The importance of farmer innovation

Farmers’ knowledge and innovation are basic and important components of the research/development continuum and research from the scientific community should complement and build on this knowledge. In particular, agricultural research priorities need to be identified in a participatory manner, there should be increased networking and knowledge sharing between farmers and researchers, and research and extension systems need to be reoriented to support farmer-to-farmer agroecological innovation.

A report by Find Your Feet provides an overview of the findings from a Farmer Innovation Study, which was conducted in the district of Rumphi, in northern Malawi. The aim of the study was to acknowledge the creativity and ingenuity of smallholder farmers in Malawi and to reaffirm the valuable role that they can and, indeed, do play in the development and dissemination of new technologies, approaches and systems.

Over the course of the study, the participating farmers described a number of innovations, and the report provides case studies highlighting a selection of the innovations. The study findings demonstrate that farmers are continually experimenting, adapting and innovating, in order to find new and better means of production and organisation to address the challenges facing them.

The conclusion and recommendations of the report are reproduced below. The full report is available at:

With best wishes,

Lim Li Ching

Third World Network

131 Jalan Macalister

10400 Penang




A report by Find Your Feet (2012)


Smallholder agriculture is both complex and dynamic, and farmers are constantly required to respond to new challenges in the form of social, political, economic and environmental change. The study findings demonstrate that farmers in Rumphi district are continually experimenting, adapting and innovating, in order to find new and better means of production and organisation to address these challenges.

Their innovations are driven by a range of interlinked factors: economic factors - such as the inability to afford external inputs or grow enough food to be food secure; environmental factors - such as the need to adapt to climate fluctuations or restore infertile soils which cannot be rested due to small landholdings; social factors
- such as migration, HIV and AIDS, and less labour availability; cultural factors - such as the need to use certain plants for ritual and other purposes; and political factors - such as the availability of subsidised fertilisers and seeds as a form of political patronage by a neopatrimonial state. The determinants of farmer innovation are hard to isolate. While some farmers innovated out of necessity, adversity or opportunity, others took a more systematic approach to innovation, such as the farmer who, on an annual basis, reviews past outcomes as a means to improving his farming practices.

The farmers drew upon many sources of inspiration for their innovations. Some had revived and adapted ‘traditional’ knowledge and practice; some had adapted recommended techniques; and others had adapted techniques learnt from other farmers or research stations.

Several of the innovations highlighted through the study have the potential to be replicated by other farmers. However, farmers’ knowledge often goes unrecognised and under-utilised. There are also considerable gaps in the knowledge of farmers that need to be recognised, relating, for example, to the identification of pests and diseases that impact on their agriculture. Farmers often relate the incidence of a disease to a context rather than tracing the causal mechanism - for example, late blight occurring in overcast conditions rather than the onset of a fungal infection.

This serves to highlight the importance of establishing innovation systems that bring together, in different ways, the many actors involved, including farmers, scientists, extension workers and private sector organisations. This arguably remains the greatest challenge.

By identifying innovative ways to increase production, improve organisation, or reduce dependence on external inputs, farmer innovations have significant potential to improve the quality of life for farming families in Malawi and reduce their impact on the environment. As climate change adaptation and mitigation become increasingly important, there is clearly the need for a shift from the conventional approach to agriculture - top down imperatives based on general recommendations on purchased inputs - to a nuanced, iterative process of farmer interaction, participation and empowerment, with new and robust stakeholder interlinkages. Science may have a lot to offer resource-poor farmers, but the potential of local knowledge and farmer innovation will constitute its building blocks as a technical intervention which is underpinned by new institutional forms and relationships that challenge ‘business as usual’.


These recommendations are a direct outcome of the study, but are complemented by FYF’s work elsewhere in Malawi.

•         Recognise the knowledge and practice of farmers. It is clear from the study that farmers possess considerable knowledge about the environment in which they farm, the crops they cultivate and the animals they keep. While it should not be assumed that indigenous knowledge alone will provide a solution to the many challenges faced by smallholder farmers, farmers should be acknowledged as the custodians of valuable farming knowledge that needs to be recognised, validated and used more generally.

•         Disseminate successful farmer innovations. Although not all innovations require further research, existing successful farmer innovation is worthy of wider dissemination. Researchers and farmers should collaborate in participatory research to find answers to specific problems, build on existing knowledge and verify farmers’ innovations for effectiveness and safety.

•         Facilitate increased dialogue between all actors involved in agricultural extension. Current models of farmer support are unidirectional and tend to be based on the Training and Visit System, where
the agricultural extension officers communicate a message to farmers. There is a need for
dialogue in which farmers, extension workers and other stakeholders are involved in finding mechanisms that build on farmers’ knowledge and practice and address their needs more directly. 
We are in fact calling for a reorientation of agricultural research and development towards:

•         Adopting a multifunctional view of agriculture;

•         Re-emphasising mixed farming models;

•         Promoting agricultural and biological diversity; and

•         Ensuring that agrarian and land reform increase security of tenure (which is not synonymous with a process of land privatisation). 
This in short requires a democratisation of agricultural development, enabling the voices of resource-poor farmers to be heard and their knowledge to be recognised.