Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture: Beyond the Hype? November 2007

The evidence from existing literature on the impacts of low-external-input techniques on poverty reduction is ambiguous. As with many technologies, access to labour, skills and contacts very often favour better resourced households and individuals. The new book ‘Self-sufficient agriculture’ by consortium member Robert Tripp offers case studies that highlight the important interactions between labour, knowledge and technology innovation and adoption. Many of the case examples of low-external-input technologies require significant labour and skill inputs. The art of farming is often, as Paul Richards has observed, more like a skilled and knowledgable ‘performance’, and rarely a simple routine operation. This is perhaps especially so with low-external-input systems.


But who has the labour and skills for such new innovations, and how are these acquired? The book discusses the complex trade-offs between the availability of household labour (and the gendered dynamics of this), and health status (through the impact of HIV/AIDS for instance), markets for hired labour, off-farm income earning and migration and other agricultural activities. Equally access to skills and knowledge may also be socio-economically differentiated, especially with the decline in coverage of state run agricultural research and extension systems, and the greater reliance on private sector input supplier and dealers, who make their money from simple input packages (of seeds and chemicals ), and not complex combinations of technology, skills and knowledge.


A key conclusion of the book is that low-external-input technologies are in many respects not different to any other technology with different inputs. Their reification in multiple NGO projects and the focus on their spread and scaling up, has perhaps missed the wider debate about how to encourage appropriate innovation systems that respond to the diversity of needs of highly differentiated farming communities, and how through such processes to offer a wide range of technology choice through various combinations of routes – public and private, group-based and individual, deploying scientific and indigenous knowledge. There is a need to use a diversity of methods too – and not just the current fads, such as farmer field schools – and develop robust institutions, both at local level, but critically at national and international levels, which see the challenge of technology innovation and development in a more rounded, comprehensive way.


The themes of technology innovation systems in agriculture will be key concern during the next year of the Future Agricultures consortium’s work. As the UK’s DFID Research Department gears up to fund a ‘research into use’ programme as a follow on from the decade-long Renewable Natural Resources Strategy, thinking hard about systems, processes and institutions for technology innovation and spread will be key.



Africa Fertilizer Summit – 9-13 June 2006, Abuja, Nigeria

UN Millennium Project website – Task Force on Hunger

International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development website

Soil Degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa
, A. Hartemink and H. van Keulen (eds), Land Use Policy, 2005, Vol 22(1) – see articles by Mortimore and Harris and Fairhead and Scoones

Increasing Fertizer Use in Africa: What have we learned? E-forum commissioned by the World Bank and hosted by NRI International in collaboration with Imperial College London. Also see the summary paper…


Policies for Soil Fertility Management in Africa. A Report Prepared for the Department for International Development, 1999, Toulmin and Scoones

‘A Realistic View on Increasing Fertiliser use in Sub-Saharan Africa’, (see under Debates) Bert Meertens, Rural Development Expert