“Being part of the farmers’ research and extension group gave us the opportunity to learn from each other and the demonstration plots run by the lead farmers. The demonstration plots are also set up on the actual fields where one can see the problems clearly, and we can easily associate with it. For us, it’s like the school came to our home.”
The way farmers learn about technologies for improving soil fertility is important for farmers’ uptake and dissemination of the technologies. In our collaborative adoption research in the highlands of the Amhara region, we found that locally adapted innovations that tackle the challenges of soil fertility decline can emerge through interaction and communication among farmers, researchers and agricultural extension officers. The accompanying research’s focus on social and institutional aspects of soil fertility management was crucial to come up with relevant results that guided the ISFM project. The findings improved the projects’ approach to targeting and inclusion; they guided its out-scaling strategy. One such important contribution was the use of lead farmers as the project’s ambassadors and inclusion of this recommendation into subsequent protocols of the project.
Different participatory methods were used to capture farmers’ own understanding of pressing soil fertility declines, identify possible solutions, and arrive at approaches to address some of the problems that require collective efforts. In this regard, the research process itself was empowering to the farmers because their concerns and local solutions to problems were used to guide the project’s implementation.
Insights from field research have been shared with the GIZ Ethiopia ISFM project in an iterative and regular manner and helped adjust how the project reaches out to vulnerable and marginalised farmers.
Our assessment of how information about ISFM technology travels shows that women are often not part of knowledge dissemination. Inclusive and wider dissemination of the ISFM technologies therefore requires alternative strategies to reach disadvantaged farmers. TMG and the GIZ project co-developed the idea of twinning: the project’s lead farmers are used as the project’s ambassadors, to support disadvantaged farmers within the community. These ambassadors hold training sessions and run experiments on farms of household that need special support (e.g. female-headed households). They provide long-term support with the ISFM practices within the community. In return, these farmers receive seeds, fertilizer and other material from the project as an incentive for their time and services.
Group-based extension approaches are important to introduce and disseminate soil fertility management of technologies. However, the functionality and sustainability of farmer groups beyond the project cycle is paid less attention. The findings from TMG’s adoption pathways study revealed that existing local networks through which farmers share information and support each other in their everyday interactions play an important role for the dissemination of SLM technologies. These local networks, if used by projects, can serve as authentic platforms to introduce new ideas and technologies and facilitate learning. Hence, when ISFM projects form farmer extension groups, they should consider building them on already existing social and geographical spaces through which farmers interact and collaborate. While exploring local networks, identify those institutions in which less well-off farmers are members.
The wider application of ISFM technologies requires coordination at the landscape level and hence with formal and informal institutions that govern farmers’ relations within their surroundings. Our findings show that farmers who get information about the benefits of technologies and manage to get access to the technologies are also in networks of well-established local informal institutions. Group formation needs to consider locally available institutions that could support the wider application of ISFM technologies at the community level. Devising and enforcing these institutions should be done through administrators at the Kebele and woreda level who have the mandate to oversee community-based institutions at the local level. Informal institutions could facilitate the implementation of rules that govern watersheds through facilitating collective action.
Once clear and binding bylaws such as the ones that prohibit free grazing and govern communal resources are devised and put into practice, they can serve as umbrella/community wide institutions under which the ISFM farmers research and extension groups and other farmer interest groups could be organized to facilitate learning and adoption of technologies.
Adressing the needs of those who manage and use the land is essential in combatting degradation and soil fertility. This approach may start first with giving recognition to farmers’ own knowledge and efforts. Then go beyond individual farmers and acknowledge the local social and institutional set ups within which individual farmers manage their farm. In this regard, the ISFM project followed a commendable approach. Farmers were trained in a participatory approach within the small group setup—the farmers’ research and extension group. However, soil fertility decline in the area is extensive. To reach the different groups of farmers within and beyond the limited watersheds in which they currently operate, projects need to consider alternative approaches. Soil fertility improvement projects need to depart from top-down technological fixes that put farmers at the receiving end. We need to focus instead on participatory and empowering processes which taps into farmers knowledge of addressing the challenge.