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Joining forces with donor partners

November 3, 2010

IDRC believes that donor partnerships are crucial to advancing our mandate, and in March 2010 the Board of Governors reaffirmed this by approving our first five-year Donor Partnership Framework.

These partnerships foster collaboration among research funders and promote greater sharing of knowledge. Equally important, they increase the resources available to research for development.

Since 1970, IDRC has entered into agreements with more than 140 like-minded research funders. Our long experience has led to larger and more innovative partnerships. Today, partnership agreements over $1 million account for almost 80% of all active co-funding agreements. In 2009–2010, more than 16% of IDRC’s programming was funded through partnerships with government agencies, bilateral and multilateral organizations, philanthropic foundations, and private organizations.

In 2009–2010, the largest agreement, worth $50 million, was from our main Canadian partner, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund (CIFSRF). Other new partnership agreements included: 

  • Capacity Building for HIV/AIDS Prevention Trial — $10 million (CIDA)
  • KariaNet II — $1.6 million (International Fund for Agricultural Development)
  • Ecohealth Emerging Infectious Diseases Research Initiative — $1.5 million (Australian Agency for International Development)

Exploring new partnerships

During the next five years, we will nurture existing relationships but also explore new partnerships — with emerging donors, for instance. We will engage more fully with key international organizations and networks.

 We will also continue to strengthen the ability of our grantees to form partnerships and to mobilize the resources they need. As well, we will continue to document and share our learning in the field of partnering for development.


Helping Africa adapt to climate change

Kenya’s central highlands have seen a seven-fold increase in cases of malaria in the past decade. Researchers at the Kenyan Medical Research Institute blame climate change. A study, funded by the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa program, also concludes that human activity is responsible for rising temperatures. Just two degrees — from 17oC to 19oC — are all the malaria parasite needs to mature, putting 4 million people at risk on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

This research is one of more than 50 projects supported by the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa program. Launched in 2006, the program is a joint effort of IDRC and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Its goal: improve the capacity of African people and organizations to adapt to climate change in ways that benefit the most vulnerable. It also seeks to strengthen adaptation policies and plans.

DFID is IDRC’s largest non-Canadian co-funder. Over the past five years, DFID pledged $48 million to the climate change program and an additional $16.6 million for five other agreements.


Canadian collaboration to ensure food security

Many developing countries cannot produce or import enough food to feed their people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. As a result, more than one billion people around the world are malnourished. The World Bank estimates that global food production must double by 2030 to meet growing demand.

With that grim fact in mind, on October 16, 2009, the Honourable Beverley Oda, Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation, announced the creation of the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund. This $62 million joint initiative between IDRC ($12 million) and the Canadian International Development Agency ($50 million) will bring together the best minds from Canada and developing countries to find lasting, research based means of ensuring food security.

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund will contribute to meeting that goal by investing in applied research and harnessing Canadian expertise and knowledge. It is designed to benefit the most vulnerable, particularly women small farmers, and to fund organizations and institutions that can increase food production in a sustainable way.

IDRC launched the first two calls in February 2010, and three research partnerships have already been selected for funding.​

Helping Moroccan women preserve the argan tree at the gateway to the Sahara

November 1, 2010

The argan tree, Argania spinosa, is a species native to Morocco and the second most common tree in the country. The argan tree can live from 150 to 200 years and is very resistant to drought and heat. It grows wild and profusely in the arid and semi-arid regions of southwestern Morocco, in an area extending from Safi to the fringes of the Sahara and bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Atlas mountains to the east. There, it plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance and preserving biodiversity. Because of its strong root system, the argan tree helps to retain the soil and assists in combatting water and wind erosion, which puts much of this region at risk of desertification.

The argan tree is important to the local economy. Every part of the tree is useable and provides a source of income or food: the wood is used for fuel, the leaves and fruits provide forage for goats, and the almond oil extract obtained by women is used in cooking and traditional medicine. The argan tree thus provides support for some 3 million people.


Unfortunately, in less than a decade, more than a third of the argan forest has disappeared and its average density has declined from 100 to 30 trees per hectare. However, research shows that the argan tree is not a fossil which is disappearing, but rather a tree of the future for certain arid regions. It is therefore vital to improve the argan tree's production potential, so that it can regain its key position in the agricultural systems of the region. This is the challenge faced by two Moroccan researchers — Professor Zoubida Charrouf of the Faculté des sciences at the Université Mohammed V of Rabat, and Professor Faiçal Benchekroun of the Institut agronomique et vétérinaire Hassan II of Rabat — as part of a project associated with the 'Network on the Valorization of Plant Materials', funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

While the argan tree plays an important role in preserving biodiversity and combatting desertification in arid regions of Morocco, these are very distant concerns for the impoverished local populations. Therefore, the project aims not only to help prevent further environmental degradation but also to improve the economic well-being of these populations of southwestern Morocco, particularly the women. To achieve these goals, the researchers are focussing on: the development of argan tree management scenarios; the selection of trees that produce large amounts of oils and active biological products; improving the native craft procedures for producing argan oil, studying the physiochemical characteristics, chemical composition, and pharmacological activity of argan oil in order to extend its shelf life and develop value-added products from the oil; the economic viability of the women's groups that produce the oil; and the organization of marketing and training of the women's groups.

Main objective

The main objective of the IDRC-funded project is to enable the researchers to conduct the necessary studies to allow local women's cooperatives to enhance the production of argan oil and to provide technical support to these cooperatives. Funding for the launch of women's cooperatives (shop set up, equipment purchase, purchasing bottles, design and production of labels, training, etc.) is ensured by grants obtained by the Moroccan project leader from various donors including: the Canadian, Japanese, and United Kingdom embassies and the diplomatic corps accredited to Morocco; Oxfam-Québec; the Comité d'entraide internationale; and private Moroccan citizens. Many Moroccan organizations and services have also supported various training activities for the women's cooperatives.

These activities focus on technical training (training women in roasting, extraction, filtration, work organization, bottling and crimping techniques), on professional training (courses in management and accounting), and on personal training (literacy courses). So far, the training has led to some very significant results including: the improvement of Moroccan women's socioeconomic conditions by creating jobs and generating income, making women more aware of their rights, the reforestation of argan forests with the support of the women's cooperatives, and the promotion of regional tourism.

Marketing argan oil

In order to ensure the sustainability of this initiative, it is important to involve the women's cooperatives in marketing their products, which include virgin oil for use in skin care and roasted oil for use in cooking, spreads, soaps, etc. Major efforts have been made toward this end. For example, contacts have been made with potential clients, the products have been shown at trade fairs, retail stores have been opened in the cooperatives, and the products are now available in various supermarkets and stores in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakech, and Agadir. The cooperatives are equipped with telephones and fax machines. Moreover, this project has been profiled on the Moroccan second television channel, on the French networks (France 2 and FR3), and on Radio-Canada.

Since his accession to the throne, the new King of Morocco has initiated a policy of openness, which has generated great expectations in the Moroccan population. This policy needs to address the problem of improving the economic well-being of Morocco's rural population, particularly rural women, whose development level is far behind that of people living in urban areas. The IDRC-funded project is a step in the right direction. This is why Professor Charrouf is now holding discussions with other donors to develop a global project on the argan tree.

Zoubida Charrouf is a Professor of Chemistry at the Université Mohammed V de Rabat. Serge Dubé is a Program Officer based at IDRC's Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Z. Charrouf)

To learn more

Research turns oil into market hit, empowers women

Decades of cassava research bear fruit

October 28, 2010

For his pathbreaking research on cassava, Dr Nagib Nassar, a professor at the Universidade de Brasília, has been nominated for this year’s World Food Prize. The prize, worth $250,000 and considered by some to be the international development equivalent of the Nobel Prize, will be awarded October 24, 2002.

Cassava, a hardy, drought-resistant tuber, is a staple food for half-a-billion people. Nassar received early support for his research from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), as part of the cassava breeding research program supported during the 1970s and 1980s. This research led to the development of high protein varieties of cassava and to plants uniquely adapted to West African growing conditions.

You do need to have a long-term perspective on this type of work," says Dr Peter Cooper, Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Management program at IDRC. He notes that development projects are usually funded for three or four years at a time, but that results may take decades to show. Over time, it also becomes harder to draw straight lines from a particular contribution to a particular success as many others may have contributed. But, Cooper adds, Nassar continues to acknowledge IDRC’s early support in every research paper he has published.

One plant, many uses

Cassava has been cultivated in the tropics for centuries. A staple starchy food, the tubers can be boiled, baked, fried or dried. They are used to make flour, breads, tapioca, sugar, laundry starch, and even an alcoholic drink. More than 800 million people subsist on the edible tubers in South America, Asia, and Africa. While native to the Americas, it is now widely grown in tropical countries around the world, and is a main staple in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Congo.

Processing cassava to make it edible is complex, because most varieties contain potentially toxic concentrations of cyanogenic glucosides that are reduced to innocuous levels through cooking. And although its popularity as a staple compares with cereal grains in northern climates, most cassava varieties are low in protein – less than one percent, compared with about seven percent in staple grains commonly grown in temperate zones. It can also be grown, then left stored in the ground for long periods as a hedge against future hunger – a "famine food" for poor farmers.

Nassar’s interest in cassava began early in the 1970s, when he taught African crop biology at the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University, Egypt. "All indications referred to it as a possible salvation for Africa, from the famines that spread through the continent that decade," he says. "This is because of its high calorie production, year-round availability, and tolerance to extreme (environmental) stress conditions." However, severe drought can keep cassava from producing properly, and it has trouble growing in acid, toxic soils, such as in the Brazilian savanna.

Finding wild breeding stock

Nassar has worked with cassava germplasm – or breeding stock – for 28 years, since arriving in Brazil. He carried out work for the Institute of African Studies, then the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, collecting wild cassava strains in northeastern Brazil for two months. This led to IDRC funding two of his projects between 1976 and 1982.

His goal was to collect wild cassava species in their natural habitats in central and northeastern Brazil, evaluate their economic value, build them into a living collection, and cross them with domesticated cassava varieties. Along the way, the collection has helped save these wild species from extinction. He later also collected plants in Mexico.

Productive and nutritious hybrids

The wild germplasm lines that Nassar supplied to IITA as breeding stock have contributed to strains of cassava uniquely adapted to West African growing conditions. One of them, he says, helped vault Nigeria to a new position as a leading world cassava producer. Other leading producers include Brazil, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia.

Nassar says IDRC support allowed him to collect some 42 wild cassava species native to Brazil. He still propagates them in a living collection at the Universidade de Brasília, where he teaches, for evaluation and crossbreeding with domesticated varieties. He says he’s produced some 14 hybrids. This has been challenging because, over millions of years, evolution and natural selection have led to substantial interspecies barriers, making crossbreeding difficult.

Among his first hybrids was one that nearly doubled cassava’s protein content. Nassar attributes a lot of this to luck: usually when a wild species is crossed with cultivated one, it brings with it both desirable and undesirable traits. "This did not happen in this case," Nassar says. The hybrid combined the high productivity with low concentrations of cyanogenic glucoside.

Another hybrid – Nassar says it’s the most fascinating to him – was apomictic (capable of producing hybrid seed without sexual fertilization). Breeders can use apomixis to preserve a plant hybrid’s desirable characteristics. This line was bacteria- and virus-resistant, and after a single generation the root’s nutritional quality was surprisingly high. He’s continuing to work on apomixis in cassava and hopes to release his first apomictic clone to Brazilian farmers for commercial use in two to three years.

"I didn’t believe it myself – I didn’t believe my chemist colleague when he told me the protein percentage," says Nassar. "Doubling the protein content in one generation surpassed my most ambitious dreams. Normally it takes tens of generations to increase protein content by 20 to 30 percent. To double the content in one generation seemed fantastic. I spent several years repeating the chemical analysis to confirm the result."

Recognizing a contribution

For his work, Nassar has been nominated for the World Food Prize five years running, each time by Dr Joachim Voss, formerly of IDRC and now director general of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Colombia.

"I think in many ways, where he was considerably ahead of his time was in looking at bringing in characteristics from the wild relatives of cassava into domesticated cassava," says Voss. "His contribution, really, is to very early on identify the potential of some of the wild species for improving domesticated cassava. Cassava is notoriously difficult to breed. Nagib started looking at, and using molecular biology approaches to get those characteristics fixed in commercial cassava."

Voss says he’s nominated Nassar because, from a scientific viewpoint, his work has been path-breaking. Both high-protein and apomictic cassava strains hold tremendous potential for Africa’s poorest people. He acknowledges, however, that competition for the prize may mean Nassar will never win.

"But I think it’s important to recognize the contribution that he’s made," Voss adds. "At CIAT, which has the world’s biggest collection of cassava, the work that he’s done – in particular on improving the protein content of cassava – is something that we’ve picked up on and are carrying on, simply because of the potential. The reason that we’re doing that is very much because of Nagib’s early work."

Nassar says that, if he wins the award, he’ll dedicate it to supporting younger cassava researchers at the Universidade de Brasília. "I have already stepped toward this and started from my personal savings a fund at the university for this purpose," he says.

Keane Shore is an Ottawa-based freelance writer.

Kenyan farmers discover the Internet

October 20, 2010

Karatina Town seems a long way from Nairobi, Kenya's capital city of three million people. Yet, 100 km away, about a two-hour drive on the country's tattered roads, the town is the food basket of the city.

At dawn, while Kenya turns in its sleep, Peter Kimani is awake and on his way to Karatina Central Farmers Market, the largest produce market in Eastern Africa, to dispose of his produce. The onions, tomatoes, cabbages, and avocadoes will later be transported to Wakulima Market in Nairobi, the largest wholesale farmers market in East Africa, with about 10 000 traders.

Kimani is a smallholder farmer in Kirinyaga District, central Kenya, an area endowed with rich soils and rainfall. However, its large population has forced the subdivision of land into smallholder plots, which has eventually depressed the area's productivity. The father of three makes his living selling fruit and vegetables to the larger Nairobi. He has a one-acre plot. He does not earn a lot of money; on a typical day, he takes home US$5.

"Prices are not good here. They have been bad for a while," he says. Indeed, the price of horticultural products has been depressed for a while at Karatina's Central Farmers Market. Yet, by the time Kimani's produce reaches the Wakulima market, the prices will have ballooned by about 40%.

Intermediaries, the bane of producers

As a whole, prices are not depressed in Kenya. The rainy season that signals increased supply has not arrived and the cost of living has not changed since 1997, when the World Bank suspended US$205 million in structural adjustment aid to Kenya to protest perceived corruption and bad governance. The issue is that "most producers are hardly aware of the going prices. The food comes from the rural districts where farmers cannot dictate the prices because they do not bring their produce here," says Wakulima Market's trade superintendent, Charles Mwita.

Kimani's predicament is hardly surprising. He is among thousands of peasant farmers exploited by brokers and resellers who take advantage of the ignorance of unsuspecting producers. "They have exploited farmers for a long time," says Edith Adera, Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre's (IDRC) ACACIA initiative in Nairobi.

Adera is part of a team of researchers involved in a project to improve the livelihoods of farmers by increasing prices and productivity. The project is called DrumNet, a name that carries both cultural and historical connotations. Before radio and telephone technology mollified Africa in the early 1960s, just before Kenya's independence, the drum was the tool used to broadcast news in a community or from one homestead to the other. The net is the abbreviation for Internet, the latest technology to colonize the flow and exchange of information the world over.

www. replaces the drumbeat

"The drum was used to pass information in Africa, whether the news was about a funeral or a fire outbreak," says Adera. "We are now moving from the drum to the Internet, from the African drum to the latest technology."

The researchers believe that the provision of financial, marketing, and information services to peasant farmers will result in increased market access and an enhanced ability to make informed marketing decisions. This will eventually have an impact on overall market efficiency — and finally help reduce poverty. DrumNet plans to offer its members a range of for-fee services, including market linkages, real-time market price information, the coordination of produce transport, and group purchase of farm inputs, as well as information on leading farming techniques.

This IDRC-sponsored project aims to demonstrate a link between the provision of information and business services to smallholder farmers and increases in market prices, farm incomes, and household incomes. According to Adera, DrumNet will be a window to the export market. Currently, smallholder farmers have had no access to the East African market, for the obvious reason that intermediaries often determine prices. "The long-term goal of DrumNet is to scale the network throughout Kenya and throughout the East African region," she says. Ultimately, the research will assess the economic impact of its services on its member farmers, she adds.

Information kiosks

DrumNet, a project of the non governmental agency PRIDE AFRICA, will cost CA$300 000 to implement. It is conducted jointly by IDRC, the University of Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies (IDS), the Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences at Harvard University, and the Department of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Participating researchers from Harvard and Princeton designed this experiment, which will be carried out by IDS throughout 2004.

According to Adera, DrumNet has established what has come to be known as rural "Information Kiosks" (makeshift shops) in the Kirinyaga District of Central Kenya to provide free information to local smallholder farmers about the current prices of commodities on a daily basis. These information kiosks are equipped with computers that track retail, wholesale, and export prices and make them available to a representative group of farmers involved in the research.

DrumNet has also established Market Center Offices (MCOs) in both Nairobi's Central Farmers Market and in Karatina. Research assistants and information brokers — who go out each day to sample commodity prices, which they post on the net and bulletin boards in the market centre offices — manage the kiosks. "The information brokers have a strict code of ethics to ensure that they are not unscrupulous," says Adera.

According to Vince Groh, project manager, the first group of 180 farmers has been identified based on certain characteristics, such as farm size, income levels, and crops grown. But by the end of the year, the project will draw 500 farmers from throughout Kirinyaga District. DrumNet will also work with a special group of farmers who will participate in a carefully controlled experiment throughout 2004. "These farmers will be randomly assigned to either a treatment group or control group. DrumNet will begin marketing to members of the treatment group and offering services to those that join. The control group will not learn of DrumNet, nor will they be allowed to use DrumNet's services."

During the course of the research, the farmers — among them Peter Kimani — will be observed to note any changes — improvements or otherwise — in their productivity and revenue. After the year-long experiment, all participating farmers will be interviewed to assess changes in farm productivity, market prices, and household income.

An epochal revolution

The use of the Internet to track down prices for the benefit of smallholder farms is extraordinary in Kenya, although it has been tried successfully in neighbouring Uganda and Zambia.

The Internet came to Kenya in 1993 through a donor-funded project, the African Regional Centre for Computing (ARCC). Commercial Internet service mushroomed barely a year ago, but it has really had an impact on the lives of the 700 000 Kenyans with access. Compared to the entire population — 30 million — this access is rather limited. In the rural areas especially, this technology is hardly there. Even in places where it can be accessed, it is quite out of reach for many, mostly farmers.

For Kimani and other farmers countrywide, DrumNet is epoch-making. Ignorance has pushed them to squalid conditions, and left them trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation. Because of bad policies and economic mismanagement, the agricultural sector has slumped in the past two decades. Indeed, during the period 1964-74, agriculture contributed 36.6% of Kenya's GDP, 33.2% in 1974-79, about 29.8% in 1980-89, and 26.2% in 1990-95, according to the National Development Plan 1997-2001. Subsidies and credit schemes that powered the industry in the 1970s and made it the biggest employer are no more as the economy struggles against recession.

The price of exploitation

"Smallholder farmers tend to be exploited because they can ill-afford inputs, because they are small producers who find it costly to individually seek better markets for their produce," says Adera. For Kenyan farmers, the vicious cycle starts with no or inadequate resources to buy inputs (fertilizers, seeds, equipment) and poor market prices. It continues because of the predatory nature of local brokers and resellers: research supported by IDRC has found that these intermediaries, on average, extract one-quarter of the wholesale value of smallholder farmer produce as it is transported and marketed between the farmgate and the wholesale buyer. Finally, the supply chain for agricultural produce is inefficient: produce typically changes hands 3 or 4 times on the way to the market.

With the Internet linking producers to consumers, the farmer is likely to get better value for her/his produce. "The expectation is that DrumNet members will experience increases in household incomes as a result of their interactions with the organization," says Adera. Demonstrating this link conclusively will strongly support the growth of the DrumNet network to other regions of Kenya and the development of similar organizations.

"Our services are aimed at boosting and increasing productivity of high-potential cash crops, particularly those with export potential" says Groh. It will have eliminated intermediaries, who take more than 23% of the wholesale market price. Packaging, grading, market access fees, and transport takes away another 14%. "We are helping to alleviate this problem," says Groh. "Unaware of the going prices and unable to access effective marketing services, farmers have been able to retain only 63% of the proceeds. Add this to the already low productivity of their farms, and it's no wonder they are trapped in a pernicious cycle of poverty."

Change is never easy, but DrumNet researchers hope that this project, once completed, will produce a clearer picture of farmers' productivity and will ultimately rescue them from poverty. For a poor country like Kenya, where the per capita income is less than US$270, DrumNet is a revolution.

Kenyan journalist Ken Opala is the recent Gold Medal winner of the 2003 Natali Prize — one of the world's leading awards for journalists. He is also the winner of International Association of Journalists' 2003 regional prize for Africa.

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