When we were net-mapping the innovation systems in poultry and maize in Ethiopia, we wondered: What is the benefit of spending so much time, drawing different links and is it maybe enough to just name the actors and put them on influence towers? So we tried a two step approach: With the first interview partner, a researcher, we did a normal Net-Map, asking him: “Who can influence that the farmers innovate in the maize sector?”
For the next interview, that we undertook with a private entrepreneur who multiplies and markets improved varieties, we came prepared: We wrote all the actors that had been mentioned in the previous interview on actor cards for our interviewee to choose from. If he thought that some of these were not really important, he could refuse them, if he had others to add, he could do so. For the next step, we didn’t let him draw networks but just put the actor cards on a map that we had divided into four sections to represent different sectors (public, private, NGO/Civil Society, farmers). Then we asked him to put the actors on influence towers.
Actor Map of Ethiopian maize innovation system, drawn by Ethiopian maize breeder; Source: Schiffer 2008
This did speed things up a bit, but did it also serve our goals of getting a better understanding of the questions we had?
After the second interview I discussed this question with my colleagues Regina Birner and David Spielman and we agreed that we learned far less about the “system-ness” of the innovation system, if we didn’t look at the multiple links of the actors. Also, our interview partner seemed to be thinking on a less specific and concrete level. The answer to the question: “Is this guy involved?” is so much more general than following the flow of improved seeds or the lines of command that connect a system. It was through looking at the flows (“So where do the improved seeds go when they leave the laboratory, who has to move them where until the farmer can actually plant them?”), that our first interview partner came up with actors that he had first forgotten. And for us, the concreteness of the network allowed us to clear mis-understandings and preconceptions and evaluate how the system in the Ethiopian maize sector was similar to or different from Ethiopian poultry or from maize in other countries.