Farmers are themselves avid experimenters. Researchers are increasingly recognizing the value of helping farmers share their best innovations among themselves. The spread of zaï technology from Burkina Faso to Niger is a striking example of how farmer-to-farmer sharing can produce major impact.
Two projects known as Indigenous Soil and Water Conservation (ISWC) and Promoting Farmer Innovation in Rainfed Agriculture (PFI) have been capitalizing on this opportunity since 1997 (Reij and Waters-Bayer 2001). They involve eight African countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe). Since this approach builds on existing knowledge, it delivers high 'bang for the buck' - the cost is low, ranging from $20,000-$60,000 per country per year, excluding external technical support.
Innovative farmers were identified in each country through the participatory rural appraisal approach. Exchange visits and study tours were then arranged so these innovators could learn from each other. When they returned home, they were encouraged to share what they had learned with their neighbors, through community meetings and family networks.
The innovators generally did not need much encouragement; they were enthusiastic to share. In Kenya, after less than three years, more than 4,400 farmers (nearly 60% of them women) had visited an average of three innovators each (UNSO 2001). More than 50% of them found the innovations compelling enough to try them on their own farms (Reij and Steeds 2003).
This new method requires new thinking by development agencies. Research and development staff in Tunisia, for example initially expressed discomfort with the model, which on first impression seemed to disempower them as authorities. However they became enthusiastic proponents as they saw how well it worked (IFAD 2002; Nasr et al. 2001).
There is much to be gained by encouraging farmers and researchers to discover synergies between farmers' local knowledge and the scientific discoveries emerging from formal institutional research.
Return to "Dryland success stories"
IFAD 2002. Evaluation du projet de développement rural dans l'arrondissement d'Aguie (PDRAA). Rapport de synthèse. Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Nasr, N., Hdaidi, E.A. and Ben Ayed, A. 2001. A bridge between local innovation, development and research: the regional radio of Gafsa, Tunisia. Pp. 293 - 299 in Reij, C. and Waters-Bayer, A. 2001. Farmer Innovation in Africa. London:Earthscan.
Reij, C. and Waters-Bayer, A. 2001. Farmer Innovation in Africa: a source of inspiration for agricultural development. London: Earthscan. 362 p.
Reij, C. and Steeds, D. 2003. Success stories in Africa's drylands: supporting advocates and answering skeptics. Rome: Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.
UNSO (2001). Fighting poverty through harnessing local environmental knowledge. Nairobi, PFI Final Report.