Democratizing Innovation: Sharing Participatory Research—for Farmers by Farmers

Democratizing Innovation: Sharing Participatory Research—for Farmers by Farmers
From, by Sarah Small

Around the world, farmers, scientists, researchers, and NGOs are creating innovative, on-the-ground solutions for the problems they face each day: water scarcity, resource depletion, land degradation, crop loss, and weather volatility. Many of these ground-breaking ideas have great potential to be replicated and scaled out across the globe.

Food Tank is excited to be collaborating with the McKnight Foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) during 2015 to highlight farmer-led solutions to protect natural resources, increase incomes, and improve livelihoods.

Here are some examples of how innovation can be shared among farmers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and consumers:

  • Participatory, community-generated research methods, such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Farmer Field School (FFS) approach, are being championed worldwide as alternatives to conventional top-down approaches to agricultural development and research. FFS utilizes a communal plot as an education and experimental center, where farmers can teach one another different agricultural practices that can improve yields or protect crops. Farmers who master a particular technique can then teach other farmers and spread the knowledge.

  • In Africa, AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center hosts Seed Fair and Field Days, bringing farmers directly to their research center. Using demonstration plots, AVRDC highlights the diversity of vegetables available in different geographical regions.

  • Prolinnova, an organization dedicated to promoting indigenous knowledge and enhancing farmers’ capacity, hosts an annual workshop on farmer-led research and a fair for farmer innovations. The event is an opportunity for farmer innovators, development practitioners, scientists, policymakers, and the general public to share farmer-led research using knowledge from field-based organizations in West Africa.

  • CORAF/WECARD (Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development) is becoming a vehicle for West and Central African smallholder farmers to share innovation in agriculture. The organization has produced more than 70 short films (with more than 8,100 views on YouTube) featuring farmers who achieve advances in agricultural productivity and sustainability in their communities.

  • In collaboration with sustainability practitioners in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) created SDplanNet to share tools for sustainable development. IISD works with the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) to coordinate internships and training opportunities for future global agriculture leaders to work on projects and initiatives, as well as develop and test new resources as part of the Integrated Environment Assessment.  

  • The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) hosts AgTalks, a series of events presenting policies and innovations in small-scale family farming. These events bring together practitioners, researchers, and specialists in small-scale farming, and provides a forum for sharing knowledge and experiences.  

  • AgriVIVO is a search portal and database containing aggregated data on people, organizations, and events in agriculture. AgriVIVO was launched by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) in partnership with the FAO and Cornell University in an effort to foster inter-institutional conversations and drive agricultural innovation.

  • Climate change presents complex challenges for farmers of all ages, but youth are eager to use information and communication technologies to gain access to community-driven networks. The Agroecological Intensification Exchange (AIEx), developed by the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), is an online platform which engages farmers, innovators, and researchers all over the world in conversations about innovations in farming. Agroecological intensification aims at improving productivity and efficiency through better farm management, improved stability and diversity of yields, and enhanced use of local resources. The site’s database, complete with case studies and research on topics from crop ecology to disease management, is a resource for practitioners and researchers in developing countries seeking to improve agricultural systems and adapt to the changing climate.

Recently, the first annual Food Tank Summit brought together more than 75 speakers, 300 participants, and 15,000 live-stream viewers to discuss and exchange ideas on a variety of food and agriculture topics. Among the panels was a session dedicated to Democratizing Innovation. 

Keynote speaker John Fisk, Director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, began the session by defining democratizing innovation as scaling innovations with the purpose of enabling self determination

Seven panelists spoke about their different approaches to scaling up and scaling out innovations—from shifting investment practices to targeting supply chains—but all were joined by optimism for disruptive food system changes that would make the existing model obsolete. 

Panelists also emphasized the importance of bringing together and engaging different stakeholders in the food system, including local governments, smallholder farmers, and public and private sectors in order to drive changes on the ground.

WATCH each of the panelists discuss their approach to democratizing innovation:

John Fisk (Winrock International) on democratizing responsibility and changing the system

Steve Brescia (Groundswell International) on working with local governments to support small farmers

Doug Hertzler (ActionAid) on engaging local governments and smallholders

Jill Isenbarger (Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture) on building active food citizenship

Aaron McNevin (World Wildlife Fund) on private sector research

Jessica Rosen (Forum for the Future) on rethinking food system as a value network

Shen Tong (Food-X) on changing investments to change the industry and doing well

Food Tank invites you to become part of the discussion on farmer-led innovations and share your experience in creating innovative, on-the-ground solutions to agriculture and farming challenges around the world.

Questions to consider include:

1. What food and agriculture related challenges have you faced that have required you to come up with a solution? What was your solution?

2. What channels, platforms and resources have you used to learn about innovations that address agricultural challenges?

3. How can we harness current innovations, knowledge generation processes, and evidence to improve food and nutrition security?

4. How can sustainable agricultural innovations be more effectively shared with farmers, eaters, agronomists, women and youth groups, scientists, and other stakeholders around the world?

5. In what areas do we need more research to create environmentally sustainable and socially just solutions for the future of food and agriculture?

Please email your answers to and share these questions with your network! 

Food Tank will be compiling your answers and sharing updates as the information is gathered. 

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