Aug. 12, 2015
Michelle Hockett's master's thesis paper from 2014 gives new perspectives on the challenge of encouraging innovation among smallholder farmers in Africa, especially female farmers. The full title of the research paper is, "They say wealth is in the soil": Local Knowledge and Agricultural Experimentation Among Smallholder Farmers in Central Malawi. I find this topic fascinating because "innovation" and "experimentation" are not discussed much in the literature on improving coffee farmer livelihoods, but it should be. In other businesses, the "innovation imperative" is discussed and promoted constantly, and even in specialty coffee, buyers I've talked to are not shy about the fact that they strongly encourage suppliers to innovate.
Michelle studied in the Community Sustainability department at Michigan State University, which is where I study. So while I never met Michelle personally, I saw her poster display and I know some of the faculty on her advisory committee (all top notch)!
The study finds that Malawian farmers across a range of socioeconomic characteristics are inclined to experiment. While experimental methods differ between farmers, there are commonalities in the drivers of experimentation, including climate change, income generation and improving household nutrition. Recommendations forthcoming from the research results include suggestions to take farmers' current practices into account in the development and implementation of agricultural intervention projects. In Malawi, Hockett notes that when current practices are considered, intervention projects work more effectively and smallholder farming systems are improved.
Points to consider for smallholder coffee projects:
* Take farmers' current practices into account
* Assume the farmers are inclined to experiment and innovate
* Do not assume farmers all innovate the same way or for the same reasons