Farmer First Revisited: reflecting on farmer innovation

Several Prolinnova partners were invited to the 3-day workshop “Farmer First Revisited: farmer innovation and agricultural research and development twenty years on” organised by Ian Scoones, John Thompson, Robert Chambers and their team at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, on 12-14 December 2007. The workshop brought together about 80 people, some of whom had been part of the initial Farmer First workshop at IDS 20 years ago, some who were at the Beyond Farmer First workshop 15 years ago and several younger people who are applying participatory approaches to farmer-led research and development in agriculture and natural resource management.

All participants prepared papers, which were posted on the website (www.farmer-first.org) and distributed for them to read, but the papers themselves were not presented. Instead, discussants presented 10-minute inputs with key points and critical issues in each cluster of papers and facilitated parallel discussion groups. To kick off the workshop, scene-setting presentations were made by Robert Chambers on the history and future of Farmer First, Andy Hall (UN University) on agricultural innovation systems, and Jacqui Ashby (CIAT) on methodological innovation and institutional change (Ian presented on her behalf because illness prevented her from attending). The group discussions, based on the papers prepared before the workshop, dealt with Farmer Participatory Research, engaging with markets, the politics of knowledge, participatory learning and impact assessment, public/private linkages, the future of extension, farmer organisation, institutionalising participation in public organisations, networking and partnerships for change, and changing agricultural education.

The summaries of the discussions are posted on the website, and a running documentation of the workshop process appeared each day in a weblog, along with video clips of interviews with some of the participants, including Robert Chambers himself. A wiki-timeline was set up on the Web, into which anyone – whether workshop participant or not – could insert past milestone events and publications, as well as key issues, challenges and opportunities for farmer-led innovation in agricultural R&D. The timeline was also enriched by participants writing and posting cards on “wallpaper” along one wall of the meeting room at IDS; this information likewise went into the digital version on the Web. In this way, IDS managed to involve many people who would have loved to join the workshop but could not be invited because too large a number of participants would not have allowed the relatively informal and interactive character of a workshop.

The most stimulating part of the workshop was indeed the interaction with other people who are passionate about farmer-led R&D, not only during the group discussions but also during the open-space activities such as the information market, the coffee breaks and the joint meals. The papers presented by Prolinnova (including PROFEIS) partners are posted on the Farmer First website (search for first authors: Amanuel Assefa, Ann Waters-Bayer, Assetou Kanoute, Awa Faly Ba, Betty Del Rosario, Elizabeth Vargas, Lydia Sasu, Oliver Oliveros and Scott Killough), as is Ann’s input as discussant on the topic “Creating demand and increasing accountability: the role of farmers’ organisations”. But even more important would be to look at some of the contributions from other organisations from which Prolinnova could learn, especially those dealing with power relationships in partnership building and institutional change.

Later in 2008, IDS plans to bring out a book with highly edited highlights of papers and workshop discussions. The Farmer First website remains open for posting of further papers on farmer-led innovation, and the blog remains open for further bashing around of related ideas and views. Links have been made between the Prolinnova and Farmer First website, so that these complementary networks on interactive science and technology development to alleviate poverty can enrich each other.

Elizabeth Vargas, the Prolinnova Oversight Group member from Latin America, summarised the key points that she took home with her from the workshop [View document]

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