Dr Noel Ellis, British national, joined ICRISAT as Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes on July 15, 2013. A legume crop genetics specialist, the main focus of his research in recent years has been on the evolution and diversification of legumes at genomic and phenotype levels. He coordinated the multi-country European Union FP6 “Grain Legumes” research project.

1. The CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes (also known by its operating name, Grain Legumes) is an ambitious multi-country global research program that involves numerous partners from different backgrounds. How do you envisage the coordination of these partnerships?

No one person or organization can pretend to have all the competences to undertake every one of the research components. The CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes deals with eight different crops, in many different places and agro systems, with different organizations including farmers’ groups, research institutes, NGOs, local government and the private sector. I do see the Grain Legumes working in partnership, with partners complementing each other. This is necessary. This is a challenge for coordination, but an exciting challenge.

We need to bring together what different people want to say and achieve with collegiate thinking and decision making (see Noel’s presentation to donors at the recent CGIAR stakeholder workshop).

The Research Management Committee, where all the CGIAR Research Program progress and directions are debated is already in place (see the Governance Structure). New competences important for the research program, such as market structure and social interaction, should come on board in the future. We also need to balance our gender representation.

The research program document is a kind of established logical framework of what we agreed to do and achieve with donors, but the midterm review (end of year 2014) together with the writing of the second phase document will allow some flexibility.

Integrating the Grain Legumes into the wider legume community will be important too; it is a relatively small and collaborative research community. From my experience of coordinating an EU FP6 Grain Legume research project, its ability to work together effectively is clear. For example, we could combine our efforts with partners from Australia, Russia, China, Brazil and North Africa. The open community engendered by the European Grain Legume Association (AEP) was very helpful in bringing all this together.

2. The Grain Legumes 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, large-scale adoption of such innovations can be very challenging. How do you see the research program tackling this issue of adoption?

Regarding adoption, I (and we) will need help from all our partners. We will need to engage with many different sorts of organizations, and explore various models of technology uptake. Under the EU FP6 project, we set up a Technology Transfer Platform (GL-TTP, including improved varieties, processing technologies or other innovations) that was partly self-funded. It worked well.

As the Grain Legumes will work with different crops, different regions and social and economical contexts, the stakeholders we will engage with, or the way we engage with them, may be different. For disseminating improved varieties for instance, seed systems may be community-based, or driven by the private sector, or through other public private partnership models.

The gender aspect will be important too, as grain legumes in general are viewed as a woman’s crop, but the involvement of men and women varies from region to region.

The research program needs to engage with farmers. Even though the research committee does not yet include farmer organizations, some should have a formal role in the future, such as dealing with uptake issues and definition of research needs. We need to think about what type of connections the research program could formally have with farmer organizations.

3. What about the links with other CGIAR Research Programs?

This is not yet clear for me. Of course, I already talk to Shoba a lot, who is the director of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals and sitting next door to me. I am in close contact with other CGIAR colleagues in ICARDA, IITA and CIAT. I would like to meet with other CGIAR Research Program directors in the near future.

My first concern is to get the internal structure of the Grain Legumes up and running and I still have to schedule visits to the main partners like EMBRAPA, ICAR, Feed the Future Legumes Innovation Labs.

As I heard at the CGIAR Stakeholder workshop, we could consider the Grain Legumes as a service provider for other CGIAR Research Programs, especially the “systems” programs, but it has to go both ways. The research programs have to be service providers for our stakeholders. Most importantly we have to deliver to the external community, especially the farming community in developing countries and to the development sector.

Our work is not only crop breeding. We should see crop improvement research from a systems perspective. This comes quite naturally to people interested in legumes: they are service providers par excellence. Understanding the biological aspects of farming constraints, e.g. how to build pest resistance is important but not enough as we need ways to implement this. For instance having the right seed system in place or understanding the interactions with various farming systems.

4.  Donors will judge the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes’ research according to specific development objectives (intermediate outcomes) and impact figures. What do you think about that?

This is a valuable way of organizing research. I agree with targets – with defining intermediate outcomes – as this is useful to assess our impact on the ground, for the smallholder farmers. I am less comfortable with some target figures, as we are tempted to be overambitious in our statements to donors. It is easier to measure the success of developing a new chickpea variety than measuring the impact of disseminating this variety on a large scale.  We have to be careful about attribution too: it is rare for something to have one cause, and for one action to have one effect. That’s why it is good to be collegiate. It can take quite a long time for large-scale dissemination, and not all development impact could therefore be fully attributable to the research program.

We have to acknowledge what has already been achieved in the past. In particular, the CGIAR Challenge Programmes such as the Generation Challenge Programme paved the way for the CGIAR Research Programs; they achieved a lot and were able to get many research and development partners on board.

A few last words

I hope I can help cement a lively, interesting and collaborative grain legume research and development community to deliver an effective impact for the farmers.