Farmer field trials as ‘musical’ hubs for knowledge exchange and cooperation

Blog contributed by Bela Teeken, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

One of the propositions of my thesis was:
If performing a scientific field trial together with farmers bears more resemblance to the performance of a good piece of music than one would think possible, it can be a good way to overcome the institutional gap between agricultural extension and farmers.

What do I mean by this?

Many debates within agricultural development tackle the issue of how to synchronize the strategies and technologies produced by agricultural research for development institutes – such as improved crop varieties – with the complex socio and ecological contexts that exist in many countries.

Here we find many complications, as local contexts and societies rapidly change and crop preferences can vary from place to place and over small distances. This naturally calls for the integration of the natural and social sciences.

Discussing farmer field trials in Nigeria. Photo B.Teeken/IITA

When it comes to seeds for crops, perhaps more important is the recognition of local varieties and their history. They are often the result of long trajectories of farmer seed development and selection according to farmers’ needs. For example, research on farmer varieties of rice have shown that farmers in West Africa have developed a new type of rice parallel to scientific breeding, and these varieties are robust and able to perform under many sub optimal conditions. Many times local needs for robustness and other quality traits have been materialized in the local crops that are used. By setting up trials with local farmers in their fields and evaluating local varieties along with new improved material, a more tacit evaluation of crop varieties can be achieved.

By letting many farmers in many different contexts evaluate varieties side by side, we do not have to depend so much on the preferences that farmers express verbally through interviews or questionnaires, but on actual evaluation in the field and during processing. This also allows us to tap into the rich knowledge of farmers who are not verbally strong, but who we know are dedicated and serious and very knowledgeable about their work.

By focusing on only the verbally strong farmers we not only miss the opportunity to tap into more tacit knowledge, but also exclude more vulnerable farmers who often rely on agriculture in a very different way than those who are more familiar with modern ways of farming or that are more talkative or literate. So from an equity perspective, we are missing out on different modes of production and processing of food crops.

If we make sure that several social groups are included in field trial experiments, we can build up cooperation with different people for which agriculture and the crops they derive from it are managed differently.

Along with helping communities to identify the best variety for their needs and local context, this approach can also determine entry points for dissemination and agribusiness strategies and can help to tailor these strategies for both farmers who already have capacity to develop their business, and those who are more marginalized.

Let’s return now to my proposition. Including local material based on the recognition of these varieties as resulting from long trajectories of farmer selection, and not just as a local reference provides farmers with recognition of their work and positions them as equal partners in the trial setup. Likewise, a musician involves the listener in a musical performance: trying to communicate with and please the audience in a symmetric way, trying to create a sound structure in which the listener can feel his or her own experiences revived and (re)formulated.

And just like in good music, one creates an actual location and medium for dialogue and cooperation that not only includes verbal conversation, but also an unassigned social performance in which one allows for a bodily and informal interaction.

I am currently coordinating and setting up such participatory field trials for cassava within two states in Nigeria to access the more tacit knowledge of social groups and to discover their possibilities, aspirations and restrictions as well as the different tools and labor sources they use to turn their cassava into marketable and edible products of quality. This work is part of RTB’s broader effort to improve livelihoods at scale by developing and disseminating suitable solutions to farmers with eye for equity including gender differences.

For more information, see the recent webinar I participated in for the CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative on ‘Product profiling and gender in cassava breeding: An integrated approach’.

Of equal relevance is the webinar in the same series given by Eva Weltzien and Krista Isaacs on participatory breeding successes of varieties of sorghum in Mali.