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Sustainable agriculture: “Bridging the knowledge gap between farmers and scientists” – AlertNet

June 24, 2012

Sustainable agriculture: “Bridging the knowledge gap between farmers and scientists” – AlertNet.

In their RIO+20 Call-to-action, CGIAR urged to support knowledge sharing systems that engage with smallholder farmers to improve the management of their crops, livestock and natural resources in order to increase production as well as minimize negative environmental impacts.

We asked four CGIAR knowledge management specialists to share their experiences with us: Peter Ballantyne (International Livestock Research Institute – ILRI), Simone Staiger (International Center for Tropical Agriculture –CIAT), Petr Kosina (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center-CIMMYT) and Nadia Manning-Thomas (CGIAR Consortium Office).

People often frown when hearing the term ‘Knowledge Sharing’, categorizing it as ‘development jargon’ and ‘a buzzword’…

Peter: Far from being a ‘buzzword’, knowledge sharing is the central purpose of CGIAR. Without it, the knowledge we generate, might as well be locked up for life. In ILRI, knowledge directly reaches smallholder farmers – and their knowledge reaches ILRI – through collaboration with many of our partners working closely with rural communities.

Nadia: I don’t think of it as buzzword either. Knowledge is data and information that has been understood, experienced and applied. ‘Sharing’ is a two way process of giving and receiving, and all the ways in which this can be done both effectively and to the satisfaction of both parties. So, ‘knowledge sharing’ is about finding the ways in which this can best be done, and promoting and supporting these ways to be used in the right way, at the right time, with the right people, and towards the right goals.

Simone: I agree! While science and research constantly produce promising results, the international ‘research-for-development’ community frequently questions the impact those results have, in terms of tangible development outcomes. Achieving development outcomes depends to a large extend on our capacity to generate changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and practices of actors involved. Knowledge sharing, capacity strengthening and learning are key activities to achieve those changes. They enhance the use and adaptation of scientific results and insights; and they boost the innovation capacity of smallholder farmers.

Can you give us some practical examples of where you used knowledge sharing in your work?

Petr: CIMMYT pioneered farmer participatory approaches in agronomy research and breeding back in the 1970s and 1980s to bridge the communication gap between researchers and farmers.

An example is ‘Take it to the farmer,’ a component of the MasAgro initiative in Mexico. Proven technologies are being tested and promoted in the fields of farmers, who –in turn- are interested in actively sharing their experiences with neighbors and the broader farming community. MasAgro also helps to strengthen the communication skills of a new generation of extension workers. More recently, newer information and communications technologies are being used as support tool in many ways. Examples include Conservation Earth, a customized GoogleEarth application to monitor adoption. Maize Doctor and Wheat Doctor provide information on production constraints, solutions, and prevention, for those crops.

Peter: In India and Mozambique, ILRI is partnering with local and international NGOs as well as local communities, forming ‘innovation platforms’ where the various individuals engage in dialogue. They jointly learn about ways that women and other vulnerable groups can benefit from goat value chains. Actions grow from the shared ideas and local knowledge of the participants that are brought together in this platform.

Nadia: As Peter has mentioned earlier: Knowledge sharing is really at the core of CGIAR’s work, so there are plenty of examples: In May 2008, some 50 farmers from Syria, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea met with researchers for a four-day International Farmers’ Conference organized by ICARDA’s Barley Research group. But instead of the standard conference format, the farmers were asked to share their experiences of farming and plant breeding through storytelling. This allowed them to share their needs, contexts and own efforts in breeding crops.

In Laos, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) uses the Rice Knowledge Bank as mechanism to bring the results of local research to farmers through the government extension service, the National Rice Research Program, NGOs, the private sector, and the agricultural colleges.

Simone: Another example is how we use ‘Learning Alliances‘, relying on an iterative learning process jointly undertaken among multiple stakeholders with a common interest or goal. Typically, stakeholders might include research organizations, development and cooperation agencies, universities, policy makers and private businesses. Learning Alliances create healthy innovation systems that provide a space for cumulative and shared knowledge about approaches, methods and policies that work in different places, cultural contexts, and times, as well as those that do not, and the reasons for success or failure. The Learning Alliance CIAT participated in contributed to change in organizations working with 33,000 rural families, approximately 175,000 people, in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Seems like knowledge sharing is not just ‘bringing research to the farmers’, but also acts as a conduit between farmers, and brings farmers’ knowledge to researchers…

Petr: One thing is technology development on research stations and another is its applicability and adaptability in the real-life conditions of farmers’ fields. For instance: Adoption of conservation agriculture in central Mexico took off only after the experience and knowledge of end-users—the farmers—were seriously considered. The development of suitable mechanization and implements constitutes a good example. Early prototypes went through repeated rounds of modification based on feedback from farmers from diverse agroecologies.
This is something one doesn’t get from a technical report: researchers and farmers had to work shoulder-to-shoulder in the field to understand each other. Even in case of the most simple and successful technologies, farmers do not just blindly adopt them, but adjust and tweak technologies for maximum benefit. Researchers must be there to observe, discuss, and understand, and possibly propose potential new solutions—although it is often the farmer who brings forth the solutions.

Nadia: After the ICARDA Farmers’ Conference I mentioned earlier, Maatougui Mohammed, a researcher, came to me and said “In my experience farmers have a lot of good knowledge, skills and experience—they are doing a lot of experimentation and implementation on their own often with great success. We, researchers can learn a lot from them. They do need our research, but we should also take into account their situations, problems, what they know and what they are doing.” That, to me, clearly illustrates that knowledge sharing is not a one-way street.

Peter: In the many projects at ILRI, ‘knowledge sharing’ comprises processes of interaction, learning, engagement and exchange in which the knowledge of local people, other institutions and ILRI researchers is combined to find solutions. In Ethiopia, ILRI is using participatory video in several research sites as a way to empower communities to document and share their knowledge, AND provide insights of local community members that researchers and others can learn from.

Through this approach, community members make their own videos, write their own storylines, and feature themselves and their voices in the leading roles. Through participatory video, community knowledge is captured and shared – to inform local activities and to guide ILRI interventions. In another project,communities shared their video with neighbouring communities, fostering peer-to peer learning.

Simone: Another example is ‘Climate Analogues‘, a methodology CCAFS(the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security) developed. It enables farming communities around the world to exchange their knowledge in climate change adaptation. The research team is now piloting a series of farmer exchanges between sites in East and West Africa and South Asia to help farmers see for themselves the changes in store and learn about adaptation strategies that could be applied back home. The farmer-to-farmer exchanges will also help researchers understand whether successful adaptation options in one place are indeed transferable to another.

You make it sound easy!

Nadia: Knowledge sharing does face some substantial challenges, in some cases from working with smallholders. But often many of the strongest challenges come from the reluctance or barriers set up by institutions working with smallholders. Challenges range from those that require creativity to overcome such as language and cultural differences to those that require changes in budgets, skill sets, and time allocations in projects. Many challenges spring from issues of scale.

Simone: Both research and development organizations need to make significant changes in attitudes and practices while also creating clear incentives for effective learning. These organizations should also assign higher value to emerging knowledge and insights, which do not easily fit in project logical frameworks or academic journals. And they must allow for more collaboration across research and development boundaries. In addition, better documentation and measurement of results in a consistent and statistically valid manner are needed to complement current efforts focused on qualitative changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills, and practices.

Petr: According to me, the biggest challenge is ‘time’: knowledge sharing is a serious work involving planning, implementing processes, and then evaluating what occurs. It is not just ‘presenting something to somebody’. Part of knowledge sharing process is also listening and reflecting, but this is hard to ‘budget’ in a project.
Another fact is that hardly any university curriculum prepares graduates for applied agricultural research, for collaboration with small-scale farmers, or for facilitation of communication and knowledge sharing; these skills are generally not developed until after graduates hit the reality on the ground. This needs to change; we are not here anymore to work FOR ‘poor framers’, but to work WITH farmers, recognizing their experience and knowledge and facilitating its sharing.

At RIO+20, CGIAR advocates for a sustainable agriculture. Science plays a pivotal role in an ‘agriculture for the future’. But science by itself is not enough, if it does not get to the smallholder farmer. At CGIAR, we believe in sharing our scientific research. We strongly believe our science, both the findings and the process, belong in the public domain, for the better good of all. But even more importantly, we should act as a conduit allowing farming communities to share their knowledge, experience and feedback amongst themselves and towards the scientists.

CGIAR is a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for a food secure future. CGIAR research is dedicated to reducing rural poverty, improving human health and nutrition, and ensuring more sustainable management of natural resources. It is carried out by the 15 centers who are members of the CGIAR Consortium in close collaboration with hundreds of partner organizations, academia and the private sector.