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Chief Executive Officer's review

Agricultural research and policy are confronted by new challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity—climate change and nutrition insecurity. This was the focus of my address to the Crawford Fund parliamentary conference on ‘Reshaping agriculture for better nutrition’ in August 2018.

To meet these challenges, we must develop new platforms for collaboration and innovation across the food system, between the food and health systems, and between the public and private sectors. ACIAR, as Australia’s specialist agricultural research-for-development agency, has well-honed skills in brokering durable partnerships, involving end-users in the process of scientific inquiry, and developing enduring capabilities in science and policy in the countries with which we partner. These skills, and the networks and track record we have established over the last 36 years, are more relevant today than ever.

The 2018–19 year has been characterised by significant progress in building on those skills, and implementing the fundamental elements of the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027.

We have refocused our priorities within our research program to better align them to meet these challenges in line with Australian Government priorities, and have a renewed emphasis on regional capacity building, especially in the Pacific. We have expanded our outreach activities to make our role in brokering and supporting targeted scientific collaboration more transparent and to raise awareness. We have also revisited how we monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of our diverse portfolio of projects, to ensure they meet the expectations and needs of government, people in the regions where they are located, and our scientific research partners, in Australia and regionally.

This refocusing of priorities took place through the lens of Australian Government policy—notably the Pacific Step-up, and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals. Areas of increased emphasis include climate change and gender equity and inclusivity. Gender equity in research-for-development is a high priority for ACIAR and the Australian aid program.
I was particularly delighted that ACIAR was a co-convenor of the Seeds of Change—Gender Equity in Agricultural Research for Development conference held at the University of Canberra in February 2019, and attended by 280 delegates from 45 countries. Gender is now integral to our research project proposal template. This triggers teams to take a multi- or cross-disciplinary approach to their research, and to include people who have the knowledge and experience to work sensitively with communities and avoid the risks of unintended consequences.

While our focus and programs adapt to address new and evolving challenges facing agriculture in the Indo–Pacific region, our well-established partnership model continues to provide productive pathways for ACIAR to participate in agricultural research-for-development throughout the region. Our work aligns closely with Australia’s broader development assistance program and contributes to Australia’s security and economic interests which are inter-linked with the countries of the regions in which ACIAR operates: Pacific, East and South-East Asia, South Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa.

An influential global partner

ACIAR is mandated to manage Australia’s investment in CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research network, dedicated to reducing rural poverty and increasing food and nutrition security for human health. Our strong and productive relationship with the CGIAR continues to grow, which was demonstrated in November 2018, when ACIAR hosted the very well-attended forum, ‘Transforming the global food system: challenges and opportunities’ in Canberra.

Recognising that only one-third of the world’s population eats a healthy diet, the forum was a wonderful opportunity to host the directors general of three CGIAR research institutes—Dr Martin Kropff of CIMMYT (maize and wheat research), Dr Jimmy Smith of ILRI (livestock research) and Dr Matthew Morell of IRRI (rice research)—who interacted with the Australian agricultural research community on the work that these international research centres are doing to meet this challenge and discuss future opportunities.

In addition to fostering and consolidating relationships with the CGIAR and its 15 research centres, ACIAR continued its work with 10 other international organisations to jointly address global challenges of agricultural development.

Among many highlights for the year, ACIAR was appointed chair of the Executive Council of the Asia–Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) and the Asia–Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology and Bioresources. APAARI provides research communication, knowledge management, advocacy for agricultural biotechnology, support for capacity building and participation in expert consultations with national agricultural research system leaders in the region.

In December 2018, we signed new four-year partnerships with the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) and the World Vegetable Centre. The partnership with CABI will support the global program Plantwise, which assists growers to minimise crop losses from pests and diseases. ACIAR supports WorldVeg’s program of vegetable breeding and capacity building in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, notably the partnership includes support of the International Mungbean Improvement Network—of benefit to farmers overseas and in Australia.

Co-investment alliances and partnerships are a growing component of our research program. Building on our reputation as a valued and trusted science partner, ACIAR works on a number of programs where financial support, design and management of programs is shared with another Australian Government agency, an overseas counterpart to ACIAR or private foundations and investors.

A significant achievement in this area of operations for 2018–19 was the negotiation and launch of Phase 2 of the Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) partnership1 with the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). This builds on the first phase of the program, and comprises nine projects across seven countries in eastern and southern Africa, addressing post-harvest management, food processing, nutrition, business opportunities and value chains.

A respected bilateral partner

The foundation of our research partnership model is bilateral partnerships with organisations in partner countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to brokering and managing approximately 240 research projects and activities addressing specific issues related to agriculture, forestry and fisheries in 35 countries, ACIAR also entered into agreements and compacts with partner countries to focus in-country research on clearly-articulated and mutually-agreed priorities.

A 35-year relationship with the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) will continue to flourish. A new agreement was signed in December 2018, marking a new stage in a very productive relationship. We will continue to focus on collaborative research across the sectors, with a new emphasis on capacity building in the Philippines and a shared approach with PCAARRD to evaluating the impact of our investments.

As well as working hard to build relationships and deliver results to smallholder farmers and fishers in the region, it was very pleasing to receive acknowledgement of the contribution of ACIAR to agricultural research-for-development by partner countries.

In June 2019, I was honoured to accept, on behalf of ACIAR, the Friendship Order from the Vietnam Government for our significant contribution to Vietnam’s agriculture sector over 25 years. The ceremony was witnessed by our Foreign Minister, Senator the Hon Marise Payne and the Foreign Minister of Vietnam. This is the most prestigious international honour awarded by Vietnam and has only previously been awarded to an organisation (as opposed to individuals) on one other occasion.

Facilitating development with our partners

Our re-focused research portfolio was in operation for its first full year in 2018–19. Knowing that effective use of funds for research-for-development requires a clear pathway to impact, the programs included in the portfolio encompass:

  • key agriculture sectors–crops, fisheries, forestry, horticulture and livestock
  • science and disciplines supporting these sectors—agribusiness, social sciences, soil and land management, and water and climate
  • assessment of achievements to guide future investment—impact evaluation.

The research portfolio is guided by six strategic objectives, articulated in our 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027. The strategy is aligned with our enabling legislation, key objectives of the Australian Government’s aid policy, and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The focus of projects established through our bilateral research program is diverse and the achievements in 2018–19 are many. Further, the project partnerships are also diverse, reflecting the need for flexibility and innovation to bring together the best team to address the identified issue.

While each project is managed within one of our nine research areas, the design of all projects is guided by our six strategic objectives. In addition to our projects contributing to knowledge or developing new technology, our projects contribute to at least one, but usually several, of our objectives, which address:

  • food security and poverty reduction
  • natural resources and climate change
  • human health and nutrition
  • gender equity and women’s empowerment
  • inclusive value chains
  • capacity building.

Increasing food security and productivity

ACIAR works throughout the Indo-Pacific region to improve food security and reduce poverty among smallholder farmers and rural communities. In doing so, we contribute to our mission of improving livelihoods and making production systems more sustainable.

Increasing the economic and disaster resilience of five regionally-significant fruit crops: breadfruit, citrus, mango, papaya and pineapple is the aim of a project2 working with Pacific communities in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Surprisingly, given the favourable climate and increasing market opportunities, Pacific fruit production represents less than 10% of total horticultural output. The project led by Professor Steven Underhill of the University of the Sunshine Coast runs from 2016 to 2019, and has seen, for example, the planting of improved varieties of citrus trees in Tonga to rebuild and expand commercial citrus production. Economic benefits for the communities involved are anticipated from 2020 onwards, when the trees start to reach bearing age.

Much of Myanmar’s population of 52 million is dependent on coastal fisheries and rice for food and livelihoods. Several ACIAR-supported projects in the Ayeyarwady Delta are contributing to the sustainable management of coastal fisheries and inland aquaculture, as well as increasing production and income for the Myanmar households.

A project3 led by Dr Mike Phillips of WorldFish is aiming to improve the productivity and profitability of rice–fish production systems, as well as identify opportunities for diversification. Midway through its term, the project has reported a 40% increase in fish production and a 50% increase in overall farm income in some areas. Additionally, training in small-scale aquaculture was delivered to almost 15,000 rural households.

Managing natural resources

ACIAR supports many projects that strive to improve livelihoods through the sustainable use and management of natural resources and sustainable intensification of farming systems. These projects also work to address region-wide barriers to sustainable economic growth, such as extreme poverty and gender inequality.

ACIAR supports and coordinates the food and agriculture component of a large and multi-faceted Australian Government initiative—the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP), funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). ACIAR works with a range of partners in Australia and South Asia to improve the integrated management of water, energy and food in the major Himalayan river basins—the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra.

Ten projects4 in Bangladesh, India and Nepal make up Phase 2 of the initiative, which builds on our existing program of field research, local policy engagement and strong partnerships in the region. During 2018–19, the projects established the basis to support sustainable intensification of farming systems, with a focus on two of the most pressing issues in the region—adaptation to climate change and promotion of gender equality by empowering women and girls.

Improving human health and nutrition

Many ACIAR projects contribute to the objective of enhancing human nutrition and reducing risks to human health, such as a four-year project5 to improve production and market competitiveness in Australian and Filipino pig production, which concluded in 2019.

Led by Dr Pat Blackall of the University of Queensland, the project focused on achieving improved production through better health and disease control, making pig enterprises more productive, environmentally-friendly, sustainable and profitable for both men and women farmers. In the Philippines, where most pig production comes from smallholder farmers, the project took an Ecohealth approach. It focused on improving the health of smallholders and their environment, including livestock such as pigs, recognising the interconnected nature of the elements of the farming systems.

Through the project, women, who represent more than 50% of smallholder pig farmers, were empowered to make their enterprises more profitable and competitive. Women were also encouraged to enter the industry as a way of securing independent income.

Equitable participation

In addressing key challenges and opportunities in the agriculture, fisheries, forestry and horticulture sectors, ACIAR projects are designed to be equitable, inclusive and empowering. Gender equality is crucial to alleviating poverty in rural communities. Women already play a significant role in agriculture in many countries across the globe. In developing countries, women do much of the manual labour on farms, as well as domestic duties. ACIAR recognises the yet untapped potential for improved production, income and family nutrition, which occurs when women play a more visible and equal role in agricultural decision making. Accordingly, ACIAR projects are designed to sensitively facilitate social and cultural change.

Growing success in this dimension was profiled and celebrated at the international conference, Seeds of Change, which placed gender firmly on the agricultural research agenda, with a thought-provoking and engaging three days of presentations and discussion from global leaders in the field.

Inclusive value chains

An important part of agricultural research-for-development is ensuring that value chains are functional and do not create barriers to adoption of new knowledge and technologies.

Farm power and conservation agriculture are important to sustainable intensification of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Access to farm power is constrained due to the collapse of tractor-hire schemes, the diminishing numbers of draught animals and the scarcity and cost of human farm labourers. Technologies based on two-wheel tractors were identified as a solution to deficits in farm power, e.g. tractor-driven grain threshing machines.

A six-year project6, led by Dr Frédéric Baudron of CIMMYT, took a market-oriented approach to the manufacture of such machinery, and developed viable business models to facilitate access through service provision. The project, which concluded in 2019, accelerated the delivery and adoption of two-wheel tractor-based technologies and small-scale grain processing to smallholder farmers in two countries in eastern and southern Africa, with subsequent benefits to livelihoods.

Throughout this Annual Report six case studies take a closer look at selected project achievements. The preceding examples and the case studies provide a window on our performance during 2018–19 and the achievement of our targets for the performance criteria set out in our Portfolio Budget Statements 2018–19.

Building capability of partners

Capacity building has been an enduring focus of ACIAR, and intensified during 2018–19, building on a 2017 review of our activities. The review identified gaps in the program and potential improvements, leading to further development of our established and highly-regarded John Allwright (JAF) and John Dillon Fellowships (JDF).

Partner countries have told us that not only do they have expectations that John Allwright fellows be accomplished scientists but that they should also be confident and capable of taking up leadership positions when they return to their home countries. In response, we established the John Allwright Fellowship Executive Leadership (JAFel) program, to foster fellows’ leadership capacity. The aim is to produce balanced researchers with strong academic skills and specialist expertise, as well as good communication, project management and team-building skills. The first intake of the JAFel program took place in January 2019, with 25 fellows participating in an intensive, 10-day face-to-face leadership course at the University of New England.

We also developed a new capacity-building program designed to provide leadership training and support to cohorts of people working in partner organisations in the Pacific during 2018–19. The Institutional John Dillon Fellowship program (iJDF) will launch early in the 2019–20 year.

Regionally, we strengthened the impact of the existing JDF and JAF by holding several local meetings of alumni fellows. The Vietnam event, for example, attracted 34 John Allwright and John Dillon fellows—key managers, senior experts and researchers from ACIAR partner institutions in Vietnam, who valued the opportunity to develop an alumni network strategy and learn from one another.

Following the success of the 2014–17 Australia–Africa Biosecurity Partnership in building African biosecurity capacity, ACIAR started a similar program in the Pacific region. Targeted training for national, institutional and individual needs is backed up by a mentoring program, which includes work placements in Australian and New Zealand institutions. ACIAR is partnering with New Zealand agencies in this capacity-building program, to capitalise on their considerable Pacific biosecurity experience.

Internally, the ACIAR graduate program for early-career researchers goes from strength to strength. Since 2009, 20 young researchers have taken part in the program. In June 2019, the program was short-listed in the best Graduate Development Program category in the 2019 Australian HR Awards.

Extending influence and impact

ACIAR has a responsibility to communicate the results of our diverse agricultural research portfolio to partner researchers and institutions; key stakeholders such as government, peak bodies and associations; and the Australian community.

Our Outreach team continued to develop and engage in a growing range of activities to raise awareness of ACIAR-funded research, including sponsoring and organising events, publications such as Partners in Research for Development, social media, and partnerships with The Crawford Fund and mainstream media organisations such as the ABC and multicultural broadcaster SBS.

A highlight during 2018–19 was the production of The Good Cooks television series. ACIAR partnered with SBS to produce a six-part series demonstrating how ACIAR is improving food security in the developing world. The Good Cooks featured six Australian chefs who travelled to Fiji, Indonesia, Mozambique, Philippines, Tanzania and Vietnam to learn to cook like the locals, and at the same time raise awareness of ACIAR research-for-development projects in those countries.

ACIAR was active in a number of key stakeholder events, as host and organiser, co-organiser or sponsor. These included the 2018 Crawford Fund Conference, of which ACIAR was a major sponsor, the Australasian Aid Conference, the Fourth World Agroforestry Congress and the Seeds of Change conference at the University of Canberra.

Conclusion

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the commitment and efforts of my ACIAR colleagues. Our tried and proven model of brokering research partnerships across the region relies most of all on people – skilled, experienced professionals with extensive networks and a high degree of sensitivity and credibility in the countries in which we work. We are blessed at ACIAR in being able to attract and retain people of outstanding calibre, who are highly committed to our mission. I cannot thank my colleagues, in Canberra and in our ten country offices, enough for the great work they do, often in challenging contexts.

In designing and delivering our research programs, ACIAR staff, and particularly myself and the senior executive team, are guided by advice from the Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Policy Advisory Council (PAC) comprising senior experts from the countries in which we work. The PAC and Commission had an outstanding joint meeting in Laos in March 2019, and as ever, provided insightful and useful advice to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and valuable counsel to ACIAR.

Finally, the outputs reported here owe most of all to the people who carry out our research projects on the ground – scientists from our research partners in universities, research institutes and government agencies in Australia and in our partner countries – and the mostly smallholder farmers, women and men, who are the intended beneficiaries and often willing participants and helpers in this important work.

CEO signature

Professor Andrew Campbell FTSE, FAICD
Chief Executive Officer

Footnotes

  1. ACIAR project C2016/367 Cultivate Africa’s Future Phase 2 (CultiAF 2) – scaling up results from CultiAF 1
  2. undefined
  3. ACIAR project: Development of rice-fish systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta, Myanmar (FIS/2016/135)
  4. ACIAR projects: Sustainable and resilient farming system intensification (SRFSI) (CSE/2011/077); Identifying Eastern Gangetic Plains soil constraints (CROP/2018/210); Institutions to support intensification, integrated decision-making and inclusiveness in agriculture in the East Gangetic Plain (LWR/2018/104); Foresight for sustainable food systems in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2018/168); Quantifying crop yield gaps across the Indo–Gangetic Plains from new perspectives: production, farmer profit and sustainability of water use (WAC/2018/169); The regional hydrological impact of farm-scale water saving measures in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2019/104); The implications of sustainable intensification on weed dynamics in the Eastern Gangetic Plains (WAC/2018/211); Aquifer characterisation, artificial recharge and reuse of suddenly available water in South Bihar, India (WAC/2018/211); Building provincial capacity for sustainable agricultural mechanisation in Nepal (WAC/2018/220); Pilot project on commercialisation of smallholder conservation-based planters in Bangladesh (LWR/2018/111)
  5. ACIAR project: Improving the production and competitiveness of Australian and Philippines pig production through better health and disease control (AH/2012/066)
  6. ACIAR project: Farm mechanisation and conservation agriculture for sustainable intensification (FSC/2012/047)