The path from the greenhouse into practice
Innovative ideas like apps are very shiny and beautiful. But for the successful implementation of an innovation, we need to broaden our focus beyond the boundaries of the respective project. It is time to question our fundamental mentality and the associated thinking patterns and structures. Only by doing so can we succeed in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Lennart Woltering explains in an interview with Jan Rübel (Zeitenspiegel Reportagen) what such a mindset shift might look like and how innovation can make its way from the greenhouse into practice.
Mr. Woltering, how does one become a Scaling Advisor?
I am a civil engineer, but my first job was in an agricultural research institute in Niger. There, we focused on innovations that would undoubtedly improve agriculture - me with an eye on irrigation technologies. But despite our ideas, which we thought were great, we had to keep convincing farmers, going back and forth: a difficult process. The project didn't take off the way I wanted it to, and that frustrated me. Then I went to Hamburg for six years, where I managed several projects at the same time in consulting. There, I was tasked with making each of these projects as efficient as possible - which also disappointed me a bit, because there they looked more at the numbers and were more concerned about meeting targets than about making a difference, making sure that you were no longer needed. My current job as a scaling advisor combines these two professional experiences from Niger and Hamburg: first, many good innovations do not find their way into widespread use, and second, we do one project after another that falls silent after its end and leaves little behind.
What is the main problem with innovation projects?
Some say: If my idea is good, people will adopt it. Or the others say: My idea is so good that other people will help to take it to scale. Then the end of the project approaches, the responsibility stops - and the idea peters out. Too little thought is given to scaling from the beginning. That's how I got the job that is funded by both GIZ and CIMMYT, as part of a GIZ/CGIAR task force on scaling. If we really want to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we have to think beyond our project boundaries.
Many of the solutions are already there, but the conditions were never created for a broad mass of people to use them, that is the problem.
What is preventing the global community from achieving them?
The problem is our mindset. It has created structures, institutions and ways of working that are not very conducive to what we want to reach. We tend to see the poor people as kind of beneficiaries. We are giving them something. And our projects feed that mindset back again. But development funding is the tip of an iceberg. It is really about catalysing or helping change to happen and not making the change ourselves. We have very limited resources. Hence, we have to use development funding very wisely to enable organizations in those countries to fight hunger themselves.
Are you arguing for a more realistic view of the situations on the ground?
Well, I see a rat race between developing organizations: Everybody wants to show what they contributed. Governments want tax payers money spent well. Hence, they demand proofs. But then you end up with many projects that focus on something very shiny and beautiful, like innovations, prototypes, cool stuff, apps. But what is required in many places in Africa are not those shiny things. Many of the solutions are already there, but the conditions were never created for a broad mass of people to use them, that is the problem.
Do you have an example for that?
Take a new app to plant your crop. But farmers may be illiterate or can’t read that kind of phone, or they don’t have that kind of network that is required, or they can’t watch the videos – those need to be taken care of in parallel to that innovation. You need to extend the focus of getting an innovation running. This is the non-sexy part of the work. Instead of only looking to numbers like how many people have been reached, we should want to see private sector involvement and investment in this kind of solution. That shows the interest and willingness of the local actors to do what you think is the right thing to do.
But what if the private investment is not taking place? Would that also mean the end of a project?
We should be more strict in that. If you can’t mobilize the private sector, the government or the civil society there – then it is not the solution needed. You can keep on pushing with international donor’s money which is not very critical in many cases. If it does good, not many people will object to it. But if you want to really make a change you have to understand that you catalyse, that you help others to do more of it, and change it, if necessary, in a way like: Hey, it is not a blue car, it is a red bike which is more suitable to the solution. The principle would be to enhance mobility; people on the ground will develop it. You should not fall in love with the solution, you should fall in love with the problem, right? Instead, we are catching ourselves in our system.
Are our approaches outdated?
They are very outdated and very linear. They focus more on the survival of the organisation that brings them and on pleasing the donor rather than really make a difference in those countries. May be, the red bike is more needed than the blue car…it is really about listening more to the local actors and about investing in strengthening their capacity with that mindset that we are just a temporary support. We need to look for the exit strategies of ourselves. I don’t think we should be out, but we should change from doing massive projects, showing pompous innovations and focus more on the silent work behind the screens.
You demand a lot. Aren't there too many factors, such as political conditions, market forces, or power relations, that simply cannot all be surveyed at the beginning of a project?
That is what we call a paralysis by analysis: that you analyse so much that you get stuck. It is about recognizing the complexity of it, but not being paralyzed by it. The linear path is the easiest, but it is seldom the right path. It makes sense to check not only if an innovation is working as well as planned but also how does it work. And we have to ask more how this could work without us.
Many projects start in a greenhouse. Do you say that we should not build them anymore?
Innovations are great and we should continue developing new ideas. The problem is that the way that move from the greenhouse to the reality is just not right. We remove the greenhouse at once and the tomato plant will die because it is not adapted to the environment. Or we build a bigger greenhouse which is a bigger fake environment. Both models don’t really work. We should work develop these innovations maybe not in a greenhouse but in nethouse or more permeable to the environment where you get those influences. Many projects are shielded from reality. We create controlled conditions of the project, we pay for certain staff, for experts and collaborators, and this is not the reality at scale.
Let's take an example. If the goal of a project is to help small farmers with mechanization, this will be well received by them. Why is it necessary to involve much of the surrounding community? When they see a tractor, they take it…
Yeah, for us it is an attractive innovation to bring, because you get nice pictures of a woman on a tractor, it breathes progress. And the farmer says: Wow, I have a tractor, my grandfather and my father never had one. Progress! But repairs and maintenance are not up to the level needed. What if the farmer and the community don’t have the troubleshooting capacity? You need an environment for that. It depends on many things that should be considered before you start handing out tractors. We work a lot with local organisations and local manufacturers that have shown that they can adapt machines to the local conditions. They use the material that is locally available. Maybe it is better to scale these companies than letting John Deere in from somewhere else. It is about learning lessons from the past.
I prefer initiatives where you are able with a multidisciplinary team to develop local capacities so that they reach the high numbers, to really look at what is needed to sustain and grow change.
So is it a matter of changing existing systems?
That is what I am very excited about. In the past, the discussions focused on scaling innovations, and recently you see this idea going mainstream that it is about the system; that we have to give just as much, or more, focus on changing the system where such innovations can make an impact.
How can this be done? By establishing contacts with as many potential local partners as possible?
We have to rethink the glasshouse again. How can our super and proven idea reach many people without us? This is a question that needs to be asked from the beginning. Without people and their capacities on the ground, you won’t make it. If you have a fantastic seed but not the fertilizer to back it up, maybe it will not work as it could. You need also those puzzle pieces lined up to support an innovation.
The number of projects is increasing worldwide, but with shorter durations and less budget. What does that mean?
There is a risk that you get these more short term quick returns and you strengthen that model of the project. We are going backwards, we have become our biggest enemy. We set up a system we believe in, but does not really help us going forward. It will only help us show shiny things in three years, that’s it. I prefer initiatives where you are able with a multidisciplinary team to develop local capacities so that they reach the high numbers, to really look at what is needed to sustain and grow change, not just to reach that target via numbers but to see what is needed, to build trust with local actors.
Are too many innovations going to waste?
Yes, we spent too much time on innovations and not so much about the conditions that make them work. How many projects are there to repair water pumps that have been installed in Africa? Nobody does it, this is not sexy. But they would be important because they foster the conditions.
Why is scaling often only talked about in the private sector? Are there other conditions to scale innovations in the public sector, in ministries of agriculture?
That is another condition about which we have learned a lot. Now, we are applying those models of scaling that are really good for the private sector. Basically, it comes from the industrial revolution: set up a factory and make as much as possible – the more bottles of lemonade you sell, the better it is. That is also the model we apply to our innovations – the more machines that the project distributes, the better. These are great methodologies, but we need to go further and ask ourselves: Is this the right change and do we want to see it? Because there are limits to growth. More bottles of lemonade is not automatically good for the world. The innovations we are working with also face that: Agriculture is the biggest polluter of water, the biggest user of water and the biggest threat to biodiversity. So we have to have responsible limits to growth. We have many innovations that can improve productivity, but the women have to do the processing and maybe they have then more work to do this – hence, you need another innovation that assures that women don’t suffer more. Maximum scale for a few is not our target – but an optimal scale for many. Leave no one behind, don’t harm biodiversity – that is to consider. Scaling per se is not good.
How did you experience that?
Let us look to solar panels, by example. Solar powered irrigation pumps water for free, which is great for the farmer – but can you imagine what happens to the water table and the other users? In that sense, you also have to work on limits like: Maybe we have to put timers on these panels or reduce their distribution on a certain amount of hectares. We need to think about the public, not only the beneficiaries…
Can innovations be scaled without addressing gender issues and behavior change?
Adoption of innovations and scaling are basically change processes. They can imply big changes for a family, by example that you have to consider as well, especially in terms of gender. The innovations we develop are focused mostly on those who can adopt them more easily, so that we can reach our project targets. These are mostly the men and young men who have the agency and the power to adopt this. Women are often not even able to adopt innovations because this would mean something strange and new and this is traditionally not looked well upon. Hence, we have to understand what are we messing up when we bring these innovations at scale. It is a social progress as well. It gets more complicated and therefore need multidisciplinary teams to look at this. If not, you do more harm than good.
Lennart Woltering was interviewed by Jan Rübel.