Participant-Led Innovation for Sustainable Food Systems
This post was written by Julius Bright Ross (American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) fellow), Carl Wahl, Kristi Tabaj and Justin Mupeyiwa with USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA).
Like in many other semiarid regions around the globe, climate change is hitting Zimbabwe hard. Zimbabwean small-scale farmers have worked with limited water before, but as droughts increase in both frequency and severity, recurring crop loss is leaving people hungry. There are approaches to farming that prevent loss of healthy land while regenerating parched soils, but each country, each community and each farm have their own unique needs. We cannot assume the same solution will work for all farmers — even those that live next door to each other.
For instance, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the government promote a suite of conservation agriculture interventions (commonly termed “pfumvudza” in Zimbabwe) that combine basins, spot application of manure or fertilizer, mulching and timely weed control. However, each farmer’s soil management history, labor availability and supply of manure and other inputs will vary, meaning that what works for one may not work for another.
BHA is funding work that highlights a time-tested approach for honing solutions to the myriad local contexts: participant-led innovation. In Zimbabwe, in partnership with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), USAID’s Amalima Loko (Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA)) and Takunda (CARE) Resilience Food Security Activities are helping test mobile livestock enclosures (“kraals”). Mobile kraals might provide relatively low-labor and low-cost fertilization for farmers with livestock, and can be used in addition to or alongside other farming practices — including pfumvudza. This approach could potentially help Zimbabwean people feed themselves, their families and their communities without compromising the ability for future generations to do so.
These trials allow participants to build personalized toolkits to apply to their unique contexts. Hosting farmers demonstrate side-by-side comparisons on their fields between mobile kraaling alone, mobile kraaling with pfumvudza, pfumvudza alone, traditional manuring practices and an untreated control. Neighboring farmers then engage in a series of scheduled, participatory monitoring visits over the growing season where they make various observations on performance and local context, including crop growth, pest and disease incidences, and localized rainfall. Through this process, both hosting and neighboring farmers discerned very nuanced differences, allowing them to weigh and develop options that strike a balance between crop production and their individual contexts, such as number of cattle owned, ability to hire labor and capacity to afford fertilizers.
Ultimately, personalized approaches to rural livelihoods are only as good as the individual farmer’s understanding and adaptation of tools to suit their circumstances. In Masvingo Province, for example, CARE provided trainings to farmers on resilience design (RD). This approach was developed by Mercy Corps under the USAID-funded Strengthening Capacity in Agriculture Livelihoods and Environment (SCALE) Activity, and helps farmers better understand their farm design to optimize available resources.
On a recent visit in Masvingo’s Zaka District, one farmer showed off her extensive application of RD practices, crisscrossing her homestead and adjacent fields with rainwater harvesting soil structures, planting field crops and vegetables for both nutrition and income generation, and composting waste to improve her soil fertility. She reported a marked increase in the water level in her homestead’s shallow well, fewer insect pests in her family’s vegetable plot, and increased income from crops like pigeon peas that both diversify nutrition and stabilize soil.
Rural households are, ultimately, those responsible for producing and relying on sustainable food systems, and if given the right tools, can be the greatest innovation lab for their development. For instance, one RD trainee highlighted that ever since she installed a half-moon bund around her mango tree (a bigger tree than most would think to reinforce), the fruit it produced was sweeter. Finding ways to track successes — even unconventional ones — through distributed key informant networks could help others learn invaluable lessons from training programs for trial and use elsewhere.
Some outstanding challenges do persist in the arena of participant-led innovation:
- Trials need to be strictly unbiased. Participants should receive a suite of tools rather than a single “good” intervention so that farmers can make their own meaningful qualitative and quantitative choices — and to defend their practices to their peers.
- Some interventions are more difficult to measure at the timescale of an average USAID program, making comparative innovation harder. For example, it is much more difficult to evaluate several different agroforestry interventions over 12 months than it is to compare two varieties of maize seed. Finding and studying cases where communities have applied these practices successfully in the past may be necessary to model innovation for these longer-term activities.
Finally, there are underexplored opportunities for expanding these lessons to nonagricultural, rural livelihoods. Pastoralists, craftspeople, fisherfolk and harvesters all have innovation potential to contribute to the maintenance of sustainable food systems — we simply need to find out how to facilitate it.