Transforming Agriculture through Farmer-Centred Innovation

24 June 2009

Farmers, Malawi24 June 2009

Talking Farmer-Centred Innovation at the Science Forum 2009

On 16 June 2009, IDS Research Fellow Dr John Thompson and a distinguished panel of experts officially launched two new books that emphasise the importance of putting farmers at the centre of agricultural innovation and development: Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development and Innovation Africa: Enriching Farmers’ Livelihoods.

The launch took place at the Science Forum 2009 in The Netherlands. Given the Forum’s emphasis on making agricultural science, technology and innovation work for development, it provided the ideal location to highlight new lessons from the two books.

Panellists included Dr Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, Professor Niels Röling, Emeritus Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen UR, Ms Chesha Wettasinha, Agriculturalist, EcoCulture, ETC Foundation. It was chaired by Dr Hansjörg Neun, Director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU.

Opportunities for transforming agriculture

The panellists observed that 2009 presents some real opportunities for transforming agriculture and really putting farmers in the driving seat of change: 

• The global food crisis has concentrated minds on the precarious state of the world’s food system and pushed agriculture to the top of the international agenda.

• Recent milestone publications and initiatives, including the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008 and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), have helped to revitalise the debate on the importance of agricultural science and technology, and have emphasised the central role of small farmers in driving agricultural-led growth and development.

• The new CGIAR Change Management Initiative opens up possibilities for redefining the priorities of the international agricultural research system so that they focus on the right questions and are driven by the development needs of poor producers and consumers. A key part of this process will involve the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) in Montpellier, France, in March 2010.

• Interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New and substantial funding in agriculture research for development from the Gates Foundation has sparked interest among the global donor community. In particular, their support of AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – opens up major opportunities (and challenges) in the world’s poorest region.

The panel members noted that a big question remains whether these efforts will result in the sort of vision of agricultural research and development that the Farmer First movement has been arguing for over two decades. There are dangers in the seemingly inevitable rush to find quick solutions and silver bullets. We have been here before. Have the lessons been learned from the limitations of earlier Green Revolutions, and the limits of a technical or market fix to complex agricultural development problems?

Yet, as the panellists noted, things need not start from a blank slate and there is plenty of experience to build on. The dozens of contributors to both Farmer First Revisited and Innovation Africa showed that much progress has been made to foster farmer-centred innovation for development.

Supporting farmer-centred innovation

Drawing from both books, the panel members highlighted four key areas that must be addressed to make farmer-centred innovation work for development:

• The need to move from an exclusive focus on farmers, farms and technologies to broader innovation systems – markets, institutions, politics and policies really matter, too. This requires new skills, new partnerships and new institutional configurations – largely absent in most agricultural research and development systems. Moreover, while new science and technology is important, it is not the only – and maybe not the most important – part of the puzzle.

• The need to revamp agricultural education systems for a new era. Stuck in the 1960s or 70s, most curricula do not address the challenges of today. Methodologies that recast the way we do research, appraisal or monitoring and evaluation are well known, tried and tested, but not yet centrally part of the curriculum. Educating new professionals in new ways of thinking and doing is vital, if Farmer First approaches are to move from the margins to the mainstream.

• The need to overhaul incentive and reward systems to put farmers first and promote ‘participatory innovation systems’. Instead of the standard metrics of research publication outputs, research that puts farmers first and meets farmers’ needs should be valued and appreciated. Career and promotion pathways for scientists who learn from and with farmers, and develop new technologies or practices in a participatory way should be the ones who gain the accolades – and get the core funding.

• The need to put ‘a politics of demand’ at the centre of a new set of accountability mechanisms for research and development. This requires building capacity and voice for farmer organisations so they can exert pressure and demand for appropriate research and other services. But it also means having more responsive delivery organisations. In a re-imagined CGIAR, for example, surely farmers’ organisations should dominate the Board, the priority setting committees and the monitoring and evaluation panels?