We've got the knowhow; where's the uptake?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

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.

Photo: Oxfam NZ on Flickr

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.




Researchers miss a lot because they just drop in to do research. They don't live there. They get the Margaret Mead treatment (What do these strange people want to hear? Let's tell them that.) I live in a rainfed farming area in NE Thailand. Most farmers don't "take up" the wonderful innovations because they would rather be doing something besides farming. Lots of groundwater in NE Thailand? Why don't they dig wells so they can grow dry season crops? Because they can make more money going off to Bangkok to drive a taxi or to Salaburi to cut sugar cane AND they get to drink and play cards everynight with the other lads. Duflo's book sounds like a better approach. As Alain said in one of his posts, too much focus on crop yields.

You're spot-on Terry. While international donors and NGOs fret about how to keep poor farmers on their tiny plots of land, many of those families are switching to off-farm income sources for survival. Now if the aid industry could just catch up to them.

An interesting point,Terry, that perhaps any social scientists out there could respond to: how can researchers ensure that they are getting credible information from poor rural farmers?

I am not a social scientist but the simple answer is that researchers should interact with farmers, engage them in discussions. Understand their challenges, the local context and farmers' opinions about the issues they face. Sometimes, they have ideas about the right solution to their problems. Researchers should not think they know it all but should capitalize on indigenous knowledge. Through the 'participation' of targeted beneficiaries in our research, we can do research that responds to local need/situation and the results will definitely be taken up. Now participation is deep and not just one time workshop 'to fulfill requirements'
Researchers are often impatient, driven by donors' call, sit in their offices and imagine local situation, do research to get their papers published and salary paid (a kind of survival strategy) not really to make a difference in the lives of people. Quite often, research studies are focused on one part of the whole. Not just the fault of researchers anyway but the system in which he/she operates.

I totally agree with you Funke Cofie, these NGOs, when they get funding, they just get a student whose main objective is to get his/her degree at the expense of the community. papers will be published but a year after the project farmers revert back too what their conventional methods. Participatory approaches are the ones that work, whereby you engage farmers from the start to the end of the project. Normally in your first survey, farmers exaggerate their situation or crisis or they can be mean with their information simply because you are sort of a 'stranger' to them, so they won't divulge as much information to you. If you interact more frequently they tend to open up and provide genuine answers.

The other thing is politics. Most politicians do not respect science. So there is need to also take them on board in workshops and discussions so that they can also appreciate our work as researchers.

I agree with you 100%. Very rarely does "impact" come from the publication of an article in a peer reviewed journal. But it's a rational livelihood strategy for a researcher. The incentive systems for researchers needs a serious rethink.

You describe the situation quite well. It's not only the NGOs who practice "parachute" research (i.e. they drop into a village out of the sky then disappear). I would like see reseaerchers living in the village for six months or a year. Then we might see something happen.

As for politicians respecting science, why should they? A great many research papers make feeble or unrealistic or utopian recommendations; for every paper that recommends I should do A, I can find one that says I shouldn't; researchers come and go (they are not part of the community so why should I care what you say) and so on. The whole process needs a rethink.


I also think that researchers especially students engaged in research should be coming from that same village where we will be doing research. Am trying to say, "set a thief to catch a thief". That same student would have better knowledge of the indigenous systems within that community so it will be easier for him/her to interact with the villagers even using their mother tongue (local language). My experience in Zimbabwe (am Zimbabwean) is that you can't work within a village without being introduced to the community by a senior government official, who, in most cases will be a politician. So it's a very long process which to some extent you can't start your research as per schedule because of those formalities. That's why on my previous comment I talked of taking on board politicians.

Armwell, I agree that researchers from that area would do better. I'm working on a project in Laos. We spent nearly one year getting local politicians on side. It was worth the effort.


Terry, keep on the good work. It was nice sharing ideas with you guys. Slowly but surely, we will get there. Let research work speak for itself to farmers not to force farmers to adopt what you have experimented somewhere else. We (farmers) learn better when participating. Technologies are there, but they should 'speak' for themselves to farmers once laid down. As researchers we should desist from taking farmers as students when it comes to adoption of new and promising technologies or innovations. Farmers are also researchers on their own right. If a technology is really good you don't need to tell farmers to go for it, they will adopt it themselves upon witnessing for themselves the good results that the technology would have done e.g increased yields or income, etc.

As I mentioned in my recent blogpost refered to above, the dominant vision in agricultural water management remains one of looking at crops, not considering diversification, nor livestock and fisheries. Moreover, the focus—be it during the World Water Week workshop on rainfed production or in a recent paper in Nature—is on crop yields and not the income generated for farmers, which is what counts for the farmer as rightly pointed by Terry.

Market incentives are the engine that drives the adoption of sustainable technologies such as conservation agriculture, rainwater harvesting or sustainable livestock production. My recent example of local markets for goats in Zimbabwe shows that when a poor farming woman can sell 3 goats per year for a total of 180 US$ instead of a meager 25kg of her maize harvest, it can be a sufficient incentive to adopt innovation.

lack of effective agricultural extension information to the rural poor remains a hindrance to achieving food security in Africa. The solutions lies in getting farmers educated or the trained graduates in agriculture to take up farming...which many don't like.

You have bought into modernization theory, i.e. problems of
development are basically rooted in lack of knowledge and consequently,
interventions needed to provide people with information to change behavior.

Based on this diagnosis, development communication proposes that changes in ideas will result in transformations in behavior. The underlying premise, originating in classic sociological
theories, isthat there is a necessary fitness between a “modern” culture and economic
and political development. The low rate of agricultural output, the high rate of fertility
and mortality, or the low rates of literacy found in the underdeveloped world are
explained by the persistence of traditional values and attitudes that prevent
modernization. The goal is, therefore, to instill modern values and information through
the transfer of media technology and the adoption of innovations and culture originating in
the developed world.

I can send you the paper if you like.

Looking forward for this paper on theories

Every time the subject of agricultural research comes up, a lot of talking mouths insist on heaping scorn and opprobrium on researchers or even just the concept of research. Certainly there remains a broad gap between research stations and poor farmers, but that does NOT imply that the researchers are clueless or negligent of those farmers. In fact, a certain amount of research is done in situ, on real farm plots in villages. If you're fair, you'll have to acknowledge that a lot of what farmers grow today started out on research farms, things like mosaic virus-resistant or low-toxin cassava, high-yield maize, and the common varieties of most food crops. It's unhelpful to simply denigrate science and scientists; the energy would be better used in bridging gaps between farmers and research - from both sides.

I don't think we are "heaping scorn and opprobrium" of "denigrating" researchers. As you rightly point out, there are exceptions to the "drive in drive out" approach to research and you are quite right in bringing those exceptions to the attention of this discussion. You point to the relevant question: How do we lessen the gap between research stations and poor farmers?

i think it is time we considered the farmers led extension services as well as researches on the best practices. the farmers are being ignored by the elite academic researchers and extension service providers thus affecting the interest of the farmers. lets us approach extension from the point that even the farmers have their own ways of doing the same thing and appreciate their indigenous knowledge. this appreciation will bear positive effects. the extension services officers need to understand the reality on the ground and avoid direct academic approaches and instead interpret the knowledge to packages that the farmers will embrace............ The farmers need not be left completely alone to decide; they also need to be guided on the new and scientific studies going on. however, i want to believe that any scientific research need to be backed by farmers own knowledge and practices. think about the example of planting in lines and the attacks by squirrels........ the farmers deviced way to deal with the squirrel menace

As Seth pointed out, I think we have to be careful about painting with too broad a brush. We talk about "farmers" and "researchers" and "extension workers" as if they were homogenous blocks of people who think and act the same way. We know that's not the case. Famers do come up with a lot of good ideas. As someone said earlier in this discussion, the whole issue of extension services is a governance issue. And researchers...well...they come in many stripes.

Ah yes, the other thought I had on this topic: Do we really have the knowhow? Go back and read research papers from 10, 20, 30 years ago. What they all have in common is complete confidence in their recommendations. Everyone thought they had the answers and called it the Green Revolution. OK, did some people a lot of good but looking back we can see it created a whole lot of problems as well. For 10 years IWMI touted "participatory irrigation management" as the answer to irrigation woes. Final analysis: results mixed, at best. So what makes us so sure we have the knowhow? Farmers tend to know what's good for them, like cheap diesel pumps, then researchers come along and 'discover' the benefits of cheap diesel pumps and set about telling farmers that's what they need.

The comments of Armwell Shumba(Zimbabwe) are realistic. In following, my comments after 30 years of Participatory Technology Development (PTD).

I was during about 30 tears teacher researcher working on Water harvesting and water resources management. When I started the job of researcher, I came from a famous University (Sorbonne in Paris) I have a lot of sciences in my "Head" but this not enough. I started to learn again from farmers: understand the local conditions (soil, climate, and rain droughts), the crop systems, and the problems of the farmers, do they have any solutions for these problems, how works these solutions etc. The researcher has to learn from the farmers for whom he tries to find solutions. After this real important learning from the farmers, the researcher has to setup a priority and select the problems he will study and for which he will try to find solutions. After that he has to do an important bibliographical work to analyse the problems, to seek solutions at local, regional or worldwide level, After that he will setup a list of solutions (existing or new one) and go back to the farmers to start a discussions on these solutions and the possibility of doing trials with their participation in their fields. This is a very important phase and the beginning of the real work of the researcher. In this process if there is the possibility to collaborate with extortionist it a good thing, but often the extortionist do not follow the researcher because it is a long term work and they are seeking a short term solutions.

This the way I followed during my professional life as researcher during 30 years. And it was really successful according to the results I got and according to the famous international Prizes and Awards these results have got (UNESCO International Water Prize; ALECSO Water Prize; Hydrotop Mediterranean Water Prize; Top50 SME and Top20SME from The World Bank). But my real challenge now is how the techniques I have conceived and invented (in the domain of Water saving irrigation technology, rain Water conservation and drought mitigation , adaptation to climate change etc) could be worldwide shared specially with small farmers and poor people suffering from hunger, droughts, food security. I have several times written to UN International Organisations (FIDA, UNDP, UNEP, and FAO) but no sound. This shows how there is no connection between administrations even at the international level (at the national level this is also a problem). Normally according to the Prizes and the Awards these technologies should be adopted by the huge of projects financed by the international organisations including the biggest one who has the money: the World Bank?!.

Any way the “door” is not closed, there is another way, I followed when I was Researcher. It is the collaboration with the National and International NGOs. I will continue in this way, and I am ready to share these technologies specially the Draining floater and the buried diffuser with any NGO worldwide. The 2 technologies could be used in the arid, semi arid and in humid regions. To get a full report on the Draining floater and the buried diffuser, please write to me using my email address: chahbani.bellachheb@gmail.com. I can help the NGO with consultancy and to write project proposals based on the 2 technologies to be submitted to international donors.

Nice way to look at things Chabani. Some NGOs do some good work.


Your story is one which truly depicts researchers. You had seen that the technology was/is good since it saves on labour. You should have dismantled it altogether and get back to Kitti and Pim's sister. Of course you knew the reasons why they had to abandon their business, but you should have gone back and try to find alternative solutions with them, you as part of them. Try methods A, B, and C including the one you had invented yourself. If they were the ones who would first say, 'oh, this is a good idea' then you know it gonna work. If they refuse or turn your idea back, you would be in a better position to really understand why they have turned it back. maybe the community is just used to working as a unit not individually........ I do believe and have experience in that if a technology is seen being done by one or two 'lead farmers' in a community, it won't be a problem for the others to just follow suit the next season.

You had done quite good to be part of the community. We really need to go into the communities and be part of them. We learn better that way, and the community can accept us easily. we would come up with our ideas together as a community, or you can target the most influential persons within a community for you to take off easily within a community. The problem that we have is that we need to be recognised within the communities that we work in. Yes, it's unavoidable but we should let the community lead and we keep a low profile.

Lessons from farmers
I live in a village in NE Thailand. My wife owns land there. We grow rice and raise fish in two rainfed ponds. This is a true story:

It took me years to figure out who was family. In the early days of our relationship, whenever Pim and I would visit the village we would stay at her parent’s house. Her older brother, his wife and their three kids were also living there. One of Pim’s younger sisters lived next door with her husband and two kids. Sounds simple enough but in any Thai village household there is a steady stream of visiting relatives, friends and neighbors who may be there for a short chat or an extended stay. And everybody is "older brother" and "younger sister" and auntie and uncle so it’s always a bit difficult to figure out who is really related to who.

Regardless of who was there I was always given the first class treatment. That was OK the first few times but after a while I didn’t want the first class treatment. I wanted to be involved. I would go out to the fields with the lads and ask dumb questions and get in the way and break hoe handles and they would all laugh and it was generally a good time for all. Regardless of how many hoe handles I broke or fishing nets I tore I kept looking for ways to be useful.

One day Pim’s sister and her husband were sawing sections off a log they had dragged back to their yard. The log was about a meter and half in length and maybe 30 cm at the thick end. They were sawing off sections about 15 cm in length then splitting these up into what looked to me liked kindling. They would bundle together about a dozen of resinous sticks with a thin bamboo twist tie and throw the bundle in a bag. Apparently this was a good little money spinner but I’m never sure I’m getting the full story.

To cut the sections the sister and husband were using a big buck saw. The blade was about a meter long with inch and a half teeth and held in a bamboo frame. It took two hands to hold one end of this thing. After about an hour of sawing and splitting and bundling, the husband got called away for some reason. The sister recruited Kitti, her oldest boy, who was only about 10 years old at the time. Kitti did his best but this saw was just too big for him and they abandoned the project. Here was my opportunity to be useful and, at the same time, show what a clever farang I was.

This was a two person saw no doubt about it but I had an idea. It was the old bicycle inner that gave me the idea. Damned useful stuff old inner tubes. I always keep at least one around. I cut the tube so I had a length instead of a tube. I tied one end around the handle of the saw and the other end around a fence post at a height equal to the thickness of the log. I shifted the log under the saw between me and the fence post. The fence post was my other person and the inner tube applied just the right amount of tension to pull the saw back after my draw. It was a great little labor saving invention and it worked a treat. I was quite pleased with myself as I sat there on the ground merrily sawing away.

Within minutes the crowd started gathering. Fist family members then people from nearby houses. They obviously thought this was the most hilarious thing they had seen since Uncle Dick had fallen into his cesspool. They were just honking with laughter. I was offended. Here I had gone to the trouble of taking up some obviously important income generating work and had, in the process, invented a labor saving device that required only one unit of labor instead of two and they thought it was funny.

It took a few years but I finally figured out the joke. First, why would anybody like me, an affluent farang, who didn’t have to work, actually go out of his way to get all hot and sweaty. And second, why would anybody in their right mind possibly want to work alone. To this day I’m sure they thought the whole episode was a pantomime I arranged expressly for their amusement. And I think they might have been right.

Thanks for the the valuable suggestions…keep writing on this topic. You efforts putting this blog together was worth the while. Congratulations again on a good job James.