IGP Stories

Reconceptualising Innovation for Agricultural Futures in Africa: Part II

PROCOL Kenya Climate Emergency Food Africa

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

10 January 2022

In the first blog in this sequence, we examined how ‘innovation’ has become a buzz word in much thinking on solutions to current Global Challenges. However, using an example of agricultural innovation in Africa we pointed to some of the challenges with how innovation has often been conceptualised, most notably how innovation has often focussed on the objects of change conceived of as systems such as technology, institutions, policy etc. but in doing so has often overlooked and indeed marginalised the lived experiences and powerful agentive capacities of farmers themselves. In particular such approaches to agricultural innovation have often overlooked extensive evidence of farmers as longstanding designers and creators of sustainable agricultural systems of production. In this second blog we elaborate on the capacities of such farmers and tease out some of the implications and potential for future policy design.

‘Humanising’ Innovation: Histories of Iterative Experimentation

Research at the IGP working with smallholders in Elgeyo Marakwet County is aiming to reconceptualise how we think about agricultural innovation by foregrounding farmer’s creativity and experimentation. Adopting a methodology sensitive to the shifting nature of agronomic practice over diverse temporal and spatial scales, we have been exploring how farmers are continuously involved in creative and adaptive decision-making processes on individual and communal levels. The semi-permanent and shifting cultivation agriculture systems in Elgeyo Marakwet, for example, are highly dynamic, with both individuals and groups deploying knowledge from multiple sources (elders, neighbours, radio, TV, social media) and using plethora of techniques (intercropping, crop rotation and fallowing) in response to both environmental challenges (e.g. soil health, flooding, droughts) and social pressures (e.g. demographic change, migration, conflict). As this process has continued to unfold over the past three hundred years or so, farming systems in Elgeyo Marakwet have proved remarkably resilient due to their inherent flexibility (Davies et al. 2014; Davies and Moore 2016).

This research demonstrates that the lived-realities of successful and resilient agricultural innovation stem less from external agricultural development schemes, many of which have been ineffective or outright failed (Kipkorir 1983; Davies and Moore 2016; Moore 2018), and more from ongoing histories of iterative experimentation and refinement from the farmers themselves. Smallholders continually test, reject, appropriate and mould novel practices and technologies to meet personal, familial and community needs. The arrival of Red Cross funded irrigation scheme in Elgyeo Marakwet’s Kerio Valley is an exemplar of this point (REF). The project was designed to supply farmers with hybrid maize seed and fertilisers for cash cropping and improving food security. Aside from the larger problems arising from ill thought through project design that fed into community conflict, the on-the-ground engagement from farmers with the scheme produced somewhat unexpected outcomes from those intended by the project’s architects. For instance, many farmers realised that the largest potential from the scheme revolved not around the cash cropping of maize, but rather the selective planting of diverse horticultural products with high market value. Maize seed was stowed, sold or planted elsewhere depending on individual needs. Similarly, chemical fertilisers intended for intensifying maize cultivation were saved for future use or sold to release immediate capital.

The multiple responses to the Red Cross scheme stems from the fact that farmers in Marakwet are diverse in their knowledge, influence and skills. They are the product of the creative interaction of a multitude of historical trajectories. The choices individuals make are informed from multiple sources and interactions, from TV shows and social media platforms, to traditional community meetings called barazas. In view of this, we can begin to see how the fundamental characteristics of AIS advocated by development thinkers have long existed in Marakwet farming systems, where the navigation of ongoing socioeconomic and ecological change is achieved through experimentation, knowledge exchange and sharing at multiple scales.

Farmers as the Agents of Innovation

Our work thus advocates for a heuristic twist in the way that innovation is thought about in relation to smallholder farmers and food production. This involves a shift away from placing an emphasis on the objects of innovation (i.e. systems, institutions, technologies, people) and towards empowering the primary subjects of innovation (i.e. smallholder farmers) as agents of change. This may appear to be linguistic sleight of hand that has little relevancy beyond academic theorising. But, with smallholders accounting for approximately 85% of total agricultural output across the African continent (AGRA 2018: 4), we maintain that framing them as primary actors of innovation forces us to focus on the lived realities of farmers and potential African futures.

This approach is a marked shift away from much mainstream development rhetoric that tends to dissolve innovation across systems and, in the process, lose sight of the human livelihoods it is seeking to improve through its focus on synchronic interactions to implement punctuated change. In contrast, we propose that the foregrounding of voices, knowledges and practices of farmers-as-innovators forces deeper contemplations of the temporalities of innovation that may then recursively feed back into broader endeavours for systems transformation. In other words, being attuned to creative agronomic experimentation at daily, seasonal, decadal and generational scales offers unique insights into the broader structural constraints and opportunities that influence farmers’ ability to innovate towards sustainable and regenerative food production.

Harnessing the Power of Contemporary Experience

Re-centering farmers as innovators not only provides insights into interlocking constraints and opportunities for transformation, but also offers the potential for systems actors (policy-makers, funders, businesses) to develop the means to support and enhance the creative capacities of farmers. If we begin to see famers as innovators, then we can begin to see the field of agriculture itself as a vast space of ecological experimentation and a plurality of existing contemporary knowledges (De sousa Santos 2014). This in turn opens vast possibilities for forms of distributed and large-scale innovation, experimentation, and creativity that goes far beyond the limited constraints of narrow systems change.

Working with communities and citizen scientists in Elgeyo Marakwet county, Kenya we are only just beginning to explore the potential of such thinking, but we hope that such work will go some way to not only addressing issues of food sustainability and security but also towards decolonising certain forms of development practice and innovation systems thinking.

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.


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

Davies, M.I., Kipruto, T.K. and Moore, H.L., 2014. Revisiting the irrigated agricultural landscape of the Marakwet, Kenya: tracing local technology and knowledge over the recent past. Azania: archaeological research in Africa 49, 486-523

Davies, M.I.J. and Moore, H.L., 2016. Landscape, time and cultural resilience: a brief history of agriculture in Pokot and Marakwet, Kenya. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 10: 67-87.

de Sousa Santos, B. 2014. Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide. London: Routledge

Kipkorir, B. E. 1983. Historical perspectives of development in the Kerio Valley. In Kipkorir, B. E., Soper, R.C., Ssennyonga., J.W. (eds.). Kerio Valley: Past, Present and Future. Nairobi: Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi, ix–xii.

Moore, H.L. 2018. Prosperity in crisis and the longue durée in Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(7), 1501–1517.

Image credit: Dr Sam Lunn-Rockliffe

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