More than rocket science: the 3 generations of Farmer First

The three ‘generations’ of Farmer First

The first generation represented by the first book on Farmer First covered farmer innovations preceding 1987. The second book, Beyond Farmer First, covered the period between 1987 and 1992. The third book Farmer First Revisited, covered a period between 1992 and 2007. These were marked by workshops at the Institute of Development Studies and shifts of geographical and thematic emphasis.

Summary of basic features of the three generations of Farmer First

Basic features

1st generation:

Farmer First

2nd generation:

Beyond Farmer First

3rd generation:

Farmer First Revisited

Year workshop held 1987 1992 2007
Year book published 1989 1994 2009
Editors Robert Chambers, Arnold Pacey & Lori Ann Thrupp Ian Scoones & John Thompson Ian Scoones & John Thompson
Foreword/preface The editors Robert Chambers Robert Chambers
Number & profile of workshop participants Some 50 social &natural scientists of roughly equal number Some 60 physical & social scientists from diverse range of public, private and voluntary national and international institutions from six continents Some 80 natural & social scientists, farmer leaders and representatives of NGOs, donor agencies and private sector
Number of papers and contributors Twenty-eight papers presented by 52 contributors (an average of 1.8/per paper). Thirty-eight papers presented by 46 contributors (an average of 2.3 per paper). On average, 2.2 contributors per paper
Diversity of countries featured Innovations documented from the most diverse countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Africa dominated with 50% of the papers/innovations presented Innovations from Africa continued to dominate followed by Asia and Latin America
Innovation domain Almost focused on individual crops – mainly food crops but also good coverage for cash crops. More or less the same as Farmer First Considerable shift towards innovations systems (knowledge, networking, learning platforms rather than individual crops.

Champions of Farmer First

Institutionally speaking, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex has been the most loyal and champion of Farmer First. It hosted all the three workshops that provided the input for the three books and its staff members edited the books – the last two by the same editors (Ian Scoones and John Thompson).

Individually speaking, if social, natural and physical scientists around the world were to cast their votes today, I have no doubt they will vote for none other than Robert Chambers. He pioneered and championed Farmer First and remained committed to the process of assembling the rich array of farmer innovations in the three books – co-editing the first and writing foreword for the next two. His forewords, served as a bridge between the generations – from Farmer First to Beyond Farmer First and to Farmer First Revisited.


Farmer First: the Ethiopian perspective

seeds1Ethiopia is a country in the Horn of Africa with a population of 94 million and home to 13 milion small farmers practicing the ‘third agriculture’ – complex, diverse and risk prone (CDR) – as defined in Chambers et al. (1989). In my view, these small farmers truly meet the CDR criteria as shown below:

  • Complex
    The average land holding is 0.5 ha. Each farmer cultivates up to five crops on his/her plot generating 65 million parcels (13mx5).
  • Diverse
    Ecologically diverse – highland and low land (excluding pastoralists). The livelihood is also diverse.
  • Risk prone
    Facing constant risk of drought, pest and other crop/livestock diseases, flooding not to mention the various macro level risks

Ethiopia is home to numerous indigenous crops cultivated and managed by small farmers well before formal research and extension came along.

  • For example, coffee is believed to be Ethiopia’s gift to the world. Visitors to the southern parts of the country find that small farmers manage and harvest forest coffee with little or no extension support in this day and age.
  • Second, teff (Eragrostis tef) is an indigenous cereal crop that has been an orphan crop until very recently but now gaining international recognition for its nutritional and health values.
  • Third, khat (Catha edulis) is a stimulant cultivated and marketed without any research and extension support. Khat producers and traders employ the most innovative marketing systems that generate over US$250 million per year for the Government – at no financial cost, but considerable social costs to which the government has adopted a laissez-faire Despite these negative social costs, there are lessons to be learned from this agricultural activity when it comes to innovation.
  • Finally, Ethiopia has one of the least developed formal seed systems in Africa (if not in the world) that meets less than 10% of the national seed demand. That means, up to 90% of the seed that sustains agricultural production is sourced from farmers’ innovative ways of seed selection and retention.

In spite of this rich agricultural experience spanning thousands of years, Ethiopia is not well covered in the three generations of Farmer First. It was mentioned a couple of times in the first book; not even once in Beyond Farmer First; and it received reasonable coverage in Farmer First Revisited with two chapters and was cited as an example on a few occasions. I am confident, next time round, that the Farmer First champions will give due attention to this country and help document the many innovative ways in which small farmers cope and adapt to various shocks.

Towards a Fourth Generation of Farmer First

The first three generations of Farmer First very much focused on the production aspect of innovation – what farmers do to increase productivity (yield/ha) in the absence of (or assisted by) modern inputs. The third book, Farmer First Revisited, covered innovations in marketing, policy and advocacy and impact assessment, making it probably the most diversified of the three books.

Farmers and ICTs

In my view, the next Farmer First initiative should focus on ICT for farmer innovation – how farmers, extension and research officers use Information and Communications Technology to facilitate farmer innovation.

Ideally, it should begin by exploring what I would call “the technology divide between research and extension”. If one visits a typical district extension office and a research station in the same district, the difference between them in terms of access to information technology is staggering. The same pattern is observable at regional and federal levels. And yet we often complain about the weak research-extension linkage. To facilitate effective linkage between the two, they should have the same level of access to ICT.

This should be followed by identification and description of the ways in which farmers are using ICTs to facilitate their work. For example, in one of my visits to East Shewa Zone in Oromia region, I learned that farmers take pictures of plants affected by certain diseases using their mobile phone cameras, and take them to the nearby extension office for a solution. Ideally, the extension officer should link the mobile to his/her laptop, download the picture and link it to the internet to find a match which could then propose solution.

Row planting using plastic bottles

The second innovative practice currently tried in Ethiopia is the use of plastic bottles to row plant teff. The seeds of this crop are so small that row planting (by hand) has been inconceivable to farmers, extension workers and researchers. Local researchers have not also developed appropriate technology because of this unique characteristic. Globally no effort has been made because it is considered an orphan crop. For these reasons, teff productivity has been lower than most crops produced by small farmers in Ethiopia.

More recently, the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) has been looking at how teff productivity can be increased by drawing on lessons from other crops such as wheat and rice. Row planting is the first that came to mind and tools that are used for other crops have been imported and tried.

During my visit to South West Shewa Zone of Oromia, I came across a farmer who devised a mechanism for row planting teff using plastic water bottles thereby promoting recycling. This tool considerably reduces the burden (which is back breaking) of row planting.

Mobile banking

Thirdly, it is worth exploring how mobile banking has broken the financial barrier – an area in which Ethiopia is still finding its feet, but some African countries have advanced much further.

Ending poverty is more than rocket science

Like most of you, I often come across the expression ‘this is not rocket science’ whenever social issues such as poverty reduction and increasing agricultural productivity are discussed.

But I would argue that these are more than rocket science. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.” Two years later, in 1963, he said “we have the means, we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We need only the will.”

Within a year of setting the first goal, the USA started sending missions to space. In 1969 the goal was fully accomplished when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and declared “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. Fifty years later, we in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular are still struggling with poverty and hunger. The indications are that that the last poor and hungry man and woman may be left in this part of the world unless we begin to acknowledge that eradicating poverty is more than rocket science.

Amdissa Teshome is a researcher and consultant based at the Africa Regional Office of Tufts University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was the Ethiopia country coordinator for the Future Agricultures Consortium from 2006-2010.

Photos: Farmer First Revisited book launch in Parliament (STEPS Centre/Flickr) / Varieties of sorghum, (gatesfoundation / Flickr)