IRMA partners’ understanding of trust
In order to put into context informants’ views with regards to trust, we asked the interviewees to provide their understanding of the word trust. Interviewees considered trust a voluntary and cooperative effort that is achieved, maintained, or destroyed over time based on the perceptions of those involved. Further, trust was thought to be motivated by confidence in the abilities of other people or institutions, agreements, and expectations of positive outcomes based on partner responsibilities. Trust was also described by interviewees to be of varying levels depending on an individual’s knowledge of the project and the intended project outcomes.
Based on interviewees’ understanding of trust, and our analysis of the challenges to and practices for trust building, we identified four key lessons that other agbiotech PPPs may find useful for building trust among project partners and with the community. The IRMA management pointed out that they did not deliberately put in place specific practices intended to build trust. Conducting further studies on the effect of deliberate trust-building practices on the success of an agbiotech PPP may therefore be of value. The four key lessons are:
1. Ensure product delivery
The commercialization of IRMA products was expected to commence at the end of phase II of the project, with both the transgenic and conventional products becoming available to the public. The interviewees indicated that there were high expectations among the end users for the IRMA products and particularly for the Bt-based maize varieties. Access to the end products would continue to enhance trust among the partners and with the community.
The community disheartened by failure to deliver Bt-based maize varieties
By the end of phase II (ten years from the start of the project), IRMA managed to release conventionally-bred, insect-resistant OPVs and hybrids but failed to deliver the Bt-based insect-resistant maize varieties due to challenges related to ownership of IPRs (see lesson 2) of the Bt technologies. The high expectations among the end users were captured in the views of a farmer interviewed who said that even if the farmers did not have enough information about the technology they would have been happy to adopt the technology once Bt maize varieties came to the market. The same sentiment was echoed by a seed company executive who said that seed companies would have distributed the technology once it came to the market.
In spite of the project management's efforts towards delivering Bt products, skepticism about IRMA’s capability to deliver ensued from the project’s failure to release the Bt-based maize varieties. The community’s—particularly, farmers’ and seed companies’—trust in the project, which did not seem to deliver, was therefore undermined.
Concern among the partners about failure to deliver
The failure to deliver the Bt-based maize varieties was of great concern among the partners. The project management hoped that this problem would be addressed during phase III of the project. However, this may not be realized since phase III places emphasis on further development of conventional varieties . A KARI interviewee expressed the uneasiness and frustration that pervaded the KARI management and government, which had been involved closely with the launch of the KARI Biotechnology Center, where some trials of the Bt technology were conducted. There were concerns among the partners that the project would not deliver the expected biotechnology products after all. The interviewee stated: I would not like to imagine that [the] project will not come out with products. Because people might not trust GM again in Kenya. We observe that failure to deliver the Bt products was likely to result in distrust among the partners and with the community.
2. Disclose fully information on IPRs
Considering that agbiotech PPPs rely on technologies protected by IPRs, there is a need for partners to be clear at the start of the project about the ownership status of the IPRs and the manner of their use in order to foster trust among the partners.
Lack of clarity on the ownership of IPRs of the GM event
One of the most controversial aspects of the IRMA project was perhaps the vagueness surrounding the ownership of IPRs of the GM event. It has been reported that confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements surrounding ownership of IPRs often lead to much suspicion and, in turn, distrust . At the beginning of the project, the Bt genes were sourced from the University of Ottawa based on “a research purposes only” agreement . This was taken to mean that the use of the genes would contribute to building trust between the project and the public—because they were sourced from a public institution. This seemed straight forward until 2006, when the IRMA project management requested the University of Ottawa to enter into an agreement with CIMMYT to enable the latter to commercialize products generated by the project. At this point it was established that the ownership of the different IPR components was in the hands of many private companies, which made it especially difficult for the university to provide a commercialization agreement without facing a potential lawsuit over IPR violations . Interviewees stated that the failure to disclose clearly the IPR status of the technology by the University of Ottawa resulted in diminished trust between the university and the other partners. At the onset of the project, interviewees indicated that the partners engaged in the partnership informally without signed agreements on the presumption that trust existed among them. The agreements were regularized later by making them legally binding. The informality of the initial agreements may have contributed to the lack of clarity on IPRs of the GM event from the University of Ottawa.
Lack of legal expertise
The late realization that the University of Ottawa did not own the IPRs of the GM event, which was used in phase I of the project, was partly attributed to the inadequate legal advice from both CIMMYT and KARI, since the legal experts from both institutions at the time had left . Meticulous scrutiny of legal agreements to identify any inadequacies that may result in diminished trust among the partners and with the community is very important. However, this requires access to legal expertise within the project; otherwise, time and resources will be wasted as the project struggles to deal with legal challenges, including those pertaining to IPRs.
3. Provide the public with balanced and accurate information
Public access to balanced, accurate and timely information about the new agricultural biotechnologies is necessary for enhanced trust to exist between the project partners and the public.
The benefits of early and continuous engagement of stakeholders
In an effort to ensure stakeholders’ involvement in the project planning and development, and in response to stakeholders’ request to be engaged all along the way, the IRMA management held annual stakeholder meetings; workshops; seminars; and hands-on training sessions with the stakeholders. Other auxiliary activities included the establishment of networks to enhance collaboration with the stakeholders. For example, the Maize and Wheat Working Group in Eastern and Central Africa, which is run by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), was organized to address stakeholder issues—from research to market—along the maize and wheat production value chains. Through these networks the stakeholders along the maize value chain were updated with IRMA activities, which helped enhance trust in the project. These activities were part of the project’s 10th theme: “Communication, Promotion, Capacity Building, and Administration” .
The continuous engagement of different stakeholders with messages tailor-made for them has been heralded as one of the positive aspects of the IRMA project . Early involvement ensured ownership of and commitment to the project and, in turn, built trust among the partners and with the public . Interviewees said that these initiatives enabled expert information on any controversial areas within the project to be passed on to stakeholders, while providing a forum for interaction, feedback and bonding among stakeholders. These activities helped demystify the technology and allay fears surrounding agricultural biotechnology, thus building trust among project partners and with the community.
The challenge of early and continuous awareness creation
The downside of early and continuous engagement was the high expectations that were formed by the stakeholders but left unmet by the project. An interviewee from CIMMYT acknowledged that the expectations of the stakeholders may have been raised too early in the project’s life. We observed the challenge of maintaining a balance between creating awareness among the stakeholders and ensuring that the expectations of the stakeholders are reasonable and not unwarranted. Considering that it takes 10 to 15 years or more to develop GM crops into end products that can be delivered to the farmers , the objective to deliver Bt-based varieties at the end of phase II may have been unrealistic. In retrospect, the project management suggested that it was inappropriate to raise expectations about the project prematurely.
Awareness creation should be carefully done to ensure that delayed product delivery neither negatively impacts trust between the partners and the community nor leaves the end users dissatisfied. This requires seeing the big picture and integrating regular evaluation. It has been reported that the peak of awareness creation and stakeholder engagement should wait until the technology is available and farmers are ready to plant [20, 21].
Engaging with anti-GM lobbyists to build trust
Some of the engagement sessions in IRMA were open to anti-GM lobbyists. At times during these sessions, the anti-GM activists were engaged in one-on-one discussions with the project management to clarify any inaccuracies; however, this did not seem to change their position. In some situations, anti-GM organizations took advantage of cases of inadequate public awareness of GM crops to spread negative and inaccurate views about health and other perceived risks associated with the technology for the sole purpose of fostering the public’s distrust in the technology. In one particular instance reported by an interviewee from CIMMYT, the anti-GM organizations claimed that GM maize was sneaked into KARI-Kiboko Research Centre, Kenya, which was also an IRMA trial site.
An interviewee from the seed industry attributed limited public awareness partly to the scientists’ failure to adequately engage and communicate with the public. He emphasized the need for greater expertise in communications in order to reach the farmers with accurate information on GM technology. An interviewee from CIMMYT reported that IRMA’s limited communication with the public was further undermined by the limited ability of the project management to regularly update the public on developments in the project due to funding cuts and the departure of a communications specialist from the project.
An interviewee from KARI suggested that, to counter any inaccuracies due to anti-GM lobbyists’ influencing of public opinion, sufficient and accurate information should be provided to the public, rather than having a one-on-one engagement with such groups. This would go a long way in addressing the challenge – since changing the attitude of anti-GM lobbyists is difficult.
4. Maximize synergy between the public and private sector
Partners in agbiotech PPPs come from diverse backgrounds and each has their own set of strengths to contribute to the partnership. Capitalizing on the diversity of the partners can help improve trust and the project’s success.
Individual and institutional differences between KARI and CYMMYT
In a PPP, there is need for roles and responsibilities to be clearly defined for the purpose of creating efficiency and accountability . In some instances this can prove to be challenging, particularly when a partnership cascades down to the community and seeks to engage with members of the community – as was the case in the IRMA project. At that level, coordinating mechanisms are required to ensure efficiency and accountability. The differences between KARI and CIMMYT were reported as having threatened project efficiency, accountability and trust between the two public sector institutions. The differences existed at both an individual and institutional level. At the individual level, the problem stemmed from competition for the position of the project coordinator, while at the institutional level there was a perception of inequality and favoritism among the partners, with KARI feeling that they were being treated as a junior partner. An interviewee from KARI acknowledged that these differences created some conflict.
The interviewees acknowledged that these apparent sources of conflict were resolved over time by establishing well-defined objectives and responsibilities and transparent resource allocation, all of which served as an opportunity for partners to be accountable to each other and to the community. Accountability was partly linked to the mutual pressure—referred to by an interviewee as “peer pressure”—that the partners placed on each other to fulfill their responsibilities. In general, however, instead of competing interests on the part of the partners, their expertise, roles and responsibilities were complimentary and mutually reinforcing for the progress of the project and led to a cordial relationship. This led to enhanced trust and a “highly motivated team” , leading to achievement of the project milestones. In addition, agreement on the selection of a project coordinator for the duration of the project gave the partners and their staff a sense of stable leadership, which worked to build trust.
The presence of a local public institution in the partnership also enhanced trust between the partners and the public. This is because the local farming community tends to identify with local public organizations, with which they have built trust from previous engagements. The involvement of such institutions as the face of the project builds public confidence in the quality and safety of the technologies offered by the partnership. Notwithstanding earlier differences with KARI, an interviewee from CIMMYT pointed out that partnering with KARI, a local public research institution, boosted public acceptance of the process and expected products.
Apprehension about the private sector’s involvement in the project
More often than not, distrust in agbiotech PPPs has stemmed from the ownership of IPRs and usually occurs between the private and public institutions . This may explain the public sector’s suspicions about the private sector’s intentions in a PPP. The public sector partners were apprehensive about the private sector’s involvement in technology development even at the beginning of the IRMA project, as they believed such involvement could hamper public support and complicate the funding principle, i.e., the public good of the project.
Some were also of the view that the use of public genes from the University of Ottawa would improve the public’s trust in the project. However, according to an interviewee from CIMMYT, when the public sector materials sourced from the University of Ottawa were no longer suitable for commercialization, CIMMYT had to turn to a private sector GM event (MON810)  for the project to progress into phase II. The private sector, although seen as inspiring less trust, was deemed valuable in terms of providing technological and skills support when the public sector failed to deliver.
Irrespective of whether an institution is public or private, there is a need for the institutions to find common ground and converge on common interests in the partnership in order to encourage a united focus in the project. Identifying individual and institutional strengths and building synergy between them, and tapping into the goodwill of the local public institutions, is likely to contribute to enhancing trust between the project and the community.