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ATAI Announces Funding to Four Randomized Evaluations and Four Pilots from Spring 2019

Building the evidence base toward a better understanding of agricultural transformation

Photo Credit: Karen O'Hern Photography


The Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI) was renewed in 2019 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Department for International Development (UK Aid from the British people). This program renewal builds on a decade of ATAI evidence generation and synthesis, which focused thus far on closing evidence gaps related to technology adoption for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The newest phase of the program aims to build a rigorous evidence base to help global actors understand the drivers of agricultural transformation. We consider agricultural transformation as a process to spur farmers’ transitions toward greater agricultural productivity, diversified income generation beyond subsistence agriculture, and profitable engagement with agricultural value chains in ways that reduce rural poverty. 

Funded studies will improve our understanding among five key domains: (i) Improving Access to Factors of Production, (ii) Boosting Agricultural Productivity, (iii) Building Output Market Linkages and Domestic Value Chains, (iv) Adding Value, Mechanization, and Agro-Industry, and (v) Promoting Local Economic Diversification (for more information, see ATAI’s Framing Paper). In addition, we emphasize two cross-cutting themes that deserve a renewed focus: gender equity and food security & nutrition. 


ATAI’s first competitive request for proposals since this renewal awarded a total of just over $1 million to eight studies. These four randomized evaluations and four pilot studies will advance the global evidence on effectively linking smallholder farmers to:

  1. improved inputs, particularly equipment rental markets, to understand impacts on agricultural productivity and the environment;
  2. profitable output markets, targeting market access barriers and costs, including quality certification, aggregation, and cross-border trade.


Mechanization: measuring impacts on smallholder farmer productivity and the environment

Mechanized production is a feature of modernized, intensive agriculture that can support increased agricultural production by easing agricultural labor burdens, diversifying crop production, increasing yields, and potentially improving profits. Yet smallholder farmers can rarely afford to purchase equipment, and rental equipment services in low- and middle-income countries have been slow to develop. Julieta Caunedo (Cornell University) and Namrata Kala (MIT Sloan), partner with one of the largest providers of rental agricultural equipment in Karnataka, India to subsidize equipment rentals for their study The Impact of Formal Mechanization Access on Agricultural Productivity and Informal Rental Markets. The evaluation is among the first to directly measure the effect of access to equipment rentals on crop choice, agricultural productivity, wages, and income, as well as impacts on existing informal equipment lending arrangements among smallholder farmers. 

Researchers are also investigating ways in which mechanization could help decrease negative environmental impacts associated with agricultural intensification. Seema Jayachandran (Northwestern), Kelsey Jack (UC Santa Barbara), Namrata Kala (MIT Sloan), and Rohini Pande (Yale) are partnering with the State Government of Punjab, India to test approaches to reduce crop residue burning that contributes to hazardous air pollution through their evaluation: Promoting Sustainable Agricultural Practices Through Rental Markets. They identify whether (i) conditional cash transfers that reward farmers who refrain from burning crop residue on their fields, and/or (ii) encouragement to use crop-residue management equipment through an app that directs farmers to the nearest rental facility can reduce burning. The study measures economic impacts for both smallholder farmers and equipment providers, as well as environmental outcomes including air pollution.


Farming as a commercial enterprise: meeting output quality requirements 

Value chains are an important vehicle for commercializing smallholder farmers because they can facilitate access to improved agricultural inputs and financing, and provide points of sale for harvested output. Unfortunately, smallholder farmers may struggle to engage in value chains marketing to urban consumers and export markets. These markets often have quality standards, yet few have developed the infrastructure or systems needed to recognize and reward small-scale producers with premium prices to spur quality-upgrading.

Elisabeth Sadoulet (UC Berkeley), with Gashaw Abate (IFPRI-Ethiopia), Tanguy Bernard (University of Bordeaux and IFPRI), and Alain de Janvry (UC Berkeley) are partnering with Digital Green to introduce third-party quality certification booths into randomly selected markets through a market-level randomized evaluation: Quality-graded wheat value chain development and agricultural transformation in Ethiopia.After an informational training campaign and free-trial period, farmers receive paid access to the wheat certification service. The research team studies whether this low-cost, centralized quality-certification system provides sufficient incentives for small-scale farmers to produce and reap the commercial benefits of selling quality-graded wheat. 

Lauren Falcao Bergquist (University of Michigan) and Meredith Startz (Stanford) study the barriers to quality honey production as part of a national apiculture initiative in Ethiopia, partnering with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) and Technoserve on their pilot Quality and Contracting in Agricultural Supply Chains. In addition to mapping the actors and prices at different points along the value chain, the pilot tests farmers’ willingness to sample and quality-test their honey in a lab, and the logistical feasibility of contract farming arrangements to organize and connect small-scale beekeepers to markets.

Ameet Morjaria (Northwestern), Lauren Falcao Bergquist (University of Michigan), and Jie Bai (Harvard) also investigate barriers that small-scale producers face in accessing global markets in a pilot study titled Quality Upgrading and Pass-Through in Uganda’s Coffee Sector. The research team measures whether a quality-based price premium offered by the exporter spurs traders to pass on part of the benefit to the producers they buy from, to incentivize farmers to supply higher-quality coffee. They also measure whether this “pass-through” changes based on the number of traders in the market who receive the quality-based price premium, given competition could change traders’ behavior.


Exploring other output market barriers to more profitable smallholder farming:

Eleanor Wiseman and Elisabeth Sadoulet (UC Berkeley) in “The effect of information on bargaining, corruption and trade: evidence from small agriculture traders in Kenya and Uganda” conduct a randomized evaluation in partnership with Sauti Africa. They measure the costs of formal and informal cross-border trade, and the impacts of receiving free access to Sauti’s mobile platform, which shares information on updated tariffs and costs facing small-scale traders who purchase crops from smallholder farmers in East Africa. 

Jeremy Magruder (UC Berkeley), in a pilot titled, Connecting Farmers to Markets through a Marketing App,” studies an innovative ride-share-type product for crop marketing designed to reduce the costs of individual farmers’ trips to sell their produce at markets in Bihar, India. They test whether farmers, particularly female-headed households, change their crop production and sales decisions and have higher returns when they have access to the marketing service that aggregates small-scale, perishable horticultural output and shares transport costs at the village level. 

Jonathan Robinson (UC Santa Cruz), Shilpa Aggarwal (Indian School of Business), Susan Godlonton (University of Williams), and Alan Spearot (UC Santa Cruz), are working with the Government of Rwanda and farmers’ cooperatives to examine how changes in output markets affect farmers’ investments in inputs in a pilot titled Quantifying the Effect of Increased Output Prices on Input Usage: An Experiment with Rwanda’s Smart Subsidy System.” They test whether guaranteeing a higher price for output prior to the planting season can encourage farmers to increase modern fertilizer and seed adoption in the current and subsequent seasons.