Environmental Change and Maize Innovation Pathways in Kenya

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


Methodological approach and lessons from the STEPS Centre Environmental Change and Maize Innovation Pathways in Kenya project.

This presentation (right) can be viewed in conjuntion with the explanatory text below.


Opening Up and Broadening Out

Maize is central to household food security for most households across East and Southern Africa. From the national policy level to the individual household level, maize security has come to be equated with food security. As a result, ‘maize politics’ influence policies that affect maize directly influence most families’ access to food. Consequently, concerns about maize production and access drive national agricultural research and development policy, leading to a virtual ‘lock-in’ of maize as the dominant pathway to food security.

This project was a response to the pervasive tendency – supported by professional, institutional and political pressures – for powerful actors and institutions to try to ‘close down’ around particular ‘framings’, committing to particular pathways that emphasise maintaining stability and control, which often appears to create universalising and generalising approaches. Yet addressing the full implications of dynamics and incomplete knowledge requires ‘opening up’ to methods and practices that involve flexibility, diversity, adaptation, learning and reflexivity, and an alternative politics of integration and sustainability that highlights and supports those pathways. Thus, the STEPS Kenya Team sought to examine prospects for ‘broadening out’ and ‘opening up’ of alternative innovation ‘pathways in and out of maize’ in Kenya and to assess the responses of various actors, including farmers, scientists, policy makers, and private sector and civil society representatives, to rapid environmental, social and technical change in the maize system.


Analysing Dynamic Change

Climate change and variability present new research and development challenges in Kenya. Some 80% of the population rely directly or indirectly on agriculture, major climatic events have included a series of prolonged droughts stretching back to the early 1990s. Today, millions of people remain food insecure, particularly in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL), since only limited harvests have occurred. These environmental changes create new burdens for those already poor and vulnerable households, for whom risks of crop failure, food and income insecurity, malnutrition and ill health are experienced as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Understanding these dynamic processes is important when assessing proposed technological and policy solutions – such as stress-tolerant crop varieties, early warning systems and water-conservation measures – and the extent to which they address or exacerbate patterns of differential vulnerability between and within regions and social groups.


Analysing Pathways In and Out of Maize

In the first phase of this study (2007–9), the STEPS Kenya Team adopted a pathways approach’ and took maize as a window through which to examine farmers’ and institutional responses to the experienced or anticipated effects of climate change, to the increasing volatility of input and output markets, and to the pressures of continuing land subdivision. Maize served as an ideal entry point for engaging with a variety of stakeholders in different agro-ecological, socio-economic and institutional settings about the challenges they face and their perceived room for manoeuvre when dealing with those challenges. Moreover, given the ubiquity of maize in multiple, diverse livelihood systems across the region, national and international crop scientific institutions have responded with research into improved maize varieties more able to withstand the effects of drought and climate change.

In the second phase of research (2009–11), the STEPS Kenya Team employed Multicriteria Mapping (MCM) to explore the potential and constraints of alternative ‘pathways in and out of maize’. It started from an assumption that concerns about the effects of climate change potentially present an opportunity to open up the debate about alternatives, both within maize agriculture (e.g., ones that might recognise farmer innovations and informal as well as formal systems and out of maize, to other crop-based livelihood options (e.g. alternative dryland crops such as cassava; high-risk, but high-reward horticultural crops such as tomatoes).

Thus, in the second phase, fieldwork findings were distilled into a set of ‘innovation pathways’. These were used as the starting point for opening up discussions with a variety of key stakeholders on:

(i)      the range and type of pathways – envisioning alternatives or ‘variants’ within,

(ii)     relevant criteria for choosing one pathway over another in such a way as to factor in the cross-scale dynamics and constraints described earlier, and

(iii)    critical examination of alternative visions of the future and governance arrangements needed to support and facilitate them.

Through this process we developed a typology of nine core ‘pathways in and out of maize’, focusing on lessons derived from Sakai, a risk-prone, low-potential area in Mbooni District, Eastern Province, where considerable effort has gone in to fostering local adaptation responses to climate change by various agencies. Interviews were undertaken with key stakeholder groups – local farmers and officials in Sakai, and assorted climate change and agricultural specialists and policy makers in Nairobi – using MCM. Each group was asked to analyse the core pathways, alongside any others they wish to add, according to their own criteria, which were then weighted in terms of priority. This engaged approach enabled depth and well as breadth of analysis.

In addition, the results and policy implications were presented at a national workshop in Nairobi and with key stakeholder groups in March 2010. At the national event, the main findings and policy recommendations were presented to a diverse audience. Importantly, a video of farmers from Sakai discussing the challenges and opportunities of pursuing pathways in and out of maize was shown and several of the women and men farmers who featured in the film took part in the proceedings. Their contributions sparked considerable debate and discussion and highlighted the farmers’ knowledge and expertise. This event allowed the STEPS Kenya Team to organise a series of meetings with a set of stakeholder interest groups comprised of public officials, private seed companies, civil society organisations and the researchers at national and international institutes, to discuss ideas and particular ‘action points’ emerging from the work related to specific topics – e.g. climate change; food security; plant breeding; biotechnology and biosafety; seed policy – which they were encouraged to address in their work. Furthermore, a follow-up STEPS project on ‘Beyond Biosafety’ was developed on the back of the maize study to assess some of the specific issues related to the introduction and management of transgenic seeds in the country.


Recognising and Appreciating Diversity and Resilience

This study of environmental change and maize innovation pathways stressed the need for institutional as well as technical innovations if current interventions are to enhance rather than undermine resilience in the face of climate variability and uncertainty. Despite their use of a language of ‘adaptation’ and ‘resilience’, initiatives that rely on a linear, pipeline innovation approach (and its associated regulatory framework) remain locked into a ‘risk-stability’ management model that is unlikely to match, let alone enhance, the adaptive capacity of households and communities in marginal environments. In particular, interventions focusing on strengthening and extending the formal maize system at the expense of local, informal systems are in danger of undermining those sources of diversity on which people in different localities need to draw if they are to build livelihoods that are both resilient to shocks and robust in the face of longer-term stresses.


Further Reading and Viewing

STEPS National Dissemination Workshop, Hilton Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya – 22 March 2010

STEPS Maize Pathways Videos:

STEPS Seeds Projects: