Opening #DigitAg internationally: first steps

On 19 April 2018, the #DigitAg Digital Agriculture Convergence Lab convened its international board, led by Pascal Bonnet (Cirad, Assistant Director of the Environment and Societies department). A stocktake of international actions by member institutes and the identification of partnership convergences according to geographical areas were on the agenda. The first ideas for action were also examined. Pascal Bonnet and Véronique Bellon-Maurel take a look at these points, which will be discussed during the next #DigitAg executive and strategic committees on 26 June and 6 July 2019.

 

How is the Convergence Lab’s international ambition defined?

[Véronique Bellon-Maurel]  The international ambition is defined by answering the following questions: why should we invest internationally? Which members of the Institute can play a key role? Which mechanisms exist or should be created to successfully increase our scope?

We want to create a new research and training community and be one of the top three global leaders in digital agriculture. This implies positioning ourselves and expanding into the international landscape. This strategic focus is included in our objectives and those of the MUSE i-site, of which #DigitAg is one of the institutes. The Occitanie region also needs to be visible at the international level. This is also the goal of Agreenium, of which several #DigitAg partners are members.

[Pascal Bonnet] At the international level, #DigitAg will have an operational outlook, which needs to be ambitious, but also feasible and realistic. This means making choices, such as that of concentrating on the two key pillars of training and research. It will also lead us to make specific geographical and partnership choices, which will nevertheless remain open in order to respond to emerging demands as our visibility increases.

The goal is to set an example in the design of “digital ecosystems” in the countries identified. The idea is to branch out with “international #DigitAgs”. These local structures will be necessary to develop a viable digital agriculture. Most of the agricultural sectors and models present in the world are concerned, including family farming.

[V.B.-M.] We will also need to invest time in writing position papers for our network and briefing notes that are visible in journals in the field. This requires considerable efforts in terms of communication and our reputation to ensure we are discovered and recognised internationally.

[P.B.] Who can play a role in this ambition among the members of the Institute? First, our members who already have an international strategy and policy and existing mechanisms that need to be aligned, made compatible and used. For international mechanisms, we are particularly thinking of CIRAD, Montpellier SupAgro, INRA and INRIA as well as institutional actors that complement our Convergence Institute, such as MUSE.

 

How will you articulate your actions with those of existing mechanisms, and which mechanisms need to be created?

[P.B.] This is still being discussed, but we will obviously draw on elements of our members’ international activity, which we will integrate and consolidate, creating new activities where necessary (new countries of interest, new mechanisms to facilitate exchanges, etc.). The site in Montpellier is rather unique, since it capitalises on considerable experience in terms of international projection among its actors and members of the Digital Agriculture Convergence Lab. Examples include CIRAD, whose mandate in the South is that of Mediterranean and inter-tropical agriculture, and Montpellier SupAgro for training. The MUSE i-site, which we wanted, develops an international position for our site and finances actions. This highly structural mechanism is also projected internationally and builds its partnership and alliance strategy with universities in the North and the South concerned by our field. This is why we jointly develop our strategies with full convergence of our resources.

We will need to foster hosting and exchanges of researchers between member laboratories and other countries, incoming mobility of students and outgoing mobility of research fellows towards centres of excellence, double degree mechanisms and labelling of masters and theses. This could entail three-month student internships in the #DigitAg laboratories, a specific #DigitAg call for projects, or one connected to the MUSE mobility mechanisms or those of members.

The development of collaborative research projects that involve our laboratories in a scientific partnership and collaboration that extends internationally will also be considered. This will involve monitoring international calls for projects that are compatible with our focal areas and on which we will invite our members to position themselves. We will facilitate interaction between our members and foreign partners.

We also hope to engage in partnerships on Masters and training courses in the North and the South.

Finally, we aim to organise international events in Montpellier, with the support of MUSE. For example, accompanying the organisation of a summer school with foreign students in Montpellier, prepared through a prior outgoing mobility of a Montpellier research fellow to the foreign university; planning international meetings and seminars, etc.

 

Which areas will be prioritised for research? And for training?

[P.B.] Priority number one is that #DigitAg is recognised as a “centre of competence” of the highest level on digital agriculture. We want to mobilise the mechanisms involved in building our own capacities and those of our partners, which does not mean that innovation and transfers will not be addressed. In this respect, we appreciate the planned development of AgroTIC Services, led by Montpellier SupAgro, towards services in the South, and we will create synergies.

Which issues will be prioritised at the international level? We can see that some of the Institute’s focal areas and challenges will be naturally brought to the fore, showing the international thematic convergence of our members. We have already given some guidelines, which may change. This is the case for all of the challenges under the Issue “Better social integration of agriculture through ICT ”, and in particular Challenge 8, “Agricultural development in the South”, which is already geared towards the international level. Others are prioritised because they naturally imply the need to compare international situations and to engage in benchmarking. We can mention Challenge 7, “Integrating agriculture into value chains”, on the impact of digital technologies on value chain functioning, or Challenge 6 on “Agricultural territory management”, as well as Challenge 5 on the transformation of “Farm advisory services”. Other elements of our founding matrix entail a shift towards more environmentally friendly agricultural models such as agroecology (Challenge 1).

This does not rule out more targeted research in the other focal areas and challenges, but sets a direction for our initial priorities.

 

Have any scientific and learning partnerships already been launched?

[P.B.] Still very few, as we are in the process of developing our strategy, but we can already mention the first workshop on Digital Agriculture in Africa with LIRIMA and the TETIS joint research unit, our theses with North-South supervisor partnerships, and our calls for applications on our thesis subjects, which are broadly disseminated in other countries through the international mission of the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation. Some countries that have not received them are asking for them! Consortiums and research networks currently being set up are contacting us to develop joint projects in response to calls for projects. We have already made efforts to identify the right partners for two projects in the planning stage.

Moreover, the member establishments, stimulated by MUSE and #DigitAg, have already carried out individual actions consistent with their own strategies that are also in line with those of #DigitAg. I can mention CIRAD, where we are developing activities on digital agriculture and the sharing of research data, and the development of data science on several international mechanisms (PP – platforms in partnership, such as IAVAO on plant breeding in West Africa). We are also in discussion with the GODAN initiative on Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, and we are actively participating in the Research Data Alliance (RDA), whose next plenary session will be held for the first time in Africa, in Botswana in November. INRA and CIRAD are working together on the task force for this event.

 

What are the main geographical areas concerned and their issues?

[P.B.] We have identified the priorities shared [a1] between our establishments, which we still need to organise. We focus primarily on the partnership pools of member establishments and MUSE. These pools, with local networks that already exist or are still to be formed, are identified according to broad areas (the North, the South) and large continents or regions (sub-Saharan Africa, Continental Southeast Asia, Latin and Central America).

Where should we invest and with whom should we collaborate? This is the question; the world is open to us, but we need to focus our actions. We want to form and consolidate linkages at the national and regional levels, to prioritise regional dynamics in a number of large regions, while maintaining linkages with establishments in other regions.

Our efforts will be divided between the countries of the North and the South.

In the North, within the OECD countries, they are research and training institutions of excellence[a2] . We will be capable of reciprocity[a3] : learning with them and contributing to digital ecosystems for the research/training part. The goal will be to found an international research community in the form of a research network. The MUSE networks currently being identified are a first pool with, for some partners, framework agreements that already exist.

In the South, the analysis of our shared priorities shows that our priority Southern regions will be the Mediterranean, North Africa/the Mashriq, West Africa, South Africa and Southern Africa. In South and Central America and in Asia, we will have more targeted operations, which are currently being defined. In short, we will focus on those countries in which we expect digital technologies to have considerable transformative power, especially in Africa and through the leading research and training institutions, in particular in agriculture. Our priority will be to transfer skills (training and capacity building in the research communities’ countries), to create a pool of skills employable by digital companies, but also by research in disciplines required for innovation. We are convinced that we will also learn from the countries of the South, which drive “frugal” innovation models, based on low-cost technologies and solutions.

The agricultural sector in the South is different from the one in the North, since it concentrates a large number of family farms of small structural size. Family farming thus operates 75% of the world’s agricultural land, including small farms, which cover 12% (Lowder S.K., Skoet J., Raney T. , 2016). This sector should not be overlooked by the development of new technologies.

We have existing partnership networks there, with research centres and universities and with regional networks: for example, CORAF in West Africa, ASARECA in East and Central Africa, and CCARDESA in Southern Africa, three research networks on agriculture in Africa.

We also have members’ international mechanisms: the “PP” platforms in partnership for research and training at CIRAD, the INRIA LIRIMA network (International Laboratory for Computer Sciences and Applied Mathematics), etc., which we will need to activate in order to develop research in this field.

 

A researcher, a lecturer, a student: can they all put specific project proposals to you?

[P.B.] Yes, everyone can make proposals! We will examine them in the context of the strategy and mechanisms that are developed.

 

Schedule

[P.B.]   Our international actions will be discussed during the next executive committee on 27 June 2019 and at the strategic committee on 6 July 2019. We will gradually scale up, but in fact, we already began this process in April, with the workshop on Digital Agriculture in Africa (LIRIMA – CIRAD – #DigitAg) and theses that already entail research in West Africa.

We took part in the development of the Hubert Curien Maimonide programme 2019 , one of the focal areas of which is digital agriculture. Its call for projects has just been launched. We can also mention our support for ECPA 2019  (European Conference on Precision Agriculture), a major international meeting that will be held in Montpellier from 8 to 11 July 2019. For the first time, ECPA will have a clear focus on agriculture in the South.

We are expecting new incoming foreign PhD and Masters students in September next year, particularly thanks to the dissemination of subjects through embassies. We also have an outgoing mobility project for the planning of actions connected to our events. Perhaps a summer school as a side event to ECPA 2019? These mobility mechanisms will be set up taking account of existing schedules and international mobility programmes at MUSE, CIRAD, Montpellier SupAgro, etc., such as EXPLORE at MUSE or Erasmus Plus.

[V.B.-M.] Concerning our external partners, we have planned an assignment in Montreal in June with the Consortium for On-Farm Experimentation (COFE). This consortium is currently being set up, and brings together European, American, Canadian, Australian and Latin American actors. We will be present to discuss with them our participation in projects. We intend to plan assignments with targeted foreign partners, either following a schedule, with a circle of priority partners, or in a timely manner, at their request. For example, we have just received a request from Kasetsart University to work together in the field of digital agriculture for small farms in Thailand.

 

Contact #DigitAg International : Pascal Bonnet,  International Programs – pascal.bonnet [AT] cirad.fr

 

FOCUS | The international strategy at Montpellier SupAgro

Montpellier SupAgro’s international strategy has three objectives: giving its students international experience and culture, increasing its international visibility and attractiveness, and contributing to capacity building and training expertise in the South. It is based on a training-research-innovation continuum that mobilises research developments in training and for innovation, makes our future graduates more aware of socio-economic challenges, and enables them to participate in knowledge acquisition and innovation. In this context, Montpellier SupAgro is stepping up its actions with 20 international academic partners, which are all network leaders in their country or sub-region. These actions include student and staff mobility, double degrees at the Masters and PhD levels, delocalised training and capacity building in institutional and training expertise.

Digital agriculture is a subject that is gaining momentum in Montpellier SupAgro’s international projects with:

  • the creation of an Agrotic engineer training programme for the South, which is under discussion with our partners in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, taking advantage of opportunities linked to the creation of the France-Senegal campus and the Côte d’Ivoire hub;
  • exchange agreements for engineering students and researchers with universities in Chile and Argentina based on the Agrotic training programme;
  • digital resources for modelling the functioning of cultivated stands, used in training courses conducted in Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal;
  • the two digital agriculture projects via Agreenium with CIRAD in Senegal (Ussein Siné Saloum University and the Virtual University).

These training projects are facilitated by the development of agreements with partner universities for the pre-selection of candidate students, combined with international mobility grants and loans for Tunisia, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Brazil, Georgia and Iran.

Montpellier also organises international conferences in which its Masters and PHD students participate.
Contact Montpellier SupAgro : Vincent Ranwez – Graduate School  – vincent.ranwez [AT] supagro.fr

 

FOCUS | Montpellier University of Excellence (MUSE): Building an internationally renowned university

Montpellier University of Excellence (MUSE) is a Science Innovation Territories Economics Initiative (I-SITE) under the Investissement d’Avenir (Future investment) programme. This programme, led by the University of Montpellier with 18 partners, encourages the construction of a university that is internationally renowned particularly for its impact on the major societal challenges: FEEDING, PROTECTING and CARING.

The goal of MUSE at the international level is therefore to build global research and training partnerships to produce the knowledge and skills needed to address these challenges on a global scale. To do so, MUSE seeks to work with actors that share these interests, whether in the North or the South.

Launched in February 2018, the MUSE EXPLORE call for international mobility represents in this respect an important strategic tool for the consortium’s international policy. It aims to foster exchanges and partnerships at the international level, to increase the attractiveness and visibility of the site and to contribute to structuring initiatives. Open to all PhD students, researchers, research fellows, lecturers and administrative or technical staff, funding for this first call for mobility amounts to €540 000, including own resources of the University of Montpellier, IRD and CIRAD. It prioritises partnerships from and towards strategic partners chosen in common by the members of MUSE, and also highlights the international mechanisms led by the MUSE consortium institutions, especially those of IRD and CIRAD.

Over and above mobility issues, this international dimension, focusing on the countries of the South, is an integral part of all of the calls for projects launched by MUSE in the context of the support for research or learning innovation programmes (Take-Off) and of calls for student initiatives (CONNECT).

In order to increase the global visibility of the consortium’s scientific excellence, MUSE also supports major international scientific events, whose goals are consistent with the MUSE focal areas or their interfaces.

Contact MUSE : Nathalie Modjeska – International Programs – nathalie.modjeska [AT] umontpellier.fr