Handing over the reins back to the farmers

GFAR’s Coordinator of the initiative on Forgotten Foods – Alessandro Meschinelli, responds to questions about ‘Participatory Innovation Development’ with excerpts from Rural Innovation Specialist and author, Laurens Van Veldhuizen.

Credit: FAO

Why should we promote farmer participation?

“Throughout the various new fashions that have shaped rural development programs over the past decades, increasing emphasis has been laid on the involvement of local people. Some advocates stress this is a means of making programs more effective and ensuring that activities continue after the programs have ended. There is more than that: the core of the development process is the increased control that people gain over shaping their own lives. This implies that development workers must get involved – i.e. participate – in the on-going development efforts of rural families and communities.” – Laurens Van Veldhuizen et al. Developing Technology with farmers, 1988.

Encouraging farmer-led innovation processes impacts the self-respect and confidence of the rural people. This impact provides overarching solutions that are more adapted to the life circumstances of the small holders by incorporating not only their needs but also their ideas, world views, ingenuity, and intimate knowledge of the local situation.

At GFAR we believe that participatory innovation development (PID) has a two-pronged objective:

  1. To set in motion a process of social change where the actors involved learn to interact in a novel way that brings benefits to all, especially the empowered farmers.
  2. To ensure that the jointly developed solutions are widely adoptable. The co-innovation process requires higher levels of acceptability, accessibility, and profitability of its outcomes.

What type of participation do we need?

In the research-managed on-farm trials (which can evolve into consultative researcher-managed on-farm trials) – farmers are consulted at the beginning of the process but trials do not incorporate their criteria on testing or evaluation. In this way, technologies are developed for farmers based on the researchers’ understanding of their farming systems.

In the collaborative participatory research, farmers and researchers work together throughout the entire process (from problem definition, choice of the methodologies, management and implementation of the trials, evaluation of results and dissemination of results).

At GFAR, the Collective Actions are characterized by an intense process of consultation which empowers all the actors to influence the decisions taken. Farmers and farmer organizations are placed at the center of all the analysis carried out which leads to jointly agreed upon action plans.

The research paradigm embraces the notion of collaborative research and can go as far as supporting the farmers’ full autonomy in developing innovations and key decisions.

Credit: Farshad Usyan/FAO

What are the differences in frame of reference between farmers and researchers/scientists?

“Scientists and farmers often use different frame of reference when thinking about experimentation. The scientists’ thinking is out of time, in that they have the luxury to run their experiments in controlled environments, even when conducting on-farm trials. By contrast, the farmers’ performances can only occur in time as they are embedded in particular agroecological and socio-cultural contexts which involve changing conditions to which farmers must make a series of rolling adjustments.” – Laurens van Veldhuizen, Farmers’ research in practice, lessons from the field, 1997.

For the farmers what counts is fitting available resources to changing circumstances well enough to make it through the growing season (Thompson and Scoones, 1994) while for scientists what counts is replication, comparison, and the capacity to frame a sound analysis, with rigorous data which can be used for publications.

Are there any similarities between the two knowledge systems?

The most critical skill needed to promote agricultural development is the ability to create interactive situations which combine rural people’s practical know how with the analytical skills of scientists.

There are many more features of each knowledge system that can be combined. The farmers’ holistic nature of knowledge and horizontal process of communication can be well matched with the more rigorous, formal organization of trials that characterizes researchers.

Furthermore, farmers and researchers can jointly define the core concepts, basic principles, key methods and performance indicators that guide their research.

What does a successful Participatory Innovation Development (PID) program look like?

“The success of PID programs cannot be proved merely by presenting outcomes such as a more appropriate variety, an improved method of soil conservation, a new agricultural tool or a new way of organizing inputs. It is not only the solving of a particular problem that matters. New problems will inevitably arise. A PID programme can be judged as successful only if the farmers have benefitted from their collaboration with outsiders in such a way that they are better able to handle these new concerns. A fundamental goal of PID is therefore to strengthen the capacity of farmers and their communities to innovate, to find or create solutions in various other situations than the particular situation in which the initial PID experience was gained.” – Laurens van Veldhuizen, Farmers’ research in practice, 1997.

What are the challenges to overcome?

  1. The main challenge participatory research faces is the research organizations’ divisions of labour, rules and norms which are seldom flexible enough to encourage relationships between the actors. Organizational participatory processes are hierarchical and prescriptive while we should aim for a more collaborative process with incentives for co-creation and not only for delivering results.
  • Another challenge relates to the skills and mindsets of the research and development support staff often trained to transfer technologies to/for farmers rather than co-generate those with them. A complete shift needs to happen where the farmer’s role changes to co-innovator and co – researcher.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for July is ‘Farmers at the center of innovation’.  

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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