Farmers’ organisations and agricultural technology: institutions that give farmers a voice paper drafted by: Karim Hussein

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Paper drafted by:
Karim Hussein

Research Fellow, Rural Policy and Environment Group, ODI

Overseas Development Institute, Portland House, Stag Place, London SW1E 5DP


Project Bio-Data
Coordinating institutions Overseas Development Institute assisted by ITAD Ltd. (Karim Hussein) and CIRAD-TERA, Montpellier (Pierre-Marie Bosc, Michel Dulcire, Christian Bourdel, Nicole Sibelet)
Collaborators CORAF-WECARD, Dakar, Senegal (Jean Zoundi, INERA, Burkina Faso)

Jeannot Engola Oyep (Cameroonian Consultant)

Funders UK DFID, French Ministère de la Coopération, EC (DGXII)(Dakar stakeholder workshop only)
Duration of project 1996 - 1999
Region / Countries studied West and Central Africa (The Gambia, Ghana, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Uganda – with additional study commissioned on Nigeria)


In West and Central Africa, a number of processes have resulted in a new division of roles between public bodies, the private sector, civil society organisations and farmers in the areas of agricultural research and extension. The most important processes common to most countries are: the State ceasing to provide certain services; economies opening up to the market; structural adjustment; and the creation of decentralised and locally accountable political and administrative bodies. At the same time, rural development research and practice has conclusively shown the merits of increasing farmer participation in and influence over research and extension so that agricultural services become more relevant to farmers’ livelihoods. In this context, local institutions - farmers’ organisations - have emerged in many countries as key providers of agricultural services to their members. The increased emphasis on the role of civil society in providing agricultural services (which are seen here as private and public agricultural research and extension, and capacity building for community development1) has led to a number of attempts to strengthen relationships between public research and extension, and farmers’ organisations.
The main aim of this contribution is to demonstrate the ways in which the research on farmers’ organisation-research-extension linkages helps to unpack the policy, institutions and processes elements of the sustainable livelihoods approach. Examples drawn from a multi-country study covering a range of West and Central African contexts show how existing policies, institutions (organisations and legal frameworks) and processes related to agricultural research and extension affect people’s access to resources, technology, assets and livelihood opportunities (link to Project Bio-Data and to Research Problem/Research Issues). Lessons are drawn that can inform the development of policies that support the strengthening of organisations, which should help to improve livelihoods in the region. Some of these relate to adjusting national policy frameworks, others can be directly supported by external agencies such as DFID.
The key practical policy lessons from the study include (section 6 has an extended discussion of policy conclusions):

 while agricultural research is not usually a priority for farmers’ organisations, these organisations are often effective in providing their members with better access to research, extension, inputs and marketing;

strengthening the technical, economic and management capacities of farmers’ organisations is essential for them to be able to establish linkages with research and extension;

 helping public research and extension services understand and take on board producer requests requires training in participatory methods, existence of fora for sharing lessons on successful partnerships, field experience of working with farmers’ organisations and new professional incentives that make researchers and extension workers keen to make their work relevant to producer needs;

 the different actors often do not have the capacities required to successfully work in partnership. Hence capacity building work for farmers’ organisations, public extension and research organisations and the private sector is necessary to increase their use of participatory methodologies, increase technical skills and the ability to negotiate and make proposals, and increase social science skills.
Based on the case studies, a number of recommendations were made (link to sections 6 and 7). These covered:

- building the capacities of farmers’ organisations

- helping public agricultural research and extension bodies to understand and respond to farmer requests

- encouraging formal, contractual linkages between farmers’ organisations, extension and research

1. SL Relevance of Research

2. The Research Problem

3. Key Research Issues

4. The Case Studies

5. Research Results

6. Policy Conclusions

7. Policy, Institutions and Processes and the SL Approach

8. Gaps and Questions

9. Further Reading

10. Relevant Websites


The policy, institutions and processes aspects of SL

Gaining access to the assets needed to create a sustainable livelihood depends on policy measures (at the local and national level), institutions (formal and informal organisations, customary rules such as resource tenure and legislation) and processes (the dynamic relations between these) (link to DFID SL Guidance Sheets 2.4). These operate at all levels, from the household to the international, and in public and private spheres. They determine:

 access (to social, physical, financial, natural and human capital, to livelihood strategies and to decision-making bodies and sources of influence) (see SL Guidance Sheets 2.3)

 the terms of exchange between different types of capital; and

 the returns to a given livelihood strategy.
Policy, institutions and processes are key determinants of livelihood outcomes. The work presented here illuminates and unpacks some aspects the “black box” of structures and processes in the livelihoods framework, providing concrete examples of how these operate to help or hinder the improvement of rural livelihoods, particularly with regard to agricultural production.
Relevance of this research to the policy, institutions and processes aspects of the SL approach
The case studies of the role of civil society organisations in general, and farmers’ organisations in particular, in developing and disseminating agricultural technologies and providing agricultural services to farmers, shows the importance of policy and institutions to livelihoods. These farmers’ organisations are defined here as groups of rural producers coming together to found organisations, based on the principle of free membership, to pursue specific common interests of their members – developing technical and economic activities that benefit their members and maintaining relations with partners operating in their economic and institutional environment [GLOSSARY ENTRY]. Farmers’ organisations and civil society organisations are clearly key in shaping livelihood opportunities and outcomes. Legislation on freedom of association and the State’s legal recognition of farmers’ organisations are also shown to be key factors affecting people’s livelihood opportunities.
This research was based on the premise that it is useful to compare diverse case studies of farmers’ organisations in order to identify factors that contribute to an increased downward accountability of service providers in specific contexts. The comparison of case studies across contexts and countries contributes to the unpacking of the policy, institutions and processes elements of the sustainable livelihoods (SL) approach, providing some answers to the question of why farmers’ organisations are successful in achieving downward accountability in certain settings and not in others (link to section 4 and section 5). The study assessed of the role of the political context, history, legislative and economic reform in the process - elements not explicit in the SL framework, but of key importance in shaping livelihood outcomes (link to section 6).
[create link to definition of upward and downward accountability in section 2 and to glossary entries]
Further principles implicit in the SL approach guided this research:

- triangulation of different data sources (secondary literature review, key informant interviews, participatory research methods with farmers, observation…);

- the central importance of designing and supporting policies and institutions that fit with rural people’s diverse context-dependent livelihood strategies.
Eight main issues or lessons for the policy, institutions and processes aspects of the SL approach emerge from these case studies [link to section 7].
The research project
What is presented here is a multi-country study undertaken by a team of French, British and West African researchers for CORAF (the Conference des Responsables de Recherche Agricole en Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre) - or WECARD2 in English - between 1998 and 1999. The study analysed the strengths and weaknesses of research-extension-farmers’ organisation collaboration in the region and aimed to identify lessons for best practice so as to assist the development of appropriate agricultural technologies and improve their dissemination amongst farmers. For example: which types of organisations foster better linkages? What legislative and policy environment supports the development of strong farmers’ organisations? Some sixteen cases of such collaboration were studied in five West and Central African countries – Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso, The Gambia (an additional study was also carried out by a consultant in Nigeria). Whilst the specific historical, political and economic context proved significant to the successful development of fruitful linkages, a number of widely applicable practical lessons are drawn to improve such linkages. For a summary discussion of the types of farmers’ organisations that should be strengthened and some key characteristics of effective farmers’ organisations, click here (link to Box 1 on separate page).
Box 1: Why strengthen farmers’ organisations?
Farmers’ organisations need to be strengthened where they represent farmers’ own interests and where they have emerged as a result of their own, real expressed needs – not as an imposition of the State. They can then become effective channels of communication between the member-farmers, otherwise easily isolated and lacking power to affect the behaviour of agricultural service providers. However, where FO’s do not have access to diverse sources of income, where there are no core cultural or economic activities that bind their members, where the organisations do not have access to capacity-building support or where they operate in an unfriendly institutional environment (lack of supportive legislation, no formal recognition etc) they tend to be weak and unable to influence powerful actors with the needs of their members.
This is highly relevant to the SL approach to rural development, as the approach explicitly recognises the key importance of institutions and organisations to rural people for achieving positive livelihood outcomes – for example, increased livelihood security, levels of production, wealth, influence and power.
Recommendations for strengthening the processes of technology generation and dissemination in which farmers’ organisations, civil society organisations, and national agricultural research and extension services are engaged, focus on adapting policies, institutions and processes to better fit with FO members’ livelihood needs. The ability of public service providers to respond to the needs expressed by farmers through their organisations depends on the willingness of government, as well as public and private agricultural services, to engage with them. However, in order to be effective, farmers’ organisations often need:
(i) capacity building support in technical areas relating to agricultural production, and internal management and organisation (programming, financial management….);
(ii) some successful economic activities – as technology generation is not normally a sufficient mobilising force for farmers’ groups – such as cash crop production or commodity marketing;

(iii) access to funds from diverse sources (membership fees, access to development project and international NGO funds etc.);

(iv) commonly accepted ethic for group interaction (either traditional modes of social organisation (FUGN, Burkina Faso) or clearly stated statutes required by law (Cameroon), or clear rules for group interaction and decision-making (sesame growers, The Gambia).
Upward and downward accountability
Much research has shown the need to develop effective mechanisms to make agricultural service providers more accountable and demand led. This is seen as key to increasing the effectiveness and relevance of agricultural services to farmers’ livelihood and development needs.
There are, broadly speaking, two main types of accountability: upward accountability and downward accountability. Upward accountability involves the need of service providers to satisfy the demands of their funders, and in the case of public services, the State. Currently, this usually involves meeting criteria such as transparency, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, achievement of policy objectives, and being tied to market forces of supply and demand. Downward accountability, however, implies accountability of service providers to local populations and end users of agricultural services. It is the importance of strengthening downward accountability and responsiveness to end user needs and demands – and particularly those of the poorest groups - that was the central focus of the research discussed here. This research was particularly interested in accountability accompanied by empowerment: examining different types of linkages between agricultural service providers and farmers and their representatives and assessing which of these linkages were most successful in empowering farmers in the process of agricultural technology development. In general, the case studies showed that strong, federated farmers’ organisations were a more effective mechanism for empowering farmers in technology development processes than, for example, simply using participatory methods or working with small farmer contact groups. However, effective farmers’ organisations did not exist in all contexts.
Mechanisms for achieving downward accountability
Attempts to achieve downward accountability have involved the establishment of diverse mechanisms that tie agricultural service providers to end users, notably:

i. establishing contractual or collaborative linkages with civil society organisations (including local and national farmers’ organisations) (e.g. Burkina Faso; Senegal);

ii. strengthening the capacities of community based organisations and farmers’ organisations (e.g. The Gambia; Cameroon);

iii. creating incentives for the private sector to fund research and extension activities (e.g. Ghana; Uganda);

iv. promoting the use of participatory methodologies (e.g. PRA) in needs assessment, planning and implementation, and less commonly in, in monitoring and evaluation (most of the study countries);

v. inviting farmer representatives to participate in research and extension coordinating and decision making bodies (Ghana; The Gambia);

vi. creating of linkages between service providers and decentralised elected local authorities (Ghana; Uganda…); and

vii. establishing competitive research and technology partnership funds (Uganda; Kenya…)

Farmers’ organisations are defined here as groups of rural producers coming together to found organisations, based on the principle of free membership, to pursue specific common interests of their members – developing technical and economic activities that benefit their members and maintaining relations with partners operating in their economic and institutional environment [GLOSSARY ENTRY]. Strong farmers’ organisations (the second mechanism cited above – and the focus of this research) can be among the most effective mechanisms for achieving downward accountability. However, their effectiveness in achieving this depends on their internal strength and cohesion, a clear set of objectives which normally include agricultural and economic activities, and a favourable external (policy and legislative) environment. Their existence can both encourage and at times enforce greater accountability of service providers. The core theme of this research was to highlight the technical, economic and institutional conditions that influence the development of collaborative linkages between national agricultural research systems, farmers, farmers’ organisations and civil society to improve processes of agricultural technology development.

A number of case studies of more or less formal linkages between farmers’ organisations and agricultural research and extension organisations in West and Central Africa were studied. These were identified in collaboration with national agricultural research institutes and NGOs in each country. The research questions and assumptions behind the research are summarised in Box 2.
Box 2: Key Research Issues
Key research issues


The main assumptions underpinning the study were that:

- Strong and active farmers’ organisations are key institutions that bridge the gap between farmers, public research and extension bodies, government institutions and international donor organisations in making agricultural technology development more effective and relevant to farmers

- Factors in each country’s policy environment can either contribute to or inhibit effective linkages between farmers’ organisations


The research focused on the following key questions:

- What can we learn about the importance of farmers’ organisations in improving farmer access to appropriate technologies?

- In which contexts have farmers’ organisations been effective in making agricultural service providers more demand driven and therefore making servcies more relevant to farmers’ felt needs and complex livelihoods?

- What factors in policy and institutional environment limit farmer participation and the degree to which agricultural services respond to farmers’ expressed needs? Are certain features of these contexts essential to achieving fruitful linkages? (e.g. free market economy; laws giving official recognition farmers’ organisation needs…)?

- Where have there been successful linkages between public research and extension services and farmers’ organisations?

- From these cases what can we learn about factors which contribute to the development of linkages between research, extension, farmers’ organisations and their members, and about factors which work against the development of linkages?

Case studies

Sixteen case studies were carried out in five countries (The Gambia, Ghana, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Guinea) by a multidisciplinary research team. These were identified through the National Agricultural Research Institute in each country in most cases and sometimes through NGOs (for example, ActionAid The Gambia) or through. An additional study was commissioned for Nigeria. The research methodology was consultative, using semi-structured interviews at local and national level, with policymakers, farmer representatives and farmers, in groups and as individual. Stakeholder workshops were held at local, national and sub-regional level to discuss issues and results.

The case studies recommended for study by the regional partners in the five countries show a very wide diversity of situations. In six out of the sixteen studied, the forms of farmers’ organisation encountered were in fact structures established by extension services (contact groups in Ghana and The Gambia) or localised producer groups of a fairly informal type (Ghana, The Gambia and Burkina Faso [Diébougou]). The remaining cases involved structured farmers’ organisations as defined here [link to Glossary entry] The different forms of organisation studied are summarised in Table 1.
Table 1: Different forms of organisation studied in the case studies

Total no. cases

Local producer groups

Farmers' organisa- tions

Contact groups

Private sector

Informal group based around a single family







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