The Critical Role of Verification Technology in Incentive-Based Prize Contests

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AgResults is a $122 million experiment designed to answer the following question: can incentive-based prize contests, notable for successes in spurring the aviation and space industries, help solve market failures in agricultural development? Instead of “pushing” actors to adopt improved technologies and practices, AgResults “pulls” actors to achieve success by paying only for results.
The AgResults Vietnam GHG Emissions Reduction Pilot  is testing our central hypothesis in a critical sector: rice production in Vietnam. Typical Vietnamese smallholder rice crop management practices often result in high emissions of methane and nitrous oxide greenhouse gases (GHGs).
The Vietnam Pilot incents the testing and widespread use by smallholder farmers of novel tools, products, and practices that reduce GHG emissions and increase yields. The Pilot targets the Thai Binh province near Hanoi in northern Vietnam, and contains two phases:

  • Phase I: Low GHG Technology and Agronomic Practice Adoption: Contest participants, including private sector actors from across Vietnam’s rice industry, will test their technology and management packages on controlled plots during two rice-growing seasons. AgResults will use direct, field-based measurement to determine yield increases and GHG reductions, as well as verify the use of proposed new technologies, in order to award Phase I prizes.
  • Phase II: Scaling of behaviors, tools and products to large numbers of farmers: Participants will work over four rice growing seasons to get as many farmers as possible to adopt the Phase I-tested technology package. AgResults will award prizes after each season based on reduced GHG emissions, increased yields, number of farmers reached, and repeated use of the technology by farmers.

A key challenge in the Vietnam Pilot is setting up fair and cost-effective verification. In Phase II, it would be impossible to measure GHG emissions and yields at the field level across potentially tens of thousands of rice plots. Therefore, we will rely on an integrated ICT package developed by the verifier, Applied GeoSolutions.
Contest Verification Technology
The system includes two sets of data: geospatial and remote sensing data. Geospatial data, collected through custom smartphone apps and uploaded to the cloud, allows us before each growing season to map each field and associated planned technology to be used on that field.
The remote sensing data, including both optical and synthetic-aperture radar sensing, allows us to identify major cropping events, including clearing, transplanting, flooding, and harvesting. When mapped to the geospatial data, we can ascertain with relatively high certainty whether or not a farmer actually implemented the planned technology package on that particular field.
From that exercise, we can score each contest participant’s seasonal progress and award appropriate prizes.
What About Outcome Sustainability?
A critical learning question concerns the sustainability of any outcomes. If we manage to incentivize improved farming practices through a prize contest, will actors continue to use those practices after we award the final prizes?
The proposed verification system may offer one potential outcome through its efficient data collection, robust quantification, and a high level of government buy-in. These pieces could form the basis of Vietnam’s rice sector participation in international carbon trading markets.
Recently, US rice farmers sold the first farming carbon credits on California’s carbon market – using verification protocols similar to those we plan to use in Vietnam.
Ultimately, the idea of a prize contest is to catalyze change and allow the market to find innovative paths to success. Whatever happens during and beyond the contest, we are excited to see the high level of initial participation by the Vietnam rice sector, and are eager to review the results as the Phases unfold.
By Justin Kosoris, AgResults Secretariat
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