Farmer innovation quiz

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Case #1: Farmland for the Irob people in northern Ethiopia often lies on steep hillsides. Unless the soil is protected, it washes down the slope every time there is a strong rain. Also, so little rain falls each year that unless measures are taken to allow the rainwater to enter the soil, there isn’t enough moisture to grow crops. Local farmers experimented with slowing the downward pace of the rainwater by building one dam, and then a series of stone dams at places where natural streams carry water down the hillsides. When the rains came, the streams were slowed by the dams. Also, the soil which was carried by the streams backed up behind the dams and, over time, formed a series of step-like terraces down the slopes. The water was slowed sufficiently by the dams so that it entered the soil behind the dams. With this series of dams and terraces in place, farmers are able to grow crops on the terraces.

This is an example of farmers finding a way to grow crops in an arid, steep environment. Which of the following three statements do you agree with?

1. This is not really an innovation. The farmers simply tried some common sense methods of stopping water from flowing down the hillsides.

FEEDBACK: Some common characteristics of farmer innovation are careful observation, learning from the problem, experimentation, and borrowing ideas or technologies from one situation and applying them to another. In this situation, farmers observed that running water was washing away hillside soil, and reasoned that some kind of barrier to the downward flow might solve the problem. They experimented with first one dam, then a series of dams, and discovered that this idea, borrowed from other situations, worked. “Common sense” refers in this case to the process of making and testing reasonable assumptions based on what the farmers observed and what they already know about the behaviour of water and soil. So this is a good example of farmer innovation.

2. This is a good example of how farmers innovate. The farmers identified a problem – that rainwater was not being retained in the soil and thus there was too little moisture for crops to grow. They devised a means to interrupt and slow the flow of the water down the hillside. This allowed water to seep into the soil, and moist soil to pile up behind the dam. Soil in the new terraces then contained enough moisture to grow crops.

FEEDBACK: Yes, observation, identification of a problem, and devising a method to solve the problem, based on knowledge of the behaviour of water and soil, is at the core of “farmer innovation.”

3. This is only a first step in farmer innovation. For a real innovation, farmers have to conduct trial and error experiments and invent a new technology which has never been tried before.

FEEDBACK: It is true that farmer innovation involves trial and error experimentation. The farmers started out with one dam. They then tried a series of dams. This is trial and error experimentation. Innovation does not only apply to “radically” new technologies, which have been never thought of and tried anywhere before, but also to the application of existing knowledge and methods to new situations. Presumably, the farmers knew from experience and observation that dams stop or slow the flow of water. They applied this knowledge to a new situation.

Case #2: A group of farmers in western Uganda were trained by NGOs and international agencies to profitably grow potato through a Farmer Field School approach. They learned integrated pest and disease management for potatoes, integrated crop and nutrient management, and business skills. The farmers’ group was able to find new markets for potatoes, including the supply of potatoes for processing into French fries for restaurants.

In this story, a group of farmers is trained in many of the skills required to profitably grow and market potatoes. Which of the following two statements do you agree with?

1. This is a good example of farmer innovation. The farmers were able to develop new skills, and, using these new business skills, were able to identify and attract new markets for their product.

FEEDBACK: This is a good example of farmers being trained, and then using their new skills to establish a creative business. It is not an example of farmer innovation, because the farmers did not apply their own knowledge or methods to a new situation, or develop a new technology for an identified problem; rather, they used the skills they had been taught to identify better income-generating opportunities.

2. This is not farmer innovation, but the successful application of skills used through training. Innovation implies that, rather than methods being taught to farmers who then apply them, that farmers themselves develop and/or adapt methods.

FEEDBACK: We agree. While this is certainly a success story, it does not qualify as an innovation.

Case #3: A woman farmer wanted an improved system for collecting water, because the long walk to find water and bring it home again was time- and energy-intensive. So she made a gutter from a bamboo stem and lashed it to her roof with jute rope. She put palm leaves in the shape of a funnel at the end of the gutter. The palm funnel directed rainwater to the ground and ensured that it wasn’t lost by splashing all around. She dug a ditch to receive the water from the palm funnel, and placed a large stone in the ditch, which formed a pond. Now, when she needs water, she simply collects it from the ditch. She has plans to divert the water in the ditch to her crops through a series of channels.

In this story, a woman finds a labour-saving method to collect water. Which of the following three statements do you agree with?

1. This is not a true innovation. The woman is simply using materials in her immediate environment to help her save water. She has not invented anything new, so this cannot be called an innovation.

FEEDBACK: Farmer innovation often builds on indigenous or traditional knowledge. This is exactly what the woman did. She was familiar with the properties of the materials in her immediate environment – bamboo stems, palm leaves and ditches – and she used those materials to create a technology which solved her problem. Innovation does not always mean “invention” in the sense of something which has never been seen before. More often, it means applying what you already know or what someone has done to a new situation.

2. We don’t know if this is an innovation or not, because we don’t know whether other farmers in the woman’s community or elsewhere have tried these techniques.

FEEDBACK: This may be true. But, even if other women have tried these methods, this woman’s situation is, presumably, unique, and her application of known principles to her unique situation qualifies, in the broad sense, as innovation. Even if women in other communities in other countries have tried this technique, this woman is innovating by adapting knowledge to her unique situation.

3. This is a good example of farmer innovation. Many, if not most, innovations do not involve invention of a unique methodology. Rather, they use familiar materials in new ways, or they try methods that have been used successfully in new environments.

FEEDBACK: Yes, this is the broad sense of innovation that we are talking about in this online course and scriptwriting competition.

Case #4: Two women rice farmers share the many techniques they use to better conserve stored rice seed. Their effective techniques include:

  • keeping seed only in containers which are airtight,
  • sealing the pores in earthenware containers, both inside and outside, with paint or cooking oil,
  • lighting a candle inside the storage container before closing it to use up all the oxygen and kill any insects inside, and
  • adding neem, tobacco and other insect-repellent leaves to the stored seeds.

In this story, women rice farmers are seen as highly knowledge and skilled at conserving stored rice seeds. Which of the following three statements do you agree with?

1. It is impossible to tell if these women are innovators, because we don’t know if they developed these techniques themselves.

FEEDBACK: We agree. If we wanted to find out whether these women were innovators, more research would be required. We would need to speak to the women, and perhaps to other people in their community and perhaps nearby communities. Then we would be able to tell if the methods they used were already known, or whether they were developed by these women.

2. Yes, these women are innovative. The range of knowledge and methods they use to conserve rice seeds is truly innovative.

FEEDBACK: The range of knowledge and methods the women use to conserve rice seeds is truly impressive, but without knowing whether these women developed these techniques themselves, or adapted traditional or modern practices and knowledge to a new situation, we can’t call them innovators. Innovation requires conceiving of and implementing something new. While it is true that the innovation does not have to qualify as never having been seen before, it must be new to the situation, and not just involve the successful implementation of techniques which are known in the community or region.

3. No, these women are not innovative. These are well-known methods which they are simply applying to the task of conserving rice seeds.

FEEDBACK: You may well be right. If you know with certainty that these methods are known in the women’s community, or nearby communities, and that these women are simply making good use of known methods, you are correct in saying that their use of the methods does not qualify as an innovation. However, you must be sure that these techniques are indeed known before saying that the women are not innovative.