Capacities for Change, GFAR blog

When Innovation is Farmers’ Play: A collective action simulation and a capacity assessment with farmers in Laos

Laos game 1

What do you do if the pigs that you have raised with such care catch a disease and die? Or how do you cope with a sudden drop in prices caused by an unpredictable market? And if you are prevented from crossing the border with Thailand, where will you go to buy your inputs?

Farmers in Xanakham district, in north-western Laos, face these sorts of questions on a daily basis. To find the right answers, they need to be innovative. And this happens when they learn to engage more effectively with the broad network of stakeholders that populate the agricultural sector.

Farmers’ ability to navigate such systems was recently observed and improved during a participatory activity that simulates their daily tasks, in combination with a capacity assessment. While participatory learning is gaining more and more ground these days, this time the approach was truly novel: participants played a game to learn lessons on managing their risks. Then what they learned through the game was captured in a structured manner by scoring their innovation capacities using situations from the game.

This approach was piloted by FAO and Cirad, in the context of a project known as CDAIS, or Capacity Development for Agricultural Innovation Systems – a global initiative implemented at country level by FAO and Agrinatura. Through CDAIS, the concepts and tools of the new TAP Common Framework are now being applied in eight countries in Africa, Asia and Central America.

Laos game 4The simulation game, a methodology developed by Cirad, started with farmers gathering in one room and splitting up into different groups, each of which was seated around a table with a board game in the center. Just like in Monopoly, they moved pieces across a board using money to buy inputs, playing the roles of a variety of different actors, such as bankers, traders and veterinarians—in addition to the role of farmers themselves.

The simulation assessed the farmers’ ability to go through all the steps of their business, as well as to face a number of adverse and unexpected events. Raising and selling pigs is these farmers’ main source of income, so the closure of the border with Thailand, where the farmers go to buy high quality piglets, was a scenario the players had to confront.

Laos game 5Earlier in the game, farmers had to negotiate a good interest rate on the loan they took from the bank. After securing quality piglets, farmers had to make sure the animals remained healthy. When a disease spread among the livestock, they consulted the veterinarian and shopped for medicines. Then farmers needed to decide how to feed the animals. Should they buy pig-feed or should they grow their own fodder? After that, they set aside money to build a pigsty.

Finally, it was time to cash in on all this work: farmers sold their pigs in the market. In this last phase, the game tested farmers’ skills to bargain with traders, particularly in the context of a sudden drop in livestock prices.

To gather data on the required capacities of farmers that emerged through the game, facilitators guided them through an in-depth questionnaire, where they scored their performance during the game. Developed by FAO, the questionnaire aims at assessing the capacities needed to innovate in agriculture. It is a straightforward tool to establish a baseline that later allows practitioners to evaluate the performance of capacity development interventions.

Laos game 3.jpg

When compiling the questionnaire, farmers seemed to fare well in sharing information and cooperating within their group; they were highly skilled in managing the farm business, and informed-decision making was done successfully when using past experiences. Farmers also had a reasonably good idea of where they want to be in the future.

On the other hand, farmers showed potential for improvement, when communicating with actors outside their group. They found it difficult, for example, to share information with extension officers. Room for improvement was also shown in their ability to lobby and influence decision-makers for policy change. Some technical skills were also lacking, particularly in areas like disease prevention, vaccination, pig reproduction, water management and fodder mixture.

Laos game 2

So, what was the outcome of this activity? What did farmers learn about their situation and the path to be more innovative?

Farmers were able to better understand the challenges they face and started to think about some initial solutions on how to address these. They were keen to follow up with local officials and also the national agricultural research institute on the issue of raising piglets in Laos. At the same time, the results of the scoring exercise revealed clear entry points for the CDAIS project to engage and support farmers towards sustainable agricultural growth.

So, as the farmers, national actors and global initiatives like TAP and CDAIS commit to working together on these issues over the next two years, the hope is to see capacity development in the pilot countries really become “farmers’ play”—an engaging and fun activity that equips farmers to confront their real world challenges.


Guest blog post by Tommaso Carboni (Tommaso.Carboni(at) and Christian Grovermann (, Tropical Agriculture Platform (TAP).

FAO, TAP and Cirad are Partners in GFAR. The GFAR Secretariat celebrates the work and collective actions of Partners who share in our mission to strengthen and transform agri-food research and innovation systems globally. For more information on the Partners in GFAR, and to become a Partner, click here!

Photo credit: Christian Grovermann

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