Bellagio Conversations/

Selcuk Ozgediz and Rikin Gandhi

CGIAR Conversations

Selcuk Ozgediz is a management and governance consultant, with over 30 years at the World Bank under his belt (including 27 years with the CGIAR).

Rikin Gandhi is the co-founder of Digital Green, which is creating a world where farmers use technology and data to build prosperous communities.

They were both at the recent convening “CGIAR at 50: Paths Pursued, Roads Not Taken, Next Steps” in November 2021. As the name suggests, the event was not just about reflecting on the organization’s first fifty years, but also its next 50. In this wide-ranging discussion, Rikin and Selcuk share their thoughts on innovative new approaches to digital partnerships in the agricultural sector, why taking a systems approach to agriculture is a good thing, and how CGIAR can continue to evolve. To start the conversation, we asked them to talk about how they first connected at the Bellagio Center. Let’s listen in…

Rikin: When I started talking to Selcuk, we were in the room at the Bellagio Center that overlooked Lake Como—it was a beautiful setting. Selcuk started by providing a reflection of the history of CGIAR—its inception and its evolution over the last 50 years. The setting and his reflection were really inspiring for me. I could see the parallels between what CGIAR has been doing upstream, researching crop breeding and developing agronomic practices, with what we are trying to do downstream, using digital platforms and data to empower small-scale farmers. And in some ways data ends up being a really critical fulcrum throughout, right?

Selcuk: To see the data platforms used in the fashion that is being used by Digital Green, being able to reach two and a half million people, that’s really staggering. There are critics of CGIAR who claim, “Well, you came up with new varieties of wheat and rice, but at the same time they destroy the environment.” Now, I think if CGIAR had been much more connected with small-scale farmers from the beginning, with listening technologies, the outcomes would have been different.

Rikin: Totally agree. And I think there are so many parallels between what CGIAR has worked on when it comes to physical, agricultural technology development—like improved seeds, which have contributed to significant gains in productivity around the world but which also, as you say, may have had some intervening effects too. Those parallels also exist with digital technologies.

Selcuk: I was just thinking today about some technologies that CGIAR came up with—for example, fortifying crops by adding vitamin A, zinc, etc. That’s not because there’s the demand coming from farmers. People like the rice that they’re eating, you know? It’s like a supply trying to create a demand for itself. How can that be made acceptable? How will a farmer react to something coming from the top-down like golden rice, or some other type of wheat, or maize?

Rikin: Did all farmers want to have access to WhatsApp five years ago? Probably not, but mobile phones and data connectivity expanded, and farmers downloaded WhatsApp, and they’ve made the choice to use that and connect with each other. It’s similar for the development of new varieties of biofortified rice and the like. I’d say that what’s important is to think how we make sure that these solutions are not being developed in isolation, and that there’s a process of testing, and feedback being gathered, and input being provided by the farmers. That’s what data and digital platforms can enable, efficiently, at scale. It used to be that you had to just run a couple of on-farm trials at a research station, and you might be able to produce a variety that could scale globally, but now—especially with climate change—we need to be a lot more nuanced, and also really understand the sociocultural aspirations of these communities.

Selcuk: That’s very true. But I was struck, Rikin, by all the reforms taking place in CGIAR at the moment. How did you feel about where CGIAR is headed?

Rikin: CGIAR seems to be trying to take more of a systems approach to agriculture—which is a really positive thing because farming is done in a system. I think the challenge is in how much of this is centralized through CGIAR, versus how much of it is localized into the national systems that have been the hallmark of CGIAR’s focus. They’ve really spurred the development of these agricultural research centers in India, in Africa, and in so many other parts of the world. What we are grappling with is how can CGIAR continue to build that national and local capacity, while also trying to take this newer systems view?

Selcuk: I agree. We have 15 centers, with 15 center directors, and for years many developing countries have been saying, “Can’t you just organize yourself so that we have only one voice coming from CGIAR rather than 15 different voices?” I think that the integration effort is laudable, but at the same time, I also feel that there’s resistance coming from the decentralized nature of the system. The centers have been autonomous for so many years that they really don’t want to be ordered what to do.

  • This is a system that has survived for 50 years through this reform or that reform, and this crisis and that crisis. It will overcome this one too.
    Selcuk Ozgediz
    Management and Governance Consultant

Rikin: I think what they’ve mostly been focused on so far has been the internal dynamics around CGIAR and the individual centers, but then there’s also the rest of the world—national centers, the AgTech landscape, and organizations like Digital Green. How do those go hand-in-hand with what CGIAR is trying to bring together?

Selcuk: Yeah. CGIAR seems to want to get the house in order first, before trying to tackle how the house interacts with others. Perhaps it would be clearer if they had a clear research agenda, but we heard at the meeting that there are something like 33 projects—that seems to be far too many for people to really rally around. I left the meeting thinking that there were a lot of things to be done. This may not be the end of the reform processes in CGIAR, but, nevertheless, another side of me thinks, “Well, this is a system that has survived for 50 years through this reform or that reform, and this crisis and that crisis. It will overcome this one too.”

Rikin: I’ve also been in touch with folks at CGIAR who are working on its digital strategy to see how they can think about linking this upstream work with the downstream better, and I’ve connected with some of the others who were participating in the Bellagio conference to see if there might be some tangible, joint efforts we could do to show how it’s actually possible to bring these physical and digital worlds closer together.

Selcuk: One of the things that came up for me is that I had written a book about the first 40 years of CGIAR, but after Bellagio I thought, “Well, maybe it might be useful to update that and bring it to 50,” because there are so many new issues. That was one of the conclusions I reached—and also to learn more about Rikin’s work. My son and grandchildren live in San Francisco, so next time I visit I’ll go knock on Rikin’s door.

Rikin: And I look forward to seeing you, and your grandchildren as well.

Explore More

Thanks to Rikin and Selcuk for taking part in this conversation, and for their valuable contribution to the many discussions that took place at the convening.

Find out more about the outcomes of this convening on our blog.

Take a look back at CGIAR’s 50 years of innovation that changed the world.

Looking ahead, here’s the CGIAR 2030 research and innovation strategy.

Other outcomes from this convening are discussed in Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s Washington Post op-ed.