Dr Shoba Sivasankar joined ICRISAT  as Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals on 11 July 2013. With a combined expertise in agronomy, cereal crop physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics, she has been working most recently with the private seed company, DuPont Pioneer, leading the Corn Drought Tolerance Gene Evaluation Program, until assuming her current responsibility.

1. The CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals (also known by its operating name, Dryland Cereals) is an ambitious multi-country global research program that brings together many partners from different backgrounds. How do you envision the coordination of such a program?

The long-term goals of the Dryland Cereals are improved food security, reduced poverty, improved nutrition and enhanced environmental sustainability in the dryland regions of Africa and Asia. These are the CGIAR System-Level Outcomes. The shared perspective that we have among all partners on the dryland cereal crops across the target regions of the research program is very important to deliver on these goals. Crop improvement is a critical component of the Dryland Cereals.  However, we need to provide solutions for farmers all through the value chain. I see the central role and contribution of the research program as improving the value chains of dryland cereals for the benefit of smallholder farmers in the dryland regions. In essence, the program is about feeding the forgotten poor.

The dryland cereals we work on (barley, sorghum, pearl and finger millet) have several important characteristics, some of which are not common knowledge. These crops are extremely resilient and hence can adapt to the harshest of environments such as those that prevail in the drylands of Africa and Asia.  They grow and produce under extreme conditions where other crops cannot survive. Another important, and sometimes overlooked, fact is the value of millets in human nutrition.  Millets are rich sources of micronutrients like iron, zinc and calcium, the levels of which are significantly higher than in the common staple foods like rice, wheat and maize.  Finger millet has held significant importance in India for a long time for its value in the nutrition of babies, young children and nursing mothers. This value is recognized in Africa as well.  It is possible to imagine some of these dryland cereal crops constituting an important share of the future health food and nutraceutical market, after oats. The Dryland Cereals can contribute to the global recognition of these crops, to “market” the nutritional value and uniqueness of dryland cereals.

Therefore, in addition to crop improvement and crop management, the program should be able to make the nutritional significance of these crops common knowledge, such as to create a market pull for smallholder farmers in the dryland regions, which in turn will improve their livelihoods.

2. You have just arrived. What are your priorities in the coming weeks to initiate this coordination?

I am identifying what synergies exist between the goals of the Dryland Cereals and other CGIAR Research Programs, with the CGIAR Centers and non-CGIAR partners. I have also collated advice received from the donors and the consortium at the CGIAR Engagement with Stakeholders Workshop held in June in Montpellier.  This meeting was an ideal start for me, as I came into this role, to present the objectives and development pathways of the Dryland Cereals (see the CRP Dryland Cereals presentation), and to understand the point of view of donors and important stakeholders.

Following the guidance from this meeting, I have started conversations with other CGIAR Research Programs and Centers that can be strategic partners due to critical synergies such as the International Livestock Research Institute to discuss the food-feed crop breeding work and the role of dryland cereals in the crop-livestock farming systems.  The CGIAR Research Programs with which I have initiated discussions are Water, Land and Environment, Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Livestock and Fish, and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.  I am also starting discussions with Dryland Systems to fully address the dryland cereals from the systems perspective. I hope to incorporate important synergistic projects and activities into the next-phase proposal of the Dryland Cereals, and hope to have the Concept Note for the next phase to be revised soon.  As the Research Management Committee of the program comes together, I hope we can start identifying and exploring other synergistic partnership possibilities with CGIAR and non-CGIAR partners throughout the value chain for these crops in the target regions.

Monitoring and evaluation of the program at all levels involve both CGIAR partners and non-CGIAR partners.  The Steering Committee of the Dryland Cereals, that has oversight for its operations and implementation, includes key NARS partners and one donor representative. Members of the Independent Advisory Committee of the program include representatives from ASARECA, CORAF/WECARD and WACCI, while there is also representation from the academia and industry. The Research Management Committee has non-CGIAR partners such as CIRAD and the USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sorghum and Millets.

Also some product lines (PL) are coordinated by non-CGIAR partners, PL1 for instance (nutritious, photoperiod-sensitive sorghum production packages for multiple uses in West Africa) will be coordinated by CERAAS, ISRA (Institut Senegalais de Recherches Agricoles) in Senegal. They have a good developing genomics facility and it will be a good training ground for African partners in new molecular tools for breeding.

3.  Donors will judge the Dryland Cereals’ research according to specific development objectives (intermediate outcomes) and impact figures. What do you think about that?

The new impact-orientation approach for “agricultural research for development” in CGIAR is key to deliver on the ultimate goals of the research program. It requires a certain mindset to define our research with clear development outcomes and measurable impact targets.  Having worked in the private sector for a while, I have some background in measuring success and impact according to market targets. But this is easier to do in the industry when the target population is large farmers, and almost all facts and figures are available.  You know your profit, your market share all the time. Assessing impact in smallholder agriculture in developing countries is a little more complex, as the data is not so easily available. To capture the needs in order to develop planning documents and to assess the impact of work done, we will need to put enough effort into data collection. It is important to define the target population, decide on the most appropriate solutions needed, and determine how they can be implemented in order to reach a large number of smallholder farmers.  It is also important to integrate a carefully developed gender strategy into all levels of implementation and assessment. Collecting and acting upon gender-disaggregated data to alleviate gender inequalities at all levels in the value chain is an important focus of the Dryland Cereals.

The impact figures in the research program proposal were a result of serious thought.  However, as a team, the Dryland Cereals Research Management Committee needs to study and understand these figures further and make adjustments if necessary as we prepare the proposal for the next phase.  One “plus” for dryland cereals is that we have room for crop improvement as the yield gap is significant.  Adoption of improved varieties is already happening, many ongoing research for development initiatives show great impact.  When you see the pace of change for India, and for some African countries, this makes it possible to see the achievability of ambitious development targets.

One priority is to get the right coordination and focus in place to deliver results in a timely and cost-effective way, and to get the right monitoring and evaluation systems in place.

4. The research program plans to develop product lines to respond to various farming constraints, and other innovations that will hopefully improve the lives of millions of smallholder farmers. According to CGIAR’s previous experience, having large-scale adoption of such innovations can be very challenging.  How do you see the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals tackling this issue of adoption?

The situation will differ from one region to another but our research for impact should integrate a few common principles.

We have to take into account regional and local consumer and end-user preferences right at the planning stage. Crop improvement efforts should take into consideration the aspects of GxExM (Genetics X Environment X Management). Finally smallholder farmers have to get good market access to fully benefit from the innovation. That is one important driver of adoption.

5. What about the private sector? What role can they have under the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals framework?

For a large-scale impact, engagement with the private sector is as important as the engagement with public sector partners.  We need to highlight and communicate what we can bring to the private sector.  For instance, ICRISAT’s phenotyping facility and drought-tolerance research would be of strong interest to seed industry partners operating in India.  Further, the germplasm collection of millets, sorghum and barley can be of use to the private sector because of their native tolerance to extreme environments, and can also contribute to the improvement of other major cereals through the understanding of native tolerance mechanisms, existing allelic variations, transgenic research, etc. Transferring the hardiness of pearl millet to maize for instance is a possibility to explore.

Leveraging further the interest of the food processing, health food and nutraceutical industry in dryland cereals, especially millets, is important, as it will increase the demand for such cereals and consequently improve the economies and livelihoods of farmers in the dryland regions. (See for instance the work of Nutriplus Knowledge Programme at ICRISAT which develops nutritious millet or sorghum products such as energy bars, sweet sorghum juice or gluten-free healthy snacks).

ICRISAT has just signed an agreement with Advanta for sorghum and millet. They have a good business model filling niches not covered by big seed companies.

A few last words as a conclusion…

Barley, millets and sorghum are critical to the subsistence farmers in the dryland regions where these resilient crops can survive and produce under the harshest environmental conditions.  There are many pathways and various partnerships that the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals will explore to bring tangible benefits to this population. This is the sole focus of the research program.