Agriculture needs better innovation, not technology

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Pilot projects in India and Nigeria point to possible benefits of a new approach to agricultural innovation, say Andy Hall and Susanna Thorp.

We live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. So why does technical change in agriculture continue to be slow and patchy?

One possible explanation is that the importance of farmers’ capacity to access and use information for innovation has been overshadowed by the conventional view that change is driven primarily by new technology and farmer-led technical improvements.

Similarly, insufficient attention may have been given to the fact that the capacity for innovation in agriculture is influenced not only by farmers’ skills and resources, but also by the wider network of links and relationships in which farmers are embedded, which help ideas to diffuse and find new uses.

These hypotheses are currently being tested by a research project in India and Nigeria on the long-standing problem of fodder scarcity, using what is widely referred to as an ‘innovation systems’ perspective.

Rather than focus directly on new fodder technologies — such as new varieties, fodder banks or alternative cropping patterns — the five pilot projects that make up the Fodder Innovation Project (FIP) concentrate on strengthening networks and changing working practices.

Emerging lessons

The project is still in its early stages. But some interesting lessons are already beginning to emerge. One is that although mapping links between livestock-related players can quickly identify missing or weak connections, establishing or strengthening them requires more than just setting up a committee to talk about collective action. Practical collaboration on concrete activities is essential.

In India, for example, the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), FIP’s partner in Rajasthan, began by consulting livestock-related players on how they could work together. But real collaboration only started when representatives of veterinary services and dairies from both the public and private sectors were invited to cattle health ‘camps’ in villages in which FES was working.

Another Indian example of the way that developments can proceed in unexpected directions is provided by a pilot project in Puducherry. This started by experimenting with small-scale fodder enterprises. But it soon discovered that milk prices were a more important bottleneck than fodder scarcity, as they were too low to make it worthwhile buying fodder. The work has now shifted to tackling milk pricing directly.

In Nigeria, FIP has led to a new and, for Nigeria, novel partnership on research into the surveillance of livestock disease between an NGO the Justice and Peace Commission (JDPC) and the Nigerian Veterinary Research Institute. Another FIP partner in Nigeria established links that helped ensure the rapid reporting of an outbreak of animal disease, and in implementing a vaccination programme to prevent its spread.

Even dealing with fodder scarcity doesn’t necessarily mean starting with fodder itself, or with fodder technology. In Kano, Nigeria, for example, FIP has been helping farmers create co-operatives and access credit, both of which are providing them with incentives to invest in fodder seed and production.

A flexible approach

There is clearly no one way to facilitate change in agricultural practices. Each situation is unique, and the key is not to work with a fixed set of players, but to be able to respond flexibly to challenges and opportunities as they emerge.

In each of the locations in which FIP is carrying out its work, government organisations, research institutes, and private sector players — such as dairy co-operatives — either have a mandate to improve farmers’ livelihoods, or need to provide help to farmers as part of their business model.

As experience in both India and Nigeria has demonstrated, boosting agricultural innovation by getting these actors to network effectively requires a local champion to build interest and encourage interaction.

So far, the demand for technical research expertise at each project site has been fairly limited. But as the capacity for change is strengthened, and as livestock production systems are upgraded, there is likely to be an increased demand for knowledge, including from livestock research organisations. When this happens, livestock research will be drawn into these largely developmental activities, and thus become an integrated part of the capacity for technical change and innovation.

These promising early experiences with fodder innovation resonate with other experiences based on innovation systems’ thinking, such as the sub-Saharan Africa challenge programme being run by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, and the UK Department for International Development’s Research Into Use programme. Both of these programmes have learnt the hard way that an innovation systems perspective is not a quick fix, but both have also seen that strengthening networks lays the foundations for innovation.

Strengthening innovation capacity cannot be done overnight; it involves readjusting the roles and working practices of many organisations — a task that is messy, unpredictable, iterative and time-consuming.

But the results can add enormous value to both research and development practice, particularly if the two are well integrated. This itself presents a challenge, as there is a long-standing tradition of separating agricultural research from general development activities.

The main requirement for breaking this tradition is fundamental policy changes, not new tools for collective action.

Andy Hall is a researcher at UNU-MERIT and coordinates the Learning Innovation and Knowledge Initiative (LINK).
Susanna Thorp is director of WRENmedia, a UK-based communications company and editor of New Agriculturist.