Farmer exchange visits accelerate knowledge co-creation for agroecological transition

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Validation, innovations, and research gaps

Authors: Beatrice Adoyo (CIFOR-ICRAF), Hezekiah Korir (IITA), Peter Bolo (Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT), Anne Kuria (CIFOR-ICRAF), Pius Gumo (IITA), Lisa Fuchs (Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT).

Embracing and implementing innovative agricultural practices to achieve food security while preserving ecosystem integrity continues to be a key priority for many agrifood actors – including smallholder farmers in the Agroecological Living Landscapes (ALLs) facilitated by the CGIAR Initiative on Agroecology in Kenya.

Yet, scaling such innovations from individual farms to entire landscapes and beyond hinges on farmers’ practical and continued learning on how to adapt the innovative practices to suit their specific conditions, and fine-tune them for optimal performance over time. In this context, farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange programs are effective approaches to peer learning and information dissemination among farmers and other food system actors. Such exchanges foster joint reflection on their experiences, important societal challenges, and contextualized solutions. They also foster trust and strengthen social networks among farmers, which, in turn, support the development and refinement of sustainable and contextualized farmer-led agricultural innovations.

In the CGIAR Initiative on Agroecology, 62 farmers from the Kiambu and Makueni ALLs participated in a farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange program to discuss their experiences and assess the outcomes of an intensive agroecological co-design process (Fig. 1). This process culminated in a joint definition and selection of innovative agroecological practices which were tailored to address local communal challenges and achieve a collectively defined vision and desired future landscape changes.

Figure 1: Illustration of steps taken to co-design and monitor innovative agroecological practices in the soil, water, and integrated pest management focus areas within Makueni and Kiambu ALLs.

Focusing on three prioritized areas (soil management, water management, and integrated pest management), the participants selected one practice per focus area that would be subjected to farmer-led experimentation (Table 1):

Table 1: Selected practices for test implementation in Kiambu and Makueni ALLs.

After co-designing these practices, and their respective monitoring protocols, the participants jointly defined selection criteria for the participating farmers. These encompassed various aspects including land availability, interest in agroecological farming, interpersonal characteristics, as well as social orientation to ensure knowledge sharing. Finally, the participants selected approximately 10 farmers to test each of the identified practices, and hence a total of 30 farmers per ALL. As indicated (see Table 1), each trial set-up typically included one test and one control plot per farmer’s field. Since the ALL “host centers” and a small number of farmers adopted more than one practice, trials were established on a total of 45 women-managed and 22 men-managed plots (see Figure 2).

Three months after the establishment of the first cycle of experimentation, the Initiative team engaged the trial participants in farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchanges to deliberate and share experiences on their key observations, successes and failures, and share ideas about potential modifications to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the tested innovations.

In the first iteration of the farmer exchanges, the trial participants visited farms and trials within their respective ALLs. In attendance were all the 62 implementing farmers, 30 in Kiambu and 32 in Makueni, along with their respective ALL “host center” representatives and other external stakeholders (agricultural officers, students, finance officers, County government officials, and researchers) who provided feedback to the learning experiences.

Figure 3: Farmer knowledge program at Kiambu ALL. Photo credit: Beatrice Adoyo (CIFOR_ICRAF).

Some of the key observations and lessons emerging from these exchanges include:

  • Farmer knowledge exchanges provided concrete evidence of the beneficial effects of agroecology on both productivity and livelihoods. This observation dispelled the misconception among participants that links agroecological practices with low yields. “I used to believe that large-sized, high-quality cabbages were only achievable through external inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I stand corrected,” remarked one attendee in Kiambu. Similar sentiments were shared in Makueni where the farmers acknowledged that the use of locally available and environmentally friendly inputs such as farmyard manure and neem-based biopesticides improved their maize and bean yields.
  • Farmer knowledge exchanges challenged the conventional understanding of the functionality of mulching and terrace maintenance. Those practices were previously understood to uniformly enhance yield by retaining soil moisture. Farmers now observed that the effectiveness of mulching is influenced by multiple factors, including the source and thickness of the mulch, as well as the prevailing weather conditions. For instance, there was a general observation that associated the rainy seasons with poor crop performance under mulching. In Kiambu, farmers who removed their mulch during rainy days to avoid excess moisture capture and re-integrated it at the onset of the sunny days reported a significant improvement of their crops. In Makueni, the farmers appreciated the multiple benefits of planting Napier grass on terrace edges. “The Napier grass has helped to maintain the terrace edges, and acted as a pull for insect pests leaving my maize healthy” asserted one farmer.
  • Farmer knowledge exchanges led to the discovery of innovations and research gaps that needed to be addressed to respond to emerging challenges such as pests and diseases. Testing of chili-based biopesticide led to the observation that chili may potentially have additional soil fertility benefits. This was evidenced by numerous observations that crops in the chili-test plots experienced remarkable growth in comparison to the respective control plots. While this observation might imply the multifaceted benefits of chili both as a biopesticide and soil nutrient enhancer, further empirical studies may be needed to validate observations derived from citizen science.
  • Farmers demonstrated a sense of urgency in monitoring their progress to evaluate the effectiveness of their endeavors. In addition to the jointly established set of monitoring indicators, farmers suggested additional indicators for more effective monitoring outcomes. One suggestion focused on measuring economic aspects, such as productivity, more comprehensively. For instance, spinach farmers proposed the need to count the remaining leaves after harvest as a proxy for assessing incremental production. More relevant metrics were identified, demonstrating farmers’ interest in effective participatory monitoring. In that vein, farmers lauded the digital monitoring platform developed by the Agroecology Initiative for its ability to support timely, accurate, and secure monitoring of farming systems.
  • Farmers demonstrated an interest in scaling out the trials to larger parts or their entire farms due to the associated benefits and in particular enhanced income from the sale of produce. Economic benefits were a clear driver and incentive for the scaling out of innovative agroecological practices. It is hence important to keep sight of creating a balance between meeting immediate economic interests and solving long-term challenges associated with food systems.
  • Farmers identified challenges and their potential solutions beyond the trial implementation phase. They discussed key challenges to realizing returns that are commensurate with farmers’ efforts and related them to the absence of an organized and accessible market system, which made them dependent on brokers who dictate prices leading to low returns. Farmers proposed having an organized organic market that supports value addition as a potential solution to post-harvest losses and other market-related challenges.

The experience and insights gathered from the knowledge exchange program highlighted the significance and contribution of peer learning for the development and scaling of farmer-led innovations.

While the initial intra-ALL exchanges during the first cycle of the trials aimed to support adaptive learning and management among the trial participants in each ALL, the Initiative team has planned to bring all the trial participants from both ALLs together for an inter-ALL farmer-to-farmer exchange once the first cycle of trials is concluded. The objective will be to reflect more broadly on what worked and what did not work, and to chart a way forward for continuous co-learning and co-design of the second trial cycle.

 

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