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Opinion: Achieving solutions with farmers isn’t radical: why is it so hard?

Kenny Wefarm CEO
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Kenny Ewan, CEO of Wefarm

A stranger enters the room, from another world, and tells a long-time team to do things differently.

The chances of a great outcome, based on human psychology, are not great.

Most of us are used to the way we do things, and only sometimes dying for a chance to change. We also prefer to hear insights about change from those we trust to understand our own challenges, which is something we don’t expect of outsiders.

If that same stranger then arrives with an external, one-size-fits-all ‘solution’, that doesn’t reflect our values, norms, and local constraints, the chances of any business transformation are slim indeed.

Yet, in agriculture, smallholders enjoy the frequent arrival of such outsiders, with big and radical ‘solutions’, flown in from outside and presented, rather than based on local relevance and circumstances.

It’s a modus operandi of top-down reform: “we come up with an answer to problems based on our world’s norms and tell you what to do.”

Yet farmers know best about farming, and decades of failures and stunted progress should have long-since served to change the way reformers work in recognizing that fact.

But as NGOs engage continent-wide with the millions of smallholders on whom Africa’s fortunes and future rely, the process of resolving smallholders’ issues based on existing parameters has not been a driving force.

But it needs to be.

Instead, the world of agricultural transformation is dominated by jargon. Addressing a smallholder problem is called an ‘intervention’. And ‘interventions’ are based on ‘big picture’ theory and poverty reduction targets that generate ‘solutions’ that are built and helicoptered in from outside.

However, the truth is that this top-down approach to agrarian reform goes against human nature, and defies real and present issues for individual farmers, relying instead on assumptions and theory.

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Argues British academic and development scholar Robert Chambers, the result has been that initiatives implemented by the international research and development community simply do not benefit the poor farmer.

“This is because the conditions that poor farmers operate within puts limits on the extent to which they can benefit from the initiatives,” Chambers observes in his book Whose reality counts?

In South Africa, a classic example was a top-down program called the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (AsgiSA) implemented countrywide by the Independent Development Trust NGO, which failed miserably in seeking to effect reforms that were anathema to local farmers.

The ‘big idea’ was to improve farmers’ market and farm input access by moving in to govern and run all the farmers in a village and then sell the combined produce on their behalf – reinvesting 90 per cent of the profits for next year’s planting, and sharing 10 per cent among the farmers.

But as the NGO set about managing whole villages’ production as a single operation from merged fields, it simultaneously set aside farmer participation in decision-making. Not surprisingly, the farmers resisted merging their fields as well as the loss of autonomy and flexibility in their land use, and the program failed.

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Strangely enough, the farmers just didn’t want to be ‘governed’ by this presented organization.

Yet this ‘move in and manage’ approach remains typical of agricultural reformers’ engagements in Africa, with NGOs frequently failing to consult and engage farmers at the program development stage in order to build solutions that are dovetailed to their local realities.

By stark contrast, a ‘farmers first’ approach, also known as bottom-up, has been shown to deliver completely different outcomes.

These initiatives see organizations working hand-in-hand with farmers on the ground, consulting them first, to identify their unique challenges, then developing solutions with them to resolve these specific and local issues. With this participatory approach, farmers drive the process through hands-on involvement in the planning, financing, implementation and maintenance of the programs.

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Though not yet widespread in Africa, the concept has been proven to work in the US and in India, as well as in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

In IOWA, US for instance, the Practical Farmers of IOWA (PFI) organization, engages farmers to define what research they need done. PFI then partners with scientists to undertake studies where the farmers and the researchers contribute resources, such as time and land. The farmers drive the research agenda, and are thus committed to it.

In Zimbabwe, the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG)/German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) Chivi Food Security Project was initiated in response to chronic food insecurity in pockets of semi-arid areas.

The project began by looking at the constraints on household food security.  The farmers were involved in identifying solutions, planning, and the creation of action plans, which spanned the roll out of soil and water conservation technologies.

Farmers then selected and tried the practices they preferred. They also met to discuss the results and any problems encountered, and to suggest possible solutions among themselves.

The level of change saw farmers who were originally very poor farmers eventually moving to buy their own cattle.

It is, therefore, essential that agricultural interventions use such practical and workable approaches.

Indeed, with this year’s Africa Green Revolution Forum, themed Lead, Measure, Grow: Enabling new pathways to turn smallholder farmers into sustainable agribusiness, now underway in Kigali, Rwanda, ‘farmers first’ should be top of the agenda, as a necessity.

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