Knowledge for Development

Indigenous Knowledge and Agricultural Innovation

Author: Floris van der Pol

Date: 02/01/2005


New innovations in agriculture, as is the case in other industrial sectors, go hand in hand with privatisation and decentralisation and globalization. This trend is being observed in the ACP region. During the colonial era, innovation was managed by public institutions or public-private partnerships in response to the needs of the private sector. Information and financial flows were channelled along commercial commodity lines, involving a select group of scientists, planters and representatives of multinational organizations. At that time, food production and subsistence agriculture for home consumption or sale on the domestic marketwere not taken into consideration. Little use was made of indigenous knowledge. After independence, new approaches were developed to achieve developmentalgoals such as enhancing food production and reducing reliance on imported food. It gradually evolved that technical innovations which were developed at research stations did not meet the diversity of conditions local farmers had to cope with (see endnote 1).



Farming Systems Research & Development

'Unorthodox'scientists, such as Collinson, Norman, Hildebrand, Fresco and Jouve showed how local farming systems differed and demonstrated the enormous lack of information about indigenous practices and knowledge. New concepts and approaches in the field of agricultural research were developed under the headings of Farming Systems Research (FSR), and Farming Systems Research and Development (FSR&D). A wave of FSR teams re-explored developing countries to lay the ground for agricultural innovation. Increasingly, farmers were consulted for the purpose of diagnosis and research priority setting, but their role was limited to the provision of information needed by the scientists. As Mike Collinson (1999) put it: FSR is a diagnostic process; a basket of methods for researchers to elicit a better understanding of farm households, family decisions and decision-making processes.

FSR was based on the assumption that better knowledge of indigenous farming systems would lead innovations to be better accepted by farmers. This supposition proved to be questionable for a number of reasons. First, it was difficult to fully understand the complex local farming systems and decision logics. Second, the methods of innovation development used were unsuitable for exploiting indigenous knowledge of small-scale / subsistence farmers. Available information was filed but hardly used in the creation of innovations. Finally, FSR researchers got trapped into the process of generating more and more detailed information, leaving the creation of innovations to others.


Participatory Technology Development

It was notuntil the mid-1980s, after recognizing the shortcomings of FSR&D, it was argued that farmers already understood their farming systems. As a consequence, researchers would not need the knowledge generated but should concentrate more on complementing their technical innovations with the local knowledge of farmers, in a participatory research and development process (Chambers, 1983; Richards, 1985; ILEIA, 1990). This idea was supported by international research institutes, which already had a number of innovations that only needed minor adaptations by local farmers. This led to a wave of participatory working methods.


Client-oriented research

Participatory Technology Development (PTD) and FarmerFieldSchools (Braun,-A.R.; Thiele,-G.; Fernandez,-M. (2000)became fully accepted approaches for information exchange between farmers and researchers. Information was now obtained from below but financing continued to flow from above. In some cases, the new research systems became even more donor-driven than before, as they responded to decision-makers residing far from the daily realities of local farmers. Priorities of local farmers had to conform to donor agendas.

FSR and PTD had two great merits, however: they provided basic information on farming systems and enhanced the creation of integrated research systems. Still, one more step was needed for success to be achieved: critical participation of producers in the financial flows and decision- making on research priorities. Donor domination of research funding obstructed this step. Client orientation was the answer: giving users influence in the financial flows associated with innovation development, i.e., transforming farmers from users to clients (DRD/IER/KIT, 2002).

Client Orientation and Indigenous Knowledge Orientation in agricultural research and development can be found in different combinations as is illustrated below:

Indigenous Knowledge Orientation------------->

Client Orientation

Low High
Low Traditional on-station research on long-term strategic topics Participatory R&D directly funded through various donors
High Traditional on-station research funded through producer organisations and other institutional clients Participatory R&D funded through producer organisations and other institutional clients

Client-orientation, Participatory Technology Development and Indigenous Knowledge-Based Innovation are concepts that are easily confused. To better understand the above scheme, the concepts are given the following explanations: Client orientation is associated with priority setting in research and development activities which can be ensured by the creation of user committees or the empowerment of producer organisations, giving them a say in the funding of research. It influences more the subjects of research or development activities than the way they are executed. Participatory Technology Development is frequently used as a final stage in technology development. In fact, it is used as adaptive on-farm research on technologies first developed on station, and as such, it is associated with pre-extension activities. Indigenous Knowledge-Based Innovation aims at using indigenous knowledge in earlier stages of technology development.


Indigenous knowledge-based systems (IKBS) innovation development

The use of indigenous knowledge in innovation development led to a number of surprising successes. Most authors emphasize the importance to hybridize indigenous and formal scientific knowledge (e.g. Nanda, 1999; Friis-Hansen, 1999; Simpson, 1999; Rosenblum et al., 2001; Marschke and Nong, 2003), while others stress that both forms of knowledge constitute the ends of a continuum (e.g. Brodt, 2002). Positive experiences have been reported especially in the fields of:

  • land and water resource management (Hambly and Angura, ed., 1996; Mendoza and Luning, 1997; Stein et al. 2001; Mapinduzi et al., 2003; Marothia, 2002; Shrestha, McDonald & Sinclair, 2003; Cools et al., 2003; Roth, 2000) and
  • use and conservation of genetic material (Stein et al., 2001; Bouguera et al, 2003; Friis-Hansen, 1999; Salas, 1996).

Use of indigenous knowledge on medicinal plants is already a long-standing tradition (e.g., Vandebroek et al., 2004; Leonti, 2003).

Some authors, however, claim the irreconcilability of local indigenous and formal scientific knowledge; the latter being biased too much by political (Sumberg, Okali & Reece, 2003) or commercial (Bouguera et al., 2003) interests.The unequal power relations between the actors involved is questioned (Birner, 2003) particularly in the discussion on intellectual property rights on indigenous genetic material and the associated knowledge (Aguilar, 2001; Ganguli, 2000; Timmermans, 2003), in both the agricultural and the medicinal sector.

Methodological Debate

Although indigenous knowledge is nowadays commonly used in agricultural innovation, methodologies are still far from becoming mainstream, which some argue to be even impossible and counterproductive (Sumberg, Okali & Reece, 2003). Some attempts, however, have been made to catch methodologies in frameworks, toolboxes and schemes.

Generally, methodological tools used are: individual farmer interviews, village-based interviews or workshops, farmer training, having to do mostly with farmer-to-farmer training (Rosenblum et al., 2001) and farmer research groups (Simpson, 1999; Marschke and Nong, 2003; Nounamo and Foaguegue, 1999). Gender specificity is most of the time accepted but not always implemented (e.g., Appleton and Hill, 1994). The World Bank and the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT, The Netherlands) (2000) developed a training guide and toolbox for participatory village planning based on experiences with Village Level Participatory Approaches (VLPA) in five West-African countries (Mali, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, and Burkina Faso) and Madagascar. This manual emphasizes constraint analysis and action planning more than exploitation of indigenous knowledge.

Engel and Salomon (1997) proposed a toolbox for Rapid Appraisal of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (RAAKS). The method focuses on social organisation of innovation and interaction between stakeholders in the innovation process. Agricultural innovation also takes place without specific programmes and services (see e.g., Badri, 2000).

Reij (2001) recognizes farmers' capacity to innovate as the crucial component of success, and provides participatory rural appraisal (PRA) and participatory technology development (PTD) and identification, analysis and verification of farmer innovators. By setting up monitoring and evaluation systems, he providesan alternative to the conventional "transfer of technology" paradigm.

Sumberg, Okali & Reece (2003) mention various categories of technological innovations, each being more or less apt for participatory inclusion of indigenous knowledge according to the solution space they offer. They distinguish:

  • 'mass market' technologies (e.g., new hybrid variety), small solution space, no adaptive research necessary
  • system technologies (e.g., agro-forestry system), medium solution space, adaptive research possible
  • defensive technologies (self-consumption - risk reduction), large solution space, adaptive and participatory research necessary.

The Future


With the numerous reported small-scale success stories, believer groups emerge easily, as has been seen in FSR or in Low External Input Agriculture. But some authors, especially of the German school, (Neubert, 2000 and Floquet and Mongho, 2000) warn against magical term solutions. It is perceived that naive application of the now popular rhetoric of participation of farmers and integration of farmers? indigenous knowledge creates more confusion as opposed to innovation efficiency and effectiveness. Farmers, developers and researchers have different frames of reference. They have to learn how to communicate better with each other and proper methodologies need to be developed.

Even with the abundant evidence from success stories, scaling up the use of indigenous knowledge in innovation development appears to present problems. Simpson (1999) concluded that surprisingly little has been done on a systematic and broad-scale basis, despite the rhetoric around building on farmers? knowledge and practices. Most of the cases pertain to activities with 20-50 participants. Scaling up is seen as internally inconsistent as a result of the very local character of the knowledge. Simpson, therefore, proposes the development of expert information systems, based on the best of both local and formal knowledge. Further, he suggests that, innovation programmes should provide their own learning environment and evolution, similarly to the adaptability that farmers have shown in their agricultural and economic performance.

Rajasekaran (1994) emphasizes the necessity for the creation of Indigenous Knowledge Centers. Presently around 35 such centres are reported to exist (IKDM, 2001). Contacts and organisations are represented at Kibwana et al .(2001) conclude that a modified PTD approach is emerging which does not deal with problem analysis alone, but rather seeks to link up with local problem-solving initiatives, thus using indigenous knowledge at the start of innovation development instead of at the end.


The author: Floris van der Pol is senior advisor of Sustainable Economic Development at the department of Development, Policy and Practice of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

(1) In 1978 D.W. Norman published his well-known results on farming systems research in Nigeria (see Kowal and Kassam 1978). Profits for farmers of a number of innovations proved to be negative, especially in terms of remuneration of labour.



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