Creating scalable, sustainable agriculture programs

The report presents six case studies on how sustainable agriculture programmes scaled up in the past in India
A farmer uses a hosepipe to irrigate crops at her farm in the Nilgiris mountains, Tamil Nadu (Image: IWMI Flickr Photos; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)
A farmer uses a hosepipe to irrigate crops at her farm in the Nilgiris mountains, Tamil Nadu (Image: IWMI Flickr Photos; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

The agrarian complexities India faces are large-scale and systemic, intertwined with socio-economic and environmental issues. It’s been decades since the Green Revolution, and India’s agricultural systems are facing a crisis resulting from high input costs, deteriorating soil health, continued debt cycles, inequitable market access, and lack of financial security, specifically affecting the small and medium farmers (Dutta 2012; Reddy and Mishra 2010). The crisis is compounded by extreme climate events—droughts, floods, untimely rains, and desert locusts—which have harshly impacted farmers across the country (Gupta et al. 2021).

The agrarian crisis has become acute because sustainable agricultural practices and systems (SAPSs) are not widely practiced. Only five SAPSs—crop rotation, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting, mulching, and precision—have scaled up beyond five per cent of the net sown area (ibid). As the challenges we face are large-scale and systemic, intertwined with socio-economic and environmental issues, high-impact and scalable solutions are needed to counter them.

A recent report ‘How to Design Scalable and Sustainable Programmes: Framework for India’s Sustainable Agriculture Initiatives’ by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water presents a scalability framework, a non-prescriptive tool for designing, implementing, and evaluating scalable programs for sustainable agriculture. The framework provides a set of outcomes that, when fulfilled, help a project achieve scale. These outcomes are communicated in the form of key success factors for scalability. The key factors are useful for a range of stakeholders such as NGOs, government departments, corporates, development financiers, and community-based organizations, among others.

Need for a scalability framework for agricultural projects

Sustainable growth and scalable impact are part of the Indian government’s agenda for its G20 presidency in 2023, with agriculture being one of key focus areas. Mission LiFE, a mass movement for individual and community-led scalable actions for sustainable production and consumption, was already launched in the country in 2022. At the Government of India’s urging, the United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYM). India is also the chair of IYM’s Steering Committee, with a mandate to scale up millet production among UN member nations.

In the light of such fierce ambitions and timely calls for action, practitioners need to design scalable programmes to make a sizeable impact and bring the required systemic shifts. This report answers the question, “What are the factors that ensure the scalability of a programme?” Many innovative solutions and projects operate in India. Only those with a high degree of an understanding of and access to social and human capital, financial resources, and government support scale up as we have explained in this report.

Existing scalability literature rarely draws from the Indian experience and hence not useful to practitioners or programme implementers. Therefore, actors such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government departments, corporates, development financiers, and community-based organisations will benefit from this scalability framework that extracts learning from successfully scaled up programmes for sustainable agriculture in India.

How to design a scalable programme?

The scalability framework provides a set of outcomes which, when fulfilled, helps a project achieve scale. These outcomes are communicated in the form of key success factors for scalability. These key factors should be kept in mind while designing and implementing scalable programmes.

  • Institutionalisation at the community level. It refers to a partial or complete transfer of agency of taking decisions and actions for the program to community members or community-level organisations. Enabling community ownership and establishing self-governing institutions can aid in scaling up a program.
  • Institutionalisation at the government level. Embedding a program within the existing policies, schemes, or department missions through a formal alignment of its vision and mission with the state and/or national government can enable government ownership to support the program.
  • Sustained leadership. It refers to the continued and effective actions toward programmatic goals by the program driver. This leadership in the driving organisations should back the program throughout its trajectory, even if the program were to move from one driving organisation to another. Sustained leadership in the driving organisation can be ensured when the driving organisation derives constant value from the program, and when there is alignment among the leaders, staff, and collaborators of the program on the vision, mission, and execution.

Financial sustainability is imperative for scaling up a program. Irrespective of whether the program is in its pilot stage or has reached the national level, the driving organizations or institutions have to ensure a steady and stable flow of funds for further scaling up and sustenance of a program. It can be enabled by ensuring diversity in funding sources and flexibility in fund use.

  • Ensure a sync between the solution and enabling environment. Program solutions must remain in alignment with their contextual environment, encompassing political, social, physical, and financial aspects. Achieving synchronisation between solutions and this environment is crucial for successful program scaling despite some elements being beyond the organisation's control.

It is important to understand the scope of this framework so as to most effectively engage with the theory. The framework does not provide weightage to success factors. The user is the best judge to prioritise success factors according to their context.

The framework informs users about the hierarchy of the success factors, that is each key success factor is enabled by its own set of sub-factors. Upon asking the question “what do I need to do to achieve this success factor?”, a list of related sub-factors answer the question. After asking this question multiple times, the user reaches the framework’s last level, featuring examples of activities, interventions, pathways, and tips that drive the success factors.

How have sustainable agriculture programmes scaled up in the past?

The study team shortlisted six cases from India based on select criteria such as programmes’ focus on vulnerable populations, diversity of the driving agencies (NGOs, governments, private companies), and agro-climatic zones in which they function.

It used grounded theory to analyse the cases presented below. From each programme’s strategic decisions on what activities to undertake, and their successes, challenges, and failures, we extracted the reasons for how they scaled up and sustained. Through this method, it has generated the theory of scaling up solutions relevant to agriculture in India and presented it in the form of a scalability framework in this report. The study findings were triangulated with experts working on the ground for programme implementation, in the finance sector and in the government sector. The motivation is to enable the user to scale up solutions that drive sustainability in agriculture by applying this framework, which presents the DNA of scalable projects.

Click to read more about each case study

This study has the potential to evolve in many ways—take a deeper look at the risks attached to the implementation of each success factor and how programmes can account for them; understand how success factors are interconnected with one another; further allocating weightage to key and sub-success factors to help users prioritise them according to their contexts.

The study can be accessed here

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