Achieving solutions with farmers isn’t radical: why is it so hard?


A stranger enters a room from another world. She tells a long-time team to do things differently. The chances of a great outcome, based on human psychology, are not great.

Most of us are used to the way we do things. Only sometimes are we dying for a chance to change. We also prefer to hear insights about change from those we trust to understand our own challenges. This is something we don’t expect of outsiders.

If the same stranger arrives with a one-size-fits-all ‘solution’, which doesn’t reflect our norms and local constraints, the chances of transformation are slim indeed.

Solutions helicoptered in from outside

In agriculture, smallholders enjoy the frequent arrival of such outsiders. They arrive with big and radical ‘solutions’, rather than ones based on local relevance and circumstances. It’s a modus operandi of top-down reform: “we come up with an answer to your problems based on our world’s norms and tell you what to do.”

Yet farmers know best about farming. Decades of failures and stunted progress should have served to change the way reformers work in recognizing that fact. But as NGOs engage with the millions of smallholders, on whom Africa’s fortunes and future rely, the process of resolving their issues based on existing parameters has not been a driving force.

It needs to be.

The world of agricultural transformation is dominated by jargon. Addressing a smallholder problem is called an ‘intervention’. These ‘interventions’ are based on ‘big picture’ theory.  They are also based on poverty reduction targets that generate ‘solutions’ built and helicoptered in from outside.

However, the truth is that this top-down approach to agrarian reform goes against human nature. It defies real and present issues for individual smallholders. This top-down approach, instead, relies on assumptions and theory.

British academic and development scholar, Robert Chambers finds that these initiatives, implemented by the international research and development community, simply do not benefit the poor farmer. He observes in his book, ‘Whose Reality Counts?‘ that, “This is because the conditions that poor farmers operate within puts limits on the extent to which they can benefit from the initiatives.”

Anathema to local farmers

In South Africa, a classic example of top-down approach was a program called the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (AsgiSA). The program was implemented countrywide by the Independent Development Trust NGO. It failed miserably in seeking to effect reforms, which were anathema to local farmers.

The ‘big idea’ was to improve market and farm input access by moving in to govern and run all the farms in a village. And then sell the combined produce on behalf of farmers. The program planned reinvestment of 90 per cent of the profits for the following year’s planting. Only 10 per cent of the profit was to be shared among the farmers.

As the NGO set about managing whole villages’ production, as a single operation from merged fields, it simultaneously set aside farmer participation in decision-making. Unsurprisingly, the locals resisted merging their fields as well as the loss of autonomy. They preferred flexibility in their land use. The program failed.


The farmers didn’t want to be just ‘governed’ by this presented organization.

Yet this ‘move in and manage’ approach remains typical of agricultural reformers’ engagements in Africa. NGOs frequently fail to consult and engage smallholders at the program development stage, in order to build solutions that are dovetailed to local realities.

‘Farmers First’ approach

By stark contrast, a ‘farmers first’ approach, also known as bottom-up method, has been shown to deliver completely different outcomes. These initiatives see organizations working hand-in-hand with farmers on the ground. They consult farmers first to identify their unique challenges, to develop solutions with them, and to resolve specific local issues.

Farmers drive the process through hands-on involvement in the planning, financing, implementation and maintenance of the programs. Though not yet widespread in Africa, the concept has been proven to work in the U.S. and in India. It is also proven in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

In Iowa, U.S., for instance, the Practical Farmers of Iowa organization (PFI), engages farmers to define what research they need done. PFI then partners with scientists to undertake studies where the farmers and researchers contribute resources, such as time and land. The farmers drive the research agenda, and are thus committed to it.

In Zimbabwe, the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) Chivi Food Security Project was initiated in response to chronic food insecurity in pockets of semi-arid areas. The project began by looking at the constraints on household food security.  The farmers were involved in identifying solutions, planning, and the creation of action plans. This spanned the roll out of soil and water conservation technologies.

Farmers, in Zimbabwe, selected and tried the practices they preferred. They also met to discuss the results and any problems encountered. They suggest possible solutions among themselves. The level of change saw farmers, who were originally very poor farmers, eventually moving to buy their own cattle.

It is, therefore, essential that agricultural interventions use such practical and workable approaches.

Indeed, with this year’s Africa Green Revolution Forum, in Kigali, Rwanda, themed ‘Lead, Measure, Grow: Enabling new pathways to turn smallholder farmers into sustainable agribusiness, ‘farmers first’ approach should be top of the agenda, as a necessity.


The author of this article is the CEO of WeFarm – The world’s largest farmer-to-farmer digital platform


About Author

Kenny Ewan

Kenny Ewan is the CEO and Founder of WeFarm - The world's largest farmer-to-farmer digital platform