Lessons from 50 years of international development: reflecting on the NIRAS panel series

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Biodiversity Challenge Funds has expanded from scientific capacity building & pure biodiversity conservation projects to work that has clear benefits to human livelihoods & wellbeing. Photo: Biodiversity Challenge Funds project: 'Scaling rights-based approaches for conservation and poverty reduction in Indonesia'

To celebrate 50 years of NIRAS in the UK (1973-2023), our UK team organised a series of webinars highlighting lessons learned from three of our notable sustainable development projects.

July 19, 2023

In June 2023, NIRAS celebrated a double 50th birthday: its first project in UK (through LTS, now NIRAS-UK) and its first international development project in Zambia. Both were forestry projects, and we have come far since then.

To celebrate this journey, NIRAS hosted a panel series to highlight three of our projects and share lessons with collaborators, clients and colleagues. In this piece, we recap the key takeaways from each panel and provide links to key resources, including full videos of the webinars.

CASA Treyzkapture CABI DAY2 PROJECT 018

A market systems development approach to the climate‒agriculture nexus

Panellists: Kristina Mastroianni (Agriculture Sector Lead, NIRAS); William Leonard (Deputy Team Leader, CASA); Ben Taylor (CEO, Agora Global)

Market systems development (MSD) approaches to development interventions have been widely adopted within the agriculture sector. As the climate crisis continues to put pressure on agricultural systems globally, there is continued interest in how MSD can be applied in climate programmes. In this webinar, we presented the wide expertise of our panel of speakers from NIRAS and Agora Global to explore how MSD programmes can facilitate climate action in agriculture and the value and mechanisms of climate interventions adopting an MSD approach.

Kristina Mastroianni, Agriculture Sector Lead at NIRAS, followed the BEAM Exchange definition of MSD as an “approach that works with economic or political actors to bring about lasting changes in incentives, rules, norms or supporting functions within markets, and so ultimately improves the terms of participation for poor women and men”. Given this definition, seven lessons the team has learned from NIRAS’s experience of applying MSD to the agriculture-climate nexus include:

(1) Consider scale and sustainability;

(2) Time is a critical factor;

(3) Incorporate climate targets in design;

(4) Involve the public sector;

(5) Address trade-offs;

(6) Create incentives;

(7) Maximise output and minimise waste.


Funded by the UK FCDO since 2019, the Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) project was presented as a prime example of how to use an MSD approach to implement pilot catalytic small-to-medium enterprise (SME) business models with private sector partners. According to Deputy Team Leader William Leonard, these pilots demonstrate the commercial viability, scalability and replicability of such models.

Through these interventions, the project also seeks to improve market functionality through efficient and effective climate-smart agribusinesses, which are able to access commercial financing, enabling more smallholder farmers to engage and trade with commercial markets, improving incomes, market systems, resilience and food security. So far, CASA has supported 50 enterprises, reached 293,694 smallholder farmers, leveraged £2,370,819 (or €2,729,844) of investment, created a £197 (or €227) average increase in annual income for smallholders, and influenced 24 policy decisions.

The application of MSD to address challenges at the agriculture-climate nexus was highlighted by the case study from Vipyha Chambo, an SME aquaculture business in Malawi supported by CASA. Smallholder pond aquaculture can often lead to eutrophication of pond water, which is often released into local waterways, creating pollution and negatively impacting habitats. CASA supported Viphya Chambo in setting up pond water outlets so fertilised effluent water would not mix with the rivers’ fresh water and cause pollution. This was incentivised by piloting the use of the nutrient-rich effluent water to irrigate bananas and sugarcane in their farm. Following a successful trial at the  farm, CASA helped expand this model to the smallholder farmers Viphya Chambo works with to scale the impact. This is an example of how MSD approaches can help create financially and environmentally sustainable solutions to challenges faced by SMEs and farmers.

Viphya Chambo also exemplifies an important fact in implementing MSD programmes. There should be an awareness of trade-offs between market and environmental incentives. Ben Taylor, the CEO of Agora Global, shared a helpful visual summarising why it is essential to weigh all objectives during the initial stages of programme development and identify where the opportunity for win-win outcomes lie. Ben noted that when designing MSD projects, we must be mindful that the more objectives we have, the smaller the area of opportunity may be (see below). As such, MSD programmes must carefully and equitably consider their objectives, weighing these against the needs of the project participants.

The webinar concluded with positive reflections on future possibilities for continuing to utilise MSD approaches to address climate concerns while carefully considering trade-offs in programme design and  working with both donors and project recipients to understand where equitable and sustainable interventions can be identified.

Resource: CASA Website


Watch the full webinar here:

Green Economic Growth in Indonesia: Transforming agricultural value chains to improve livelihoods and climate resilience

Panellists: Simon Field (GEGPP Team Leader); Callum Donaldson-Murdoch (Programme Manager, GEGPP); Ayu Ramanadia, (Indonesia Programme Manager, GEGPP); Fakri Karim (Advisor, Green Growth and Low Carbon Development)

Low carbon development fosters economic growth and protects local communities, but it can only be achieved through a common vision between stakeholders at all levels, directed investment and the necessary regulatory frameworks. With this in mind, NIRAS has been promoting a sustainable approach to economic growth since the early stages of its activity in the development sector, aiming at systemic changes to benefit people and the planet. The panel on the Green Economic Growth for Papua Provinces (GEGPP) programme, which was active in Indonesia starting in 2017 but has already concluded, provided an outlook on one of these interventions, showcasing green economy practices for scaling agricultural value chains and facilitating market development at both local and international level. The programme sought to build the capacity of smallholder farmers and business intermediaries, introducing climate-resilient farming practices and supporting the development of extension services to attract capital investments.

Team Leader Simon Field reflected on the achievements of this landmark programme, which paved the way for new paradigms of low carbon development in the Papua provinces, focussing on building farmers’ capacity, increasing crop resilience and improving livelihoods while at the same time preserving the biodiversity of the territories in which GEGPP operated. Jakarta-based Programme Manager Ayu Ramanadia highlighted how this was possible thanks to an attentive management of all the stakeholders involved, creating spaces for dialogue and coordination between local communities and institutions, public and private sector. Local liaison at the national and provincial levels proved crucial for the success and sustainability of green economic initiatives, and consolidated the legacy of NIRAS’s presence in Indonesia and a strong point of its implementation strategy, which seeks coordination between offices based in different countries. This approach was also essential when the programme was confronted by numerous challenges during its implementation phase.

Impacted by the COVID-19 social restrictions and working so close to local communities, GEGPP faced potential standstill during the pandemic but, as Project Manager Callum Donaldson-Murdoch recalled, the team was ready to reallocate resources, localising its presence and adapting the scope of the programme, ensuring the successful continuation of activities and consistent technical support. It ultimately achieved an A+ score in its final review.


Youth entrepreneurs in Indonesia receive a timely training on digital marketing and tools

Winding down in 2023, the GEGPP programme has opened the way for future sustainable scaling of agricultural commodities and low carbon development in Papua, but more has to be done to build on the momentum generated so far. Fakri Karim, Green Growth advisor, drew attention to a shift in the strategy of the Indonesian government in this sense, moving towards a necessary green economy-based transition in development planning. One of the tools within this transformation process is the promotion of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry within a clear conservation policy framework, investing in research and development initiatives that focus on low carbon agricultural technologies and practices and promoting sustainable land use planning. Investments are fundamental also for scaling local value chains, providing extension services and business development support. The engagement of development finance institutions and the private sector for the creation of new donor sponsored or public-private arrangements will be essential to sustain low carbon growth in the near and long term.

Finally, the panel concluded by emphasising the important role local communities play in taking ownership of systemic changes, not only to secure economic empowerment but also preserving their habitats by adopting also climate smart practices. The key will be to facilitate access to finance and market opportunities for these communities, establishing financial mechanism to provide loans, grants and subsidies, public and private, for the adoption of sustainable technologies and capacitating farmer cooperatives, while the institutions work on enabling infrastructures and regulatory frameworks. As mentioned in the beginning, only this common vision between stakeholders at all levels can deliver on the promise of a low carbon development for Indonesia.

Resources: GEGPP Project Brief; FCDO DevTracker log of GEGPP 


Watch the full webinar here:

Delivering the UK Government's flagship conservation programmes: Reflections from 20 years administering Defra's Biodiversity Challenge Funds

Panellists: Victoria Pinion (Programme Manager, BCF); Eilidh Young (Senior Administrator, BCF); Rachel Beattie (Analyst, BCF); EJ Milner-Gulland (Professor of Biodiversity, Oxford University and Darwin Expert Committee Chair)

For the past two decades, NIRAS has been involved in the delivery of the UK Government’s flagship conservation programme, the Darwin Initiative. Over its 30-year history, the funds have gone from strength to strength, with the Darwin Initiative now placed in a larger programme of Biodiversity Challenge Funds (BCFs), alongside Darwin Plus, which specifically funds environmental projects in the 14 UK Overseas Territories, and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund.

According to the core administration and project management team, the funds and the types of projects they support have evolved and adapted to meet UK policy objectives over time. The focus has expanded from scientific capacity building and pure biodiversity conservation projects to work that has clear benefits to human livelihoods and wellbeing. This reflects the nature of official development assistance, where the funding comes from, and the growing recognition within the conservation sector that natural landscapes are not isolated from people.

E.J. Milner Gulland, chair of the Darwin Expert Committee, shared her personal history with the funds, from grantee to application reviewer, and reflects on how the funds have led to a shift in mindset about how biodiversity conservation can interact with poverty alleviation.

BCF Argentina 14 034 Hector Keller+Guarani Credit G.Prance Eden Project Bodelva
Photo by G. Prance

The NIRAS team shared how rewarding it has been to work with such a diverse range of projects, partnerships and people over the years, enjoying the opportunities for learning and adaptive management, and especially making the funds more accessible to people by building capacity through training and guidance materials.

The panel also reflected on the impact and legacy of the funds. The BCFs have now supported well over 1,500 projects working worldwide, which have contributed to the training of over 145,000 people, over 3,300 peer reviewed papers published and the implementation of over 2,800 species and habitat management plans. But the legacy of the funds goes far beyond these simple standard measures, and it can be much more difficult to systematically capture the whole picture of unexpected benefits and success stories.

NIRAS is committed to developing new ways to draw out these stories and help projects demonstrate their impact. One of the ways the team is doing this is by continuing to improve the capacity of grantees to monitor and evaluate their work and deliver strong projects. Another is through deep dives into specific themes and topics, which will help share learnings on what works with grantees, applicants and the wider conservation and development sector.

Resources: Biodiversity Challenge Funds website; BCF LinkedIn; BCF Instagram; BCF Twitter; BCF Facebook


Watch the full webinar here:

The team thoroughly enjoyed the chance to reflect on the company's achievements with colleagues and partners and share ideas on where the future may lead in each of these sectors.

If any of the content has sparked any interest in collaboration or further discussion, please do reach out to Jack Covey (, who can connect you to the relevant individuals or project team.

Jack Covey

Jack Covey


Edinburgh, United Kingdom

+44 (0)131 440 5500

Mackenzie Klema

Mackenzie Klema

Senior Consultant

Edinburgh, United Kingdom

+44 (0)131 440 5500