West African farmers heard at UK Houses of Parliament

04 February 2012

It might seem obvious that African farmers, who have successfully fed their families and, in turn, much of rural Africa, would be the first to be consulted on what agricultural research would benefit them. But a series of citizen juries, carried out previously in West Africa and facilitated by IIED researchers and partners, have revealed that much African agricultural research doesn’t meaningfully involve farmers or reflect their priorities.

This is the main problem that a video linking up West African Farmers and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a major funder of agricultural research in Africa, with the UK Houses of Parliament held 2 - 3 February has discussed.

Ironically, the obstacles facing the video teleconference, hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Agroecology in Westminster, are commonly faced by those carrying out action research. How do you overcome the technological and linguistic barriers to ensure clear communication, and how do you avoid communication being dominated by the people who are seen as the most influential or powerful in the room?

During the first day of the video link there were real problems with sound quality. Representatives from AGRA seemed to respond to and ask questions more than farmers participating in the event. And, out of the number of West African members who spoke during the two hours, only two were women. One of them spoke of the need for women to be able to own their land because they were often the ones carrying much of the agricultural work and improvements to the land. 

Women farmers often have less disposable income than their husbands, and are even less likely to use inputs that need to be bought, such as fertilisers. So their needs and priorities are often different and they really deserve an equal billing to their male counter-parts.

Despite the problems, the event clearly prompted some important questions. Luke Mukubvu from the Department for International Development said: “Our key challenge has been to make sure that the research programmes are connected to the day to day challenges and market and production needs of farmers. Our focus is often on national research systems and we are not sure they are playing an effective role in bringing in farmers.” This is exactly the issue that the group in Accra discussed during the 3-day workshop.

And this was likely the first time that a group of West African farmers were posed a question by a member of the House of Lords. In this case, he wanted to know what they thought about labour-saving technology.

Key points that farmers raised during the workshop:

  • Farmers feel cut off and often ignored by their governments; organising themselves is key to getting noticed.
  • They have a real fear of hybrids and chemical fertilisers. Farmers want experts to focus more on local varieties and orphan crops, which are typically not traded internationally (and so often ignored by crop breeders and research institutions), but which can play an important role in improving food security and increasing diversity.
  • They wanted clearer information on how AGRA funds are being allocated across their activities.
  • Women farmers felt their position was weaker than male farmers as their access to land was insecure and they had limited access to equipment.

Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of food, who chaired the workshop in Accra, Ghana, commended IIED on its: “Bottom up ” approach to agricultural research which was a “very unique, unprecedented participatory approach.”

That approach, through the participatory action workshops carried out in Mali, has so far revealed that many of the research stations used, for example, chemical fertilisers which are “totally out of step with the practices of most peasant farmers” who are more likely to use traditional varieties which don’t require them (pg 16, Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa (PDF)).

And it has also pointed out other potential paths forward. For example, agricultural research by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Mali to look at ways to  manage Striga belie, a weed which can stunt crop growth, has focussed on growing groundnuts and the application of complex and simple fertilisers. But farmers have noticed that using good applications of organic manure can also make the roots disappear (pg 19,Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa (PDF)).

Such knowledge, developed through daily experience, could be built upon through farmer-led agricultural research.

Read Putting farmers first: reshaping agricultural research in West Africa

Download Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa (PDF)

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Suzanne Fisher's picture