Livestock farmers at Duko express gratitude to AR. Photo credit- Wilhelmina Ofori Duah -IITA
Smallholder farmers at Duko community in northern Ghana (photo credit: Wilhelmina Ofori-Duah/IITA).

In a few words, Sustainable Intensification (SI) is the application or use of innovations to increase productivity on existing agricultural land with positive environmental and social impacts. As suggested by the name, the SI paradigm requires that intensification should be achieved in a sustainable manner, and both words, ‘sustainable’ and ‘intensification,’ carry equal weight seeking to not compromise the needs of future generations. 

For the agricultural research community, some of the universally acknowledged parameters for SI include managing the use of land, soil and water sustainably; use of external inputs such as fertilizer and improved seeds efficiently and optimally; ensuring that farming areas retain sufficient agrobiodiversity; enabling institutional and policy environments for farmers to use economic opportunities; and enhancing equity at different scales (intra-household, interhousehold and regional). But what does the concept of sustainable intensification mean to a smallholder farmer? 

Various frameworks have been developed to measure SI. An example being the Sustainable Intensification Assessment Framework (SIAF) that has been pioneered by the Africa RISING Program, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification (SIIL) among others. The SIAF looks at five domains considered critical for sustainability – environment, productivity, economic, social, and human. These five domains are considered encompassing in terms of evaluating the direct and indirect consequences a new agricultural technology may have on a farmer’s life, his environment, and his farm outputs. But do the smallholder farmers’ views also align with this science-based SIAF assessment criteria? 

In a study published this April in the World Development journal titled, Smallholder farmers’ preferences for sustainable intensification attributes in maize production: Evidence from Ghana, Kotu et al. analyse farmers’ preferences with respect to the five domains of sustainable intensification used in the SIAF. Survey data was collected from a sample of 1,300 maize/sorghum-producing households in June 2020 and February 2021 in Ghana and Mali, respectively.

‘It is important to know whether farmer’s interests in sustainable intensification align with the scientists’ assessment criteria for two reasons; (i) technology adoption hinges on a full understanding of farmers interests and willingness to invest in it, and (ii)scientific soundness of a technology does not necessarily lead to a favorable consideration of it by the farmers,’ notes IITA scientist, Bekele Kotu, the study’s lead author.

Example of a choice card used in the choice experiment on farmers perspectives on sustainable intensification in northern Ghana.
Example of a choice card offered to farmers in Ghana during the survey.

Farmers were presented with choice cards consisting of two unlabeled maize/sorghum intensification options (options A and B) and an opt-out (option C) which represents the current maize/sorghum-based cropping practice of farmers i.e., the ‘status quo’ (for situations where a farmer felt that retaining their current practice if it offers more utility over options A and B). The attributes assessed by farmers for each option included: maize yield (Ghana), sorghum yield (Mali), legume/forage yield, risk of crop failure, labour requirement, cash requirement, soil fertility effect, nutrition effect and gender dynamics. 

The findings of the study can be summed up as follows: 

  • Farmers’ preferences are aligned with the domains of sustainable intensification as conceptualized in the SIAF.
  • While farmers value all the sustainable intensification attributes considered in the study, they are not homogeneous in their preferences but vary by region, by gender, and depending on other household level factors. With the exception of labour and cash requirements, the study registered substantial heterogeneity in preferences for the other attributes.
  • Farmers’ interests in multiple attributes suggest that it is useful to adopt multidimensional assessment frameworks to identify best-fitting SI practices in lieu of the conventional technology assessment approaches, which emphasize a single attribute at a time.

From the study, it is clear that SI is not just a fad within the academic and research circles but something that farmers are interested in. This is in support of the current global emphasis on sustainable development. Frameworks for evaluating technologies (or a mix of technologies) targeting smallholder farmers should therefore be deployed and adopted by research and development actors to optimize trade-offs and synergies among desirable technology attributes. It is therefore imperative for key players in the global agricultural research and development such as in CGIAR to incorporate the sustainability concept into their research processes.

Download the full paper: Smallholder farmers’ preferences for sustainable intensification attributes in maize production: Evidence from Ghana

Watch video of Bekele Kotu presenting the results of the study 

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