The ILRI CapDev Grand Challenge - a pipeline for creating cohorts of transformational next-generation livestock sector professionals

Students from last year's Cap Dev challenge discuss strategy (photo credit: ILRI/Wellington Ekaya)

On 17th November 2020, The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) launched the second annual Capacity Development Grand Challenge (ILRI CapDev Grand Challenge). The Challenge is a 10-month process designed to equip young researchers with the requisite people and leadership skills— commonly referred to as soft skills - as they transition from graduate training mode into actors in national research and extension systems. Every year ILRI trains and mentors 150-200 graduate students and researchers from national programs in LMICs by embedding them in research projects. Although ILRI is not a degree-awarding institution, ILRI scientists work closely with university supervisors in designing student research, co-supervision and training of students in technical research methodologies. The CapDev Grand Challenge process complements the ‘hard’ technical that aims at equipping these next-generation livestock sector professionals with the leadership and interpersonal skills they need to be effective leaders, science communicators and influencers after their academic/technical training. 

After the preliminaries of registration and induction, the CapDev Grand Challenge process begins in earnest with a three-minute research pitching contest where participants present their research projects and findings to a panel of judges comprising of at least one donor, communications expert, journalist, development policy expert, M&E expert and researcher, all of whom are well-informed of ILRI’s mission and scope of research. The judges select 15 to 20 participants with the most successful pitches. 

In the second part of the CapDev Grand Challenge, all participants are trained on soft skills and given mentorship talks by renowned personalities from diverse fields and regions across the globe. The soft skills training and mentoring aim at strengthening the students’ capabilities for systems thinking, science communication, public speaking and engagement, negotiation, effective team building and management, work ethics, and personal development. International exposure is a key component of the process. The 15-20 participants selected for having the most successful pitches get sponsorships to attend at least two virtual conferences of their choice.

The on-going CapDev Grand Challenge process will run until the end of October 2021. We have thus far registered 51 participants from 21 countries covering eastern Africa, west Africa, southern Africa, central Africa, south Asia and southeast Asia (many more will follow in the coming weeks). The participants are made of 28 males and 23 females; 22 PhD students/fellows; 10 MSc students; 4 postdoctoral scientists and 15 researchers and lecturers from national universities and research programs. They cover a range of topics including One Health, climate change, livestock improvement, food safety, antimicrobial resistance and livestock diseases.

In addition to ILRI scientists, a number of partners have registered their students and mentees to participate as well. We are glad to have participants nominated by the International Foundation for Science, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), the University of Florida Feed the Future Livestock Systems Innovation Lab, the Afrique One ASPIRE PhD and MSc program and the PASET Regional Scholarship Innovation Fund PhD training at icipe.

The three-minute research pitching contest will take place on the 9th of March, 2021. Each of the 51 participants will individually pitch their research to a panel of seven judges and international observers who are renowned global figures in agri-food systems transformation. The judges will be looking for a number of things including how well each researcher can communicate their research and science to non-expert audiences, and how well he/she is able to frame their research in an impact and development-oriented systems context. The judges will announce the winners on 16th March, 2021. Awards will be presented on the same day. Thereafter, all participants will go through a series of soft skills training courses between March and December 2021, when ILRI will launch the next cycle of the CapDev Grand Challenge.


Daniel Korir, a 2020 Cap Dev participant, won second prize in the prestigious GFFA science  slam earlier this year. (Photo credit: ILRI/Paul Karaimu)

Daniel Korir, a PhD fellow who won the 2019/2020 ILRI CapDev Grand Challenge, was one of the four young scientists selected globally to participate in the Global Forum on Agriculture and Food Security (GFFA) Science Slam in Berlin, Germany held on 21st January 2021 and took second position. I recently asked Daniel what his take-home message was after all that he has gone through. He said:

Apart from equipping me with new skills I now realize I really needed this experience for my science and technical skills to be effective in creating change. The ILRI CapDev Grand Challenge experience has given me a totally fresh way of looking at research and how we ought to think in a systems perspective if our research findings are to create real change and faster.