Prosperity and Innovation in the Past and Future of Agriculture in Eastern Africa (PIPFA)

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: UCL Institute for Global Prosperity


Despite the fact that approximately 85% of total agricultural output across the African continent is produced by small-holder farmers, with the small-holder farming sub-sector accounting for 75% of Kenya's total agricultural output, there remains a persistent imagining amongst some academics, policy makers and NGOs that African farming practices are static, inefficient and inherently vulnerable in the face of environmental change and population growth. These ideas have in turn supported a longstanding modernising paradigm whereby African agriculture is argued to require a host of 'new' technical inputs such as mechanisation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and hybrid and GM crops. This process has deep colonial roots and, in the wake of pressing issues surrounding climate change and population growth, has re-emerged in recent calls for a new African Green Revolution. However, this 'modernising' paradigm has failed to deliver sustainable prosperity, suggesting that alternative frameworks are required. By analysing how small-holder farmers in Eastern Africa innovate in daily practice, this project will reconsider why wholesale attempts at modernisation have often failed and, in the process, offer alternative ways toward prosperous rural livelihoods. Working with multisectoral partners currently active in food systems research and delivery, we challenge the 'modernisation' imperative by historicising contemporary farming practices in Kenya and diachronically exploring ongoing processes of innovation and ingenuity that seem to have been characteristic of African farming for centuries, arguing instead that these may offer crucial insights into the future of farming practice in the region.
The premise that African farming systems have historically been diverse and highly adaptive draws upon a wealth of archaeological and historical material that demonstrates how they have developed in dynamic ways over several thousand years, continuously diversifying as they became integrated into expansive inter-continental exchange networks with SW Asia, India and China. Such processes continued into the 19th century when, with the formalisation of colonisation, new waves of domesticates and concepts surrounding soil and forest conservation were introduced by 'professional' colonial agricultural officers. Whilst many of these colonial interventions understood African agricultural systems as resistant to change (Anderson 2018; Beinhart 2000), we argue here for a more nuanced narrative wherein small-holders selectively adopted and propagated new ideas, practices, crops and materials (Moore 2018). In this view farmers experiment, generate knowledge, and selectively adopt the ideas of others on a daily basis. We argue that this historic process of creative innovation, selective valuation and intelligent (re-)combination is what constitutes what are often referred to (and often brought into opposition) as both 'tradition' and 'modernity' and that this historical reconceptualization offers an important new starting point for revaluing, supporting and extending farmers capabilities.
Working with diverse partners we will co-design original empirical research with small-holder 'digital farmers' in Elgeyo-Marakwet Kenya. We have specifically chosen to work with partners from both the UK and Kenya and from academic, NGO, international and policy sectors so as to share diverse institutional practices and agenda and to co-design and deliver research that will stimulate institutional responses and specific policy recommendations. By working with, challenging, and supporting partners active in food systems research and delivery we aim to have multiple tangible impacts on policy making and farming livelihoods more broadly, thus demonstrating the important value of arts and humanities led multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

Planned Impact

This project aims reorient how we understand and support small-holder farmer innovation in Eastern Africa by improving the institutional strategies of multiple partners engaged in the delivery of agricultural initiatives. Building on extensive previous experience of community engagement, we purposefully take a co-production approach throughout by engaging the partners at every stage. We will principally operate through partnership workshops in Kenya and the UK and a programme of original data collection. Our theory of change is simple - we will bring together diverse partners involved in food systems delivery around a series of intellectual questions (what is appropriate innovation, where does it come from, who has the ability and right to deliver it) and empirical research (what innovations work, which do not; Workplans 1-3) and use this to examine, challenge and improve partner's own institutional strategies iteratively. We will then jointly form new institutional outputs, policies and strategies with commensurate impacts on livelihoods. We see partnership impacts operating through four levels of immediate to longer-term actions as follows:

i) Policy planning in Elgeyo Marakwet County (EMC): The immediate beneficiaries and target audience will be the farmers of EMC and policy-makers within the County Government. Building on the diverse perspectives of our partnership, we aim to offer consultation to relevant ministries and co-author a data driven policy brief to support and enhance small-holder innovation. This process will empower EMC farmers, who will have the opportunity to directly engage with the County Government through their involvement in data collection and their participation in workshops. This will include a series of on farm tours targeted at ministers and presented by community farmers. Tours will be complemented by the creation of digital maps of farming practice across the county and a series of farmer vlogs and blogs.

ii) Policy impacts on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Agri-Food Kenya project (UNEP): Our second target audience focusses on the wider international and scientific community engaged in generating empirical environmental data and specialist policy frameworks. By partnering with one such major initiative, the TEEB project, we aim to integrate historic and ethnographic qualitative data into a major international science and policy initiative. By sharing our data and producing synthesised recommendations directly relevant to TEEB outputs, we expect to influence their data and models.

iii) iii) Impacts on the policies and strategies of other partners: Our third target audience are the other project partners. We expect to develop key recommendations under each WP that relate directly to institutional needs and agendas. Each partner is directly selected because of their role in food systems delivery and their wide networks and on the ground impacts. PAN-UK work extensively with small-holder farmers in Eastern Africa, especially Ethiopia. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew currently run a range of collaborative work in Eastern Africa, including the Useful Plants project in Kenya. The East Africa Herbarium (EAH) is a division of the National Museums of Kenya and has wide networks of influence through Kenya government channels and regional scientific networks

iv) Wider publishing and dissemination activities: By broadly focussing historical, cultural and values-based approaches on the policy needs of diverse political, third sector and scientific partners - as a focal point of the project - we will demonstrate the wider value of Arts and Humanities research as central to major political, social and scientific agenda with a wide and longer-term methodological impact. This agenda will be supported by our broader popular and academic outputs and open access data archives


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