Innovative Finance for Innovative Research: How We Got Here

In late 2020, this author sat down for a Zoom interview with Peter Kelly, founder and CEO of Grow Further. Back then, Peter was forging an international team to help move forward his vision for a revolution in the way agricultural research is funded. The concept was intriguing—harnessing the power of individual donors, and not government-funded aid agencies, to sponsor and track overlooked areas of research into smallholder farming innovation. As a long-time skeptic of the traditional aid models and “Development Inc.’s” neglect of small-scale agriculture, the idea hooked me. “I would’ve never thought of it,” I recall telling Peter during our first online introduction. Grow Further was only a couple of years old as an organization at the time, but joining this vision was an opportunity that this long-time journalist could not pass up.

Flash forward to the present, and we can look back to see how years of steady hard work are now bearing fruit.

Grow Further is now awarding the first of what will become many grants to two research projects that we believe hold great promise for improving the lives of smallholder farmers and the communities in which they reside and grow food. These two projects were the stand-outs among hundreds of compelling research proposals, many dozens of which are still on our radar. There seems to be a nearly limitless variety of concepts designed to help struggling smallholder farmers boost farm yields, improve crops, sustain soils, and earn more income for families and communities. There remains much work ahead: we hope to recruit more members, enhance our governance, track the progress of these first winning grantees and the work they will do, and award many more grants to come.

We are excited as we look to Grow Further’s promising future. But first, let’s look back to see how we got here.

Small team, big plans

It all started with a vision: how can individuals be enlisted in the fight for better food security? Peter said the concept of Grow Further first came to him during his college years.

“What I noticed was that there were some organizations that were very clear on how one could donate, volunteer, and otherwise get involved but hadn’t really accomplished much,” he shared in an interview last year. “Then there were others that had big important accomplishments transforming the future of food security but no way to get involved.” So, he set out to change this.

After a stint as an agricultural economist and professor in China, and following a lot of preparatory research, Peter returned to Seattle to found Grow Further. Steady but surely, his vision became reality. By early 2021, Grow Further’s core team was comprised of just a handful of people: Peter, the board members, a communications and marketing consultant, a fundraising consultant, and this writer. Over time, Peter led the core team in its outreach initiatives, building up our network of members, core staff, and advisors as the funds for our future grants grew in tandem with interest in our mission and values. As the months and years passed, Grow Further developed as an organization.

Today, our core team is much larger, comprised of a dozen specialists, including board members and consultants. They are backed up with the help of ten expert associates who serve on our advisory committee. But critical to our current and future success are the member donors—average citizens keen to enhance global food security and interested in supporting this newer, radically different approach toward financing overlooked agricultural research.

With enough funding, a network of passionate member donors, committed advisors, and a larger core team, Peter ultimately decided that the time had come for Grow Further to find worthy research projects to support. Eventually, 2023 will go down as a historic year for Grow Further.

The process kicks into high gear

In December 2022, Grow Further released its first grant announcement. Interested researchers seeking alternative ways to fund their work had until January 31, 2023 to fill out our application form and submit their proposals. Now it was official—Grow Further was fully operational and looking to help visionary agricultural scientists fund their unique ideas for improving the lives of smallholder farmers.

The response we received from the research community was overwhelming and beyond what we had imagined. By the start of February, we had received 721 applications from nearly every corner of the world. Every type of organization applied for a Grow Further grant: university labs, government research centers, non-profit agencies, and even private for-profit companies. We welcomed them all, but we of course couldn’t possibly fund every idea. We had to be a bit selective.

Of the more than 721 submissions received, 546 were identified as distinct (after eliminating duplicates and applications received in packets). That list was narrowed down to about 400 completed applications, meaning that the applicants had fulfilled all the minimum requirements spelled out in the application instructions. Those 400 applications then moved forward to the next step in our first grant selection process—the initial screening.

The 400 completed applications were divided into batches and turned over to our team members for screening. We read through the applications (a painstaking but necessary process) and weighed the various proposals against a narrow list of criteria we were looking to fulfill in our first grant issuance—for example, we wanted to make sure we were considering true research and development efforts rather than other approaches to economic development.

188 proposals moved forward after this initial round of screening and on to a more selective and careful step in the review process. The reviewers’ mission at this stage was to identify those proposals that would move forward to peer review, or a “top 20” list of the most compelling smallholder agriculture research concepts with the biggest potential to reach a large population of smallholder farmers.

This we accomplished. After considering the top 20 applications, our peer reviewers then selected a final list of proposals to be put before our membership for consideration.

A milestone meeting

Four months after the application deadline, longer than we would have liked but the best we could do with the overwhelming volume, Grow Further’s team members and donors gathered online to take stock of where things stood.

In June, we gathered to hold the first members’ meeting in the organization’s history. Applications that cleared our peer review process were organized and considered under three categories: indigenous crops, biofortification, and meat and dairy. The staff and board members were impressed with the thoughtful and compelling questions our donor-members brought up in the course of that gathering. The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on us, either. “In 100 years, when future historians write about the history of agriculture, this meeting may be part of that history,” Peter said at the time.

A second members’ meeting was held in mid-June, another opportunity for our members circle to further scrutinize the research concepts that our peer reviewers put before them. Following these weeks of application screenings and reviewers, peer reviews, and consideration by the first Grow Further members circle, that initial huge list of more than 500 potential grantees was finally narrowed down to just two proposals.

In mid-July, we organized another online gathering for our members to meet with the researchers whom they would (potentially) support. Two presentations were delivered by the two research teams who would eventually go on to be awarded our first grants, but back then that outcome was far from guaranteed. The researchers took questions from our members and laid out for them how a Grow Further grant would help them help smallholder farmers. After satisfying the expectations of the members circle, the proposals were then put to our staff for additional due diligence, the most interesting part of which was visiting the projects.

In August, Peter traveled to sub-Saharan Africa to conduct some on-the-ground investigative work. His first stop: Tamale, a city in northern Ghana home to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (CSIR-SARI). There, he took a closer look at CSIR-SARI’s plans to improve and popularize the Bambara groundnut, a species of legume that’s packed with nutrition and ready for climate change but little researched and far from reaching its potential in Ghana.

That same month, Peter flew to Arusha, Tanzania to meet with the good people at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST). There, researchers hosted Peter for a tour of their work on a smartphone application they believe will help farmers defeat crop diseases and reap more food from fields. Peter returned from his travels exhausted but satisfied that the two projects selected by our members and cleared by our board were worthy of Grow Further’s financial support.

In September, Grow Further worked with the finalists to refine the budgets for the projects. We proposed not only efficiencies but also new project components to ensure that the projects would have the best shot at actually reaching a large population of farmers.

And here we are in October 2023, nearly three years from this author’s start at Grow Further and ten months following our first grant announcement. It’s been a long but necessary road to get to this point, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. There were hiccups along the way, for sure, as Peter had predicted during our first members circle meeting, but we will get better–and faster–over time as we continue to forge a different way to finance agricultural innovation.

Today, we’re proud to announce that CSIR-SARI and NM-AIST are the very first Grow Further grant recipients. They will share $196,000 in total support to build on their efforts to make life for smallholder farmers a little easier.

— Grow Further

Photo credit: A farmer tends to a Bambara groundnut field in northern Ghana. Kwekwe Photography.

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