A man from the Sahel. Photo: Oxfam
A man from the Sahel.

Day 8: Frame new ideas within indigenous knowledge

18 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

Experts’ ideas about how resource-poor farmers could improve productivity ought to be guided by indigenous knowledge. Low-cost, micro-innovations that make use of local resources have great potential but are often overlooked by mainstream developers of agricultural technology.

By Dr. Florence Wambugu, CEO, Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International (AHBFI)

Although many people know me because of my frontline work in advocating for Africa’s right to Genetically Modified (GM) technology, many don’t know my early involvement in this technology was largely driven by the desire to increase agricultural productivity for resource-poor farmers. I remain true to my calling, but wiser to know that the GM technology is only one in the large arsenal of tools available to scientists and farmers. 

There is, of course, a place for conventional technologies, but what I really wish to explore in this article is how “expert ideas” targeted to resource poor farmers need to be framed within the indigenous knowledge of technology recipients.   

When HIV/AIDS robs a woman of her husband, does the widowed mother, now alone to take care of her seven children, have anything to contribute to her plight? Does the fact that she owns only one acre of land in Kenya’s arid and semi arid lands  make her a mere recipient of development interventions? Could her experiences with the myriad of challenges provide a solution to her problems?? 

“The mainstream drivers of agricultural R&D often fail to incorporate home-grown ideas and innovations into their interventions.”

Sadly, the mainstream drivers of agricultural R&D often fail to incorporate home-grown ideas and innovations into their interventions. Forced by years of limited success, development players are now searching for how best to tap farmers’ indigenous knowledge and innovations. 

A case in point is a project funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and implemented by Africa Harvest. The Food Security and Ecosystem Management for Sustainable Livelihoods in Arid and Semi Arid Lands of Kenya (FOSEMS) Project, demonstrates how to unlock value by tapping indigenous ideas and innovations. 

The project takes an integrated approach to food security, ecosystem management and sustainable livelihoods using five components: traditional food crops, horticultural crops, soil fertility management, water (conservation, harvesting and management) and short-cycle livestock. 

The project location represents the poorest of the poor in the harsh arid and semi-arid environment of Makueni District and Central Kitui of the Eastern Province of Kenya. The communities depend on agriculture or agro-pastoralism for their livelihoods; they include subsistence farmers, traditional crop processors, livestock farmers, HIV/AIDS affected households, unemployed rural people and farm produce dealers.   

“While not applying advanced systems of agricultural production, they managed to increase their incomes by making small improvements with few resources.”

At project inception, we were very conscious that among target resource-poor farmers, there existed indigenous knowledge and innovation. We were therefore on the lookout for farmers doing novel things to mitigate the challenges they faced.  

Our staff (a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, sociologists, economists and field workers) joined hands with local communities and other stakeholders and pursued an approach we call farmer-first-and-last (FFL) and it has proven more effective than the often used alternative, the technology transfer (TT) model.  

We started with a systematic process of understanding the conditions of farmers, and in consultation with famer leaders developed home-grown adaptable solutions to resolve the challenges people faced. . 

“Farmers are innovators who generate agricultural practices which are very well adapted to the prevailing conditions.”

These included unfavourable soil conditions, erratic rainfall patterns, low literacy levels, unstable market prices of inputs and final produce, and limited access to insurance and credit markets. While, some do own the land on which they farm, they lack productive assets acceptable as collateral. Research generally agrees that these farmers will be disproportionately affected by climatic changes and that trade reforms are not sufficient to reduce poverty among them.  

These farmers are experimenters and innovators who generate their own agricultural practices which are very well adapted to the prevailing agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions. While not applying advanced systems of agricultural production, they managed to increase their incomes by making small improvements with few resources, expanding their resource base by building upon local knowledge. 

Some of the farmer “innovations” included growing of dry land cereals and legumes and also keeping short-cycle livestock to address food deficiency in local diets and income generation from marketing the surplus in the nearby shopping centres. 

Farmers proposed the upgrading of their indigenous goats and chickens to improve their breeds for milk and egg production. Their explanation was that goats and chickens were more resilient to drought and climatic changes; their meat and eggs are a source of protein to improve human diet; goat droppings boost the fertility of gardens; and their sale provides much needed income for school fees, medical costs and farm inputs. 

“It’s impossible to achieve success alone.”

Farmers received an improved variety of chicks which resulted in increased egg production. One of the indigenous innovations was the farmers decision to assign one of the mother hens to tend to the chicks of several mother hens; this released others hens used in brooding to resume egg production at the earliest opportunity. 

During the baseline survey, women farmers identified water for domestic use as the highest priority and suggested sand dams could retain water throughout the year. Three  sand dams across Muini River in Mulala, Kamunyii in Wote both in Makueni County and Yethi River in Kitui were constructed and completed. 

The community shares and manages this resource to ensure equity and sustainability.  Innovative funding mechanisms would probably attract the private sector to play a greater role in the search for greater engineering innovation in building dams and providing domestic water.  

A key lesson was that farmers must be involved in the search for solutions to their problems. Our farmers’ idea of planting sorghum, which is a naturally drought-resistant grain crop allowed them to use a traditional innovation taking advantage of the minimal precipitation that occurs during the short rain season, thereby affording them a second harvest. 

It’s impossible to achieve success alone. With help from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Home Economics Department, farmers became more innovative in making new recipes of tasty meals from sorghum grains. Younger farmers fed their surplus sorghum grain to the improved chickens and then sold eggs instead. The sorghum residue was also used as manure to fertilise the soil and as a fodder bank for consumption by livestock during the dry season.

“Tapping into the creativity and perseverance of poor farmers should be an integral aspect of project design, not an after-thought.”

You cannot underestimate the importance of building local capacity—nor the time it takes. A major contribution of Africa Harvest in the project was training, capacity building, skills transfer, especially in good agronomic practices, and information dissemination to farmers along the whole value chain. 

The disadvantaged in society could be key drivers of development. Africa Harvest tapped into persons living with HIV/AIDS, youth, widows, orphans and men and women undergoing alcohol abuse rehabilitation. Appreciating and working with the disadvantaged helped to demonstrate in the fastest way that our interventions worked. This attracted other community members. The project also provides conclusive evidence that local knowledge can be built upon to successively stimulate and upscale processes of innovation, with one new idea spawning the next. 

The integrated-approach to development can positively impact many aspects of community life. Tapping into the creativity and perseverance of African’s resource-poor farmers should be an integral aspect of project design, not an after-thought.

Development partners could also emulate the example of IFAD by allowing some flexibility in project implementation while achieving project targets, encouraging farmers’ innovations and allowing project promoters to focus on solving the problems facing the farmers, while still focusing on food security, income generation and sustainability.

“Most innovators lack confidence and the means to make their ideas more widely known.”   

For R&D organizations, the key lessons are that farmers and scientists are partners in development. For the FOSEM project, the two groups worked together to come up with a legume for nutrition and soil fertility: high-yielding dual-purpose cowpea from certified seeds whose tender leaves serve as a vegetable for human consumption, while the mature leaves form an important ingredient in chicken feed and the seeds provide a rich source of protein. Cowpea fixes atmospheric nitrogen and enhances soil fertility. Its residue is also used to feed goats and provide manure for the soil. 

Overall, such micro-innovations bring improvements that tend to be low-cost, and because they primarily make use of local resources. These innovations are often overlooked by mainstream developers of agricultural technology.  These innovations have good potential for dissemination and sustainability. Sadly, most of the innovators lack confidence and the means to make their ideas more widely known.     

Download: Frame new ideas within indigenous knowledge


Farmers, technology and the rules of the relationship

Yesterday's discussions grappled with some of the realities of achieving greater freedoms for farmers - how could such freedoms actually be attained, and how would farmers and other actors reorient themselves if, and when, such changes came about. Today we will discuss about the value of technology and farmers knowledge and innovation.

The use of farmer knowledge and innovation can refer to applied solutions that look both to the past and to the future. Despite the model of partnership held up by Wambugu, do scientists and small farmers always make for good partners? Who will define the rules of the relationship? Prakash-Mani acknowledges the cost of new technology and the risk inherent in innovation as significant barriers. Will her recommendations for private sector and government investments be achievable or realistic in the current and future economic climate? What do you think?

How to scale-up?

It sounds like Africa Harvest have had some great successes. Given that micro-innovations of the type described have such potential, how do we begin to address the twin blockages identified? First, how can they be brought to the attention of mainstream developers of agricultural technology, so they can be roled-out at scale? Or would the very act of doing this undermine the particualar benefits of micro-innovation? Second, how can the innovators that lack confidence and the means to make their ideas more widely known be bestowed with such assets?

indigenous knowledge and new ideas

Indigenous knowledge


“Framing new ideas within indigenous knowledge” is another way to describe agricultural development. To become effective, several conditions have to be met, of which I like mentioning two:

1) The social and the natural environment should not be already too degraded. Social degradation leads to decrease of knowledge and experience, making it difficult to graft new ideas, and the degradation of natural resources makes it increasingly difficult to obtain yield effect that are high enough and not too expensive.

2) The new ideas should have effects strong enough for the required extra investments and/or labor. Poor smallholder farmers can often not live from their land alone; they are always searching for other sources of income. The choice to “invest” in a new idea implies that less time or means are available for alternative sources of income.


Personally, I have difficulties to imagine that farmers will be very interested in “a legume for nutrition and soil fertility: high-yielding dual-purpose cowpea from certified seeds whose tender leaves serve as a vegetable for human consumption, while the mature leaves form an important ingredient in chicken feed and the seeds provide a rich source of protein”. Such multipurpose species serve each of 5 mentioned purposes only a little bit. Without using phosphate fertilizer, the biological N-fixation will be at maximum some 10s of kg/ha. And when all above ground biomass is used as human and animal feed, it is well possible that fields have a negative N-balance. Wait what will happen with the cowpea variety once the project stops.


The introduction of phosphate-fertilizer is, however, a new idea that may provoke a lot of farmers’ interest. The reinforcement of local knowledge and natural processes has a good chance to lead to yield and income effects that enable farmers to focus more on farming.  

Introduction of phosphate-fertilizer to smallholder farmers

Kindly note the project does not by any means discourage the use of phophate-fertilizer on any crops, where it can increase productivity and indeed, goes all the way to demostrate the value and added benefits of using fertilizer as another key option for farmers to peak. However for fertilizer uptake to be sustainable, the small holder farmers must see the value in total context of their farm business, based on their experience. In most cases despite the demostrated increase in productivity the farmer might not apply fertizer, unless they are focusing on market and income generation, and actual market is a sure and cost benefit figure show he or she will make money out of fertizer application. In this regard cowpea could be considered less of a risk for food and nutrition security, because it can still perform by fixing the atmospheric nitrogen which is free, as compared to taking credit to purchase fertilizer and with unpredictable whether patterns, increase the risk on credit non payment. In summary, the adoption and sustainability of any innovation or technology with farmers outside the important home consumption market, will  depend on value chain partners (agro dealers,credit providers, traders, buyers etc.) making contributions as they also gain value out of the network, and also farmers ability to manage perceived risks, and exploit creative opportunities, most of which outsiders cannot see or understand because they are based on indegenous knowledge. 

Solidarity of community and flexibility of policymakers/actors

Very encouraging experience for us; particularly for us  in Bangladesh who are living with a huge population to feed, facing multifacet challenges of climatic change, often encountering a mismatch between the interest of farmers' interest and priorities and way of doing things of the policymakers/developmen partners.

Some valuable learning can be derived from the experience of AH and its FOSEMS project and adapted in the agro sector impacted by climatic changes. Whole process and experience of AH described and analytical understanding presented here may lead practioners in other countries meaningfully. However, "ffexibility in project implementatioon whle acheving project targets" would be a major elements to support the innovation of farmers; which generally development partners and national policymakers are reluctant to extend. Along with this "flexibility" a mechanism of solidarity in agro-economy--from community support to innovation to inclusion to marketing and so on can be useful.

fertilizer usage

Thank you very much for the informative article.We need to cvhange the life of the small farmer so that they can do farming like any other business.

Thank you Dr.Florence for your commitment to the eradication of poverty in Africa.

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