Agricultural Research in Brazil – part IV

Embrapa:  A Case of Successful Institutional Innovation

Embrapa is by far the largest component of the Brazilian Agricultural Research System.  A semiautonomous federal agency administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Supply, Embrapa is the largest agricultural R&D organization in Latin America in terms of both staff numbers and expenditure. The agency is headquartered in the capital Brasilia and operates 40 research centers throughout the country.

Embrapa is a case of successful institutional innovation that has many distinctive characteristics: a public corporation model of organization; scale of operation at national level; spatial decentralization; specialized research units; enhanced training and remuneration of human resources and a vision of an agriculture based on science, technology and innovation.  Dr. Eliseu Alves, a scientist and visionary leader that helped create and consolidate Embrapa provided one of the most complete overviews, to date, on Embrapa´s model and achievements1.  Below, the main aspects of the organization´s development and consolidation process covered in his study are summarized , with emphasis to those that made Embrapa known as a successful case of institutional innovation:

Continuous support from the Federal Government:  Without strong and continuous support from the federal government, Embrapa´s consolidation would not have been possible.  In the early years, it took the form of the federal government having understood the importance of technology for the development of agriculture. The battle for budgets has been constant over the 36 years of the organization´s existence but once the results proved Embrapa as profitable investment for the Nation, the battle for budgets and support benefited from the corporation´s widely recognized status of strategic organization;

Diversified R&D portfolio:  Embrapa´s management has always been aware of the risk that the lack of achievements represents for an R&D  organization´s future. To overcome this risk, Embrapa always had priority on short-term, in adition to mid- an long-term goals, coupled to constant attention to the dissemination of existing results;

Timing and social support:  In the beginning of the 70´s, there was in Brazil a food supply crisis, mainly caused by a rapid displacement of the population from rural to urban areas. This also led to high prices for basic foodstuffs, queues in supermarkets and social unrest.  Still, the stock of knowledge was largely insufficient. So, on the macro-economic level, there was enough pressure and understanding to reform public research in agriculture: a typical case of induction of institutional reform, as provided by Hayami-Ruttan2. Thus, Embrapa was created, when conditions were very favorable for its success;

Option for a public corporation model:  The option taken in 1972, to organize Embrapa as a public corporation, was a bold decision of the government to release Embrapa from the bureaucratic rules used in the public administration. This gave it the flexibility to administer resources and personnel, to plan, to assess performance, to implement the budget, to disseminate results and to be transparent. The model allowed Embrapa to develop its own personality, which has characterized it in the national and international scenario as unique example in the field of public research;

Scale, interactivity and decentralization:  The leaders and decision makers that created Embrapa reasoned that in a country of continental dimensions like Brazil, the success of a national R&D organization would depend on its size, diversity of talents, and level of decentralization. It was very important for Embrapa to have a presence throughout the national territory. This presence helped to attract sympathy of the state governments and the National Congress.  Also, it was understood that Embrapa needed to be a network with a critical mass of researchers capable to engage in active cooperation with universities, state research institutes, private sector and overseas organizations;  

A concentrated organization model for the research units:  Embrapa research units are distributed throughout the national territory and are specialized in products, resources and themes.  Farmers and other stakeholders know where to go with demands for information and results, which gives them ownership in the center, providing help with the political leadership and the economic area of government.   This model also facilitates and encourages interaction within the network, since centers dedicated to specific products will strongly depend on effective interactions with complementary teams from thematic and resource centers;

Human resources:  The human resources policy of Embrapa, that has been constantly perfected over the years, aims to develop the human capital of the corporation and it is from this capital that Embrapa derives its success.  This comprehensive policy is based on several key factors, among them:  the establishment of a career that stimulates the desire to study and progress; a salary that allows the researcher to have a dignified living; a retirement plan, with voluntary membership; a health plan paid by Embrapa and the employees; opportunities and stimuli for all employees to accumulate knowledge and experience; a system of a merit-based promotion, focused on individual, group and research unit’s performance; a training program at post-graduate and post-doctoral levels, that meets both the interests of the corporation and the researchers; among others;

Professional relations and coexistence with power:  Politicians represent Brazilian society and Embrapa considers important that they take part in the organization´s life, especially in aspects related to definition of priorities for research and institutional development.  Hiring its top managers by open public selection is an instrument that has promoted coexistence and professional relations with the political power.  Therefore, Embrapa has been able to develop productive relations with the political world, while guaranteeing independent and competent leaders;

Independent reviews and evaluations of impact.  Over the years Embrapa has used a diversified set of instruments to demonstrate its importance in the modernization of agriculture and the agribusiness sector in Brazil. Several aggregate studies have demonstrated the role of Embrapa´s R&D in technological change of the agricultural sector and to increase exports in Brazil3.  Also, Embrapa publishes regularly its social balance4, that has been showing that every Brazilian Real (R$) invested in the organization returns between R$12 and R$13 to the Brazilian society (US$ 1.00 = R$ 1.77).  The Social balance of Embrapa in the past 10 years amounts to US$ 49.7billion;

Communication with society:  Embrapa has always pursued good answers to the question: what makes a result to be easily understood by society? This is a complex issue that involves a range of concepts and strategies.  And it also demands talent and abilities to establish the connection between the media and the organization with the minimum possible of noise. From the beginning, Embrapa invested in professionals able to create strong ties with the media, making its results well publicized, both in Brazil and abroad. And more than one can imagine, Embrapa has become a symbol of pride and national success;

Foresight and institutional flexibility:  Embrapa has always invested a great deal of effort in foresight strategic planning and improvement of institutional processes.  During its 36 years of existence, the organization experienced three different models of R&D management, in response to changing times and innovation trends and methods.  The implementation of its current model, called SEG – Sistema Embrapa de Gestao, was an important move towards stronger networking to tackle great national and international challenges.  This R&D management process introduced an internal competitive system strongly sustained in peer review5.


1 Alves, E.  Embrapa: a success story of institutional innovation.  Brazilian Agricultural Research Organization, Brasilia, DF. 2010.  (Forthcoming).

2 Hayami, Y. and Ruttan, V. W. Agricultural development, an international perspective,  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

3 Beintema, N.M.; Ávila, A.F.D.; Pardey, P.G. Agricultural R&D in Brazil: Policy, investments and institutional profile. Washington, DC: IFPRI, Embrapa and Fontagro, Ago., 2001.

4 Social Balance of Embrapa, 2008.  The Social Balances of Embrapa, from 1987 to 2008 can be seen in

5 Lopes, M. A. Gestão da Inovação na Embrapa. Sistema Embrapa de Gestão. Documento Institucional. Reunião Geral de Gerentes da Embrapa. Pirenópolis, 25 a 29 de novembro, 2002. 11p.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s