If we are to produce enough food for the anticipated 9 billion global population by 2050, achieving improved productivity in rain-fed agricultural systems will be essential. 95% of farming in Africa is rain-fed, and even in South Asia, with its long history of irrigation, 60% of crops are farmed this way.
But rain-fed yields remain stubbornly low. Degraded soils, high levels of evaporation, droughts, floods and a general lack of effective water management all conspire to make rain-fed systems consistently less productive than their irrigated counterparts.
Techniques that can bring simple improvements to soils and water management are well known. NGOs, government extension workers and other innovators have tried for decades to get rain-fed farmers to adopt more productive practices. The results have been disappointing. But why has there been such resistance to uptake?
Exploring limited uptake in Burkina Faso
This was the central theme of Lisa Bunclark’s presentation at the rain-fed production session at World Water Week. Focussing on marginal farmers in Burkina Faso, Bunclark’s research had shown that simple rainwater harvesting techniques like zai pits, bunds and stone lines were well known in the three communities she studied, but only farmers who had had specific training from local NGOs had adopted them. Even more perplexing was that adoption was only partial. The innovative farmers would use these technologies in some fields, but did not feel they were necessary in others.
To find out why, Bunclark and her co-workers from the UK’s University of Newcastle conducted focus groups with men and women in three project villages. Preliminary results gave no clear answer as to why uptake had been so piecemeal. Lack of knowledge, gender and the age of household members all affected adoption of new techniques. So did perceptions of likely benefits. Yields were markedly higher when other agricultural innovations, such as composting, pesticide and fertilizer use and new seed varieties were used.
The theme of uptake continued as a general discussion. Poor farmers are often said to be risk averse, but simple rainwater harvesting techniques actually reduce risk, so this does not seem an adequate explanation. Farmers were reported by one African speaker to be more likely to buy mobile phones before investing in new farm technologies. This suggests no overall resistance to new technology. One partial explanation, claimed a Kenyan delegate, was that rainwater harvesting is not part of the culture in many regions where shifting cultivation has been traditionally practised.
Extension programs “defunct”
There was general agreement that agricultural extension programs in poor countries were not effective in engineering uptake. Described as “defunct” by keynote speaker Vijay Shanker of Samaj Pragati Sahayog in India, he felt that “Farmers learn more from dealers and other farmers than extension workers.”
Although not discussed at this session, Abhjit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo’s s new book Poor Economics, which explores some elements of the psychology of poverty, may provide insights as to why the poor don’t do “what is good for them”. “The poor, probably rightly, see that their chances of getting somewhere different are minimal” says Bannerjee, quoted in the UK Guardian’s Global Development Blog. “That's a completely legitimate way to think. And I think that it may well be that a substantial part of the reason why the poor look as if they're taking worse decisions.”
For more about this session, see blog post by Director Alain Vidal of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food that offers another explanation for the resistance to uptake by farmers--perhaps we are focusing too much on crop yields and not enough on income generated for farmers.