Farmer First Revisited: Innovation for Agricultural Research and Development

Scoones, Ian
Thompson, John
Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-85339-682-3, 386 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Peter McWilliam
Oxford Brookes University

This is the third in a series of key texts – the first being Farmer First, edited by Robert Chambers and published in 1989, which was followed by Beyond Farmer First in 1994.
Identifying an overall thesis is tricky, but this book presents a clear picture of successes and failures in farmer-first agricultural research and development, along with many case studies and ideas for the future. Farmer First focused on improving research by starting at the farm, while Beyond Farmer First considered issues of knowledge and power. Farmer First Revisited expands on these themes and also considers the politics of demand, networked innovation systems, and education, among other subjects.
Part One sets the scene by looking back at the last twenty years and introducing the ideas that will be dealt with in the rest of the book. It highlights some interesting points. Contributors agree that farmer participation is often merely bolted on to the old methods. Another issue raised is that of looking at wider networks; ‘Beyond the farm gate’. This author also recognises that many changes have resulted from phone, text, video, and television communication techniques. In his chapter, Andy Hall states that the approach for the future needs to be a ‘shift from technology delivery to capacity strengthening’, meaning that the ability to respond to changing situations will assist a country in coping with shock.
The chapters in Part Two consider some examples of how farmer-first approaches have been applied; looking in particular at ‘Systems of innovation’. These contributions cover past experiences, current situations, and ideas for the future. One issue discussed relates to the fact that the majority of farmers get their seeds from local informal systems, whereas the research mostly feeds into commercial systems. This contributor predicts a future marrying of these two approaches through increasing technological communication.
C. Prasad discusses ‘learning alliances’ with reference to SRI (the System of Rice Intensification) in India. He raises the idea of activists and academics working together without diluting their respective ideals. This chapter is very clearly written and is a good example of the concept of the whole book. Following this, Clive Lightfoot offers some insights into connecting farmers to markets, involving education and information leading to empowerment.
Part Three discusses ‘bottom–up’ demand, which ensures farmer-first innovation. There is currently often poor communication and clashes of interest between groups at different levels. Khamarunga Banda puts forward an interesting review of the National African Farmers' Union of South Africa, highlighting its struggles in the past, generated by lack of money and experience, but painting a picture of a bright future if alliances are developed. Sidi Sanyang argues for an emphasis on needs and support, better representation at all levels, and better governance and communication for farmer groups to thrive. Awa Faly Ba examines the theme of building networks and concludes that a space is needed for multidisciplinary teams, working together at the same level, to share views and knowledge. The last chapter in this section, ‘Farmers first or still last?’, by V. Sulaiman, argues that there are good network systems in place, but that few innovations from them are actually put into practice. Sulaiman offers some direction for the future development of an environment of learning and experimentation, strengthening the interactions between actors; cohesion is the key.
Part Four considers the ideas of ‘Extension’, ‘Education’, and ‘Impact assessment’. Paul Van Mele suggests that simply providing information is not enough: ‘What does it help to listen to a lecture or radio programme if the vocabulary is too pedantic or academic?’ Robert Tripp highlights the fact that it is often the better-resourced farmers who are able to adopt new technology methodologies. One of the main resources that the poorest farmers lack is the time required to attend training courses.
The final part concludes by identifying some key themes and looking to the future. It suggests that there is a need for better connections; that innovation must come from demand; that social conditions as well as technology must be addressed; and that reinvention of the learning process is vital. There is not solely a need for new ideas, but new alliances and networks are required too. There needs to be a coming together of efforts, not with one rigidly applied method, but with agreed guiding principles.
This book is a rich hive of information and ideas which will be helpful to professionals in the field. The component chapters offer useful insights into methods of participatory research, highlighting the successes and raising important issues. At times some of the text degenerates into impenetrable academic jargon, with a plethora of acronyms often obscuring the subject matter. Although the editors and contributors present a penetrating view into the world of farmer-first innovation, someone seeking practical guidance on how to start may struggle with the language of this book.