Jane Maland Cady: Andes Community of Practice, 10 years of learning and collaboration

McKnight’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) works through communities of practice in different parts of the world, reflecting McKnight’s commitment to place-based grantmaking and learning from those doing the work on the ground. Each community of practice (CoP) emphasizes networking, learning, and collective action through strategies driven by local needs and opportunities, training and technical assistance, grantee gatherings, and peer learning.

CCRP grantees working with farmers in Ecuador.

CCRP grantees working with farmers in Ecuador.

Today, McKnight supports and partners with four communities of practice in 12 countries in Africa and South America. But 10 years ago this July, we started with just one pilot community of practice, in the Andes mountain range.

McKnight’s Andes CoP was created in 2004 to advance the foundation’s place-based work in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Since then, three other CoPs have been established in Africa, focusing on the hungriest places on the planet.  I often refer to the Andes as “the plow,” because as the oldest cop they frequently lead the way among the program’s CoPs, breaking new ground and providing valuable learning lessons across the program.

Spurred by our 10th anniversary in the Andes, we sought to assess the impacts of our work to better understand what changes have occurred and how we can improve what we do.

As background, the CCRP provides both grants and assistance for capacity-building to our grantees, taking a complex systems perspective in support of agroecological intensification (using eco-friendly practices to improve farming). This involves engaging with local farmers in research-focused, participatory processes that are attentive to multiple dimensions of context — ecology, culture, indigenous knowledge, gender interactions, power and wealth dynamics, market forces, climate change, and globalization.

Taking such complex contextual factors into account can be a challenge when generating and disseminating knowledge to support everything from agricultural improvements to healthier diets and environmental and ecological sustainability. So the CoP provides an avenue for technical support and ongoing learning among our grantees and regional teams. We at McKnight also care deeply about understanding the impacts of the research we support, as well as the influences of our capacity strengthening and regional team support.

Seeds of lupin, a legume crop studied in the Andes Community of Practice.

Seeds of lupin, a legume crop studied in the Andes Community of Practice.

Through two reports this month, I’m pleased to share more information about the CCRP’s impact over time and its potential for future improvements. For both reports, we sought the best evaluators to inform this work. These researchers know the region, speak the language, are skilled in collecting and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data, and able to synthesize findings into readable, useful insights.

First up, Influence & Added Value of the Collaborative Crop Research Program in the Andes seeks to share grantee perceptions of McKnight’s grantmaking and capacity strengthening in the Andes Community of Practice. Over the past 10 years, the Andes CoP has evolved, guided by adaptive principles to accommodate shifting contexts and needs. The purpose of this study was to reflect on that evolution, and inform the Andes CoP as well as the broader CCRP about opportunities for improvement. A secondary aim is to share what we have learned beyond the CCRP, both in the Andes region and with others interested in this approach to grantmaking. Researcher Kaia Ambrose chose a rigorous and practical interviewing methodology that allowed her to spend a full day with each grantee before analyzing their collective experiences.

The second study, Collaborative Crop Research in Action: McKnight Foundation Support for Andean Grains Research and Development in Bolivia and Ecuador, seeks to generate knowledge and support learning about the CCRP’s work with Andean grains. Although grains and grain legumes have long been domesticated in the Andes, they had generally remained neglected and underutilized prior to CCRP’s engagement. Douglas Horton’s study focuses on McKnight’s research and development support for Andean grains in Bolivia and Ecuador. Over the decade-plus that McKnight has supported research on quinoa, the crop has experienced a boom and has become a valuable source of income for Andean farmers.  Current work continues to support that market growth, but also to ensure that it is sustainable economically, ecologically and culturally.

On the heels of McKnight’s earlier Plant Biology Program (1983-1992), the CCRP was launched in 1993 to support agricultural research in developing countries. To better understand and constantly improve our approach, McKnight commissions such case studies about various aspects of our ongoing work. In addition to this month’s reports, the CCRP is currently supporting case studies of agro-ecological intensification initiatives in other parts of the world. We hope to enhance collective knowledge in developing sustainable food and agricultural systems, and we believe such research can help permit cross-comparisons and deepen learning.

McKnight staff, CCRP consultants, and Andes CoP grantees; Quito, Ecuador, 2013.

McKnight staff, CCRP consultants, and Andes CoP grantees; Quito, Ecuador, 2013.

Although important to ongoing learning, no case study can cover everything, interview everyone, or get to all locations of interest. Purposeful sampling is inevitable, and stakeholder perceptions may vary as to the interpretations and judgments rendered. Nonetheless, our core objective is learning and dialogue, and even inherently imperfect case studies provide opportunities for collaborators to offer reactions and perspectives in ways that are transparent, mutually respectful, and oriented toward learning and improvement. You may note that the Andean grains study includes commentary from field professionals; as we now post it publicly, we also welcome your additional comments, reactions, interpretations, and questions.

This month, the CCRP team is meeting with McKnight grantees in Bolivia to reflect upon our journey of the past 10 years. New grantees and longtime contributors will be present, and all told, their reflections will serve to more deeply inform the place-based, community of practice approach pioneered by the Andes CoP.

Related links

JMC_mk0784_cJane Maland Cady
International Program Director