IGP Stories

Reconceptualising innovation for agricultural futures in Africa: Part I

PROCOL Kenya Climate Emergency Food Africa

Dr Matthew Davies, Dr Sam Lunn-Rockliffe and Roberta Pismel Chapchap

14 December 2021

How we think about designing and implementing change to sustainably tackle Global Challenges is of pressing concern. Whilst much work remains to be done on the kind of futures that we may want to build, there is an overwhelming consensus that ‘innovation’ is a core heuristic for enacting much needed transformation (Nicholls et al 2015). This is not only understood as the need for new innovations in the form of technological solutions, but also to foster processes of innovation geared towards creating new ideas, values, policies, institutions and systems (Bathelt et al. 2017).

It is in this way that innovation has become somewhat of a buzzword across sectors – entrepreneurs hail it as a fundamental characteristic for successful business models, universities champion its importance for building new research programmes and partnerships, and governing bodies recognise it as paramount for designing new policies for positive socioeconomic change. Yet, through its ubiquitous usage and deployment in a plethora of contexts, from the technocratic language of development literature to the verbiage of the corporate world, innovation has become a rather elusive and diluted concept.

This is not to say that the notion of innovation is defunct, but rather that we perhaps need to think more carefully about the specifics of its utilisation. Indeed, innovation processes are heterogeneous procedures that emerge out of specific contexts, be it the concerted break from the norm in order to create something novel vis-à-vis an identified problem, or an incremental process grounded in ongoing experimental activity where behaviours, products or services are modified over time (Godin 2017). In this sense, different configurations of innovation can unfold over multiple temporalities. Hackathons aiming to build problem-oriented innovations may take place through intensive short-term interactions, whereas the gradual design and deployment of new practices, products or services by experimental innovators can occur over lifetimes or even generations (Bathelt et al. 2017).

In what follows we argue that interrogating these different temporalities and processes of innovation can be particularly pertinent in relation to agricultural development, specifically across the African continent. Despite being embroiled in a rich history of innovation thinking that has led to large scale transformations of food systems, agricultural development in Africa has frequently failed to engage with the practices and lived realities of farming livelihoods on the ground. Building from this observation, we suggest that the future of farming needs to move away from externally designed technocratic frameworks of ‘systems innovation’ that treat farmers as objects to be improved, and instead become more attuned to the farmers and practitioners as subjects and primary agents of innovation.

Agricultural Innovation in Africa: A critique

Throughout much of the twentieth century, innovation in agricultural systems was primarily achieved through the implementation of new technologies that improved farming efficiency and productivity. Within these parameters, agricultural innovation became embedded within economic and political models that created specific conditions for the linear development, deployment and subsequent diffusion of yield-improving technologies (e.g. on-farm and food processing machinery, synthetic inputs, hybrid crops etc) (Hounkonnou et al. 2012; Dawson et al. 2016). Such frameworks formed the backbone of the Green Revolution across the global north and Asia, where state-led interventions significantly scaled extension programmes, technology uptake, and market infrastructures in order to dramatically increase food security (Djurfeldt et al. 2005).

Whilst Green Revolution technologies and policies have no doubt been successful in scaling agricultural production in the Global North and East Asia, the replicability of such models has remained relatively ineffective across the African continent. The reasons for this are multifaceted and appear to be rooted in the heterogeneous and spatio-temporally contingent nature of agricultural landscapes, systems of food production and social institutions across the continent (Benin 2016; Röling 2009). Consequently, the comparatively slow growth of the food sector in Africa is of significant concern in the face of climate extremes and increasing population, with the prevalence of severe food insecurity in the total population having risen from 20.4% in 2015 to 29.5% in 2020 (FAOSTAT 2021), and the number of chronically undernourished people now standing at 234 million people (FAO, ECA and AUC. 2021).

Struggling food systems have resulted in fresh calls for a new African Green Revolution that argue that past failed attempts lacked strategic investment and political will (Bergius and Buseth 2019; Juma 2015; Otsuka and Larsen 2013). Yet substantial reservations are held by critics as to whether this is the most appropriate course to chart, not least because the Green Revolution as characterised by increased industrialised practice, specialized production and commercialisation has led to significant environmental degradation and a decrease in dietary and nutritional diversity (IPES-food 2016; UNEP 2016). What is more, the continued prioritisation of technology and information transfer from agronomic experts to smallholder farmers perpetuates models that implicitly cast indigenous food systems as inefficient, vulnerable and lacking the adaptive capabilities to cope with multiple pressures.

In light of this, Food Sovereignty and Indigenous Rights movements have highlighted how extant food regimes erode local knowledge and practice and lead to land grabbing and the monopolisation of markets in ways that dispossess of small-holder farmers and increase farmer dependency (e.g. INMIP 2021). Thus, as we explore in further detail below, new frameworks for agricultural transformation are needed.

From Agricultural Innovation Systems to Autonomous Design

It is important to acknowledge multiple alternative models for innovating food systems in Africa have been proposed. These have predominantly been rooted in the idea that we must move away from producing technologies and market infrastructures for farmers, and instead work closely with farmers to determine what they need for the creation of more efficient, resilient and productive farming systems (Sanginga et al. 2009; Šūmane et al. 2018). These include participatory research programmes, farmer field schools and farmer-led research projects that identify challenges and opportunities and build inclusive methods for supporting farming livelihoods (e.g. Waters-Bayer 2015). Such approaches sit within the broader endeavour to innovate wider socioeconomic and political systems that are constraining the ability of farmers to thrive. Referred to in development literature as Agricultural Innovation Systems (AIS), these models stress the need to transform systems themselves, including implementing new value chains, regulations, infrastructures and policies, as well as reforming internal practice and policy of existing institutions (Hounkonnou et al. 2012). Building on the premise that innovation is the emergent property of interaction (Röling 2009, 23), AIS work through innovation platforms – forums of multiple stakeholders that work to co-identify entry points for new practices, capacity building, policies and technologies, whilst simultaneously learning from the unique insights of participants involved, be it practitioners, seed companies, researchers, businesses or government officials.

These methods have made significant strides in moving away from linear models of technology push and towards creating innovation processes that facilitate dynamic, non-linear mechanisms for transformation. Yet, whilst we are in no doubt that extant systems need to be transformed, an over emphasis on innovating the linkages between institutions and stakeholders is often at risk of falling into the recursive problem of drawing our attention away from the knowledge, practice and everyday lived experience of the farmers themselves. Indeed, rhetoric in mainstream development initiatives often acknowledge that farmers are innovative people (e.g. FAO 2018, 6), but rarely engage in the concrete analysis of how this may provide a fundamental starting point for new agricultural futures. Simultaneously, the technocratic language and approach of much development practice, whilst well intentioned, can quickly obfuscate and bypass the innovative capacities and agronomic knowledge of farmers themselves.

This focus on systems innovation ignores the evidence that smallholder farmers in Africa have long designed and operationalised sustainable, intensified and resilient food systems, as well attested to in archaeological and ethnographic accounts (Widgren and Sutton 2004; Davies 2015; Davies and Moore 2016). This perspective re-centres the nexus of agricultural innovation away from the transformation of structured agricultural systems conceived of as value chains, regulations, infrastructures and policies and instead places the primary focus of innovation on the farmers themselves. In doing so, we may begin to ask what can be learnt from longer-term histories of iterative experimentation and design that then transferred back into wider imperatives for systems change. This approach shares much in common with calls for pluriversal understandings of innovation and change that acknowledge the power of autonomous design as a counter point to what are increasingly recognised as forms of failed development and modernity (Escobar 2018).

We explore these ideas further in the next blog in this sequence where we provide some of the evidence for the longer-term sustainability of farmer-led agricultural designs in Eastern Africa and expand on the implications of this for policy-making.

Part 2 will be available on Seriously Different shortly

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, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Professor Henrietta L. Moore, Dr Philippa Ryan, Dr Keith Tyrell, Dr Sheila Willis and Mr Adam Willman.


Benin, S. (ed) 2016. Agricultural productivity in Africa: Trends, patterns, and determinants. International Food Policy Research Institute.

Escobar, A. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

FAO 2021. FAOSTAT [online]. Rome. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home

FAO, ECA and AUC. 2021. Africa regional overview of food security and nutrition 2020: Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Accra, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb4831en

Higginbottom, T.P., Adhikari, R., Dimova, R., Redicker, S. and Foster, T., 2021. Performance of large-scale irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature Sustainability 4, 501-508.

Nicholls, A., Simon, J. and Gabriel, M., 2015. New frontiers in social innovation research. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

INMIP 2021. Declaration of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Food Solutions to the Climate Crisis. [online document] Available at: https://pubs.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/2021-10/20606G.pdf. Accessed 10.11.21

IPES Food. 2016. From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm Shift from Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agroecological Systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems.

Šūmane, S., Kunda, I., Knickel, K., Strauss, A., Tisenkopfs, T., des Ios Rios, I., Rivera, M., Chebach, T. and Ashkenazy, A. (2018). Local and farmers' knowledge matters! How integrating informal and formal knowledge enhances sustainable and resilient agriculture. Journal of Rural Studies, 59: 232-241.

UNEP 2016. Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

Image credit: Dr Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

Follow Us