Knowledge for Development

Farmer innovation in Africa

Author: Chris Reij, Free University, Amsterdam

Date: 15/12/2004


Farmer Innovation in Africa: A Source of Inspiration for Agricultural Development (2001) summarizes the findings of two regional programmes in Africa that supported farmer innovators and their innovations in eight countries representing a wide range of agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. In these programmes, a farmer was considered an innovator if he or she tried out something that was new in the village without having been asked to do so by outsiders. This means that farmers who tested new crop varieties or other technologies on their fields at the request of researchers were not innovators. It also implied that an innovation in one region may have been a common practice elsewhere.

The two programmes identified about 1000 farmer innovators and concluded that innovation is a fairly common phenomenon in regions where there is high population pressure on available natural resources. This is not surprising as farmers have to adapt to changes in rainfall, soils, demographics and markets, for example, in order to survive. Farmers with their 'backs against the wall' have no choice: innovate to improve their livelihoods, continue to live in poverty or leave the land and settle elsewhere.


Farmer innovators

Innovators were identified by extension agents or by field staff of NGOs as well as by researchers. They not only observed farmers who were doing things differently, but also asked villagers whether they knew of farmers who were achieving better results than others who were producing under similar conditions. In Tunisia, the partners created a special weekly programme on 'agriculture and innovation' for a regional radio station. Farmers responded positively to this programme and some submitted reports on their innovations to the radio station.

Farmers improved technologies in areas such as soil and water conservation, water harvesting, soil fertility management and agroforestry and tested new crops and new crop varieties in their farming systems. Not all of the innovations were technical in nature; some farmers also defined new rules for the management of a community resource, such as water for irrigation. The improved traditional planting pits used in the Sahel to rehabilitate seriously degraded land are a well-known example of farmer innovation in the early 1980s.

Farmers drew upon many sources of inspiration for their innovations. Many picked up ideas while working elsewhere, and upon return, tried the new techniques on their own fields. In other cases they experimented with ideas gleaned from extension agents, study visits to research stations or from projects in other regions. However, some were as a result of their own creativity.

Most innovators were fairly old and experienced but some were young. In Cameroon, a small network of 15 innovators had four members aged 23-32 years. These were young men who, after losing their jobs in urban centres during the economic crisis in Cameroon in the 1990s, returned to their home villages and took up farming. Most innovators were illiterate, but the ability to be innovative was not related to the level of formal education. Most were men, but an increase in the number of female innovators was noted when women were involved in the identification process. Most of the innovators had strong personalities and were capable of withstanding considerable social pressure. Tensue Gebremedhin, a widow in Tigray, Ethiopia, started to plough with an ox and a donkey and by doing so broke two taboos: a woman behind a plough with a donkey in front of it.

In East Africa, 33% of innovators identified were women and their innovations in land husbandry did not differ from those of men. In Tanzania, for example, Mrs Grace Bura built up barriers with earth and brush to block gullies, and Mrs Martha Mwaso reclaimed large sections of riverbed through labour-intensive efforts. In Kenya, Mrs Kalekye excavated large quantities of earth to reclaim gullies for agricultural production.

All innovators increased their production and income, and were considered to be better off because of their innovations. Data from Tanzania and from Burkina Faso show that many innovators who were resource-poor 10-20 years ago are now resource-rich. By investing in land rehabilitation, innovators in Burkina Faso systematically expanded their resource base and produced sufficient food to feed their families even in drought years. Not only did they build up their assets, but they also became less vulnerable to drought.

Chains of innovation

Some innovations triggered others. Innovators in Babanki, Cameroon, for example, contributed to a significant increase in the production of nightshade (Solanum nigrum) as a result of improved soil fertility management and the construction of a network of irrigation canals. A farmer then devised a simple, low-cost harvesting tool to cut leaves quickly and efficiently without damaging the plants. Improving the marketing channels was their next project.

Farmer innovation and formal research

Both regional programmes emphasized that farmer innovations are not necessarily perfect. They can be improved and it is essential to build partnerships between researchers and innovators for joint experimentation based on agendas set by the farmers. The case of innovators in Cameroon who expressed their problems and their priorities clearly, and were accepted by researchers, is a good example. In Tunisia the programme of experimentation was more researcher-driven, but responded adequately to farmers' priorities. Working with farmer innovators requires a change in attitudes for many researchers. They need to communicate with farmers as equals and should be willing and able to listen to and learn from farmers.

Innovation and extension

Top-down approaches to extension have failed to produce tangible results. It is still too often assumed that there are sufficient, readily available technologies that can be transferred to farmers. More participatory approaches to extension have not yet been mainstreamed. It has been repeatedly demonstrated and reported that farmers are keen to learn from fellow farmers, and that they often more readily accept innovations observed on the fields of other farmers working under similar conditions than messages transmitted by extension agents. When farmers from Niger went on a study tour to Burkina Faso in 1989, they were impressed by the improved traditional planting pits used to rehabilitate degraded land. Some applied this technique on their return.. The results were surprisingly good, even in 1990, which was a drought year. This success led to the accelerated dissemination of this technique and, by 1992, the emergence of a farmers' land market with farmers actively buying and selling degraded land.

Building on farmer innovation implies a fundamental change in the roles of extension agents from transmitters of technical messages to facilitators of knowledge exchange between farmers and other farmers and between farmers and extension officers themselves.

Recent initiatives

The number of initiatives to promote farmer experimentation and innovation seems to be increasing. In March 2004 CTA and IFAD organized a regional workshop in West Africa on farmer innovation and extension. IFAD subsequently launched an Innovation Mainstreaming Initiative and ICRAF and partners developed a proposal to promote farmer experimentation and innovation in the Sahel. The creativity of farmers in Africa and other ACP regions remains a major untapped resource that can be used to realize the promise and potential of ACP agricultural and rural development. The challenge is for policymakers, researchers and extensionists to embrace farmer innovation as a valuable tool for transforming ACP agriculture.

Dr Chris Reij is Fellow of the International Cooperation Centre of the Free University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Chris Reij and Ann Waters-Bayer (eds) (2001) Farmer Innovation in Africa: A Source of Inspiration for Agricultural Development, Earthscan, London.