March 8, 2012

Agricultural Research for Farmers’ Priorities

Daniel Bornstein

The agricultural research agenda must reflect farmers’ priorities if they are to benefit from landscape approaches. Research investments work toward improving the productivity of indigenous crops valuable to farmers’ nutrition and livelihood objectives—a much-needed departure from the longstanding emphasis on globally-traded commodity crops. One promising development in this direction is that smallholder farmers hold positions on the board of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).

“Farmers have been able to initiate a lot of reforms,” said Philip Kikiro, the farmers’ representative on the ASARECA board and the President of the Eastern Africa Farmers’ Federation. “We’ve been able to get researchers to expand their insights to capture orphan crops that are very important for small farmers—millet, sorghum, cassava.”

Yet, as Kiriro noted, there is a pressing need throughout Africa for agricultural extension workers who can disseminate research to farmers. This shortage is largely the outcome of structural adjustment programs during the 1980’s, implemented by international financial institutions and designed to roll back public investment in the economy. It had the effect of eroding human capacity in state institutions, and the knowledge-intensity of agriculture rendered the sector particularly vulnerable.

“When governments implemented structural adjustment programs, they were asked to reduce the number of workers,” Kiriro said. “The first ministry to initiate retrenchment was agriculture. A lot of extension workers were laid off.”

Agricultural extension’s value lies not only in dissemination but in laying the foundation for farmers’ voices to have greater influence in the research agenda. For example, according to Kiriro, the farmer-to-farmer model facilitated by extension agents has ultimately led ASARECA to create mechanisms for collecting farmers’ knowledge and scaling-up best practices.

At the national level, farmers’ knowledge is critical to guiding multi-stakeholder approaches to agriculture. Through Kenya’s Agriculture Sector Coordination Unit, farmers are able to mobilize civil society and the private sector in support of their food security and livelihood objectives, Kiriro noted.

Prioritizing farmers’ goals in the research process requires effective forms of organization. In Mali, the International Institute for Environment and Development has worked with “citizens’ juries,” which provide a forum for farmers to devise recommendations for research initiatives. Farmers overwhelmingly called for investments to increase productivity of locally-important, rather than globally-traded, crop varieties. The idea is not only that research should respond to farmers’ needs, but that farmers must have a role in defining the agenda

Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT.

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