Farmers who can differentiate their products and reliably supply agricultural produce can gain access to higher value markets, adding both security and value to their farming income. This opportunity is as relevant to a cocoa producer from Vanuatu as it is to a beef producer from Australia.
One of the strategic objectives of the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027 emphasised engagement with the private sector where possible, to foster more inclusive agrifood and forestry value chains.
Since 1982 there has been private-sector engagement through partnerships brokered by ACIAR, primarily where the private partner has particular technical expertise to contribute. The ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027 recognised that the private sector offers unique market and value-chain knowledge, new technologies and exciting innovations, and new investment opportunities, which generally are not available through partnerships with state-based research organisations.
Since 2018, ACIAR has increasingly worked further along supply chains and this new focus was supported by the introduction of a new research program dedicated to agribusiness. The ACIAR Agribusiness Program focuses on working with the private sector to identify inclusive opportunities for smallholder farmers (especially women), on providing healthy, nutritious and safe food, and developing more sustainable and resilient food systems.
Ultimately, public–private partnerships provide new avenues to support inclusive business models that connect smallholder farmers to trading opportunities and markets, leading to greater scale and impact of agricultural research for development.
Sharing expertise for mutual commercial benefit
Some of the very first projects that ACIAR implemented focused on problems associated with grain storage. In the 1970s, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified post-harvest losses as a priority research area. Many developing countries were reporting significant losses of grain due to poor storage conditions, with the consequence of reduced food availability.
At the time, international agricultural research focused mainly on increasing the yields of the world’s staple crops. However, as more and more grain was produced and harvested, the technology and capacity to safely store the additional grain had not developed at the same pace. Director of ACIAR (1989–1995) and entomologist, Dr George Rothschild, recalled the issue.
‘You only had to drive around countries in South-East Asia at the time to see the problem. Farmers were drying grain on the side of the road on sheets of plastic. Then it would pour with rain and they would lose the grain,’ said Dr Rothschild.
With a significant grain industry, experience in grain storage and an active program of stored grain research, Australia had expertise to share and extend. ACIAR brought together scientists from Australia and South-East Asia to develop a series of interrelated projects in a research program called Safe Storage of Grain in the Tropics. While relevant to all of South-East Asia, the projects focused on the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, from 1983 until 1994.
The research provided a better understanding of grain drying and improved processes for drying grain, for the Australian grain industry as well as the partner countries. Grain drying systems were also developed for small quantities of grain, such as bagged grain, which was common throughout South-East Asia.
Management of insect pests was a significant focus of the work. Integrated pest management principles were applied to develop management strategies, which included using combinations of pesticides in rotation and the monitoring of pest populations as a basis for grain protection decisions. In addition, the research identified the minimum levels of pesticide needed for effective control, delivering improved human and environmental health outcomes through both reduced pesticide exposure in grain storage facilities and reduced pesticide residues on grains. As well as introducing new technologies for grain handling businesses and smallholder farmers, the projects also increased research capability within partner countries to support ongoing research programs.
While the grain storage projects produced valuable outputs, post-harvest losses of grain, fruit and vegetables have proved intractable through the years. This was acknowledged with the development of a new research program by ACIAR, in collaboration with Canada’s IDRC. Launched in 2021, the Food Loss Research Program is exploring new ideas to address the ongoing challenge of food loss in developing countries.
ACIAR’s grain storage projects are aimed at making use of Australia’s experience, in collaborative research with developing country scientists. The projects deal with a number of serious problems in grain storage, such as use of pesticides in the humid tropics and long-term storage problems, in addition to the fundamental problem of how moisture moves in non-aerated stores of bulk and bagged commodities, which at present is not well understood. The projects are interrelated so as to provide the maximum information and the greatest possibility of fresh solutions.
ACIAR Newsletter No. 2, 1983
Connecting growers and markets through partnerships
One of the commercial partners in the stored grain research of the 1980s was the Australian company Ricegrowers’ Co-operative Mills Ltd. As a commercial milling operation owned and run by Australian rice growers, the company was a key player in the research, providing expertise and helping to test new technologies.
The project, ‘Drying in bulk storage of high moisture grains in tropical climates’, was a partnership between the University of New South Wales, Ricegrowers’ Co-operative and research institutes in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. The project aimed to investigate and adapt techniques developed in Australia for drying paddy rice to grain drying in bulk storage in tropical climates.
As well as contributing to many aspects of the project at sites in Asia, the Ricegrowers’ Co-operative hosted a pilot plant in the New South Wales Riverina, to determine the effects of different drying regimes on rice quality.
Almost 40 years later, the Ricegrowers’ Co-operative is now trading as SunRice and is one of the largest branded food exporters in Australia, and ACIAR is again working with the Australian rice miller and marketer. SunRice not only has the expertise to address challenges faced by rice growers around the world, but also has a shared interest in finding solutions – particularly in Vietnam.
In 2022, ACIAR and SunRice embarked on the largest public–private partnership in the history of ACIAR. The 4-year project will connect smallholder rice-growing communities in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam to high-value international markets, giving farmers an economic incentive to grow higher-value rice, and to grow it more sustainably.
The project, ‘Planning and establishing a sustainable smallholder rice value chain in the Mekong Delta’, aims to establish a highly productive, sustainable, traceable, quality-assured value chain for tropical medium grain rice, benefiting rice-farming households and meeting SunRice quality requirements. The project also enables SunRice to diversify its supply area for rice and source grain fom the Mekong region.
Project leader, Dr Jaquie Mitchell from the University of Queensland, believes that engaging with the private sector from the beginning of the project will ensure impact and value for money.
‘Research for development on its own, without a market, doesn’t have the success that it potentially could if it was market-led. We have a large and diverse team of researchers working on this project, including plant breeders, agronomists, agribusiness specialists, food scientists and social scientists. We are covering all aspects and actors along the value chain to improve the livelihoods of all involved.
‘It’s a fantastic opportunity for Australian and Vietnamese research partners to learn from each other and collaborate to build capacity. I think the outcomes of this project are going to be very significant for both for the Mekong and the wider rice industry.’
Developing strong private-sector partnerships requires an investment of effort and time to build the relationship and identify the research and associated adoption pathway for mutual benefit. Traditional research partnerships have smallholder farmers as the project beneficiaries and public sector and government partners as enablers. Increasingly, it is recognised that the private sector holds the means or solution to adoption, and the sector is willing and motivated to collaborate on public-funded research for development.
Productive farmers and sustainable businesses
Member of the Commission for International Agricultural Research, Dr Sasha Courville (2018–current), is using her expertise in shared-value approaches to help ACIAR work with the private sector more effectively. A shared-value approach melds the economic return required by private industry with the development of solutions to social and environmental problems. Dr Courville is Chief Impact Officer with Bank Australia and believes the role of the private sector is evolving and changing as the business community takes on a greater role in addressing societal challenges.
‘We’re going through an exponential curve in terms of expectations of businesses in addressing society’s biggest challenges, such as climate change, gender equality, nutrition. Businesses are facing increasing regulatory pressures, but they are also finding that there is commercial opportunity in addressing these issues.
‘Gone are the days when businesses just engage for reputation benefit. The real value is in building better relationships with the supply chain to optimise coordination and build efficiencies.’
While the emphasis on public–private partnerships is a developing component of the ACIAR partnership model, engagement with the private sector has already yielded positive results in several projects, as the following examples demonstrate.
Indonesian dairy farmers in West Java are being paid more for better-quality milk as a result of the ACIAR-supported IndoDairy project. Poor milk quality is a problem for Indonesia’s dairy sector, with high bacterial counts affecting shelf life and restricting other uses of the product. Quality can be improved by adopting some simple hygiene practices, such as using hot water and detergent to wash milking equipment.
Under the existing collection system, farmers were delivering milk to their village cooperative, where it was combined into a bulk load and transported to the processor. The processor would test the bulk load and pay accordingly, so there was no incentive to individually supply better-quality milk. In the village of Cisarua, the project worked with the milk processor Cimory to support the cooperative to test farmers’ milk individually. Those delivering higher quality milk received nearly a 50% premium. The incentive has encouraged most farmers to carry out the hygiene steps to improve the quality of their milk. The processor was keen to support the trial because receiving high-quality fresh milk means they can expand their product range, especially into liquid milk products.
In Vietnam, spice producer McCormick Global Ingredients Ltd and the Netherlands’ Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) have invested US$1 million in an ACIAR-funded project that aims to improve sustainability of farming systems and value chains, as well as resilience to climate change, for smallholder producers of black pepper and coffee in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The McCormick and JDE investment reflects the increasing commitment of global companies to ensuring that their products are sourced sustainably and fairly. In this instance, they are contributing to research to find ways for their farmer suppliers to increase yield while maintaining good soil health and preventing pests and disease. Other private partners, including Nestle, Tchibo and Nedspice, are offering in-kind support and funding for PhD students over the course of the project.
Cocoa production directly supports about two-thirds of the population in Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Many cocoa farmers had formed cohesive communities with clear goals and objectives to increase the profitability of their crop and were seeking assistance to achieve these goals. ACIAR brokered a project, which ran from 2016 to 2022, to improve the profitability and vitality of smallholder cocoa farming families and communities. As well as increasing production, expanding the area of cultivation and improving the quality of the cocoa crop, the project supported market linkages between cocoa farmers in Bougainville and commercial chocolate makers in Australia and around the world. Led by the University of Sydney, the project team included the Cocoa and Coconut Research Institute of Papua New Guinea and Mars Australia to strengthen links between communities and the value chain. Variety improvement was one aspect of the project. The work of the project team was rewarded when a sample of cocoa beans from the project, grown at the Bougainville Department of Primary Industries research station, was recognised as one of the top 50 samples at the Cocoa of Excellence 2021 competition in Paris. The project was one of five projects that made up TADEP – an ACIAR–DFAT co-investment to improve the livelihoods of rural men and women in Papua New Guinea.
ACIAR has a long track record of engaging with the private sector and, with 40 years’ experience, the organisation recognises the benefit of identifying private-sector partners to contribute to projects providing smallholder farmers access to and participation in value chains. These types of partnerships continue to be an increasingly important aspect of ACIAR project design.