Agricultural research must listen to farmers and their aspirations while designing effective technology solutions
Over 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people are under the age of 30. While most rural households engage in agriculture, more and more young people have chosen to migrate to cities and away from farming. This trend has significant implications for research and investment efforts underway to transform sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture.
The situation, however, is far more complex than the trend suggests. At a micro-level, not all rural households engaged in farming would like to continue farming if they had a choice and not all farming households that engage in non-farm activities plan to permanently exit agriculture. Farming is a complementary activity in a diverse set of income streams. Some see farming as a source of income to add to their non-farm activities, others might use non-farm activities to earn money to invest in their farm.
In this context, where most rural households engage in agriculture and yet many are looking to move away from farming, the important question is how and for which group can researchers design and target agricultural interventions in a way that they are also adopted.
In the latest publication, Dr. Kai Mausch, the lead author and Senior Scientist at ICRISAT, recommends that household’s aspirations play an important role in their choice of technology. Understanding these is as important as considering the agro-ecological context and market potential of new technologies.
The theoretical paper on households’ aspirations, proposes a novel research method of distributed ethnography linked with behavioral science to test the influence of household aspirations on technology choice at a larger scale.
Understanding household aspirations enable the design of interventions that are better suited to the needs of rural households aiming to achieve their long-term goals. This might prevent useful technologies from being under-adopted. More importantly, it might prevent the design of ‘useless’ technologies in the first place or incompatible technologies from being pushed onto households.
Kai stresses on moving beyond the traditional economic and biophysical analysis to incorporate ethnographic research combined with behavioral science to look at the complexity of household aspirations while designing and promoting context specific technologies for agricultural adoption.
“People’s choice of a specific technology and decisions at large are less predictable through traditional methods than expected. At times of uncertainty, people might not process all available information. Rather they fall back on what is familiar to them or the ‘rules of thumb’. Behavioral nuances and inherent biases must be understood and factored into our targeting strategy,” says Kai.
The study differentiates ambitions, as future welfare levels, from aspirations which gravitate around happiness, interests, skills or social status. Households might have medium-term goals to help bring them closer to the larger goal/s they aspire to achieve.
For example, households aspiring to exit farming or concentrating on off-farm activities are far less likely to adopt technologies that have medium and long-term outcomes, such as soil quality enhancement technologies. The effects of such technologies will only pay off after their aspired exit from farming. Households that view agriculture as a generator of capital for investment elsewhere would value technologies that require medium levels of inputs. These households might be willing to tolerate higher levels of risk and go for the expensive seed of high-value crops.
On the other hand, households that see their future in farming are more likely to adopt interventions with long-term pay-off periods.
The publication titled ‘Households’ aspirations for rural development through agriculture’ is online with Outlook on Agriculture. The research was undertaken in close collaboration with the Cynefin Centre, Bangor University and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM).