IGP Stories

Re-thinking the role of small-holder farmers in the future of food production

PROCOL Kenya Africa

Dr Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

30 April 2021

Re-thinking the role of small-holder farmers in the future of food production: Prosperity and Innovation in the Past and Future of Farming in Africa (PIPFA)

Over the past year, the Institute for Global Prosperity has been coordinating an AHRC-funded partnership (PIPFA) linking institutions in Kenya and the UK, including the University of Eldoret, Elgeyo-Marakwet County Government, the East African Herbarium, the UN Environment Programme, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Pesticide Action Network UK. Embedded within Prosperity Co-Lab Kenya and bringing together a dynamic team of citizens, academics, scientists and policy makers, this partnership aims to reframe how we understand, empower and harness the abilities of smallholder farmers in Eastern Africa. By drawing upon original Citizen Science-led empirical research in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, Kenya, PIPFA specifically aims to reconceptualise the role of farmers as the drivers of agronomic innovation as inspiration for designing future forms of agricultural prosperity.


Citizen Scientists receiving a tour of a smallholder farm near Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet, Kenya. Image Credit: Fabio Valbuzzi 2019.

The rationale to rethink processes of agricultural innovation stems from the observation that, despite approximately 85% of total agricultural output across the African continent being produced by small-holder farmers (AGRA 2018: 4), there remains a persistent imagining of African farming practices as static, inefficient and vulnerable. These ideas have in turn supported a longstanding modernising paradigm whereby African agriculture is argued to require wholesale re-design around a host of ‘new’ technical inputs, market infrastructures and industrial farming practices. With increased concerns surrounding continued global population growth, the climate and biodiversity emergency and associated challenges of food insecurity, calls to increase technological innovation and commercial infrastructures are becoming ever stronger from visionaries and policy makers advocating for a new African Green Revolution (Otsuka and Larson 2013; AGRA 2018). Yet it is also becoming clear that many of these models facilitate and encourage practices that exhaust soils and erode ecosystem services in ways that are inherently unsustainable. What is more, commercially driven global food systems often fail to deal with the unjust politics of food distribution, market monopolisation and farmer dispossession. In short, current agricultural systems are failing to deliver sustainable prosperity (Moore 2018).

In view of this, new farmer-centred frameworks of agricultural design are needed. Building from this premise, the PIPFA partnership has worked with innovative, self-defined ‘digital farmers’ in Elgeyo-Marakwet County (EMC), Kenya, in order to co-design a programme of research aiming to historicise contemporary farming practices and explore the ways in which smallholders creatively improvise in daily practice. The building of an archive of historic and contemporary crop varieties in conjunction with qualitative interviews and quantitative geospatial information on cropping practices is illuminating the dynamism of smallholder knowledge, practice and innovation. Thus far 23 landrace varieties of finger millet sorghum have been documented alongside over 400 unique cropping combinations of 31 crop types.

The work further illustrates how farmers are the products of the creative interplay of a myriad of historic trajectories – just as likely to plant their field with an endemic genetically distinct land-race of sorghum in one season as they are to plant the most ‘modern’ hybrid maize in the next. Their agronomic practices are as equally likely to be influenced by their great grandparents as by the Gates Foundation (i.e. AGRA), the Fairtrade movement, or the Kenyan TV show Shamba Shapeup. These ongoing processes of experimentation, selective acceptance and intelligent combination of new and old ideas are a clear demonstration that farmers are at the nexus of innovation.

Results from PIPFA have fed into a series of partner workshops and are being used to enhance collaborative practices, knowledge bases and research capacities in ways that more readily centre farmers as the focal point of innovation. More specifically, PIPFA has engaged in policy dialogue with Citizen Scientists, EMC ministers, UNEP-TEEB and the University of Eldoret, undertaking a total of five strategic webinar workshops to identify policy entry points to support and enhance farming innovation and knowledge. These discussions fed into a major IGP report on Regenerative Agriculture published last year and are informing the co-production of policy documents with EMC and PAN-UK.

The PIPFA partnership has also provided the core foundations for a new AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Cultivating through Crises: Empowering African Smallholders Through Histories of Creative Emergency Response’ (CCEASH). With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with recursive droughts, severe flash flooding and the worst desert locust outbreak for 70 years, CCEASH will explore how farmers innovate within the context of multiple crises. The project will build a historiographical account of smallholder emergency response with the aim of foregrounding local agronomic innovations within times of crisis in order to empower local knowledge and practice.

Both PIPFA and CCEASH are paving the way for robust and informed policy discussions for reshaping future responses and building long-term farmer led agriculture that regenerates environments and ecosystems. In this way it remains crucial component to IGP’s wider research ambitions to build new pathways to prosperous livelihoods.

With many thanks to all members of the PIPFA Team:

Dr Wilson Kipkore, Dr Barnabas Malombe, Mr Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto, Ms Helena Chepto, Mr Andrew Kibet Yano, Mr Nelson Bailengo, Mr Noah Kiplagat, Mr Joseph Kimutai Cheptorus, Dr Matthew Davies (PI), Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Professor Henrietta L. Moore, Dr Philippa Ryan, Dr Keith Tyrell, Dr Sheila Willis and Mr Adam Willman.


Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa 2018. Africa agriculture status report: Catalysing government capacity to drive agricultural transformations. Nairobi: Kenya

Otsuka, K. and Larson, D.F. (eds.) 2013. An African Green Revolution: Finding Ways to Boost Productivity. Springer.

Moore, H.L., 2018. Prosperity in crisis and the longue durée in Africa. Journal of Peasant Studies 45:1501-1517.

Image: Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

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