Bottom-up Approaches Help Farmers Farm Better



The top-down approach applied by non-governmental organisations toward realising farmers’ productivity has not worked. Farmers need to be consulted during initial decision-making processes and afforded broader choices, writes Kenny Ewan, CEO of WeFarm.


A stranger enters the room from another world and tells a long-time team to do things differently. The chances of a great outcome, based on human psychology, are not great.

Most of us are used to the way we do things, and we are rarely dying for a chance to change. We also prefer to hear insights about a change from those we trust to understand our challenges, which is something we do not expect of outsiders.

If that same stranger then arrives with an external, one-size-fits-all “solution” that does not reflect our values, norms, and local constraints, the chances of any business transformation are slim indeed.

Yet in agriculture, smallholders enjoy the frequent arrival of such outsiders, with big and radical “solutions”, flown in from outside and presented, rather than based on local relevance and circumstances. It is the modus operandi of top-down reform.

Farmers know best about farming, and decades of failures and stunted progress should have long-since served to change the way reformers work in recognising that fact.

But as non-governmental organisations (NGO) engage continent-wide with the millions of smallholders on whom Africa’s fortunes and futures rely, the process of resolving smallholders’ issues based on existing parameters has not been a driving force.

But it needs to be.

Instead, the world of agricultural transformation is dominated by jargon. Addressing a smallholder problem is called an “intervention”. And interventions are based on “big picture” theory and poverty reduction targets that generate “solutions” that are built and helicoptered in from the outside.

However, the truth is that this top-down approach to agrarian reform goes against human nature, and defies real and present issues for individual farmers, relying instead on assumptions and theory.

The result has been that initiatives implemented by the international research and development community simply do not benefit the poor farmer, argues Robert Chambers, British academic and development scholar.

“This is because the conditions that poor farmers operate within puts limits on the extent to which they can benefit from the initiatives,” Chambers observes in his book, “Whose Reality Counts?”

In South Africa, a classic example was a top-down program called the Accelerated & Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (ASGISA), implemented countrywide by the Independent Development Trust, which failed miserably in seeking to effect reforms that were anathema to local farmers.

The “big idea” was to improve farmers’ market and farm input access by moving in to govern and run all the farmers in a village and then sell the combined produce on their behalf – re-investing 90pc of the profits for next year’s planting and sharing 10pc among the farmers.

But as the NGO set about managing whole villages’ production as a single operation from merged fields, it simultaneously set aside farmer participation in decision-making. Not surprisingly, the farmers resisted merging their fields as well as the loss of autonomy and flexibility in their land use, and the program failed. The farmers did not want to be governed.

Yet the move-in-and-manage approach remains typical of agricultural reformers’ engagements in Africa, with NGOs frequently failing to consult and engage farmers at the program development stage to build solutions that are dovetailed to their local realities.

By stark contrast, a farmers-first approach, also known as bottom-up, has been shown to deliver completely different outcomes.

These initiatives see organisations working hand-in-hand with farmers on the ground, consulting them first to identify their unique challenges, then developing solutions with them to resolve these specific and local issues. With this participatory approach, farmers drive the process through hands-on involvement in the planning, financing, implementation and maintenance of the programs.

Though not yet widespread in Africa, the concept has been proven to work in the United States and in India, as well as in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

In the state of Iowa, for instance, the Practical Farmers of Iowa organisation engages farmers to define what research they need to be done. The organization then partners with scientists to undertake studies where the farmers and the researchers contribute resources, such as time and land. The farmers drive the research agenda and are thus committed to it.

In Zimbabwe, the Intermediate Technology Development Group/German Agency for Technical Cooperation Chivi Food Security Project was initiated in response to chronic food insecurity in pockets of semi-arid areas.

The project began by looking at the constraints on household food security. The farmers were involved in identifying solutions, planning and the creation of action plans, which spanned the roll out of soil and water conservation technologies.

Farmers then selected and tried the practices they preferred. They also met to discuss the results and any problems encountered and to suggest possible solutions among themselves.

The level of change saw farmers who were initially impoverished eventually moving to buy cattle. It is, therefore, essential that agricultural interventions use such practical and workable approaches.



By Kenny Ewan
Kenny is the CEO of WeFarm

Published on Sep 15,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 959]


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