financial institutions actively participated and promoted the prize The fall armyworm issue and the prize reached a global audience of 15 million

This evaluation approach allowed us to understand the impact of the prizes on three levels, each building on the other, enabling us to form a narrative on what the prizes achieved. The approach is little different to that of an agricultural programme evaluation, in that we used a mixed-methods approach and were able to collect data for benchmarks, baselines, midlines and endlines. 

Our evaluation results reflected the effectiveness of prizes in agriculture and development more broadly. There were a few key learnings as to what prizes can contribute:

  • They incentivise and stimulate innovations that may not have otherwise existed.
  • They attract local solutions and generate tested solutions.
  • They introduce new actors to development, ready to tackle agricultural problems.
  • They foster an environment of partnership and collaboration, not only between innovators, but between prize stakeholders (this included partners such as Land O’Lakes International Development, Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), MEST Africa, BRAC UK among others)
  • They attract a variety of partners and prize stakeholders in tech, finance, government, telecommunications, and the private sector.
  • They act as a tool for rapidly expanding awareness and inspiring action to a specific problem.

Timeframes, funding and a one-off approach are key challenges

The evaluation of these prizes identified the short- to medium-term outcomes achieved. Their shortcomings mainly revolved around understanding the effectiveness and broader impact of the innovations on the specific problems they were tackling ‒ improving smallholder farmers' lives, increasing agricultural productivity or reducing the incidence of fall armyworm. 

In part, this is due to the agricultural prize competitions lasting 12–18 months, from research and design to implementation and evaluation – a limited timeframe in which to assess the impact of the solutions. In addition, the innovators were mostly early-stage ventures, meaning they needed more time to test and develop, so it was virtually impossible for the innovators to demonstrate scaled-up impact within the given timeframe. 

This issue is not limited to agriculture; it is the case for all fields that feature innovation challenges or prizes. In part, it is due to a lack of money or funding, as these prizes tend to be treated as random or small-scale experiments and the long-term tail of prize evaluation is not that well considered.

This is not to say that longer-term challenges and prize evaluations do not exist; they do, but they are limited. AgResults was created to solely focus on agriculture pay-for-results prizes and, thanks to their specific remit and funding, they are able to conduct long-term evaluations using external evaluators, which includes a sustainability analysis. 

Recommendations for long-term change

For the Data Driven Farming Prize, we were able to conduct a post-prize assessment almost nine months after the competition ended, which allowed us to see the development of innovators in Nepal, but we were still limited in our ability (funding and resources) to understand whether the livelihoods or agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers had improved. That kind of change takes commitment on the part of innovators, as well as the support of donors and the ecosystem, which can take years. 

If innovation challenges and prizes were seen as a long-term investment rather than a one-off project, they would have the potential to have a (real) impact, both on innovators and their innovations, as well as the users, peoples and communities that benefit. Being able to capture data after challenges and prizes have ended would allow us to understand the continued development of the innovator and innovations, as well as how the innovations were being used and how (if at all) users’ lives had changed.