Collaboration in learning at the farm level to achieve development goals
The vast majority of African smallholder farmers and resource poor pastoralists have very little surplus cash that they can invest in innovation. To the contrary they often mired in poverty traps in which they have to draw down on their natural and social capital to make ends meet, leaving little prospect of improving their livelihoods (UN Millennium Project 2005). Their production systems are mostly geared to producing food for home consumption rather than for sale, which compels them to be wary of risks and uncertainties.
These circumstances do not, however, make them financially irrational or inimical to change. The high cost of purchased food relative to the farm-gate price of farm produce makes home food production their best financial option. Their production systems involve sophisticated mixes of crops and livestock with intercropping patterns that are finely tuned to their food security needs and weather expectations. Evidently superior technologies that smallholders can afford are quickly adopted. For example, smallholder dairying, based on improved exotic crossbred cows produces 80% of Kenya's milk (Staal et al 2002). Other examples can be found in the tea, coffee and horticulture sub sectors. Pastoralists have likewise exhibited rapid responses to technical and market innovations such as the Infection and Treatment Method (ITM) for providing immunity to East Coast fever (Irvin 2002). This attribute has been exploited for the delivery of animal health interventions (Catley & Leyland 2001). Such examples demonstrate that knowledge-intensive innovations can help smallholders and pastoralists break out of the straightjackets imposed by severely limited land, labour and capital assets.
However, despite the evidence to the contrary, the entrepreneurial strengths of smallholders and pastoralists have in the past been under rated and largely untapped by research and development agencies, (Scoones & Wolmer 2006). This has been changing and it is now recognised that the end users should be essential participants in the design and implementation of research for their benefit (Selner 1997, Chambers, Pacey and Thrupp 1989). This change has created a need for better processes and tools for enabling mutual learning, especially in Africa.
This paper reviews the contexts for collaboration in learning at the farm level to achieve development goals and suggests ways of enabling mutual learning between change agents and end users. The term 'change agents' encompass all the actors in the agricultural value chains, e.g., suppliers, traders, researchers, extension agents etc. The end users of concern to this paper are African smallholders and pastoralists.
The prerequisite of openness and freedom in the exchange of information for innovation
Africa used to be a leading exporter of a number of products in which it now trails other developing regions such as coffee, palm oil, groundnuts, cotton. Africa also has deficits in basic foods such as rice (West Africa), sorghums and millets (Sahelian Africa); maize (eastern and southern Africa), cassava (humid Africa) (NEPAD 2004). The loss of global market-share and food security has happened despite a number of significant research breakthroughs (Haggblade 2004) because the research outputs have failed to scale out beyond limited 'islands of success'.
Some innovations, such as the cut flower industry in Kenya, have had huge impacts on employment and national economies. This has ironically highlighted both the potential and the failure of African agricultural innovation systems. Mary Opondo (2005) describes the Kenyan flower industry as "an island of success in a sea of failure".
The success of the flower industry is attributed to rapid sharing of technical and market information between European and African branches of well resourced companies engaged in cut flower production and trade (Bolo 2005). Meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) depends on emulating similar conditions across the board to enable innovation by the vast majority of agricultural producers, who are smallholders and pastoralists.
Most of the technologies and market opportunities that have resulted in islands of success stopped scaling-out at the limit of the reach of the project which sustained the original exchange of information and facilitated the adopter's learning. Clark (2001) points out that "increasing the knowledge base for economic production depends on factors such as the tacitness (non-codified) knowledge, the role of 'learning interactions amongst different techno-economic agents and associated networking arrangements, the non-linear properties of relevant knowledge flows, the significance of user/supplier contact, specially designed public policy regimes, and other factors which do not in and of themselves relate directly to components of the science/technology system as conventionally defined". The implication of this statement is that ways must be found to enable smallholders and pastoralists to engage more effectively in mutually learning with the other actors in the value chains, including research and extension services, development projects, private buying or selling entrepreneurs etc., who in one way or another affect their willingness and ability to innovate.
Information exchange and learning along agricultural value chains
There are many actors in African agriculture whose actions, or lack of action, impinge on the innovation capacity of other actors in the value chains. This puts a premium on understanding the composition and functions of the different actors before attempting to make an innovation system function better. This approach is illustrated by the steps taken by RATES (2003) for developing strategic actions to improve the value and volume of maize marketed in Malawi. This involved:
The study came up with a number of important recommendations for timely purchase of fertilizer and for moving quickly to sell surpluses. The message relevant to this paper is that successful implementation of almost every RATES (2003) recommendation required information exchanges between actors, for example on markets, quantities, qualities, prices, timing, location etc. It also required the actors to learn how to combine information from different sources, places and times into knowledge on which to base decisions that are appropriate the actors' own unique social, production and market contexts. To take advantage of market demands they must combine their own unique knowledge with new production and marketing knowledge. They must, for example, be enabled to learn where the markets are, what standards and regulation their products will have to meet, and how to organise themselves to have the right quantities at the right times.
Combining community and research-derived knowledge
Even apparently simple decisions require consideration of many factors. For decisions on the sale of maize, for example, farmers must know the quality and price of their products in different markets and at different times. They must also factor in their families' food and social needs such as brewing, their livestock feed requirements, their storage capacity and the shelf life of the grain in different types of stores.
With such factors in mind, Sumberg (2005) points out that formal research is only one amongst many sources of new knowledge or technology supporting innovation and it is not necessarily either the first or the most important input to the process of innovation. There is now greater awareness that high-impact innovations can come from community and private farmer experimentation, without the benefit of formal research or extension services (Reij & Waters-Bayer 2001). It is reasonable to hypothesise that there was much that the proponents of the community land and water management innovations reported on by Kaboré & Reij (2003) and ICRISAT scientists in Niger and Burkina Faso could have learnt from each other but there is little evidence of any exchange of information between them.
Such lack of interaction between formal researchers and the communities and individuals they serve greatly weakens African agricultural innovation systems and result in outcomes such as reported by Starkey's (1988) of the multiple failures in developing simple tool carriers, despite evident goodwill, great ingenuity and a lot of effort. Similar failures in communications and learning can be cited for almost all African agricultural value chains. Agricultural input manufacturers should be talking to rural shop keepers, who should be talking to researchers, who should be talking to the manufactures and so on, extending to and involving all the actors.
Many observers (Chambers et al 2001, Scoones & Wolmer 2006, Sumberg 2005) have stressed the need for genuine two-way interaction with the end users for successful research to benefit producers. Many volumes have been written on participatory research (Ashby 1997, Asbhy et al 1995, McGuire et al 1999) but, despite some successes, the basic problem remains that farmer and pastoral involvement in prioritising and implementing research and development agendas is too limited. Where it happens it is a significant step forward but it is still mostly utilised to advance externally determined agendas in, for example, plant breeding (Eyzaguirre & Iwanaga 1996) and natural resource management (Sutherland 1998).
However, to avoid creating islands of success the interactions between stakeholders must go on beyond the life of research projects. No innovation is permanent and unchanging. A new wonder variety once adopted will require the resolution of an endless series of production, harvesting storage, sales and processing problems until it eventually succumbs to emerging pests and diseases or is superseded by even better varieties.
Enabling lifelong learning in technology and marketing
There is no terminal objective for the exchange of information and learning. Farmers, just like scientists, continue to experiment and learn everyday of their lives because they live in constantly changing circumstances, especially in respect of available markets and technologies. The uncertainties include the weather which changes from year to year, season to season and day to day with each change having positive and negative consequences. The onset of rain, which is deemed a blessing, can bring on a flush of poisonous herbs before there is fresh green grass for livestock and the increased humidity favours internal and external animal parasites and plant weeds, pests and diseases. The smallholders need to know how to cope with these factors when their attention is required on tillage, planting and weeding.
In the past, the information that farmers got was determined by what others chose to pass down to them. They had little scope to be proactive in seeking the information or knowledge tools that they needed. Their interaction with the sources of knowledge was limited to instruction and advice passed on orally or in the media by public and private extension services and in-put and out-put market agents. However, in the complex circumstances depicted above, there is need for more knowledge than can be acquired from one-way information transfer systems such as pamphlets or radio broadcasts. Smallholders, in common with other innovators, must be able to cope with problems and opportunities as they arise in their own unique contexts and, for that, they must be able to pose questions to the appropriate sources of knowledge. To be able to give the right answers the sources of knowledge must likewise be able to learn from the end users about their unique contexts and aspirations.
Learning opportunities presented by new technologies and approaches
Radio Listening Groups with resident trained facilitators (Hafin & Hamblin-Odame 2002) were an attempt at promoting interactive learning but they were expensive and difficult to mount. Recent advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and information and communications management (ICM) have opened up a host of new possibilities for change agents to interact with the end users. There are now few villages out of reach of cell phones and in almost all cases there are persons there who can translate the lingua franca into the local vernacular. The Short Messaging Services (SMS) enables them to pass information upwards and to put questions to other actors in the value chains. Conway (2006) noted that to benefit from the extra production farmers will have to get fair prices for their produce but that will require overcoming a number of serious challenges including:
· Lack of market information;
Conway (2006) noted that there are a number of innovations that are being used to overcome these challenges. Amongst them are rural trading floors that are providing better information on prices and the quantities of goods on offer. He noted that the fast penetration of rural areas by cellular phone is opening up quicker access to market information for the rural poor. Other innovations include satellite radio systems which can be used to transmit sound and electronic data to anywhere. These and conventional broadcasts can be recorded on cheap MP3 players for playback at the audiences' convenience and questions arising can be sent by SMS to distant sources of knowledge.
Effective innovation systems require Information to flow freely amongst all actors in the value chains. Hence NEPAD, the African Development Bank and other agencies are committed to the massif investment in ICT infrastructure. NEPAD's e-Africa Commission was established in 2001, with the mandate to manage the structured development of the ICT sector on the African continent. The Commission is required to develop broad strategies and a comprehensive action plan for ICT infrastructure and its use for ICT applications (http://www.eafricacommission.org/). As an aid to agricultural research and development information must be tailored and timed to suit diverse audiences. This must be accompanied by learning tools that will enable the recipients of the information to convert the information into useful knowledge. To get this combination of appropriate information and well-matched learning tools will require institutional capacity building (Alluri, 2006). This is a priority of the FARA Regional Agricultural Information and Learning System (RAILS) working in collaboration with the sub-regional agricultural information systems such as ASARECA's Regional Agriculture Information Network (RAIN). More information can be found in the announcement of an African Platform for ARD 29 May 2006 www.isicad.org/fara.
Technology-Mediated Open Distance Education (Tech-MODE) could make important contributions to African rural development. Alluri (2006) noted that COL, FARA, CGIAR and many others are advocating the use of open, distance and technology mediated learning to increase access and improve the quality of education, extension and training, which is essential for advancing the more knowledge-intensive, market oriented agriculture that is emerging in Africa.
The FARA General Assembly (FARA 2006) concluded that the way forward was to:
· Develop open distance learning (ODL) and Tech-MODE policies;
Participants indicated that there are three main categories of communities that need to be reached by creating open and distance learning opportunities for agricultural education and development in sub-Saharan Africa:
The strategy for creating learning opportunities will include:
The main policy issue that has to be addressed is how to create financially and socially sustainable opportunities that will provide the learning needs of agricultural communities. Policy making in this area is a cross-sectoral issue for national governments and regional organisations to ensure the conditions for success in open distance learning, which is determined by:
· Enabling demand-driven community-centric approaches;
The success of innovation systems is correlated with the extent and openness with which the stakeholders across the whole value chain interact and exchange ideas and information. Smallholders and pastoralists have most knowledge of their own production systems and take the greatest risk in innovation yet they tend to be regarded as the recipients of knowledge rather than key actors in producing it. To take advantage of market demands they need to combine their unique knowledge with new knowledge on the potential marketable products. To do that they must be enabled to learn where the markets are, what standards and regulation they will have to meet, and how to organise themselves to have the right quantities at the right times. They must also be able to get answers to questions promptly when they arise, such as on the outbreak of disease or turns in the market. The need for exchange of knowledge extends both ways because the scientists and extension agents will serve the producers best when they can learn about the producers' problems and can build on their knowledge. Advances in ICT and distance learning methodologies are opening opportunities for joint learning with remote rural communities in previously unimaginable ways. Full advantage must be taken of them in collaborative efforts to advance learning at the farm level to achieve development goals
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