Research & Development – African Perspectives

Heavily cropped collines are the norm in the highlands of Burundi where there is little arable land to go around

Long and meandering blog…

Those of us coming from the West (or Western trained) tend to separate technology and its research from the social-political and environmental contexts in which it is (or should be) working. Sometimes that is ‘ok’ – but for successful adoption, perhaps not…

Over the years I have worked with about a half a dozen members of the CG* system, as trainer, researcher, and at times as external evaluator; as well, with international agricultural and development organizations and also with NGOs. Throughout this work (which continues, primarily as a consultant) I continue to be frustrated by the ways in which particular ideologies – or development paradigms – are cherished by persons and organizations who have trouble seeing beyond their ‘box’. That is to say, fail to take account of local conditions.

* CGIAR: The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research:

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is a global partnership that unites organizations engaged in research for sustainable development with the funders of this work…

This problem as it existed in agricultural research especially in the 70s and early 80s, has been explained this way:

With few historical guideposts, scientists working on Africa’s food crops and livestock in the 1970s [and 80s] did not always immediately identify the most successful research strategies.

Breeding and agronomic trials were often conducted in higher-rainfall areas or under irrigation. The principal response to weather risk was the search for shorter cycle cultivars, which occurred over all the semiarid regions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Agronomic and varietal recommendations often failed to account for agro-ecological differences in a country, making them inappropriate for most farmers.

Limited knowledge of local conditions drove a shift toward farming systems research, simply to understand farmers’ practices, so that appropriate techniques could be developed.

Source: Agricultural Technology Development and Transfer in Africa: Impacts Achieved and Lessons Learned. James F. Oehmke et al. Michigan State University 1997.

So, there have been improvements. Now, the incorporation of  ‘real world’ dynamics into applied research is taken more and more as a necessity. For example, in the current case of addressing the very serious cassava diseases raging throughout East and central Africa, there is increasing collaboration amongst research organizations (IITA* and others) and the NGOs that are implementing programs for multiplication and distribution of improved cassava planting materials to targeted populations. Here in Burundi that includes Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, and CARITAS.

*IITA: International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan Nigeria

Conducting trials in different micro-ecosystems in a country is now more common, although there are continued difficulties here (Burundi) because of the micro-ecosystems that sometimes may be as small as several square meters. In these instances, it is the farmer who has been cultivating the area for many years who often has the best idea of what might or might not be appropriate by way of planting materials.

When I initially began training researchers at IITA and elsewhere in ways to work with farmers as part of identifying research priorities and setting up joint on-station, on-farm trials, there was considerable opposition. A number of the researchers had never worked with – let alone discussed with farmers their opportunities and constraints. It was just not seen as very ‘scientific’.

And I have to say, some of the African researchers trained in Europe and North America can be caught ‘betwixt and between’, in that their studies have often been carried out in the context of sophisticated equipment and other inputs that simply are not available in this part of the world. Some donors have been developing programs to deal with this problem, notably the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Dr. Keba visiting our village and farmer-trial with sweet corn (Kenyan). Keba is a plant scientist who did her PhD in the States, completed several years work with ICRAF, and now is working in her home country of Botswana

Some time back I was asked by the National Academy of Sciences, BOSTID (Board on Science and Technology for International Development) program, to evaluate a large and long-term research project in the Sahel that was to have developed agroforestry interventions for smallholders. In fact, after 10 years of the program, not a single species trial had made it onto a farmer’s field; the trials were beautifully designed and run and even the farmer-led trials appeared reasonable – though, on examination, they were actually run by the researchers not the farmers.

That was in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, across the semi-arid acacia belt. The project was a failure by way of farmer adoption and so I had to report it as such. Fortunately, BOSTID and NAS staff agreed about the problems of approach (not a case of whether to do the research, but how to do it and who to incorporate), and I continued with several further activities with BOSTID in East Africa…

On the other side – the ‘non-scientific side’ – there are so many well-meaning NGOs, church organizations, and other donor-funded projects that simply slip by the wayside after initially being set up and run a few years. Giving a family a goat is one of my favorites, because I’ve been (and still am) active in small ruminant training projects here in Burundi.

The ‘given goat’ is a nice gift, but precisely that – a gift. Don’t expect any changes in nutrition (etc) in the family beyond either the eating or the selling of the gifted goat. And across Africa, goat milk is just not drunk.

One of the two herds of improved bucks coming in from browsing;
they require more care and inputs that indigenous goats, but better outputs
(more meat; milk)

 But there are increasing numbers of NGOs who are bringing on board well-trained agronomists, animal scientists, social scientists, trainers, etc to help design and implement programs that may have a chance to work.

So, the boundaries of 25+ years ago, between the so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences (and approaches) are indeed softening, but not very quickly. Donors want their money spent, usually FAST, and that leads to other difficulties.

For example, the donor may fund an organization to buy 2000 goats for 1000 families, to be distributed within 6 months and to develop and give training in goat husbandry to local extension staff. Sounds easy, but a set of objectives such as this can be a real nightmare – and if carried out successfully, what will be the result? What will happen to the 2 goats in each family?

Another problem: donors who insist that the project work ONLY with the ‘poorest of the poor.’ Looks nice on paper, but completely ignores patron-client and elite dynamics in the project area. It’s often not realistic and I’ve seen many projects that have been sabotaged in one way or another because of this problem.

Similar dynamics with projects dealing with agroforestry, small enterprise development, improved kitchen gardens, etc… The focus is often placed on distribution (of seedlings, or etc) and not on how the activities will be supported after the project is finished. To my mind, this is one of the most serious problems: inattention to institutional structures that will sustain project activities, and particularly market dynamics. Often, it is the local elites who take over project activities – certainly not necessarily for the ‘poorest’, either.

Sometimes inputs are such that only the poor will be interested in them. But then, the activity may be fairly minor.

For people and organizations that are armed with ‘free market’ views of the world, again, the social context slips away and one is left with… Sometimes very unworkable schemes. Market / economic analyses exist only on paper – the reality of market and economic dynamics that is between people and institutions is not always the same as the analysis. This distinction is often missed.

I certainly don’t have any quick fixes on all of this. Applied research, development, implementation are – for me – very context specific and must be approached accordingly. In future blogs I will give some examples with my own work with livestock, with agroforestry, with contract farming, with grain and dairy production, etc….

Farming communities in the east of Burundi can be isolated and difficult to reach for purposes of training, etc.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Agriculture, Research & Development, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Research & Development – African Perspectives

  1. Pingback: ndri karnal, ndri clone, ndri projects, ndri training, summer training ndri, dairy research, dairy research training

  2. yolanda says:

    i’ll look forward to the future posts


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s