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Soils, science and the politics of knowledge: How African smallholder farmers are framed and situated in global debates

02 October 2012, AfriCAN Climate

Soils, science and the politics of knowledge: How African smallholder farmers are framed and situated in the global debates on integrated soil fertility management

The paper addresses an important and often overlooked cultural aspect of smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The paper relates to how different policy organisations conceptualise soil management problem, its causes and solutions and how these framings intersect with, and incorporate smallholders’ indigenous knowledge. The article provides a brief review of the positionality of modernists and post-modernists on knowledge production and the politics which the process entails. Considering the ideology of some continental and global initiatives on integrated soil fertility management (ISFM), the paper identifies and addresses institutional framings of soil fertility problem in SSA. It also analyses the political economy [and ecology] of soil management in SSA; and investigates how farmers’ knowledge are incorporated into ISFM in the sub-continent. Drawing from some empirical evidences, the paper suggests that there is need for an economically viable and socio-culturally acceptable framework for the integration of both western and local knowledge in ISFM.

The farmer's field is the best laboratory for experimentation. The transformation of on-farm adaptive research (OFAR) or experimentation (largely initiated and led by scientists) into farmer participatory research (FPR), which recognises farmers as ‘…central actors in the research and experimentation process’ (Scoones and Thompson, 1994b), provides a suitable platform for knowledge  sharing, adaptation and synthesis amongst the two stakeholders. This forum avails the agricultural scientists the opportunity to better appreciate the process involved in farmers’ experimentation procedures and ‘mode of enquiry’. Articulating these processes with those of OFAR engenders a good practice in knowledge production. On the one hand, the researcher's fore-knowledge of farmers’ socio-economic and cultural dynamics as informed by earlier investigations/studies is a good starting point in establishing a farmer–scientist's knowledge linkage system. On the other hand, a two-way farmer-extension-scientist informationflow and linkage is paramount for generating useful feedbacks in knowledge production. Local farmers engage in curiosity, problem-solving, adaptive and peer pressure experiments (see Millar, 1994). As such, recognising and understanding farmers’ own diverse experimentation approaches is vital for researchers if only their engagement with farmers would translate into a productive partnership. The role of extension as the middleman between farmers and researchers prior to, during and after a research initiative cannot be overemphasised in refining the outputs of research in a language and manner that are better appreciated by the end-users. As such, dialogue, trust and mutual respect for and between actors (farmers, researchers and extension personnel) form the basis for both local and western knowledge integration (see Millar, 1994). Identifying and working with farmers who are willing to learn new knowledge and share theirs with others will transform knowledge production in soil fertility management.

Thus, economically viable, socio-culturally acceptable and environmentally friendly alternatives [for soil fertility management] are indeed an imperative. Devising suitable pathways for the implementation of soil recapitalisation and ISFM is appropriate for any quick recovery-intervention. The reinforcement and more integration of leguminous woody and herbaceous plants into existing cropping systems [as part of ISFM] are also considered as one of the best options for the enhancement of soil health. Armed with scientific tools and working in conjunction with local community people, researchers need to empower small farmers to take a meaningful lead in finding suitable solutions to Africa's divergent soil problems.

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