Documenting, validating and scaling-up local innovations
This article describes a project in West Africa aiming to find ways to get local innovations accepted into the formal research and development agenda. Representatives from four countries gathered and documented local innovations, which were then short-listed by everyone involved. This process of joint validation and ranking by participants with different backgrounds brought some very interesting learning points, as well as giving recognition and value to local innovations, which is a crucial step in the process of them being institutionalised into the formal research and development system.
LEISA Magazine • 22.3 • September 2006
Documenting, validating and scaling-up local innovationsIn marginal agro-ecosystems, farmers continuously look for technologies that best fit their bio-physical, economic and socio-cultural conditions. Formal research and development efforts still too often result in technologies requiring inputs that are not locally available. This is particularly the case for Africa. Out of necessity, and based on their cultural background, inherited knowledge and daily observations, farmers have generated solutions (even though sometimes partially) to their own problems. Unfortunately, these innovation processes, their results and potential for scaling-up are poorly studied and documented.
Photo: F. Okry
Capacity building for local innovation documentationTo strengthen the capacity of the Africa Rice Center's partners in identifying, documenting, validating and disseminating local innovations, three day workshops were held in each of the participating countries. Apart from national researchers, interested people from NGOs, the private sector, national extension services and related projects took part. Based on hand-outs and group discussions, each country team developed an outline for documenting local innovations. For example, the Guinea team came up with the following:
- Brief description of the context (problem(s) encountered, related knowledge and innovations available in the region);
- Origin of the knowledge he/she applied to solve the problem or observations he/she has made in the environment that gave rise to the innovation;
- Description of the innovation (process, materials and resources required); and
- Pre-validation of the innovation by farmer and his/her attempt to disseminate (success stories)
The outlines were slightly different from one country to another and only served as guidelines. However, as the project management considered the last point crucial in order to further prioritise local innovations, they made it a requirement for all countries.
Validation of local innovationsIn April 2006, project partners from the four participating countries came together to review the first year of the second phase of the project. They took this opportunity to evaluate the documents submitted, looking at their potential for scaling up. In time for the workshop, Mali had submitted five local innovations, The Gambia six, Ghana seven and Guinea eight. The validation went through two processes: a short-listing and a ranking.
For linguistic reasons participants from Ghana and The Gambia formed one group, while Guinea and Mali formed a second one. The first group comprised five researchers, one extensionist and one development worker. The second group consisted of six people, including two researchers and four development workers, from either NGOs or development projects. The key objective of the short-listing was to filter out innovations that were not suitable for scaling-up, based on following criteria:
- Impact of the innovation on the environment and human health: innovations that might be harmful to the environment or human health were strongly discouraged;
- Local and regional availability of required resources; and
- Regional scale of the problem addressed and relevance of the innovation in other agro-ecosystems and socio-cultural contexts.
This screening process led to the elimination of almost half of the innovations submitted. Some interesting learning points came from the short-listing exercise, for example, in finding local solutions to overcome their difficulties, farmers may not consider environmental and human health. Processes to enhance local innovations should therefore facilitate farmers to develop sustainable solutions with care for the environment and human safety. Additionally, setting criteria for the screening process is context-specific. In fact, the importance of the third criterion "Regional scale of the problem addressed and relevance of the innovation in other agro-ecosystems and socio-cultural contexts" should be considered through the lens of the regional focus of this project and the objective of scaling-up.
Ranking of local innovationsWithin each group, all members gave scores to the retained innovations, which were then ranked. The retained narratives from each group were translated overnight and the process was repeated the next day: Group 1 now scoring innovations of Group 2 and vice versa. The output of the entire validation process is as in Table 1:
The composition of the groups undoubtedly influenced the scoring and ranking process, as illustrated by the case: "Control of iron toxicity using palm flower, lime and rice husk". Iron toxicity is one of the major problems for rice cultivation in West and Central African lowlands. Hence, formal research is on-going, with a major emphasis on breeding for tolerance.
Surprisingly, this local innovation was ranked highest by the Ghana-Gambia team, while it did not even rank among the top three innovations in the other group. In fact, this local innovation was tested on-station by a scientist from the National Agricultural Research Institute, The Gambia. His results, presented during the first day of the workshop, confirmed the positive effect of the innovation. This certainly impressed the other scientists and was the main reason why the group of Ghana-Gambia, nearly three-quarters of which were researchers, ranked it highest. The Mali-Guinea group, two-thirds of which were development workers, considered instead the popularity of the innovation within the community of origin and the cost of materials required. It was only at this stage that the participants realised that only a few farmers knew about the innovation. Probing for more clarifications, the innovator appeared to be the chairman of the National Farmers' Platform, who is known as a politician and is fully engaged in off-farm activities. Being a well-off farmer, he could easily afford to buy the expensive lime. We concluded that the scaling-up potential of this innovation remains to be proven before it can be considered for dissemination to resource-poor farmers. At this stage, the innovation was rejected for scaling-up despite the fact that it deals with a serious problem of rice cultivation. Before validating this innovation on-station it would have been better to assess why other farmers in the community are not taking up this idea.
An important learning point from this exercise was that the background and the perception of people involved in the validation process significantly influences their judgment: similarly, the innovation "Use of lime, millet husk and mango leaves to control soil salinity" was classified by Group 1 as the second most important innovation, while Group 2 considered it as one of the least important ones. Again, Group 1 appeared to have been influenced by the extent of the problem addressed, rather than the innovation itself and its chance of adoption by others.
As such, only a well-balanced group and a carefully facilitated session will lead to a good prioritisation. Facilitators aiming to disseminate local innovations to resource-poor farmers should also analyse the profile of the innovator. This indicates the level of resources and knowledge required for its adoption. It is also important that when documenting local innovations, one should also describe the extent of actual diffusion. This indicates the level of replicability and scaling-up potential.
Scaling up strategiesSo far, project teams in Mali and The Gambia have disseminated local innovations through video, rural radio, poems and songs. Fruitful experiences will be extended to other countries during the second year of implementation. Publications such as pamphlets and journal articles will also be used to complete the documentation process. To encourage partners to document local innovations on rice, project management initiated a local Innovation Documentation & Enhancement Award (local IDEA) in November 2005. (For more details about this competition, please contact Paul Van Mele at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Influencing the research agendaSome of the local innovations listed above have been incorporated into the formal research agenda. The use of Hyptis spicigera to control termites and other seed storage pests is currently being tested by an entomologist at the Institut d'Economie Rurale (IER) in Mali. Scientists from the Africa Rice Center in Benin have incorporated "The use of maize stalks to control termites in the field" as one of their experimental treatments.
Giving recognition and value to local innovations is crucial to institutionalise them in the formal research and development system, in order to contribute to community empowerment and rural development. To achieve this, a validation or screening process is an important intermediary step. At this stage of the Participatory Adaptation and Diffusion of Technologies for Rice-Based Systems project, we cannot pin down best-bet methodological steps. However, we have learnt that the validation process is context-specific, based on project objectives and largely influenced by the participants' background and perceptions. A broad stakeholder representation and good facilitation will add to the quality of the process and will avoid any inappropriate local innovations being scaled up.
Florent Okry and Paul Van Mele. Technology Transfer Unit, Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) 01 BP 2031, Cotonou, Benin. E-mails: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com