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Book Release


Farmer First
Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development

Edited by Ian Scoones and John Thompson

Foreword by Robert Chambers



Transforming Agriculture through Farmer-Centred Innovation

24 June 2009

Talking Farmer-Centred Innovation at the Science Forum 2009

On 16 June 2009, IDS Research Fellow Dr John Thompson and a distinguished panel of experts officially launched two new books that emphasise the importance of putting farmers at the centre of agricultural innovation and development: Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development and Innovaton Africa: Enriching Farmers’ Livelihoods.

The launch took place at the Science Forum 2009 in The Netherlands. Given the Forum’s emphasis on making agricultural science, technology and innovation work for development, it provided the ideal location to highlight new lessons from the two books.

Panellists included Dr Mark Holderness, Executive Secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, Professor Niels Röling, Emeritus Professor of Communication and Innovation Studies at Wageningen UR, Ms Chesha Wettasinha, Agriculturalist, EcoCulture, ETC Foundation. It was chaired by Dr Hansjörg Neun, Director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU.

Opportunities for transforming agriculture

The panellists observed that 2009 presents some real opportunities for transforming agriculture and really putting farmers in the driving seat of change:

The global food crisis has concentrated minds on the precarious state of the world’s food system and pushed agriculture to the top of the international agenda.

Recent milestone publications and initiatives, including the World Bank’s World Development Report 2008 and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), have helped to revitalise the debate on the importance of agricultural science and technology, and have emphasised the central role of small farmers in driving agricultural-led growth and development.

The new CGIAR Change Management Initiative opens up possibilities for redefining the priorities of the international agricultural research system so that they focus on the right questions and are driven by the development needs of poor producers and consumers. A key part of this process will involve the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) in Montpellier, France, in March 2010.

Interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New and substantial funding in agriculture research for development from the Gates Foundation has sparked interest among the global donor community. In particular, their support of AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – opens up major opportunities (and challenges) in the world’s poorest region.

The panel members noted that a big question remains whether these efforts will result in the sort of vision of agricultural research and development that the Farmer First movement has been arguing for over two decades. There are dangers in the seemingly inevitable rush to find quick solutions and silver bullets. We have been here before. Have the lessons been learned from the limitations of earlier Green Revolutions, and the limits of a technical or market fix to complex agricultural development problems?

Yet, as the panellists noted, things need not start from a blank slate and there is plenty of experience to build on. The dozens of contributors to both Farmer First Revisited and Innovation Africa showed that much progress has been made to foster farmer-centred innovation for development.

Supporting farmer-centred innovation

Drawing from both books, the panel members highlighted four key areas that must be addressed to make farmer-centred innovation work for development:

The need to move from an exclusive focus on farmers, farms and technologies to broader innovation systems – markets, institutions, politics and policies really matter, too. This requires new skills, new partnerships and new institutional configurations – largely absent in most agricultural research and development systems. Moreover, while new science and technology is important, it is not the only – and maybe not the most important – part of the puzzle.

• The need to revamp agricultural education systems for a new era.
Stuck in the 1960s or 70s, most curricula do not address the challenges of today. Methodologies that recast the way we do research, appraisal or monitoring and evaluation are well known, tried and tested, but not yet centrally part of the curriculum. Educating new professionals in new ways of thinking and doing is vital, if Farmer First approaches are to move from the margins to the mainstream.

The need to overhaul incentive and reward systems to put farmers first and promote ‘participatory innovation systems’. Instead of the standard metrics of research publication outputs, research that puts farmers first and meets farmers’ needs should be valued and appreciated. Career and promotion pathways for scientists who learn from and with farmers, and develop new technologies or practices in a participatory way should be the ones who gain the accolades – and get the core funding.

The need to put ‘a politics of demand’ at the centre of a new set of accountability mechanisms for research and development. This requires building capacity and voice for farmer organisations so they can exert pressure and demand for appropriate research and other services. But it also means having more responsive delivery organisations. In a re-imagined CGIAR, for example, surely farmers’ organisations should dominate the Board, the priority setting committees and the monitoring and evaluation panels?



Related Audio:

22 04 2009 Farmer First Revisited launch
recording of the launch at Parliament for 'Farmer First Revisited', part of the 'Dangerous Ideas in Development' series

Farmer First Revisited launch


Highlighted Books:

  • Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development (Practical Action 2009) edited by Ian Scoones and John Thompson
  • Innovation Africa: Enriching Farmers’ Livelihoods (Earthscan 2008) edited by Pascal Sanginga , Ann Waters-Bayer , Susan Kaaria , Jemimah Njuki , Chesha Wettasinha)


  • Farmer First Revisited is also co-published and distributed by CTA, free-of-charge under a credit-point scheme, to subscribers in ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) countries, through its Publications Distribution Service (PDS). To become a PDS subscriber, please request an application form by writing to: CTA Publications Distribution Service, Postbus 173, 6700 AD Wageningen, The Netherlands (for further information visit




"Farmer First Revisited is a powerful testament to the impact the Farmer First approach to agricultural research and development has had and continues to have in the twenty years since the first volume on this topic was published." Joachim Voss, Independent Consultant, formerly Director General, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Colombia

"A brilliant account of why we need to continue questioning conventional assumptions about agriculture, and why multiple knowledges and sources of innovation are more important than ever."
Judi Wakhungu, Executive Director, African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi and co-chair International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Knowledge and Technology for Development.

"Farmer First Revisited is a timely publication. I hope that this book will be read and used widely for fostering an evergreen revolution in our farms, leading to enhancement of productivity and profitability in perpetuity without associated ecological harm."
M.S. Swaminathan, Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), Chairman, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India



Agriculture is an urgent global priority and farmers find themselves in the front line of some of the world’s most pressing issues—climate change, globalization and food security. Twenty years ago, the Farmer First workshop held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, launched a movement to encourage farmer participation in agricultural research and development (R&D), responding to farmers’ needs in complex, diverse, risk-prone environments, and promoting sustainable livelihoods and agriculture.

Since that time, methodological, institutional and policy experiments have unfolded around the world. Farmer First Revisited returns to the debates about farmer participation in agricultural R&D and looks to the future. With over 60 contributions from across the world, the book presents a range of experiences that highlight the importance of going beyond a focus on the farm to the wider innovation system, including market interactions as well as the wider institutional and policy environment. If, however, farmers are really to be put first, a politics of demand is required in order to shape the direction of these innovation systems. This calls for a major rethinking of agricultural R&D, the boosting of the knowledge and capacities of farmers’ organizations to innovate, the strengthening of networks and alliances to support, document and share lessons on farmer-led innovation, and the transformation of agricultural higher education.

Farmer First Revisited should be read by students, policy makers, development professionals, and natural and social scientists aiming to bring the concerns of grassroots farmers to the forefront.

Please contact for more information.


Photo: Lance Bellers. More workshop photos

Farmer-led Innovation in Agricultural Research and Development

In July 1987, some 50 social and natural scientists of roughly equal numbers met at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK, for a workshop on ‘Farmers and Agricultural Research: Complementary Methods', later more generally known as the ‘Farmer First' workshop. That workshop marked a key moment in the development of approaches to farmer participation in agricultural research and extension, drawing together experiences from a diverse range of individuals and organisations from both North and South. Since then, methodological, institutional and policy experiments have unfolded around the world, aimed at putting farmers first.

Twenty years on, at a time of renewed interest in agriculture for development and a wide recognition of the importance of effective research and development systems, it is worth asking how have these participatory experiments panned out? What have been the successes and failures, and what lessons have been learned? Moreover, given the radically changed contexts facing poor farmers in the developing world today – including increasingly globalised and vertically integrated agri-food systems, changed configurations of public and private R&D, and new governance arrangements affecting innovation systems – how should the challenges and priorities of farmer participation in agricultural research and extension be seen in the 21st century?

Overview paper >>>
Post-workshop summary paper >>>

Farmer First Revisited

To address these urgent questions, reflect on past successes, failures and missed opportunities, and look forward to new challenges, the Future Agricultures Consortium in association with the STEPS Centre at Sussex hosted an international workshop, ‘Farmer First Revisited', at IDS from 12-14 December 2007 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original ‘Farmer First' event. This website presents information for participants and other interested readers on this major workshop and related efforts that aim to put farmers first. We invite you to contribute to the debates highlighted in these pages through the blog and the ‘wiki' timeline.

Related Publications

Scoones, I and Thompson, J (2009) Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development, Oxford: ITDG Publishing
Thompson, J and Scoones, I (1994) Beyond Farmer First: Rural Peoples' Knowledge, Agricultural Research and Extension Practice, London: International Institute for Environment and Development

Scoones, I and Thompson, J (1994) 'Beyond Farmer First: Rural People's Knowledge, Agricultural Research and Extension Practice'

Chambers, R, Pacey, A and Thrupp, L.A. (1989) 'Farmer First: Farmer Innovation and Agricultural Research'

Inovation Africa
Enriching Farmers' Livelihoods
Edited By Pascal C. Sanginga, Ann Waters-Bayer, Susan Kaaria, Jemimah Njuki and Chesha Wettasinha

Innovation Africa



Dangerous Ideas" Series Book launch of Farmer First
April 22, 2009


Farmer First Revisited Workshop (December 2007)

Robert Chambers' opening speech (27mins)

Wale Adekunle of FARA

Final wrap-up panel

Media coverage

New Agriculturist: Points of view

New Agriculturist: Farmer First Revisited Podcast

New Agriculturist: FFR programme for African radio stations

Other Resources

Post-workshop summary
Ian Scoones, John Thompson and Robert Chambers

Farmer First Revisited: Some Reflections on the Future of the CGIAR
Ian Scoones, John Thompson and Robert Chambers

Photos from the workshop

Farmer First Retrospect and Prospect
Workshop Overview paper
Ian Scoones, John Thompson and Robert Chambers

Future Agricultures
STEPS Centre