Cultivating through Crises: Empowering African Small-Holders through Histories of Creative Emergency Response (CCEASH)

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


CCEASH aims to adopt a historiographical approach in order to demonstrate how smallholder farmers in Elgeyo-Marakwet County (EMC), Kenya, innovate and respond in times of crisis. The recent surge in desert locust swarms, allied to flooding and drought, across East Africa present an unprecedented urgent threat to local livelihoods, where failed harvests and crop destruction, coupled with pandemic-related collapse of global market chains, has raised concerns surrounding food shortages and impending economic collapse. In response to these crises, the Kenyan Ministry for Agriculture has called upon farmers and other stakeholders to rapidly intensify production (

Dominant development narratives implicitly suggest that African smallholder farmers are highly vulnerable to new crises as they lack the adaptive capabilities to navigate multiple emerging pressures. For decades it has been argued that solutions for improving agricultural productivity and resilience in Africa stem not from indigenous farmers, but rather the transfer of knowledge, practice, skills, and technological inputs from specialists and institutions in the Global North. This approach is most recently reflected in calls for a new African Green Revolution that aims to scale up agricultural production through processes of intensification and industrialisation. Yet an increasing body of evidence highlights how these methods of farming are inherently unsustainable, contributing to approximately 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, 33% of global soil degradation and 60% of global terrestrial biodiversity loss (UNEP 2016). With evidence suggesting that locust outbreaks are intimately linked to climate extremes, it is a cruel reality that extant agricultural frameworks have fuelled the drivers of such climatic conditions whilst conterminously eroding key ecosystem services that may otherwise provide crucial resilience to the consequences.

It is thus clear that 'modernising' paradigms have failed to deliver ecological wellbeing and sustainable prosperity for many smallholder farmers, suggesting that alternative frameworks are required. Postcolonial theory underscores this point through its demonstration of how development frameworks are embedded in colonial ontologies of progress that only serve to marginalise indigenous knowledges/voices and fail to build appropriate locally crafted responses. Beginning with this postcolonial critique, we seek to challenge the assumption that African smallholder farmers lack the capacity to deal with crisis, and instead to cultivate farmer-led understandings of emergency response and explore productive potentials for building resilience to future crises. Our work is premised with a unique historical perspective that views farmers as agents of innovation rather than passive individuals resistant to change. Indeed, in EMC our existing Kenyan Citizen Science team record how self-defined 'digital farmers' are innovatively responding to crisis by diversifying agricultural practices to improve on-farm resilience, whilst simultaneously intensifying kinship networks alongside digital platforms for knowledge sharing and market access. Farmers are responding through an adaptive interplay between the old and new, resonating with the deeper temporal perspective that African farming systems have long been diverse and highly adaptive. The value of this unique humanities perspective thus lies in its ability to blur dichotomies between modernity and tradition, resituate innovation and adaptation in local practice, and offer entry points for designing new rural livelihoods that prioritise farmer agency. Our research will critically reanalyse existing data to situate the current crises in the context of failed historical crisis and development interventions, build an empirical record of farmers' crisis responses in real time, and use these to co-design policy that re-centres invaluable famer knowledge and experience.


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