Africa's visionary farmers
"We want to have a developed village with at least a car," beams a middle-aged man, drawing cheers from fellow men congregated in the village social hall-cum-church. The women differ, chiding the men to set their eyes on more realistic goals - bicycles. An elderly woman envisions a full granary that will considerably shorten the "hunger months", when crops fail due to poor rains. Others talk of sending their children to school and cementing the earthen floors of their pigsties.
The farmers, from Katundulu and Gwire villages in central Malawi, are reviewing their five-year plans. In so doing, they are following an approach that is currently gaining recognition across Africa, from Malawi and Mozambique to Rwanda, Ghana and Burkina Faso, known as Enabling Rural Innovation (ERI).
Developed by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in partnership with NGOs and national agricultural research and extension agencies in seven African countries, the ERI model goes beyond getting farmers to identify their problems. Using a visioning process, the model enables people to identify where they would like to be in five years. It helps them anticipate challenges they are likely to encounter in pursuit of their goals, and how to overcome them, for example by seeking information from researchers and extension agents. It also focuses on helping people to recognise their assets, whether natural, human, social, physical, or financial, and how these can be effectively deployed to achieve their aspirations.
Seeing more clearly
By equipping farmers with essential skills, such as organisation, planning and leadership, the ERI model empowers subsistence farmers to understand their priorities, be they new market opportunities, better prices or the need to develop strategies for mitigating drought or flooding. "In many circumstances, middlemen and other third parties tell farmers to produce certain commodities because 'there is a market'," says Dr Jemimah Njuki, a CIAT researcher. "Yet, our studies show the outcomes are often not beneficial, with farmers ending up over-producing commodities that do not match market attributes, or that remain uncollected and go to waste if the middlemen do not return."
In contrast, the ERI model recognises that African farmers need to organise into groups, pooling their produce in order to secure supply contracts, thereby breaking out of the subsistence farming poverty circle. Farmer associations provide a stronger voice and greater bargaining power in negotiating prices, and empower farmers to develop leadership and management skills. They also create a pool of skills and make it possible to share responsibility for various activities required for success.
For example, farmer groups implementing ERI have a research committee that seeks and tests new methods of crop improvement, soil management and resource use on behalf of other farmers, before technologies are widely adopted. The group also has a market research committee which visits local markets and other potential outlets such as hotels, industrial manufacturers and exporters; the committee's roles include finding new markets and negotiating better prices. A monitoring and evaluation committee ensures that group action plans are implemented on schedule, and that lessons learnt are used to adjust plans.
Adoption and refinement
The ERI model has gained rapid popularity with governments and development partners. For example, Tanzania has established an Agriculture Marketing Systems Development Programme currently implemented in 36 districts of the country as a means of achieving community empowerment, rural innovation and dissemination of new technologies. Malawi is making similar efforts through a consortium of NGOs called I-LIFE, which to date has taken the approach to seven districts. The World Bank too is supporting adoption of ERI in Rwanda's Rural Sector Support Project in a bid to strengthen the capacity of private agricultural service delivery.
While optimistic about ERI's potential, researchers are striving to simplify it, as well as resolve its requirement for a high number of trained facilitators. CIAT is currently in discussions with institutions of higher learning, such as Kenyatta University and the University of Zimbabwe, to evolve programmes or curricula that incorporate and teach agriculture graduates skills to engage with farmers.
"We see this as an approach that will enable research and extension services to be more demand-driven and responsive to the needs of smallholder farmers. Participatory methods, while useful in recognising the role and knowledge of farmers, must embrace more empowering approaches where farmers define and drive the research agenda for improved farm productivity and poverty alleviation", emphasises Dr Susan Kaaria, CIAT's ERI Programme Leader.
Written by: Catherine Mgendi
Date published: July 2007
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