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Two foundations team up to improve the quality of agricultural innovation through new service

Addressing the agricultural research-to-innovation challenge in low income countries

Two foundations have announced their agreement to provide a new service to improve the quality of agricultural innovation. The STRIDES Foundation and Navatec - a division of The George Boole Foundation - will collaborate on a new extension service that supports low income country researchers improve their knowledge acquisition on research and secure a better management of agricultural innovation projects. This collaboration is a culmination of over 45 years experience in the field of agricultural development and in particular agricultural research, project proposal assessment, project design, implementation management and evaluation. This experience has been gained in South America, Africa, Asia and transition economies in Central and Southern Europe.

This initiative addresses the important issue of poor project performance affecting around 50% of economic development projects. In 2016 the total aid budget from government and international agencies totalled some $135 billion and private donors contributed an additional $85 billion. Additional analyses undertaken more recently have come up with similar rates of project failure. Based on a weighted calculation of existing rates of project failure it is estimated that out of this total of $220 billion in international investment, somewhere between $35 billion and $70 billion will be wasted1.

Sinclair Mantell2, the Director of the STRIDES Foundation, explained during the launch that, "The Scientific Training and Research Initiative for Development, Education and Sustainability (Strides) is a service seeking to improve the likelihood of achieving practical

Sinclair Mantell
innovative results as a result of the application of improved standards in research and development. Training for cross-disciplinary teams will help identify effective sustainable options through a project design process that balances technical feasibility, economic viability, environmental adaptation, social acceptance and risk assessment

Asked what are the main challenges facing research and innovation projects, Sinclair Mantell replied,

"The transition from research into practical innovation is a multi-stage process including gaps and needs analysis to identify target innovation priorities, conducting applied research, assessing results to complete a proof of concept analysis, production prototyping design, value chain analysis, assessment of the potential return on investment, raising funds for production and scaling up successful production activities. This is both complex and time consuming. At each stage the necessary human resource capabilities change so the complete process requires a very wide range of special expertise and practical know-how. In low income countries, research teams are in general small and as a result have difficulty covering the retinue of necessary disciplines required to complete their research topic through to fruition of an innovation."

"The growing and unsatisfied demand for quality projects that contribute directly to economic growth and welfare is constrained by the low number of qualified researchers who understand their research areas and by the lack of training in management of the innovation process. In addition, the domain of agriculture and renewable natural resources is highly complex and risks exist in relation to seasonal and environmental deviations complicating prediction of outcomes, especially those that involve field-based production. There exist models to assess this type of risk but most researchers have no training in the application of these methods."

Sinclair Mantell conducting an evaluation of agricultural research project performance
"In addition to the state of affairs described, there are additional fundamental factors that disrupt project implementation. Seasonal variations in weather can result in production levels or animal populations falling outside the assumed range leading to a reduction in the utility of the data in some research experiments.

A significant project damage can result from members of the project group leaving to work elsewhere. When one is dealing with research and highly specialised knowledge, this can be highly disruptive, undermining the continuity of professional effort caused by a loss of project memory."

"The lack of any appropriate baseline management system that provides effective decision support often results in major project failures which are not helped by the fact that many researchers in low income countries are often working in relative scientific isolation. The Strides service provides a mechanism to improve communication with team counterparts and with key stakeholders who can follow all the steps in research and development as they progress.

Concerning the practical operation of Strides, Sinclair Mantell stated,

"In our handout there is a diagram of the Strides process (see left) in the form of a cascade diagram. Calls will announce the submission requirements of concept notes from potential research team leaders interested in developing their research interests to the level of producing innovations in the agricultural and natural resource domains. Concepts approved by an international assessment team will be collated into a package of 25 30 of the most promising projects and presented to donors and relevant funding institutions to seek the resources necessary to support a so-called Launch pad workshop based at a partner training institution for convenience and cost-effective purposes. For six days, team leaders will be trained in how to use and get the maximum benefits for their planned team research from the Strides/Navatec project cycle management tools.

Following the workshop, the team leaders will put together full team research proposals which will be submitted to interested funding agencies and when funded will use the Navatec project cycle management systems to guide their activities. It is important to note that this targeted in-service training is designed to provide a strong foundation for project design. This is followed by mentoring and information system technical support that continues for the whole of the project cycle. Total oversight of all plans and research activity progress is accessible to all research partners, donors and stakeholders throughout the whole project cycle."

Sinclair Mantell explained Strides uses a different approach to raising funds to the more conventional ones of programme funding,

"The system is aimed at producing a collection of good projects by trained research teams working on practically important topics prior to approaching funders. In this way even donors can see how their investment will make returns provided that everyone is briefed on progress and that adequate decisions are taken when practical changes to work plans are needed can be collectively managed to assure successful outcomes in terms of likely innovations and useful contributions to economic development."

"The service will support teams in low income countries through in-service training and mentoring in the process of research project identification and design as well as training in the use of a comprehensive project information management system."

How will a next generation project management system contribute to this initiative?

Hector McNeill

Hector McNeill3 explained that,

"Navatec System is a next generation cloud-based project and portfolio management system developed to help ameliorate the effects of the many challenges to agricultural research and innovation outlined by Sinclair. The emphasis is on sound project design to identify feasible sustainable projects. The project performance during implementation is supported by tactical decision support. A due diligence project identification and design procedure ensures that the necessary information is analysed to produce a comprehensive review of relevant factors. This includes a progressive gaps, needs and constraints analysis, involving stakeholders, to determine the limitations on what is feasible as a baseline project. The baseline is configured as a project model used to optimize the design and evaluate the project's resilience through change impact assessments."

"Unless teams understand the specific resilience factors and the vulnerabilities of their project they are poorly prepared to manage the inevitable changes that occur during implementation. The Navatec System addressed this ubiquitous knowledge gap by placing particular emphasis on decision analysis models of a baseline project design to generate a series of logical project options (LPOs), through simulation, and from which an optimized initial project plan can be selected. Optimization relates to such criteria as quantities and qualities of output, total costs, unit costs, margins, income, minimized social and environmental and ecosystem impacts."

"Risk analysis is an in-depth review of the resilience to change and sustainability of a project during implementation and after project funding support ends. Simulations of the likely impacts on the project performance of different potential types of change during implementation are completed. This data is recorded to guide tactical decisions in response to change, whenever required."

"The constraints analysis, the LPOs and the change impact analysis are transferred to an Accumulog4. This is a specific type of blockchain whose structure and access is designed to facilitate the acquisition of the knowledge contained within it to support a learning system for the project group.

Hector McNeill discussing field recording methods with agricultural researchers and extension personnel

The Accumulog is a cumulative project memory providing essential information of practical use for project managers and teams including:

  • awareness of the vulnerabilities of the project and which types of change they need to respond to in real time
  • instant expert guidance on the most appropriate actions to enable very rapid and logical decisions in response to change"
  • minimizing the impact of individuals leaving the project group at any stage of the cycle because new arrivals can come up to speed rapidly"

The Accumulog is updated regularly during implementation with data on project performance including any decisions taken and subsequent tracking of the impact of such decisions. As a result, this system provides an intense learning environment enabling teams to keep a project on track and thereby raise the probability of meeting the original objectives."

"Lastly, the oversight of any project and a portfolio of projects located anywhere in the world is managed through a real time audit (RTA) system which provides 24/7 performance alerts and on-demand analysis and reporting on any aspect of any project for lenders, donors, project managers and teams and stakeholders."

Helping improve evaluation

"Navatec System has been designed to improve the depth of knowledge deployed in monitoring and evaluation. Many lenders and donors require that people involved in project design and the setting of indicators for monitoring and evaluation grids, should not be involved in evaluation of the same project. This is understandable but this has come at a cost of a downgraded awareness issue on the part of third party evaluators who conduct M&E assignments." Quite often the documentation provided for evaluators is limited to a Log Frame, Gantt Chart and background documentation. Invariably there is less information on the analysis of gaps and needs, constraints and any evidence of optimisation or reviews of impacts of potential changes making an assessment of resilience and sustainability difficult. Access to the Accumulog that covers these issue in detail goes a long way to reduce this knowledge gap. Although there are formal documentary procedures covering project planning there has seldom been any insistence that projects should have a dedicated information management system.

The dynamic evolution of information and accumulation of knowledge over the project cycle needs to be managed to help teams internalize critical knowledge to take more effective decisions in response to change. The Accumulog's knowledge base helps accelerate the internalisation of reasons for changes in performance leading to very short learning curves enabling rapid and effective corrective decisions during implementation. Therefore many "lessons learned" are applied in close-to-real-time to sustain performance rather than becoming a section in evaluation reports that appear after a project's completion. Unfortunately "lessons learned" that emerged in the 1970s are repeated, even now. Part of the reason for lessons not being learned is that there is a dearth of personnel in low income countries with adequate experience and qualifications to manage the large number of projects in this complex multi-disciplinary domain. In spite of this, there has been insufficient emphasis on project team support through in-service training or the use of lower cost cloud-based information management systems that cover the whole project cycle."

"The RTA system also has access to the Accumulog enabling evaluation personnel to gain a far greater insight to a project than would normally be the case."

"One of the most challenging aspects of the system design has been how to make the robust simulation, optimization and sensitivity analysis tools in the system easy to use while maintaining a high standard of quality control over the information used. Evidence sources and benchmarks used are all recorded to enable cross-checking. Expert systems apply logical analysis to input quantities and stated relationships to ensure they fall within credible operational boundaries."

Low cost of entry and operations

Navatec System has been designed to lower the cost of entry and operations for users by reducing both computer and software requirements. The only software required in a browser and these, in general, are free. Computer requirements are limited to lower cost "thin clients" including lower capacity PCs, lap tops, tablets and smart telephones (mobiles/cell). Navatec System can be accessed by these devices running on any operating system that supports a browser. The system's configuration allows all of these devices to benefit from the enormous analytical power available through high capacity processors running on the server side. Use is made of scalable databases and Accumulogs based on Plasma Cores running on high capacity secure servers. All documentation is electronic although naturally these can be printed if and when required.

Enhancing agricultural research team competence in managing more successful projects for innovation

Sinclair Mantell and Hector McNeill both emphasized the degree of synergy between the Strides objectives and the Navatec System. A large number of researchers have no training in project management and yet the demand for an increased number of projects is increasing but the numbers of qualified researchers is only growing slowly. It is therefore not surprising that project quality and performance is lower than desired. The synergy between Strides and Navatec System arises from the result of researchers not only being trained in how to identify research target priorities for innovations more effectively but by also receiving training in the use of this next generation information system. The due diligence-based procedures help guide project teams to design feasible projects that represent a higher quality of entry to lender and donor portfolios while the effectiveness of their implementation decision-making is also increased.

Free return on investment appraisal

For organisations such as donors, lenders and research organization wishing to assess the potential advantages of using the Strides service, Navatec offers a free return on investment (ROI) appraisal involving a review of the current operations of the requesting organisation. This is followed by the preparation of a detailed appraisal report covering the specific conditions of the requesting organization in terms of considerations such as increased operational capacity, quality of projects and costs. The information on how to obtain an ROI appraisal can be obtained from the respective websites:

Strides      Navatec System

  1.  Project failure rates and financial loss estimates: Willi Wappenhans, Internal World Bank report, 1992. Of the WB $140 billion loan portfolio the report stated that the percentage of projects not achieving their intended outcomes exceeded 65% of those funded. Achievement ranged from not at all, or project failures around 35% of funded projects, to around 30% performing well below requirements. A review of causal factors: McNeill, H.W., & Belko, F., "Towards more effective Project Management", DAI, GBF, London, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-907833-02-4; Recent estimates: SEEL-Systems Engineering Economics Lab, 2017, "Estimated financial losses arising from lower than expected economic development project performance."; Recent studies on project success rates indicate that over 55% do not achieve objectives (PlanView 2017). What is more, something like 20-25% of projects are a total financial loss. The other 30-35% have a range of losses from 5%-95% averaging out at 50% of funding. This provides an estimated global financial loss equivalent to 37.5% total outlays on economic development funding. Latest figures on aid funding can be obtained from the OECD-library website. Other sources include: Development Intelligence Organization and OQSI Organization, 2017.

  2.  Sinclair Mantell is a highly experienced researcher in applied plant sciences (horticulture) and crop biotechnology having been a project team leader on cutting edge topics such as the applications of plant tissue culture, genetic transformation, cell culture and micropropagation. For twenty years based at the University of London (Wye College) he directed many innovative research projects on tropical crops and supervised over 25 doctorate programmes in developing countries. In recent years he has acted as a monitoring and evaluation expert in food security and agriculture on behalf of Swedish Sida, Belgian VLIR and the European Aid Programme in more than 15 developing countries in Latin America, SE Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa. His blended professional experience of practitioner and evaluator has improved his knowledge of how some projects succeed and how others fail abysmally due to a lack of information, communication and adequate decision making. For three years he was director of a distance mentorship programme run on behalf of the International Foundation for Science based in Sweden. This scheme linked senior scientists in specialist areas with young scientists undertaking their research in low income countries to provide continuous support and technical advice when needed throughout a three-year project. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, UK and holds a personal Chair in Plant Propagation Sciences conferred by the University of London.

  1.  Hector McNeill is an agricultural economist and systems engineer. He is the chief designer of the Navatec System. He has designed and implemented online systems for over 20 years and develops cloud-based applications based on powerful server side program operations applying ISO and ECMA standard languages. He is the lead international developer of virtual client technology, accumulogs and the Plasma Database. He has a long field experience in agricultural and rural development project assessments, design, management and evaluation on behalf of private companies including Unilever, Mars, Cobec, Express, Prospec, Interbras and Intercomex as well as international agencies including FAO, CBD, EuropeAid, ICO and World Bank, ODA/DfID and the Know How Fund. This work was undertaken in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Eastern Europe and within the EU. He completed well over 300 assessments of project proposals from over 35 countries in development or transition on behalf of Europe Aid in agriculture, rural development, poverty reduction and marginalised communities. He was a member of the Information Technology Committee for European Projects at Manpower Services Commission of the UK Government. He also identified and planned EU wide funding initiatives for 5th Generation and AI-based learning systems applications in agriculture, biomedicine and the environment for the Information Technology and Telecommunications Task Force (ITTTF) at the European Commission. His graduations were from Cambridge and Stanford Universities in agriculture, agricultural economics and systems engineering.

  4.  Accumulogs were first proposed in 1986 as an essential cumulative knowledge base to support learning systems accessed through global networks. This made up part of the ITTTF programme identification and planning into 5th Generation and AI applications. It included date time stamping of cumulative additions of information and knowledge acquired by individuals as an in-depth personal reference, somewhat like a personalised Wikipedia. Its application has evolved to serve teams and specialised focus groups and to record dynamic simulations of project design option impacts of decision variables as well as the results of simulations of potential impacts on project performance of variations in known phenomena. The objective is to act as a comprehensive source of accessible knowledge. In operational terms its subsequent development in terms of security and locking, on the same basis as blockchain technology, has been part of the Plasma Systems Database developments gaining security and significant scalability running in a Plasma Operating System within online Microsoft servers deployments.