Rural development

May we participate in your lives?

Smallholder farming systems are diverse. One needs to understand this diversity if one wants to implement development projects or launch a business. Researchers must take into account what farmers do for what reasons. Africa RISING is a research-for-development programme that gathers information at the grass-roots level. One lesson our author learned doing rural research is that the point is not that development agents involve farmers in projects. It is, in fact, the other way round: Success depends on farmers allowing development workers to participate in their lives.

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in spring 2017 as a PhD candidate at Wageningen University (Farming Systems Ecology Group). She has been working for Africa RISING since 2013 in Zambia, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Woman drying grain in Ghana’s Upper West Region. Michalscheck Woman drying grain in Ghana’s Upper West Region.

Smallholder farms are a key to achieving global development goals such as food security and poverty alleviation. The reason is that their small-scale production systems generate about 80 % of the food consumed in Africa and Asia. Moreover, family farms are also an important employer of rural labour and typically contribute to keeping agro-biological diversity great at the regional level.

However, smallholders face many constraints. Land tenure is often insecure. Access to markets and financial services tends to be limited and, as a result, access to machinery, advanced technology, fertiliser and quality seed is limited too. The input use of African smallholders tends to be particularly sparing. On average, they apply only 10 to 13 kilogrammes of fertilizer per hectare, according to data collected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), while their South-Asian counterparts use about 100 kilogrammes.

This huge difference results in part from the fact that most African farmers do not have irrigation. They shy away from investing in inputs because erratic rains may fast  destroy their crops. In years with good rains, however, the investments would pay off.

If one understands how farmers think, one can find alternatives to providing irrigation. Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), a US-based non-governmental organisation, recently discovered another way to make input investments more attractive to farmers: rainfall insurance. An IPA study showed that providing such a financial service to farmers led them to increase fertiliser use by 25 %, extend the cultivated area by eight percent and work 13 % more labour per unit.

The link between insurance and the application of farm inputs is important information for projects like Africa RISING. With funding from USAID, Africa RISING is implementing three regional research programmes in six African countries: in Ethiopia’s highlands, West Africa (Ghana and Mali) and Eastern and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia). Africa RISING stands for “Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation”.

To find good solutions, one needs to know what drives farmers’ decisions. It is therefore an important research principle to involve the people who make the decisions on the farms – and they are not always the persons who head the households. Agricultural test trials concern issues such as optimal levels of inputs, integrated soil fertility management or the integration of maize and legume cultivation. Africa RISING wants to identify options that improve productivity and safeguard the environment as well as people’s health.

A serious challenge for research is that smallholder farmers do not constitute a homogenous group. Their practices and traditions do not only vary from one geographical region to another. They also vary within a single community. Different households own land of different sizes and qualities. They own different kinds and numbers of livestock. Some households have many members contributing family labour, others only a few. The level of education varies as well as their means of transport – ranging from motorbikes to none at all. All of these issues determine their room for manoeuvre. Market access, for instance, depends on transport opportunities.

Researchers must also pay attention to the dynamics within the household. In northern Ghana, for example, a typical smallholder farm is a family farm that consists of several partially independent units, and each unit is run by a different family member. Typically, the male head of the family will cultivate cereals and tubers. He thus ensures the household’s basic food security. The women, however, will cultivate vegetables and cash crops, achieving nutritional diversity and covering children’s school fees. Livestock, too, is handled by different family members. Generally speaking, questions of ownership, access to production assets and finance depend on age, gender and other issues everywhere. Unless one understands the complete matrix of diverging responsibilities, interests and inner-family power relations, one will not understand how farm management decisions come about. When promoting a new technology or method, one must therefore consult different household members.

Women’s views matter

Our work showed that men and women described the same farm differently. Each respondent exaggerated their own responsibility. Accordingly, researchers need to assess the different statements diligently, putting them into context. It is striking that, in the past, many surveys only consulted the heads of households, who tend to be men. Such research is likely to be distorted by an unwitting gender bias. It is true, of course, that sometimes women who were heading households may have been interviewed too, but their perspective differs from the one of women in male-headed households.

Moreover, it is important to provide all respondents with a safe space to express their opinions. Experience shows that farm women often say different things in the presence of others, particularly their male household members, than when they are interviewed alone. One implication is that researcher teams should include female and male members.

Another challenge is that researchers or development workers, who come from afar to a rural area, are often regarded as persons of authority and influence. To some extent, rural people will hope to get money or some other kind of support, but they may also fear that saying something wrong may trigger some kind of punishment. For these reasons, their responses to survey questions may not always be honest. Such problems are compounded by cultural ideas of gender and hierarchy.

To cooperate well with smallholder farmers, we must understand what they do for what reasons. We have to ask ourselves, as researchers and development practitioners: how well do we understand our target group? Engaging in development work is not just a learning experience for the farmers. In the first place, we have to learn about them.

If we expect honesty, openness and commitment, moreover, we have to open up ourselves. We must constantly test and improve our knowledge and prove to our partners that we are indeed partners. As agents of development, we are not really letting “farmers participate in our projects” as we tend to believe. It is the other way round. To get good results, they must allow us to participate in their lives and decision-making.

Mirja Michalscheck is a PhD candidate at Wageningen University (Farming Systems Ecology Group). She has been working for Africa RISING since 2013 in Zambia, Ethiopia and Ghana.


Africa RISING – Britwum, A.O . and Akorsu, A. D., 2016: Qualitative gender evaluation of agricultural intensification practices in northern Ghana.

IPA: Examining underinvestment in agriculture.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.