How to move beyond technology in ‘Sustainable Intensification’

A man walks to his field with his house and granary store and dark storm clouds behind.

by Saurabh Arora and Ravic Nijbroek

Sustainable Intensification (SI) promises more food from the same amount of land, while minimizing pressure on the environment. In Sub-Saharan Africa, considerable research and effort has been put into achieving it – but without the expected success. So why has Sustainable Intensification (SI) not made as much progress as hoped in the region?

Much of the discourse suggests that the challenges are because of constraints on technology adoption, such as the absence of good policies and institutions, interrupted access to capital and markets, misrecognition of customary land tenure rights, or inadequacies of farmers’ skills and of the (soil and water) conditions on their farms. Challenges in other areas, like Sustainable Land Management (SLM) and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), are also attributed to these constraints.

The sheer intensity and diversity of the constraints makes one wonder if ideal technologies should be promoted at all – especially because smallholder farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are highly varied. Although 80% of farms in SSA are smaller than 2 hectares in size, and this land is usually fragmented in 2 to 4 scattered plots, other ecological and social conditions are very different in different localities. So perhaps an ideal technology is not one that is “proven”, but rather one that is contextually-appropriate.

Scientists and civil society groups have already made the case that new technologies should be adapted to local agro-ecological conditions, that they ought to be scale-appropriate, and that they should be scalable from the household level to regional levels. What then is the “right kind” of SI, CSA or SLM technology to promote for a given context? How does one understand the enabling conditions given the diversity of constraints before introducing a new technology? Or, do we need to move beyond context-appropriate technologies and the constraints on their adoption to find other ways to appreciate SI, CSA or SLM?

Beyond a technology focus

By highlighting constraints on widespread adoption, even if what is being adopted is contextually appropriate, research and policy ends up furthering a technology-centered (some may say a techno-fix) approach to (problems associated with) SI, CSA and SLM.

But what if we shift the focus away from technologies themselves, and concentrate instead on the actions of smallholder farmers on their farms? Would researchers then be able to uncover the many adjustments and improvisations smallholders have to make in their farming practices, in order to make things work in complex socio-ecological landscapes, while needing to adapt to a changing climate and to volatile market conditions?

Why research approach matters

This is obviously no simple matter. And we are surely not the first ones to highlight the importance of detailing what farmers actually do on their fields. Yet what matters, and what is different about our call, is how we propose to go about describing the farmers’ doings.

The approach, concepts and methods researchers use inevitably leave an imprint on the knowledge that is produced. For example, using an institutional approach can show that farmers’ actions in using and conserving their resources are determined by their formal and informal institutional arrangements (see for example work by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues). In the understandings that are produced, actions remain subservient to institutions.

Our call to ‘decenter’ the focus from technology does not imply that technology is completely put out of the picture. Instead, what we are calling for is an approach that may be described as ‘socio-eco-technological’. In this approach, the focus turns to how the social (humans with their interpersonal networks and formal/informal institutions) tries to adjust to the ecological and the technological, and vice versa.

Such an approach is dynamic and relational, in the sense that it calls for an appreciation of the process of (trans)formation of relations between the social, the ecological and the technological.

These multifarious relations and their dynamics may be especially critical to appreciate and promote sustainability in agriculture, as purportedly encapsulated by categories such as SI, CSA or SLM.

What relations are we looking at?

In practical terms, using the socio-eco-technological approach, we attempt to map on the one hand the (unequal) relationships between the smallholder farmer and other people (e.g. the “middle man”, extension worker, or credit provider), organizations (such as local NGOs, farmers’ associations, or local government), and policies (e.g. subsidies or other incentive schemes).

On the other hand, the approach directs attention to the non-humans who populate the ecological and the technological dimensions to ‘speak back’, by not working in the way that is expected of them, and in being made to work (when possible) through farmers’ efforts of adjusting them to each other on the farm and to market and policy conditions.

This allows us to understand how a farmer comes to establish a specific relation with things such as new seed varieties, soil quality, market signals and other elements of agricultural practices, while adjusting them to each other, all in an attempt to make things work together.

Mapping structural forces

One obvious risk of a localized approach, such as the one we are proposing here, is that it can lead to a neglect of ‘structural’ forces, cultural and economic (e.g. gender hierarchies, terms of globalized trade, resource grabs and land deals driven by highly-mobile financial capital), which often disadvantage small farmers in SSA.

To minimize this risk, we aim to capture the structural forces as they manifest, and are negotiated, in farmers’ pre- and post-harvest agrarian practices, unevenly curtailing the farmers’ attempts to make things work.

These structural forces are evident in the dynamic investment environment of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor in Tanzania, where we are currently testing the socio-eco-technological approach. We hope that this research will bring to the fore the agency and voices of smallholder farmers and their specific social-ecological-technological worlds, as they negotiate with ‘structural’ forces in practice. We also hope to underscore the importance of working with the variety of smallholder farming systems in interventions to achieve environmental and social sustainability in African agriculture, rather than imposing standardized technology-centered packages on them.


About the authors:

Saurabh Arora is senior lecturer in Technology and Innovation for Development at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex, and a Research Fellow at STEPS Centre, Sussex, UK. His work focuses on local and global politics of agricultural sustainability.

Ravic Nijbroek is a scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on sustainable agricultural intensification in East Africa. He is an alumnus of the STEPS Summer School (2016).

Related: Contested Agronomy blog posts and features

Image: Storm Clouds over Iringa, Tanzania by United Nations Photo on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd 2.0)

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