IWMI Success Stories

Striving for a groundwater-secure future in the Limpopo

How shared resources and a community-focused water management system could be the solution to a land ravaged by climate crisis

The Limpopo River Basin is the driest it has been for 35 years. It winds its way through four countries – Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Underneath the arid, burnt-yellow landscape, are groundwater-holding aquifers. They too, are at risk of running low during droughts, but better management of the groundwater supplies could transform residents’ lives. Groundwater is the foundation of water security and climate resilience across Africa. It’s plentiful, and yet four in ten people across the continent lack access to good, clean drinking water. Just one percent of farmland is irrigated using groundwater, and drought is a serious problem for many countries.

Improving sustainable access to these reserves of groundwater could be game-changing. Researchers from IWMI, with the financial support of USAID and help from national departments responsible for water and sanitation, the Limpopo Watercourse Commission (LIMCOM), the CGIAR Water Land and Ecosystems research program (WLE) and the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), worked hard to give local farmers and urban users the technical and theoretical tools to keep track of their groundwater reserves.

What followed, turned into one of the biggest water success stories in the region.

Groundwater is of strategic importance in the Limpopo River Basin. It is key to water security, climate resilience and prosperity — but only if continuously managed and protected and used wisely in conjunction with surface water supplies and other secondary resources, like properly treated wastewater

Karen Villholth, Principal Researcher and Project Lead, IWMI

Click to view larger versionThe Limpopo River Basin

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potentially prolific transboundary aquifers
identified in the Limpopo River Basin

Background

The Limpopo Basin’s population is increasing. In 2012, the population was around 18 million, and it is estimated to grow to 20 million by 2040. This population increase is putting pressure on the region’s natural resources. In addition, major cities including Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Gaborone lie upstream, which adds to the pressure on water supply, and causes scarcity and pollution downstream.

The Limpopo Basin has experienced severe droughts in the past, as boreholes and rivers dry up. Reduced rainfall led to declaring the Limpopo Province in South Africa a disaster area in 2016. Crop failure and economic hardship was widespread. It is clear that to avoid serious drought impacts again, the river basin needs to be resilient and able to absorb shocks.

Groundwater could be the answer, but it is not always easily accessible. Sometimes it doesn’t replenish quickly enough, it is deep below the ground surface, and other times, especially when aquifers are close to the sea, they might become saline. The transboundary Ramotswa Aquifer, shared between Botswana and South Africa, is ‘user-friendly’, in the sense that it provides ample groundwater when you insert boreholes, it is relatively shallow and it’s located close to where people live. Hence, the project aimed to improve people’s access to clean water from this aquifer, while also addressing farmers’ hardship in getting groundwater for their crops outside of the Ramotswa Aquifer area. IWMI is a leading partner in the RAMOTSWA project.

We sometimes go for days without bathing as we try to preserve the little water we have for drinking and cooking. It is not healthy. If it does not rain in the coming weeks, I do not think we are going to survive this time around. This drought has gone for too long now.

Mavis Chauke, resident, Limpopo Basin

The challenge

Before IWMI and their partners took on the project, there was limited knowledge around the role the Ramotswa Aquifer, and other transboundary aquifers, could play in supporting resilience in the basin. Also, it was unclear how to manage such ‘shared’ or transboundary resources, as this was never attempted before. The key aim of the project was to jointly understand the aquifer and the water challenges in the area, while identifying possible solutions, both from a technical and management perspective, so that these resources could help underpin resilience long into the future – a future with a more erratic climate.

Implementing a solution 

Kicking off in 2015, the RAMOTSWA project used both innovative and traditional techniques to better understand the aquifer. Some of these included the use of ‘airborne geophysics’, computer models and scenario analysis of various solutions that could enhance the secure access to sufficient and clean groundwater from the aquifer. Fundamental data were collated with the help of local and national partners to ‘stitch’ the knowledge together across the border, which had never been done before. Data were then shared between the countries and through joint learning the issues around groundwater and its use and management were ‘unearthed’ and discussed. This led to consensus on key development challenges and priorities in terms of investments that could enhance water security in the border region.

Paul Orengoh, Program Director, African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) and IWMI partner says:

Groundwater is critical to combat the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Africa. Most people, especially in rural areas, depend on it for everything, including the crucial handwashing and cleaning required.

So, with climate change, factors change… groundwater is one of the critical areas through which we can address water security, resilience, in addition to improved sanitation in Africa. 

IWMI’s cooperation with AMCOW on their groundwater program has spurred more cooperation across regions in Africa on their groundwater resources, cross-fertilizing knowledge from SADC to other parts of Africa.

How did we do it?

In 2016, the IWMI team created a three-dimensional conceptual model of the transboundary Ramotswa Aquifer, using an advanced non-intrusive technology.

Data were collected through a system called SkyTEM, transmitting an electromagnetic signal through the ground, from a device carried by a helicopter flying over the area.

Some crucial information was uncovered, such as the boundaries and layering of the aquifer and potential locations for drilling wells, e.g. dikes.

Click to view larger version
Helicopter conducting survey of the Ramotswa Aquifer

(move your mouse over the image to slide between the images)

This slider depicts a satellite image of the Limpopo region (taken from Google Earth). Move the slider to see what is going on below ground level.

The 3D model was designed by IWMI researchers to study the aquifer.

Taking to the skies to understand water underground

Hanging below a helicopter is a giant hexagon. The helicopter and its cargo putter through the clear blue skies above Botswana and South Africa, following the underground transboundary aquifer.

The lozenge below the helicopter records electromagnetic readings from below in order to clearly map the 3-dimensional configuration and outline of the aquifer.

The helicopter flew for 12 days in a detailed checker-board fashion, before enough information was collected.

Watch the video

An integrated hydrological computer model was then created, in order to understand the underground processes of water flow in the Ramotswa area. This also helped the researchers understand the interactions between the aquifer and the river running along the border between Botswana and South Africa, as well as the predominant groundwater flow direction between the two countries.

Click for larger view

The model, as part of a larger transboundary diagnostic, allowed the team to develop potential scenarios for groundwater management, e.g. how to augment the replenishment of groundwater through managed aquifer recharge – meaning how to put more water underground for future storage and use, e.g. from flood waters. The assessments led to a joint strategic action plan. This supported local and national policy-makers in identifying priority investments for the area.

The joint strategic action plan, developed as a cooperative process between the countries, identified priority actions, each belonging to one of the following categories:

  • Managing water for sustainable use, availability and access
  • Enhancing institutions and capacity
  • Expanding research and knowledge

The joint strategic action plan emphasized the need for cooperation around effective data management and sharing between the countries. This meant developing a joint data management system, the Ramotswa Information Management System (RIMS), containing data collected with support from national governments and universities. It aligns data collection and management systems, ensuring data compatibility, and implementing data sharing procedures between the different transboundary actors. The purpose of the database is to help improve decision making on how best to manage the aquifer.

This is the worst time for us. Our rivers and boreholes are dry, and we are struggling to get water to drink. It is so painful. We used to get water from the local boreholes but now they have also gone dry

Themba Mabunda

The joint strategic action plan also highlighted a need for strengthening existing transboundary institutions – principally LIMCOM – to incorporate, for the first time, the management of transboundary aquifers into their portfolio.

To formalize this significant step, LIMCOM established an international committee between the four countries for the management of groundwater resources in 2019, the LIMCOM Groundwater Committee. This committee focuses on establishing best practices for transboundary aquifer governance in the basin and more broadly in the region. Out of 12 international river basin organizations in the SADC region, LIMCOM is the second to establish a dedicated institutional mechanism to oversee shared aquifer management.

IWMI’s work has closed a significant gap in understanding the dynamics in transboundary aquifers in the region and in the Limpopo Basin in particular. The studies undertaken in the Ramotswa and Tuli Karoo Aquifers shared by South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe assisted the Member States to understand the system behavior. IWMI has supported setting up institutional mechanisms and a critical platform for knowledge sharing and priority setting around these resources. The deepening of these processes is critical for enhancing the joint management going forward.

Sérgio Bento Sitoe, Executive Secretary, LIMCOM

The next step of the project was to support agricultural water management. The researchers adapted a set of tools, which local farmers could use to optimize their groundwater use for irrigation. Through simple soil moisture probes and nutrient measurements, farmers learned how they could save up to 40% of water, 30% of energy (for pumping groundwater) and 80% of fertilizers on their crops and even enhancing their crop production. This creates great savings and additional incomes for the farmers.

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the annual number of days in the very short rainy season

Finally, in 2020, IWMI piloted a transboundary groundwater monitoring system in the Tuli Karoo Aquifer area to gauge groundwater levels.

The aquifer underlies an arid triangle of land in the upper Limpopo Basin, shared between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Irrigation from both ground and surface water is key to the production of cereals, legumes, and vegetables as well as high-value crops and livestock.

Yet, in most years, water shortage results in farmers not fully cultivating all irrigable land in their schemes. Four existing wells in strategic locations were equipped with automatic data loggers and connected to a telemetry system and a visualization platform to monitor and transmit data on water levels, temperatures and electrical conductivity in real time.

This allowed farmers to gauge their water consumption and their prospects for short and long-term irrigation. The pilot is under expansion to cover 58 strategic locations in total.

A deep dive into nitrate pollution – A case study within The RAMOTSWA project 

Ramotswa Town is a growing peri-urban town of about 40,000 people in southern Botswana in the outskirts of Gaborone, located on top of the Ramotswa Aquifer. The persistent drought in 2013-2016 made flush toilets unusable in the Ramotswa area. Instead, the local population used old pit latrines. This led to substantial increases in the volume of human waste leaking into groundwater supplies. This increased the risk of nitrate contamination of drinking water from the nearby wellfield, Nitrate contamination can have serious impacts on human health, including cancer and blue baby syndrome.

IWMI research into how Ramotswa could move past its groundwater contamination problem emphasized a holistic approach. It recommended the rehabilitation of the sanitation system, by lining of new pit latrines, improving the system for emptying full latrines, and enhancing recycling. The final step consisted of assisting the aquifer with its own restoration processes, a technique known as in-situ bioremediation. Research indicated that most of the groundwater in Ramotswa had little organic carbon, an essential ingredient for nitrate removal. By introducing a non-hazardous source of organic carbon to the aquifer, simple techniques could increase its natural capacity for nitrate removal and thus decontaminate Ramotswa’s drinking supply. In-situ bioremediation was found to be less costly and more energy-efficient than pumping water to the surface in order to remove nitrate.

After years of work, our project has made a big difference:

    • A project is deemed a success by the sheer number of people it helps, the valuable relationships it builds, and the essential data and information it generates. The transboundary RAMOTSWA project achieved all three, and more.

    • Farmers significantly improve their livelihoods by applying simple water and nutrient management tools. Farmers saved on average 40% on water for irrigation, which translated into 30% savings on electricity cost, while increasing crop yields by 35% and decreasing nutrient losses by 80%. These tools reduce their use of groundwater, electricity for pumping, and fertilizers. Through extension services and word of mouth, other farmers are now taking up the technologies.

    • Cooperation between countries in the Limpopo Rivers Basin and in the SADC region around shared aquifers has greatly advanced. A first-ever LIMCOM Groundwater Committee to serve this purpose has been set up in the Limpopo River Basin.


    • More Member States in SADC are taking up the challenge to identify, map, assess and cooperate around their shared aquifers, partly supported by the SADC Groundwater Management Institute (SADC-GMI).


    • Other initiatives in the region are benefitting from the RAMOTSWA project, e.g. by investigating and applying the wealth of information embedded in the RIMS to improve integrated water resources management in the area. They are also extrapolating methodologies and learnings to other areas in the region.


    • Decision making on groundwater development and use is based on improved knowledge. For example, Botswana is now piloting Managed Aquifer Discharge (MAR) projects to support water security in Gaborone and its surrounding communities.


    • Botswana and South Africa are exploring opportunities to counter their nitrate pollution issues through nature-based solutions.

This Limpopo success story highlights the importance of communities coming together. A groundwater-secure future could now be on the cards thanks to a clearer understanding of aquifers and groundwater provision in the Limpopo. For now at least, it looks like a water-secure future is here.
Acknowledgements

Project lead:

Dr. Karen G. Villholth, Principal Researcher, Coordinator – Groundwater, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), South Africa. Email: k.villholth@cgiar.org

Writing:

Eleanor Ross – Strategic Communications Specialist, Isis Palay – Communication Intern, Lucy Lawrenson – Communication Intern

Graphic Design:

Pradeep Liyanage – Digital Graphics and Multimedia Specialist

Web Layout:

Dominique Perera – Manager, Web Communications

Photo credits:

We sincerely thank David Brazier for so wonderfully capturing the lives of farmers in Southern Africa.

Some of Fyre Mael’s pictures on Flickr are featured in this story, under the Creative Commons.

Contributions:

The Project Lead would like to thank Girma Yimer Ebrahim, Manuel Magombeyi, Jonathan Lautze, Yvan Altchenko, Nicole Lefore, and Davison Saruchera of IWMI, Thato Setloboko (DWS, Botswana), Keetile Keodumetse (DWS, Botswana), Bochengedu Somolekae (DWS, Botswana), Charles Nkile (DWS, Botswana), Phemelo Makoba (DWS, Botswana), Moses Moehadu (WUC, Botswana), Keatlaretswe Gaogelwe (WUC, Botswana), Piet Kenabatho (University of Botswana), Bothepha B. T. Mosetlhi (University of Botswana), Ramogale Sekwele (DWS, South Africa), Sakhile Mndaweni (DWS, South Africa), Rachel Mpe (DWS, South Africa), Selebalang Gaebee (DWS, South Africa), Naicker Sivashni (DWS, South Africa), Kwazikwakhe Majola (DWS, South Africa), Sérgio Bento Sitoe (LIMCOM), Geert-Jan Nijsten (IGRAC), Nienke Ansems (IGRAC), Andrew Genco (XRI Blue), Kristen Pierce (XRI Blue), Rachel Woolf (XRI Blue), Jean-Christophe Comte (University of Aberdeen), Thinah Moyo (University of Pretoria), Modreck Gomo (University of the Free State, South Africa), Reshoketswe Caroline Oudi Modisha (MSc student, University of the Witwatersrand), Simamkele Baqa (MSc student, University of the Witwatersrand), Bonnie McGill (PhD student, Michigan State University), Simon Trust (MSc student, University of Aberdeen), Anita Lazurko (MSc student, MESPOM), Stephanie Hawkins (PhD student, University of Strathclyde), and farmers from the Glen Valley, Mogobane, and Motlhaka irrigation schemes.

Key funders:

USAID    

Key partners: 

Quotes taken from: https://health-e.org.za/2016/09/07/limpopo-water-shortage-worsens-drought-conditions-continue/

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Economics and equity

At IWMI, researching underlying economic and social trends helps us understand why people migrate. They also explain the impact of remittances and loss of agricultural labor, as well as consequences of migration on gender roles and food and water security. For instance, communities with higher levels of income inequality, or relative deprivation, may experience greater levels of out-migration compared to consistently low-income communities. In addition, migration changes intra-household gender-labor composition, which can change the access of smallholders to water resources, affecting the functioning of community-based institutions and consequently household and local food security. IWMI also focuses on circular economy, a strategy to recover and reuse waste, to boost food security and understand how interventions can encourage refugee and host communities to retain scarce resources.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Urban & rural transformation

As agricultural opportunities fluctuate in rural areas, migration, particularly to urban areas, is an adaptation technique to secure incomes and alternative livelihoods. Income generated by migrants is often sent back to family as remittances to support communities at home. At IWMI, we assess linkages between rural and urban areas, as well as the role of agricultural knowledge systems and food and water security. We recognize there are complex push and pull factors such as individual aspirations, economic opportunity, social norms, climate variability and government policies which drive migration and affect rural communities, particularly youth. Our work follows a ‘positive migration’ philosophy, framing migration as an adaptation technique and socio-economic choice (in many cases) rather than a problem to be solved, and focuses on establishing safer, more regular migration by supporting changes to migration governance in sending regions.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Covid-19 disruption & adaptation

Covid-19 has caused a rupture in migration logistics and exposed inequities in the migration system, yet drivers of movement remain. Government lockdowns and closed borders due to the pandemic curtailed movement for migrants, posing complex problems for migrant hosting and origin countries. There have been significant economic shocks, with a sharp decline in unemployment for migrants and an inability to send money home through remittances to support family. Some migrants face social stigma for returning home without an income, particularly if families relied on loans to support their journeys. Consequences have been severe for informal migrants who lack government protection in their host countries. Migrants, particularly those living in crowded, lower-income neighborhoods, have been experiencing stigmatization related to the spread of Covid-19. We look at the impacts of Covid-19 on migration governance and rural areas across seven countries, development planning in Ghana, migration challenges in Southeast Asia, and community-based disaster management and resilience building in South Africa.

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Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Water, climate change and agrarian stress

Migration, water and climate stress are inextricably linked to rural development. Water stress and climate variability can act as a driver of fragility, intensifying pre-existing political, social, economic and environmental challenges. Initiatives designed to address migration-related challenges must tackle inequalities and the exclusion of women, youth and marginalized groups; governance opportunities to better manage water and natural resources and technology and innovations to help communities escape socio-ecological precarity and thrive despite climate challenges. IWMI intends to build climate resilience by implementing projects which tackle gender-power inequalities in the face of dynamic, economic-social-ecological challenges. Our work brings together affected communities, institutional stakeholders and social actors to manage water in response to climate variability and agrarian stress, striving to address complex physical and social variables.

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Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender, intersectionality and social inclusion

It is critical to center gender and intersectional identities when unpacking migration phenomena. Gender as a social construct guides social norms and relations, including the decision-making processes and mechanisms leading to migration. We recognize that the intersections between race, age, class, sex, caste and region shape the migrant experience.

IWMI strives to offer transformative approaches and solutions for women, youth and marginalized groups, regarding them as equal partners in our work rather than passive end-users.  For example, within communities that experience male out migration, socio-political systems are restructured to make women, youth and other groups active agents in their own agri-food transformation. Migration patterns contribute to the feminization of agriculture, and women may experience a greater burden of responsibility coupled with an increased ability to access and control resources and policies to build sustainable livelihoods. Acknowledging social complexities helps researchers and communities understand migration trends and address structural power imbalances to build a more equitable world.

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Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Innovation bundles

Farmer-led irrigation development is about much more than installing a pump in a field. It requires access to financing, labor, energy, and input and output markets, so that investments in irrigation translate into sustainable returns. IWMI uses a systemic approach to understand the farming system as well as the factors in the enabling environment that prevent women, men and youth from engaging in and benefitting equitably from farmer-led irrigation. We partner with farmers and the public and private sectors to test contextually relevant innovation bundles that combine irrigation technology such as solar pumps with financing mechanisms like pay-as-you-own or pay-as-you-go, agricultural inputs and agronomic techniques. We also look at ways to improve on-farm water management and nutrient use efficiency and reduce evapotranspiration through digital advances and agricultural extension. We integrate the scaling of innovation bundles into agricultural value chains to enhance the impacts on farmers’ irrigation investments, incomes and livelihoods.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender and social inclusion

The barriers facing women and men in accessing irrigation technologies are not the same. Neither are the benefits. Social, cultural and religious norms influence inter- and intra-household power relations. These, in turn, affect access to resources such as land, credit, information and training. IWMI carries out cross-dimensional analysis of gender and social inclusion in policy, financing, livelihood assets and access, institutional approaches and interventions as well as gender-based technology preferences. For example, we work with farmers, financial institutions and the private sector to address gender-based constraints in credit scoring and enhance women’s purchasing power. But benefitting from farmer-led irrigation does not stop at accessing and adopting technologies; enabling women and resource-poor farmers to participate in input and output markets is equally important to ensure that investments in irrigation result in improved nutrition and economic empowerment. Other ways we enhance gender and social inclusion include tackling agency issues around financial management and literacy, livelihood diversity and social capital as well as access to infrastructure, extension services and market linkages.

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Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Environmental sustainability

Population pressure and increasing water competition in a changing climate require us to take stock of the availability and use of water across scales. Water availability not only influences farmers’ commercial prospects but also irrigation-related enterprises and agri-businesses. Greater water scarcity could jeopardize irrigation and agricultural markets while excessive water use can lead to declining ecosystems, water quality and soil health. IWMI advises development partners and the public and private sectors on all aspects of water resource availability and use through a variety of advanced modeling and remote-sensing products and tools, including Water Accounting+solar irrigation mapping and internet of things. These are complemented by multi-criteria analysis to evaluate the potential of irrigation expansion, taking into consideration environmental flows. With our private sector partners, we are leveraging converging technologies, such as sensors on solar pumps that capture usage data, to encourage better resource management and governance.

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Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Adaptive scaling and partnerships

The ability of farmers to engage in or expand irrigation depends on the prevailing socioeconomic, ecological and political contexts, which are often complex, non-linear and changeable. Overcoming systemic barriers to farmer-led irrigation development while taking advantage of existing opportunities requires scaling processes to be adaptive. This means diverse actors feed off, adapt to, support, cooperate, compete and interact with each other, forming different multi-actor networks and engaging in collective action to undertake various functions in the scaling ecosystem. IWMI works with farmers and public and private sector partners to co-design and pilot contextually relevant innovation bundles and their scaling pathways or strategies, influence policies and accelerate the transition to scale of innovations with demonstrated early impact.

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Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Financing ecosystem

A lack of affordable credit, particularly for women and resource-poor farmers, is one of the main barriers to expanding farmer-led irrigation in low- and middle-income countries. But credit alone is not enough. Financing for irrigation equipment must be embedded in a wider financing ecosystem that bundles credit with inputs and services, market information and access, and technology such as digital payment. In several countries, irrigation equipment suppliers are stepping in to provide financing directly to farmers. In doing so, they increase their own risk. To address this issue, IWMI works with farmers, private companies, finance institutions and development partners such as the World Bank Group to analyze whether credit-scoring tools are inclusive. We also help to identify gaps in the financing ecosystem and de-risk the private sector from testing innovative end-user financing mechanisms that take into account farming system typologies, financial and social capital and crop seasonality.

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Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Human capacity development and knowledge exchange

Scaling farmer-led irrigation requires strengthening human capacity and knowledge exchange among all actors and stakeholders involved. IWMI takes an action research approach, working with national and international research institutions, governments, extension agents and public and private organizations to co-develop the scaling ecosystem and strengthen capacity to drive scaling networks and collective action. We support the development of or reinforce national multi-stakeholder dialogues with the aim of sharing scaling experiences and realizing win-win collaboration, interactive learning and capacity development. Other modalities for capacity development include hackathons, innovation research grants for bachelor’s and master’s students, private sector scaling grants and innovation internships with private companies. These all serve to stimulate local and contextually relevant innovation, close the research-private sector divide and enhance job readiness among young professionals.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

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