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'African Farmer': more than just a game

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Development of Africa’s smallholder agriculture sector and the introduction and application of new technologies and practices are critical for reducing rural poverty, improving economic growth and enhancing human welfare across the region. Yet there is also a clear need for a new vision for agricultural development that can guide these efforts, while responding to the dynamics of agrarian change in Africa’s complex farming environments.

But whose vision should this be? How can risk and uncertainty be dealt with effectively? How can issues of gender, equity and social inclusion be taken into consideration in the design and implementation of these new initiatives? How can the ‘hardware’ of agricultural science and technology be linked to the ‘software’ of more democratic and effective institutions and policy processes? How should new investments in agricultural research and development be governed so that they benefit smallholder women and men farmers, who represent the vast majority of Africa’s agricultural producers?

While reflecting on these questions, I recognised that my colleagues and I could conduct new research, write more papers and books and share our findings and recommendations with development professionals and decision-makers in Africa and elsewhere, but these were unlikely to provide the kinds of insights that would confront their biases and raise awareness about the real opportunities and challenges facing Africa’s small farmers. Instead, I thought, ‘What if we tried something radically different, something that was both highly entertaining and deeply compelling, something that drew people in and allowed them to experience (vicariously, at least) the trade-offs and challenges faced by Africa’s producers on a daily basis? A computer-based simulation, perhaps?’

These insights led me to seek out collaborators in the Department of Informatics at the University of Sussex – Judith Good, Jim Jackson and Ellie Martin – to help design and develop a new computer game that would simulate farmer decision-making under uncertainty: the African Farmer Game.

Now, after more than three years of development and testing and with the generous support of the UK Department of International Development (DFID) and the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), it gives me great pleasure to announce that we have created two versions of African Farmer: a single-player version that can be played on a laptop or desktop computer, and a multi-player game that requires a group of players and a Game Manager.

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Playing the game at the Institute of Development Studies, March 2014

These draw ideas and inspiration from key elements of a number of pioneering educational board games developed in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, particularly the Green Revolution Game (devised by Graham Chapman and Elizabeth Dowler) and Africulture (developed by Graham Chapman, Henk de Zeeuw and Janice Jiggins), as well as other more recent games (such as Andrew Dorward’s Kupanda Game).

The main aim of African Farmer is to bring alive to participants what life is like for a small farmer living in a rapidly changing society in a risk-prone environment. The simulation demonstrates clearly the complexity of decision-making, even in a simplified model of an agricultural society, and helps sensitise players to the impact of agrarian change from the small farmer's point of view.

Each participant is provided with land, labour and agricultural inputs to represent a family's farm and its resources. Each farmer makes her or his own decisions about the pattern of farming and level of investment in seeds, fertiliser and other key inputs. Faced with an uncertain social and physical environment, the participants go through seasonal cycles of production, feeding their families, selling or storing any surplus crops, and purchasing and applying new resources. They experience the constraints under which small farmers in the real world must operate.

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Some discover that with the necessary investments and some good fortune they can get ahead, while others who encounter economic, social or physical shocks and stresses soon realise that short-term survival (of themselves and their families) can outweigh long-term plans and ambitions.

Both versions of African Farmer Game take players on a journey. They might start the game with clear ideas about the ‘right’ farming strategy and committed to educating their children but soon find themselves confounded by circumstances. Can they really afford to send their children to school when labour is so scarce and the payback is so far into the future? Should they honour an agreement to repay a loan to a neighbour when it means their child will die from malnutrition? The risk calculus and ethical landscape is often significantly different from what they imagined. The game aims to help players see things from the ‘inside’ (from the perspective of a small farmer with limited means and pressing concerns), to understand that what may seem obvious or right from the ‘outside’, may not actually be the best option, or indeed possible, for those living in the situation.

Our initial target audiences for African Farmer are senior undergraduate and graduate students and development professionals working in universities, research institutes, NGOs and international organisations who are working on agriculture and rural development issues. However, we believe there is also potential to expand the scope of the game to non-specialists, as it is much less about the technical aspects of African agriculture and much more about responding to uncertainty, dealing with complex trade-offs and making decisions with incomplete knowledge and serious resource constraints, a common set of challenges that poor people face everywhere.

I invite you to download both versions and the associate software and guides and to try them for yourself – and with your students and colleagues. As you will see, the objective of African Farmer is not to ‘win’ a prize or gain points as in traditional computer games. There is no one right way to play the game or to ‘win’. There is a multiplicity of goals that players can pursue – agricultural, nutritional, financial and social. Whatever your goals may be, I hope you will discover that we have created a computer-based simulation that is challenging, engaging and inspiring in equal measure. I would welcome your reactions to the game and your contributions to its continuing development and improvement.

Dr John Thompson is Project Coordinator of The African Farmer Game. He is Research Fellow in Knowledge, Technology and Society at the Institute of Development Studies, UK, where he serves as Regional Coordinator of the Future Agricultures Consortium and Food and Agriculture Convenor of the ESRC STEPS Centre.

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  • Guest
    Itue miriam Wednesday, 30 April 2014

    My name is miriam from AFrica cameroon. I am very please with the work you people have doen.
    About the future of african farmers . I am a farmer and am interested about the development of rural agriculture and development.the AFrica farmers game is very educative to me but since we have a problem in Africa ,most farmers are not educated and not to talk about having a computer. I Will like to be a part of this AFrica farmers game project.job well done and hope to hear from you while i read more on your site .
    My regards miriam

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