Many international aid agencies failed to replicate the green revolution model in Africa despite spending millions of dollars. What did they do wrong? They may have been too obsessed with one particular development model and ignored that there are a variety of models that are context-specific and built upon local experience and wisdom. To treat local farmers as entrepreneurs rather than aid recipients did however not fit the business model of the development industry back then.
In India, we developed the Honey Bee Network to challenge some of the baseline assumptions of development experts. It needs just a click on our website to have free access to the Honey Bee database and discover the amazing variety of people’s creativity and innovation. These people developed thousands of local solutions without any help from outside. There are also countless practices developed by African farmers to solve storage problem of grains, root crops or milk, controlling pests or improving productivity in different ways. Am I saying that farmers’ knowledge can solve all problems by themselves without any need for outside assistance? No, that is not my intention at all. My point is that a blending of people’s ideas with applied science and user-friendly affordable technologies can generate many viable new options. The issue at stake is not whether this or that approach is more suitable for farmers, but what kind of combinations of different approaches farmers develop by experimenting on their own.
There are also countless practices developed by African farmers to solve storage problem of grains, root crops or milk, controlling pests or improving productivity in different ways
By creating the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), India’s Department of Science and Technology has recognized the importance of considering the resourcefulness and creativity of farmers in the rural development process. NIF was established in 2000 following the ideas of Honey Bee Network that are primarily based on the exchange of useful ideas, practices and techniques developed by farmers themselves. This flexible bottom-up approach is now also showing excellent results in China, Malaysia and many other parts of the world. But can it also deliver results in Africa? My suggestion is, yes, if we learn the right lessons from India. Possible building blocks of a renaissance in Africa:
a) Public policy reforms are necessary to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of local communities and individuals. In South Africa, roadside vending is still banned. As a result, the skill ladder does not evolve and further entrenches the pernicious effects of a dual economy:on the one hand, excellent Artisan technologies, on the other hand, European high tech alternatives. The development of a skill ladder could enable people to bridge the gap in creative ways and self-select the journey from road side shack to shop, to workshop, and eventually to small or medium-sized businesses. For that to happen. public support is necessary to enable new markets to evolve. Otherwise the technological base for innovation will remain feeble.
b) The institutional imperviousness to the ideas from common people must be diluted if not eliminated through conscious provisions for participatory research.
c) Students should be mobilized during their summer or winter vacation to scout for ‘deviant researchers’, ‘odd balls’, grassroots innovators and traditional knowledge holders, document their stories and bring it to a common platform.
d) Large scale trials on farms [not demonstrations] must be undertaken with low cost, frugal and affordable technologies either developed by people themselves or valorized by the scientists. Deviant researchers in the formal sector should also be empowered to pursue research on more affordable technologies.
e) One should recognize the limits of the chemical and large mechanical technologies and promote non-chemical pest control and small and light machineries amenable to fabrication and repair at local level. A similar approach might be appropriate for animal care in traditional pastoralism. For that purpose, locals may make use of ideas and practices found in the Honey Bee Network database.
f) Distributed knowledge generation and management has become the watchword for technological transformation. The tendency to first destroy the soil, reduce agrobiodiversity and pollute the water and then find ways to remedy does not make sense.
g) The functional foods approach implies that food grown on mineral rich soil may contribute to improved human nutrition and health. This approach must be considered a very important future possibility that cannot be ignored. Similarly, nutraceuticals based on agricultural systems can be a very viable link in the soil, plant, animal and human health chain.
Establishing dedicated labs and workshops to work on people’s ideas is the need of the hour.
Establishing dedicated labs and workshops to work on people’s ideas is the need of the hour. Honey Bee Network cooperates with curious, compassionate and creative minds in the formal as well as the informal sector. The Namibian Innovation Business Council approached Honey Bee Network to lay the grounds of future cooperation. Several visits by Honey Bee delegates have been made to South Africa and an exhibition of innovations was organized in Limpopo but follow up somehow has been tardy. Specific models with local variations will still have to be developed in Africa. It must build upon the strength of the local communities in managing water, soil, pastures, biodiversity, food processing, etc.
Many years ago, SRISTI had organized an international competition for grassroots innovations in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). A farmer viz., Auta Gravetas was awarded at Global Knowledge Conference, Kuala Lumpur, for having discovered a way how to extend the shelf life of sweet potato slices by making use of lantana leaves, enhancing the self-provisioning of the food. There are a large number of such innovators waiting to be discovered, respected, recognized and rewarded. Can we really wait?
Anil Gupta is Professor at the India Institute of Management in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. He is also the founder of Honey Bee Network, coordinator of SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) and Vice-Chair of India’s National Innovation Foundation.