As a term, “innovation” is everywhere. Headlines tout it, commercials advertise it, innumerable companies claim it. It is a term so ubiquitous, it risks becoming meaningless. Indeed, “the overuse and generalization of the term ‘innovation’ has led to a loss of understanding of what it is we need when we say we need more innovation,” according to WIRED contributor Michael O’Bryan. 
So what will it take for us to move beyond “innovation” as a buzz word, and recapture the true value that innovation offers to global development? The Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI) offers some interesting insights from their role as the YieldWise Innovation Partner. In this role, GKI conducted several global scans for innovations with the potential to solve pressing challenges in Yieldwise.
Innovation is not just an output.
Images of shiny products, smart gadgets, and new, efficient processes fill our mind’s eye when we think of innovation. These may be outputs of the innovation process, but the true value of innovation comes from an iterative process of deliberate experimentation. It is the culmination of a series of decisions — small, yet profound — that an individual or group makes in pursuit of incremental efficiency and productivity gains, or transformational change. To fully benefit from the value of innovation, global practitioners must use more rigorous decision-making processes to prioritize, explore, and evaluate their innovation options. A new toolset from the Global Knowledge Initiative, developed with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a YieldWise partner, aims to help development practitioners gain confidence and clarity as they undertake their innovation decision-making journey.
Take note of your context; it matters more than you might think.
It is easy enough to get bogged down in the details: technical design specifications, user preferences, implementation plans, marketing, finance, and regulatory compliance. But the context — the broader system in which the innovation process unfolds — greatly influences the impact of innovation. GKI’s Innovation Scan findings showcase a range of contextual factors that should be taken into account during the innovation journey. For YieldWise these include the nature of individual value chains in different countries; the market dynamics that incentivize adoption (or not); and the fit with smallholder realities. In any journey, twists and turns are to be expected, but paying attention to your context is an important step in predicting those twists.
The journey doesn’t stop once you pick your innovation.
This is only a midpoint in the longer journey that continues into implementation. Next up, you must confront a line of questions to ensure that your innovation achieves its desired end: Which stakeholders should you involve in the initial rollout? How do you integrate the innovation into current practice? How do you communicate the comparative advantage to potential users? Findings from the YieldWise Innovation Scans confirm: a novel innovation, if not put to use, remains but a good (possibly expensive) idea, not an impactful solution.
Like any good adventure, who you’re with counts for as much as where you’re going.
Development practitioners are increasingly expected to support innovative programming, whether they source it externally or cultivate it internally. But too often, the knowledge of how innovation emerges, how it can be supported, and what it takes to deliver impact resides in a single “Innovation Officer” or other specialized position. Building a groundswell of development practitioners with the knowledge and skills they need to support true innovation serves as a key step in reclaiming innovation as a development tool (not just a buzz word).
These insights highlight cross-cutting takeaways on delivering innovation with impact, as informed by GKI’s Innovation Scans. GKI first conducted three Innovation Scans organized around a pressing innovation challenge presented by each of three YieldWise partners:
For the mango value chain in Kenya, presented by TechnoServe: How might we enhance the traceability of mangoes produced by smallholder farmers in Kenya?
For the tomato value chain in Nigeria, presented by PYXERA Global: How might we best support Nigerian smallholder farmers who want to dry tomatoes as a secondary market opportunity?
For the maize value chain in Tanzania, presented by AGRA: How might we leverage information and communication technologies (ICTs) to scale extension and training solutions that support behavior change among smallholder farmers?
GKI is currently conducting an additional Innovation Scan on the topic of Transformational Innovations to Reduce Post-harvest Loss and Improve Food Security. From January to September 2017, GKI is engaging experts from diverse circles – agribusiness, academia, investment, innovation, international development, and futures foresight – with the aim to deepen our collective understanding of those truly transformational innovations that will reshape agriculture between now and 2035. Inclusive of a cutting edge, facilitated experience that convened at The Rockefeller Foundation’s storied Bellagio Center, GKI’s process has already unearthed an abundance of investable innovations that could help usher in a new future for food systems in developing countries. Going forward, the results of this scan will inform a public report on the top innovations poised to transform food systems through the efforts of YieldWise and beyond. Follow this link to learn more and for a sneak peek at the interim findings.
GKI is a non-profit organization with the mission of developing purpose-driven networks to deliver innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. In its role as the YieldWise Innovation Partner, GKI helps Implementing Partners improve their effectiveness and impact through innovation. In addition to scanning for innovations with the potential to reduce food loss, GKI works with Implementing Partners to address their innovation capacity building goals. This effort builds upon a legacy of work with The Rockefeller Foundation on the post-harvest food loss challenge: GKI served as the Social Innovation Lab for the Foundation’s Food Waste and Spoilage Initiative in 2013-15.