Evidence uptake and use to transform Africa: Lessons from the “Utafiti Sera” model

APRA members from Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria attended a two-day convening meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, which was organised by Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR). The main objective of the meeting was to bring together 120 participants from 20 countries and diverse disciplines (including practitioners, researchers, scientists, activists, government officials and policy makers) to share and learn from unique different approaches to Evidence Informed Decision Making (EIDM). EIDM would help to build on various efforts in which researchers have worked with policy actors, decision makers and other stakeholders to advance policy formulation and action in Africa.

The use of scientific evidence to inform policy decision-making in is crucial due to the transformation sweeping across Africa. However, there is recognition that Africa is still lagging when it comes to evidence use to inform policy and program processes. One of the reasons that have been documented to this lack of evidence use is a lack of capacity to do so. To deal with this challenge, PASGR has partnered with Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP, Kenya), Centre for African Bio-Entrepreneurship (CABE, Kenya), Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR, Rwanda) LEAP Africa (Nigeria) and Pamoja Trust (Kenya) to implement a model to bridge the gap between evidence and policy processes. The model is called “Utafiti Sera,” a Swahili word for “research policy.” The Utafiti Sera model builds a community of researchers and policy actors working together to ensure that appropriate and negotiated policy actions and uptake occur around issues for which evidence has been provided.

In his remarks, Professor Tade Aina, the executive director of PASGR stressed that this whole idea of EIDM has come with the growing recognition that there are a lot of people that are doing research work to inform policy, young researchers are on the rise, many universities have good data, but how evidence and data is being used to inform policy remains a big question. In addition, uptake of evidence in Africa has been slow and most of the initiatives promoted are without evidence that they will work. The executive director further explained that the Utafiti Sera model is a means of sharing research evidence with policy makers, since evidence is very important to bring political and social leaders to the table for negotiations.

The meeting was organised in such a way that there was a keynote address, plenary discussions, as well as breakout sessions. The main topics of discussion were tackling youth unemployment through technical and vocational training and the role of research evidence; innovative approaches to evidence uptake in Africa; and political economy plus political cultures’ influence and impact on evidence uptake. Some of the notable points during the discussions were that mobilisation of knowledge is not just technical but also political and social. What this definition means is that producing technical knowledge or evidence to inform policy is not enough, there is also the need to consider the political ramifications and social relations that exist where the evidence is to be disseminated and used. With this in mind, researchers will be producing evidence and packaging it to suit the political and social environment, hence improving the relevance of the evidence produced.

Regarding innovative approaches, the discussions were around what do we mean by innovation, and what makes something innovative. Here the main argument was that something innovative must be about new creations or new ways of combing existing elements in ways to address the current and/or future challenges. It is also thinking about people at the centre of policy processes and bringing them together to dialogue and provide solutions.  This is where Utafiti Sera comes in. From an economic perspective, Utafiti Sera is like a market of evidence and ideas and research; it creates space, a market place or a forum for evidence produced; and, it also helps to create an environment where all parties are treated equally, acknowledging their importance and not looking at one party, say an academic one, as more important. Some of the innovative approaches discussed included: communication, dialogue, engagements, use of champions, institutionalised transformation for sustainability, and capacity building to embrace evidence uptake. This non-linear policy process was emphasised by Dr. Hannington Odame, Executive Director of CABE, based in Kenya, in his presentation, ‘Charting the path for a youth apprenticeship policy: lessons from Utafiti Sera house on youth employment creation in agriculture and agro-processing in Kenya’.

What was clear from the discussions was that there is a growing understanding that evidence is available, but this does not translate to implementation of policy and initiatives informed by that evidence. This lack of translation is because there is disconnect between the evidence produced and what is being implemented. The meeting tried to identify where the problem lies: is it the part of the evidence producers, the evidence translators or the evidence users? My analysis is that, along the whole chain, something needs to be done. On the part of knowledge-producers, they must produce evidence and package it with the audience in mind, since as customers, the audience need to be convinced beyond doubt that the evidence is important. The knowledge brokers need to simplify the evidence even further to suit the environment in which they are to be used or considered. Evidence users also have a lot to do, starting from building their capacity, to being able to understand the evidence produced, as well as making efforts to use the evidence as much as possible in policy formulation and the planning of different initiatives.

As APRA, the meeting was very important for us to build on our policy engagement plan that we have developed through Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis (PIPA) and Accompanied Learning for Relevance and Effectiveness (ALRE) exercises. We have mapped the main stakeholders to engage through these exercises, to influence uptake of evidence generated from our policy researches and it was important for us to learn how other organisations are managing this, especially from the Utafiti Sera model.

Written by: Loveness Msofi and the APRA team (viz. Olajide Adeola, Blessings Chinsinga, Dawit Alemu and Hannington Odame)

Photo credit: Dawit Alemu

Youth engagement with commercialisation hotspots in Zimbabwe

My interest in youth and agriculture commercialisation stemmed from two pivotal moments in the past decade. One from an ‘accidental finding’ from a 10-year longitudinal study of land beneficiaries of the Fast Track Land Reform (FTLRP) in Sanyati District, Zimbabwe for my doctoral study. Here, young people (children of the first settlers and those from surrounding urban areas) had made deliberate decisions to stay in or step into agriculture production and/or actively engage with the broader rural agrarian economy.  The other pivotal moment came from a meeting with both government and civil society, in which the policy narrative on the developmental challenges of young people in Zimbabwe centred on their disinterest in the agrarian economy and in finding income-earning opportunities that seemed to have an industrialisation and urban focus. This viewpoint and my ‘accidental finding’ called me to question and interrogate the broader narrative on how to relate to the youth challenge and the theory that the rural economy – built around agriculture but encompassing much more – will be able to provide employment opportunities for many millions of young people into the near future.

The theory is that rural areas, where such transformational processes take root, will provide more diverse and better remunerated on- and off-farm employment opportunities for young people. However, to date there has been little research that looks specifically at how rural young people in Africa engage with, or are affected by, two processes closely associated with rural transformation – agricultural intensification and agricultural commercialisation.


The proposition that underpins the APRA Youth Policy Study is that important insights about rural youth and commercialisation can be gained from studying existing commercialisation hotspots. In recent research in the Mvurwi farming area in the Mazowe District, Zimbabwe, we examined steps and pathways with which groups of young people in rural Zimbabwe seek to construct livelihoods in or around areas of significant agricultural commercialisation, and the outcomes associated with these efforts.  In-depth interviews of 40 young people between the ages of 15 to 35 were undertaken.

We identified four possible modes of engagement within commercialisation hotspots: (1) on-farm production, (2) on-farm wage labour, (3) off-farm-wage labour, and (4) business operation. Within each of these modes of engagement there are a range of income-generating activities; for example, on-farm production might entail production of cereal, horticultural or commercial crops (like maize and tobacco); while off-farm wage labour might involve working as a vegetable vendor, shopping assistant or selling clothes or hardware in a flea market. Between and within these different modes of engagement, there are different resource, knowledge and social barriers to entry, and it is these differences that have important implications for those who are able to take advantage of particular opportunities.

The study reveals that, while many young people had not initially placed farming as an aspiration whilst in school, there was disappointment around education and financial need, whereas for others opportunities created by the FTLRP were key motivations for entering the rural economy. Our findings show an agile and determined group of young men and women who have consciously decided to make good on their early setbacks and have turned to the rural economy for a myriad of economic activities to augment their revenue streams. Even though many of the activities engaged with have low barrier to entry, most interviewees still required some form of support from social networks or families to start and maintain their economic activities or to access resources in the form of land, capital and inputs. Engagement in agricultural activities enabled these young people to accumulate a range of assets including residential plots, investment into their own education and that of their children, household goods, vehicles and business operations. Accumulation of these assets reflects the combination of a relatively dynamic rural economy, enabling social relations, plus hard work and determination. 

However, what is of concern is that the livelihood activities of these young people are vulnerable to hazards, which can destroy any economic gains made from their multiple economic activities. The hazards described include drought and unreliable rain, the unstable macro-economic environment, price distortions due to interference by middlemen, ill-health and demand for money to meet obligations of the extended family. Hazards such as these are part of daily life and may necessitate the liquidation of hard-won assets.  As such, young people adopt a ducking and diving approach to navigate the structural, physical and individual hurdles or hazards that they encounter in a bid to forge a living and future within this vibrant rural economy.

The overall conclusion of the study is that an area of intensive agricultural commercialisation, compared to one with limited commercialisation, provides opportunities for young people across the different modes of engagement. It shows that the experiences of these youths in efforts to build their livelihoods deserves policy attention and a shift in the developmental narrative on youth and agriculture.


These findings have two key implications for strategies that seek to promote employment for Africa’s youth who reside in rural areas. Firstly, policy options, for young people in Zimbabwe’s rural economy, need to first acknowledge that the rural economy presents opportunities for young people across the different modes of engagement. Second, policy and existing programmes ought to protect young people’s accumulated gains from hazards in the rural environment. One way to do this is through social protection programmes to support initiatives emerging from within the rural economies themselves, such as the expansion of access to resources under a government subsidy programme, not limited to ownership of land. There may also be opportunities to use programmes to make it less likely that key assets would need to be liquidated in order to meet unexpected or emergency expenses. The findings also have relevance with the need to address issues around quality, completion and outcomes associated with rural people’s education.

Written by: Easther Chigumira

Photo credit: Easther Chigumira

Are African youth innovative?

This is the question that we address in a new article published in the Journal of Rural Studies. Entitled ‘Are African rural youth innovative? Claims, evidence and implications’, the paper is open access and free to download.

Our interest in this question is rooted in the fact that claims about the innovative behaviour of African youth, and their propensity to adopt new technology, have become integral to much policy discourse around youth, agriculture and employment. Because innovation and innovative behaviour are so tightly linked to economic growth, the claim that African youth are innovative – or are particularly innovative – sets the stage for a ‘smart economics’ justification for governments and development organisations investing in them. Simply put, the smart economics argument goes like this: invest in youth because they are innovative and that it is good for economic growth, and specifically it will help deliver the much heralded ‘demographic dividend’.

Claims and arguments like this really matter because they influence resource allocation and choice of development interventions.

The problem is that we could identify no direct or indirect evidence to support the claim that African youth – as a whole – are innovative, or are more innovative than the older generation. Indeed the extensive literature from the North on the relationships between age and innovative behaviour in the work place, or creativity, does not support the proposition that these relations are simple, linear or direct.

These findings do not call into question the urgent need to invest in youth, but they do suggest that alternative framings and justifications for such investment are badly needed. Instead of smart economics, a strong justification could be built around young people’s – indeed everyone’s – right to decent work, and this would open up new perspectives on both policy and intervention.

This article was originally published on the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) site.

Written by: James Sumberg & Stephen Hunt

A lever for agricultural commercialisation? A critical look at the agricultural extension system in Malawi.

In this assessment, we ask the question: is the extension services system in Malawi doing enough to facilitate agricultural commercialisation among smallholder farmers? This question arrives amidst concerns that commercial agriculture in Malawi, especially among small-scale farmers, has not really taken off as farmers struggle to produce and sell their produce. That situation occurred despite the fact the transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming is seen as one of the critical ingredients to economic growth and improvement in peoples’ livelihoods. In addition, there has been extensive government and donor support to the agricultural extension sector to provide the much-needed extension services, to foster agricultural commercialisation among farmers. Here we learn three things: (1) what the system is doing, (2) what it is not doing, and (3), what the system can do.

What the extension system is doing

The assessment draws from a study (the forthcoming APRA study, ‘Livelihood trajectories of households participating in groundnut commercialisation in Malawi’)  in which we asked opinions and experiences of farmers about the role of extension in commercial agriculture, in terms of messages they were getting, sources of information, approaches used and their general view on agricultural extension’s role. We wanted to find out how these have changed over time, from the 1980s to the present. Findings indicate there have been changes in sources of agricultural information overtime. Farmers no longer exclusively rely on government extension officers, but also on extension services provided by other players, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

To some extent this reliance has been beneficial, as it has somehow relieved the government of the cost of reaching out to the growing population of farmers. Furthermore, the pluralist nature of the contemporary extension system has helped the extension system to have a wide range of extension service providers to respond to the demands of farmers which are coming in partly due to attempts to shift from subsistence to commercial farming. The critical question remains: are smallholder farmers in Malawi receiving adequate services to help them commercialise? Some commentators (Masangano and Mthinda, 2012) have argued that with pluralism the provision of extension services is undermined by issues of coordination, often resulting in duplication of effort as well as confusion among the farmers because the extension messages offered by different stakeholders tend to be contradictory.

The findings also show that messages being delivered to farmers have evolved overtime, whilst the extension system is trying to respond to the changing needs of farmers and the emerging developments in the agricultural sector. There is a general consensus that there has been some significant change, from extension messages as production-oriented to market-oriented, to assist farmers in their quest to commercialise. This has mainly been observed regarding the NGOs, who have tried to promote farming as a business, often through their project approach that target specific areas within a specific timeframe. This positive change in the orientation of extension messages has been replicated in the government’s extension delivery efforts. This change has seen the introduction of the agribusiness sub-sector in the extension system designed to teach agribusiness skills among farmers, advise them on market research, train them to conduct gross margin analyses, and link them to markets – including other support services, such as credit and input supply. 

The study also found that there has been a shift from individual approaches of contacting farmers to group approaches coupled with mass communication approaches, especially with the use of radios and mobile phones. These shifts have been made to improve coverage, as well as to help farmers benefit meeting as a group. Group formation has been an important part of the process of commercial farming, as farmers benefit from sharing ideas, learning from each other’s experiences, accessing other services such as loans, buying inputs in bulk and also selling as a group (collective marketing), which helps in accessing better markets and negotiating prices.

What the extension system is not doing

These positive developments notwithstanding smallholder farmers expressed dissatisfaction with the role the extension system is playing in promoting agricultural commercialization, particularly in relation to markets. Farmers acknowledged that access to extension services has helped them change their mindset, to take farming as a business, but they are not happy with the buyers or the prices they are offering. They are concerned that that there is lack of regulation of the informal sector within the marketing of produce, especially groundnuts, which gives the buyers an opportunity to exploit them. Further improvement in the extension system is required, especially in emphasising the primary role of agricultural extension, which include, but is not limited to: changing farmers knowledge; improving farmers skills; persuading farmers to adopt technologies; changing attitudes and perceptions; and facilitating linkages with markets, research and other support services, such as credit, value addition and inputs.

What the extension system needs to do

The extension system must do more to equip farmers with knowledge on what, when and how to produce, so as to match with the consumer demands. In addition, information will empower them to access good markets for their produce. There is need to train farmers in a wide range of skills such as business planning, gross margin analysis, record keeping, negotiation skills which are crucial for commercial farming. This need is in addition to conventional production skills, in terms of recommended agricultural husbandry practices and climate smart agricultural practices. Smallholder farmers should also be exposed to ICT technologies – such as radios and mobile phones – that can help them access production and marketing information. Smallholder farmers must be challenged to take risks and reduce the syndrome of deeply entrenched dependency, plus more needs to be done linking farmers to lucrative markets, as well as promoting value addition in order to improve quality of products which will improve prices at the markets.


There is a need for government and donor commitments to providing funds for agricultural extension services and implementation of the enabling policies so that quality delivery of extension services to farmers can be ensured.

Written by: Loveness Msofi Mgalamadzi, Blessings Chinsinga and Miriam Matita

Photo credit: One Acre Fund, Malawi

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: what’s in it for Africa?

The huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum recently concluded in Beijing. 37 heads of state attended, along with droves of policy advisors and numerous thinktanks and research institutes, including IDS where I work. Monica Mutsvanga, Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, attended on behalf of the Zimbabwe government. By all accounts it was a lavish affair, with grand speeches and big commitments totalling $64 billion. But what to make of it all from an African perspective?

As discussed on this blog several times before (see herehere and here), while Chinese engagements with Africa can be framed in terms of ‘new imperialism’ or part of a benign process of ‘mutual learning’, in practice a more nuanced perspective is needed. African states have agency in the process of negotiation, and the Chinese always adopt an incremental and adaptive approach to policy, in Africa as in China. There is no single top-down plan to be forced on unwilling recipients.

As our studies of Chinese (and Brazilian) investments in African agriculture (in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – reported in an open access World Development issue) showed, what emerges varies from country to country, project to project, depending on how negotiations play out. And this very much depends on which Chinese state owned company, from which province in China, is involved, and how African states and officials negotiate. Sometimes the outcomes are disastrous – inappropriate technologies and failed projects – but sometimes positive dynamics unfold. No surprises here: Chinese engagements are very similar to aid from Denmark, the UK or the US, just more focused on productive infrastructure and perhaps more honest and straightforward.

Beyond the BRI rhetoric

At the BRI Forum there was grand talk of mutual benefit, inclusive approaches and green and sustainable development. Just as with western aid, forget the rhetoric, and look at the practice. Chinese geopolitical and commercial ambitions are clear. The BRI is certainly about regional, even global, political influence, especially through trade. With coal mines and power stations being opened under its banner, forget the green credentials for now. As a strategic player, who plays the (often very) long game, the benefits to China of all the roads, ports and other infrastructure being built are obvious.

This does not mean though that such investments are disadvantageous to host countries and regions, just because China benefits too. The TAZARA railway built between Tanzania and Zambia in the early 1970s still provides an important trade link, assisting economic integration. New investments may too – but only if designed in the right way, and subject to careful deliberation and negotiation at a local level. Being too eager (or desperate) to receive Chinese investment could be dangerous.

Minister Mutsvanga’s speech in Beijing had a hint of this. Repeating the ED ‘mantra’ (her term) that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’, she continued:

Zimbabwe has fertile soils and a favourable climate for farming and agro-industry. It is a treasure trove of much desired mineral wealth. Zimbabwe has gold, diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones. There is the diverse energy offering of hydroelectric power, thermal and coking coal, methane gas. For new and green energy there is, platinum, lithium, uranium and abundant solar. Base metals galore include chrome, nickel, vanadium, tin, rare earths and scores of others.

This sounds more than being open for bilateral negotiations around mutually beneficial investment; more an invitation to a resource grab. The Chinese are not immune to this, as the sorry tale of diamond mining in Marange shows. But it needn’t be this way: being open for business doesn’t mean open for any business on any terms.

Waving the flag, the state-run newspapers in Zimbabwe hailed the minister’s visit, and the prospects for Zimbabwe. But the list of supposed BRI projects – such as the new parliament – were planned long before, and nothing to do with building a corridor for trade. To link with the BRI hype in Beijing, the Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe opened a BRI art exchange exhibition, demonstrating how the two countries were connected. Cultural exchange is certainly a good thing, but Minister Mutsvanga, I think, was looking for more.

Corridors for development?

So what might a corridor development look like that has wider benefits for development, and is not simply a route to facilitating extractivism? A recent study carried out along the eastern seaboard of Africa – in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique – has looked at four very different corridors, all notionally connected to the BRI – LAPSSET, SAGCOT, Nacala and Beira. All involve major port and road/rail developments, linked to a variety of energy and agricultural investments of varying scales (see the earlier blog on Mozambique).

Our research contrasted corridors constructed as ‘tunnels’, conducting valuable resources out of a country and importing goods to metropolitan centres, and ‘networks’, that allow linkages to rural hinterlands and a dynamic of development associated with the investments. Each of our case studies showed elements of both at play.

Corridors, as Euclides Gonsalves explains for Mozambique, are about ‘acts of demonstration’, linking political ambitions to local development. The grand, stylised performances at the BRI Forum in Beijing also play out in villages and project sites in African rural areas. Enlisting and enrolling actors, and material artefacts (grain siloes, extension centres, new roads and so on), are part of the game. Enacting corridors has political and material effects, as some people are included and some excluded, and certain political interests are promoted. The net benefits may be positive, but the performative aspect is key, he argues.

Many corridors are about constructing imaginaries, and creating an economy of expectations, Ngala Chome argues for LAPSSET in Kenya. The corridor has been long planned, and while port facilities are being built in Lamu, many follow-on investments have not yet materialised. Anticipation, expectation and speculation create a new political economy around prospective corridor sites, as we see in the pastoral rangelands of Isiolo where the pipeline and road is expected to traverse. As our work under the PASTRES project shows, pastoralists in these areas complain this has resulted in a massive growth in speculative land deals.

A struggle over development and its directions is unleashed by corridor developments. Everyone has been crying out for investment, but when it comes, the terms of incorporation are inevitably uneven. As Emmanuel Sulle shows for the sugar and rice plantations in the SAGCOT corridor area of Tanzania, processes of displacement and disenfranchisement unfold. And this is even with ‘inclusive’ business models, such as outgrower schemes, heavily promoted by agricultural investors across the corridors.

Networks not tunnels

What are the policy recommendations from our APRA corridors research? Here are the highlights:

  • Policy appraisal must include political economy analysis to explore the potential winners and losers. External capital/infrastructure investment mobilises local interests, including local capital and the state, creating new patterns of differentiation. This means appraisal must go beyond the standard economic assessment to a wider social and political analysis.
  • The design of a corridor – and the associated business models promoting agricultural investment – make a big difference. Opportunities for a more networked organisation, avoiding the limitations of a ‘tunnel’ design, need to be explored, especially around the design of transport infrastructure that can benefit local economies.
  • Terms of inclusion and exclusion in corridors are mediated through a range of local institutional and political processes. For example, land speculation and the revitalisation of older conflicts over resources may occur as a result of corridor development. Benefits may be unevenly shared in already unequal societies, with women and poorer households missing out.
  • Processes for negotiating corridor outcomes require the mobilisation of less empowered actors – including women and poorer people – and their organisation around clear guidelines – such as those within the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on land tenure – that ensure terms of incorporation into corridor investments are not disadvantageous.
  • Support for legal literacy and advocacy, as well as the organisation of disadvantaged groups, will help people to be able to articulate demands. This requires building on local organisations and networks to help counter the power of appropriation of local elites in alliance with the state and investment capital.

All these are relevant for any investor, and for any corridor-style investment. I hope Minister Mutsvanga and the BRI planners take note, and avoid the rush to invest and take a more patient, deliberate approach that creates networks not tunnels.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo credit: Ian Scoones, Nampula, Mozambique

Challenging desertification myths

Tales of desertification across the world’s drylands are a recurrent theme in policy. This week’s blog reviews an excellent book that takes issue with many of the assumptions around desertification – The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands. It was edited by Roy Behnke, an anthropologist with deep knowledge of pastoral areas in North and Southern Africa, West Asia and more, and Michael Mortimore, sadly now late, a development geographer, who knew a huge amount about the drylands of Africa, and particularly northern Nigeria.

The full review is available in the excellent open access journal, Pastoralism. You can download the full pdf here. In this blog, we reproduce a slightly abridged version.

Insights from non-equilibrium ecology

Myths of desertification have a long history. Ideas of desiccation and desert advance were framed by colonial science and informed by the narratives of the ‘dust bowl’ in the USA, as discussed by Diana Davis in her chapter on the history of desertification thinking. Yet, whether from long-term environmental monitoring, aerial and satellite photography, ecological modelling or local knowledge and field observation, the standard narratives have been found severely wanting, and, as Stephen Prince argues, basic definitions and systematic mapping are absent.

Challenges to desertification myths, and simplistic equilibrium approaches to rangeland dynamics based on Clementsian succession ecology, have of course long been made, as Roy Behnke and Michael Mortimore discuss in the opening chapter. For example, Jeremy Swift and Andrew Warren wrote classic papers in 1977 for the UN Conference on Desertification, but both were ignored.

Stephen Sandford’s important 1983 book on pastoralism made many similar points, based on a mountain of evidence. Building on the insights of Jim Ellis and the research team working in Turkana, Kenya, the Woburn conferences in the early 1990s resulted in two books that made the case for a new paradigm for African rangeland management (Range Ecology at Disequilibrium in 1993 and Living with Uncertainty in 1994, both of which I had a hand in).

This consolidation of empirical data within a new conceptual frame provoked lots of new work. For example, the science of remote sensing and the application of geographical information systems, supported by long-term ecological monitoring, have enhanced spatial understandings of environmental change massively, reinforcing the argument against a linear view of desertification and a more dynamic view, as illustrated in excellent chapters by Stefanie Hermann and Tene Kwetche Hop, as well as Pierre Hiernaux and colleagues.

As Alessandra Giannini outlines, 40 years of climate modelling in the Sahel generates a complex picture of drought and desertification, challenging the standard media narratives discussed by Mike Shanahan. As the case studies in the latter part of the book show – from southern Ethiopia to Patagonia to the Bolivian Andes to China – degradation of elements of dryland landscapes certainly occurs, but it is a complex and variegated process, not amenable to simple intervention or sweeping policy.

Science and the politics of policy

Unfortunately, much of this accumulated evidence has been ignored, and the narratives of desertification persist. Why is this? The relationship between science and policy is not linear: new data leading to a transformation of scientific paradigms does not necessarily result in a change in policy and practice. Evidence and policy, despite the rhetoric around evidence-based policymaking, are not neatly linked.

Why is it that, even when scientific evidence is seemingly incontrovertible, shifts in policy discourse and practice do not happen? As Lynn Huntsinger shows from the USA, a lot is to do with the power and stickiness of narratives – and so the politics of knowledge in policy. Other forces are at play, beyond the slow, patient and rigorous accumulation of knowledge.

From the 1990s, there were some in policy and practice circles who accepted the non-equilibrium view, questioning the simplistic versions of desertification across the drylands. But this was sometimes a naïve advocacy for ‘indigenous’ systems – valorising transhumance or nomadism in a simplistic, romantic way. Ignoring challenges of land management, and inventing an ideal ‘tradition’, is not the answer. Mainstream institutions and policy, while often playing lip service to changes in the growing critiques of the desertification framing, did not take the argument for rethinking seriously though. Paradigms may have shifted in science, but not in policy.

Even today, and despite fantastic books like this one, it is amazing how often you see projects, documents, statements and plans repeating the same old story, as if debates in science over decades had never happened. The annual ‘World Desertification Day’ is an occasion for repeating myths, while signatories to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification regurgitate the arguments in every national submission.

So why do things not change? One reason is that new ways of thinking only permeate through slowly via training, curriculum revisions and generational change in professions. Incumbent power also resists change. This reflects the conservative nature of institutions and professions. While the science of rangelands has shifted, old ideas stick among field-level departments, aid agencies and their officials. It is perhaps not surprising when there is fast turnover of staff, poor resourcing, and institutional inertia and limited learning.

But it is not only inertia. There is also a more active politics of resistance. ‘Seeing like a state’, rather than a pastoralist or dryland farmer, has many consequences, as states attempt to control, manage and discipline such marginal areas. Programmes of sedentarisation, fixed water points and often draconian environmental measures to combat desertification are regularly promoted, supported by international aid agencies, as Camilla Toulmin and Karen Brock explain for the Sahel.

As Mike Mortimore and Yamba Boubacar explain in their chapters, a more decentralised people-centred approach that has its focus on livelihoods and poverty, not environmental control, has much more likelihood of success. An alternative science of the drylands however is too often a long way from the discussion. Many interventions are about the exertion of state power and control, and the persistent and insidious power of incumbent institutions, hooked into a narrative that will not budge, and continues to be supported by international agencies.

In my view, one of the most mistaken moves in this field in the last 25 years was the creation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. As a concession to African states in the post-Rio deal, it has not had the traction of the conventions on biodiversity or climate change. The desertification narrative suited many purposes, and the critiques first raised in UN circles in 1977 were not heeded.

The rhetoric is more sophisticated these days – participation, inclusion, cooperation, local knowledge and a wider view of land degradation are all part of the mix. But the fundamental frame remains. Many comment pieces, policy briefs and communiques repeat those tired and long-disputed statistics on land degradation or nutrient deficits. Too often, it is spurious science and economics presented as fact, supporting a narrative that we thought had been dismissed decades ago.

Embracing uncertainty, working with variability

As science over many decades has shown, and this book emphasises again, non-equilibrium ecology is a useful way of thinking about complex, highly variable dryland ecosystems – especially in the context of climate change. In particular, it provides a useful basis for challenging simplistic, linear desertification narratives.

The key lesson is that there is no simple, standardised solution to dryland development, especially with fast-changing climatic, economic and political contexts; flexibility, agility and adaptive management are key – lessons that seem to have been long learned in Australia, as Mark Stafford-Smith explains in the final chapter.

Particularly worrying in the last ten years has been how the desertification narrative has been reinforced by debates about climate change. Again, against much evidence, climate change is simply taken to mean a secular shift, and so increasing desiccation, leading to land degradation, desertification and conflict. In fact, much climate science points to processes of increasing variability and uncertainty, not secular change. As Tor Benjaminsen shows, the link between climate change and conflict is not straightforward. The satellite image data shows ‘deserts’ expanding and contracting over time in a complex patchwork, and not simply advancing, as various chapters discuss.

A focus on non-equilibrium, dynamic systems points to a different response – one centred on flexibility, adaptive management, responsive care and resilience, not control and technocratic intervention. The desertification narrative promotes a control-oriented response – with destocking, ‘green belts’, forest planting and engineering solutions dominating – rather than one that embraces uncertainty, and makes productive use of variability, as in the non-equilibrium paradigm. But of course, realising the alternative paradigm is difficult. Institutional biases, procedures and routines reinforce control, especially when funding agencies and governments have fewer and fewer people in the field, connecting with the real world of the drylands.

So will this book make a difference? I hope so, but it will require connecting the evidence so well laid out in this book to a wider debate and shifting the underlying politics of knowledge and practice that underpin the desertification narrative. Evidence, as we have seen, is not enough. A new, practical narrative realised in action on the ground is required – translating the science of 25 years or more into new ways of doing things.

As Mark Stafford-Smith urges, in the last sentence of the book, ‘Let us find a positive narrative for the drylands’. This book is an important part of this project, but only a first step. Let us hope its contents are widely read by all those policymakers and donors stuck in the old paradigm.

This blog was originally posted in PASTRES’ (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience) blog.

Written by: Ian Scoones, University of Sussex.

Image credit: Martina de Angeli

Seeing Conflict at the Margins: understanding community experiences through social research and digital narrative in Kenya and Madagascar.

This month a new website is being launched for a project called ‘Seeing Conflict at the Margins: understanding community experiences through social research and digital narrative in Kenya and Madagascar.’

Their activities and some links are introduced below – for further details, visit them at: http://seeingconflict.org

They will be announcing their new website on social media (twitter.com/SeeingConflict) in the first two weeks of May.


Interdisciplinary methods to generate new insights on conflict

This project bridges the social sciences (social anthropology and human geography), the humanities (history, digital arts, film and visual inquiry) and community-based participatory research to examine how different ‘communities’ of actors ‘see’ and experience resource conflicts.

Since 2017, interdisciplinary UK-Kenya-Madagascar research/facilitation teams have used stakeholder analysis and qualitative fieldwork techniques, alongside facilitating a variety of participatory visual and audio methods with members of communities living adjacent and near to sites of largescale resource investments.

The teams are co-producing and contextualising multimedia narratives from the perspectives of local residents, private sector, civil society and state actors around four focal resource conflict settings. These include the largest geothermal and wind power sites in sub-Saharan Africa (in Kenya); and mining operations, agricultural land grabs and displacement from forests in the south of Madagascar.

Global investment, local struggles

Following the global commodities boom, global investment has poured into large extractive, green energy and other land-based projects around the world. Many of these are in the rural margins – places geographically but also politically distant from the centres of economic power.

In many places, tensions, struggles and conflict have arisen around land takes, compensation mechanisms, contracts and work opportunities, as well as environmental and cultural change.

States and investors often ‘see’ conflict at the margins narrowly as disruptive insurgency or volatility to be overcome with greater state and/or private security presence or through localised development projects.

Yet, residents at the margins experience, perceive and talk about conflict in ways that differ, sometimes radically, both from the dominant state security and investor narratives.

A major research and policy challenge is how to listen, help amplify and respond to the great variety of ways that people encounter and experience both development and conflict, and conceive their own security and insecurities.

Videos, blogs and more:

Beyond Despair

Video exploring the experiences of residents of RAPland, a resettlement village established by the Kenya Electricity Generation company for Maasai displaced by new geothermal infrastructure.

(Facebook version: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=321262601912834)

Blog post: Scramble for steam: the hard story of power and displacement in Kenya’s Rift Valley

by Daniel Salau

Green Dreams, Local Struggles

Captioned slideshow about renewable energy in Kenya: https://seeingconflict.org/publications-blog/2018/12/7/gallery-green-dreams-local-struggles by Jeremy Lind

For updates follow @SeeingConflict on Twitter.

APRA involved at the event: Towards a Pan-African Transformation: Innovative Approaches to Evidence uptake and use in Africa.

Date: 02 May 2019 – 03 May 2019

CABE Africa (https://www.cabe-africa.org/) are hosting Utafiti Sera, a policy research community of practice, via PASGR (Partnership for African Social & Governance Research).

Hannigton Odame of APRA is conducting a presentation: “Charting the Path for a Youth Apprenticeship Policy: Lessons from Utafiti Sera House on Youth Employment Creation in Agriculture in Kenya”.

APRA team members Blessings Chinsinga, Dawit Alemu, Loveness Msofi Mgalamadzi, Olajide O. Adeola have also attended.

The five APRA team members in attendance will also be writing a blog on the event – keep your eyes peeled!


There is growing consensus within a widening network of policy actors and researchers about the value of identifying evidence gaps that are inhibiting the development and implementation of effective and responsive policies. Additionally, increased collaboration is being seen as beneficial both to those who generate and those who use evidence. Recognizing the importance of a well-grounded approach to EIPM, PASGR and partners have since 2015 implemented a model for bridging the gap in evidence and policy processes known as Utafiti Sera. Utafiti sera is informed by the growing body of evidence that suggest that Evidence Informed Policy (EIP) stakeholder relations based on linear type of relation between research and policy needs are ineffective in dealing with ‘policy messiness’.

Instead, Utafiti sera approaches EIP through the institutionalisation of negotiated and strong governance relationships between policy actors. Utafiti Sera is a ‘process’, ‘place’, ‘forum’, platform’, or ‘vehicle’ that facilitates the building of a community of stakeholders working together to ensure that appropriate and negotiated civic actions and policy uptake occur around a particular public problem for which there is research evidence.

Further details about the programme can be obtained here: http://www.pasgr.org/what-we-do/research/utafiti-sera/.

It is impossible to commercialise agriculture in Malawi: A quick political economy audit


Agriculture is the mainstay of Malawi’s economy; it contributes between 30 to 40 % of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); employs 85 % of the workforce; accounts for about 60 % of rural income; and, contributes about 90 % of total export earnings.

The main challenge however, is that the agricultural sector is not fully utilised. While the sector employs so much of the workforce yet contributes proportionally less to GDP, it is important to note that few countries have ever achieved fundamental structural transformation without revolutionising their agricultural sector.

Agricultural commercialisation is vital to spearheading the transformation of the agricultural sector on a sustainable basis. Such commercialisation entails farmers intensifying the use of productivity enhancing technologies, achieving greater output per unit of land used, producing larger farm surpluses, expanding their participation in markets, and so ultimately raising their living standards.

Using different political economy lenses, we argue that despite concerted efforts over the last three decades, Malawi will find it difficult to commercialise its agriculture, especially through smallholder farmers, because of four interrelated factors: (1) excessive rent seeking; (2) persistent food insecurity; (3) unresolved land question; and, (4) predatory markets.

Political Economy Lenses

The tendency of governing elites is to frame development interventions, as well as their implementation, in a manner that would keep them in power. These interests are not, however, static. Changes in the political landscape often alter the underlying interests of the networks and coalitions behind those interests, with potentially different development, programme and policy implementation outcomes:

1 – Excessive rent seeking

There has been massive investment in the agricultural sector in the last 15 years, especially through the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP). For instance, between 2005 and 2016 the budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector averaged between 12.7 % and 18.8 %.

An examination of the implementation of FISP shows a disproportionate share of the resources is captured by elites through administrative overheads and through inflated contracts, especially in transport and procurement of inputs. The agricultural sector has essentially been captured as a transfer, largely pumping resources to politically connected constituents.

2 – Persistent food insecurity

Food insecurity entrenches the perpetual failure to implement potentially robust policies designed to engineer fundamental structural transformation in the agricultural sector. Surveys – such as Afrobarometer, conducted since 1999 – show that food insecurity remains a major concern for Malawians in both urban and rural areas.

Food insecurity invariably transformed FISP into an electoral tool, rather than an agricultural productivity-enhancing one, forcing governments from incorporating proposals into its design and implementation that would have otherwise greatly enhanced programme effectiveness and beneficiary graduation. Major policy documents such as the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS I,II,II), National Agricultural Policy and the Green Belt Initiative (GBI) do prioritise large- to medium-scale agriculture as the surest route to fundamental and sustainable agricultural transformation. But, despite these policy statements, a disproportionate share of resources in the sector continues to find its way into FISP.

3 – Unresolved land question

Large-scale agriculture as a reliable pathway to achieving agricultural transformation cannot be realised as long as the land question remains unresolved. Most of the estimates of existing land that can be devoted to large-scale farming are erroneous; they include customary land that is essentially owned and transferred through family lineage. Consequently, mobilizing smallholders for large-scale agriculture might require strategically managing the underlying local level politics, since they are likely not to let it go without a fight.

For example, it is planned that roughly 200,000 hectares of land will be released for the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, but it is difficult to verify the existence of this land empirically. So, as long as if the land question remains unresolved, it is almost impossible for the government and other stakeholders to promote agriculture commercialisation through the large-scale agriculture route.

4 – Predatory markets

The Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) no longer provides a stable, predictable and lucrative market for smallholder farmers. The produce market is not only dominated by vendors, but it also has been captured by politicians advancing their own selfish interests. For instance, in the 2017/18 growing season government made money available for the purchase of farmers’ produce way past the time the maize market kicks off in April or May, meaning that vendors would be the ones to supply this market. By this time, smallholder farmers had already sold their maize to vendors at very low prices.

These dynamics make it almost impossible for smallholder farmers to cobble together a viable pathway out of poverty, even in the context of yearly subsidies, which means that commercialisation cannot take off and be sustained unless the growing of maize, which is a dominant crop, leads the way. Instead, maize is caught up in the trail of rent seeking activities. Maize markets are being used to exploit hardworking farmers who find it extremely difficult to earn a decent livelihood depending exclusively on returns from farming – making agricultural commercialisation almost impossible.


The challenges that stand in the way of agricultural commercialisation are deeply rooted in political settlement; precisely, in the way that power is acquired, shared, exercised and maintained within the framework of country’s governance processes.

A country’s political settlement shapes and drives incentives for development especially among the elites. The challenge for Malawi is that “maize politics” lie at the heart of the country’s political settlement. Strategies aimed at promoting agricultural commercialisation that do not pay attention to altering the contours of the country’s political settlement are bound to be less successful.

Written by: Blessings Chinsinga and Mirriam Matita

Photo credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twitter photo credit: A .Eitzinger / CIAT (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)