By Chesha Wettasinha


Small-scale farmers are crucial to attaining global food and nutrition security and maintaining agrobiodiversity. According to FAO, small-scale farmers contribute 50-70 per cent of total global food supply. Over 90 per cent of the world's 570 million farms are classified as 'small scale', with at least 75 per cent of the farms in the developing world being less than a hectare in size (FAO 2014).

The Global Report on Agriculture (IAASTD, 2008) revealed that small-scale farming makes a huge contribution to the global agricultural economy. Not only is it the livelihood basis of millions of families; it also generates many additional jobs within local economies, often in the informal sector. It is also a repository of immense local knowledge and experimental capacity to generate and continue to develop context-appropriate forms of agriculture and food production with relatively little capital.

These small-scale farmers and other land-users are being confronted with rapid hanges as they try to maintain and improve their livelihoods. Globalization brings both opportunities and challenges. Increased competition for their products and  degradation of their natural basic resources threaten the sustainability of their efforts. Climate change is posing even more challenges and putting some of their age-old, indigenous farming practices into question.

But small-scale farmers are persistent innovators in adapting to changing conditions. Women and men, individually and collectively, are finding new and better ways of doing things, using their own resources, on their own initiative and without direct support from external service providers. Such a process enables them to deal with change as they see it happens, and thereby to become more resilient (PROLINNOVA, 2016).

Local innovation – dynamics of indigenous knowledge
Agricultural research and development (ARD) is driven by innovation at all levels, but the type of innovation that ultimately makes the difference is what farmers decide to do. Normally, the term 'innovation' at farmers' level has been used to refer to farmers' adoption of new technologies coming from outside. Until recently, little attention was given to the new technologies, management practices and institutions that farmers and farming communities have developed themselves – to 'local innovation'. This refers to the dynamics of indigenous knowledge – the knowledge that has developed over time within a social group learning from the experience of earlier generations and knowledge that has been accumulated meanwhile and has been fully incorporated within local ways of thinking and doing. Local innovation in agriculture and natural resource management (NRM) is the process through which individuals or groups within a given locality discover or develop and apply improved ways of managing the available resources – building on and expanding the boundaries of their indigenous knowledge (Waters-Bayer et al., 2008).

Local innovations are not only technical in nature but include socio-economic and institutional innovations such as new ways of gaining access to resource-use rights or new ways of organizing marketing activities. For example, after a road has been built or improved and vehicles are moving along it, groups of women organize themselves to sell their dairy products at more distant and lucrative markets and find innovative ways to do this at low cost per unit of dairy product sold (Waters-Bayer et al., 2008).

PROLINNOVA – an international network to promote local innovation
PROLINNOVA (Promoting local innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and NRM) is an international multi-stakeholder network of organizations and individuals of diverse institutional affiliation that recognize the innovative capacity of small-scale farmers as key to sustainable development. PROLINNOVA's vision is a world in which women and men farmers play decisive roles in agriculture and NRM innovation processes for sustainable livelihoods. Thus, it stimulates a culture of mutual learning and synergy among diverse stakeholder groups to actively support and promote local innovation processes in agriculture and NRM.

The network consists of country platforms in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Asia, PROLINNOVA is active in Cambodia, the Philippines and Nepal as country platforms (Cps), while individuals in many more countries join the network. In each country, a multistakeholder National Steering Committee provides oversight and guidance to the CPs and helps mobilize resources. A small international support team supports the activities at national level through coordination, capacity strengthening, policy influencing, information management, publication and networking. The PROLINNOVA Oversight Group serves as the governance mechanism for the whole network.

Farmer-led innovation and joint experimentation
PROLINNOVA partners deliberately try to capture and enhance the creative energy that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all rural communities but is overlooked by most people and projects that try to intervene in local development processes. Participatory innovation development (PID) is a process of joint research, in which scientists and development practitioners join hands with small-scale farmers to further develop, test and adapt local ideas and initiatives, combining scientific and local knowledge.

PID is aimed primarily at strengthening the capacities of rural people and local ARD services to collaborate in developing siteappropriate improvements. Facilitating discussion by the farming community and ARD service providers such as extensionists and scientists about the local innovations, their strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities or problems they address, leads into joint proposals and agreements about research to be conducted. This can include further research by individuals and groups of farmers in the villages with and without the support of extension agents, joint on-farm research by farmers and scientists, and work by scientists on research stations or in laboratories to answer questions raised by experimenting farmers.

PID brings experiences, knowledge and action together in a way that generates new solutions – as well as the ability to continue doing so. In the process, the insights and perceptions of all involved – farmers, scientists, extension staff, others – are treated equally and, where they seem to contradict, informed choices are made jointly on the most feasible innovation pathways. Involvement of field extensionists in the process creates openings at local level for sharing results through the rural advisory system. Involving community members in assessing research results and sharing findings encourages farmer-to-farmer extension.

ARD stakeholders can encourage farmer-led research in several ways:

  • Creating opportunities for farmers to share their innovations, as these provide ideas for other farmers to try out
  • Offering alternatives to compare with current practices or local innovations
  • Improving farmers' experimental design: stimulating farmers to examine their informal experimentation methods and helping them explore more systematic forms of experimentation
  • Filling local knowledge gaps: increasing farmers' awareness of resource management principles and providing information on phenomena that farmers cannot observe on their own, so that farmers can develop local ways of applying the principles in farming practice
  • Facilitating mutual learning: creating opportunities for groups of farmers to analyse critically both local and external ideas for improving agriculture and NRM, and to assess the results of farmer-led participatory research, e.g. through farmer learning groups or exchange visits.

Local innovation funds to support PID
ARD funds to support such joint research based on local innovation are often inexistent. PROLINNOVA partners have pioneered Local Innovation Support Funds (LISF) for this purpose. LISF are financial resources comanaged by communities and used exclusively for supporting small-scale farmers and other land-users to engage in PID. LISF are used for buying materials for experimentation, hiring in external resource persons, undertaking study visits to support the local research and enabling exchange in other ways.

Action research undertaken by PROLINNOVA in several CPs, including Nepal and Cambodia, has shown that relatively small amounts of funding managed at community level play an important role in accelerating local innovation processes. Three central principles of LISF drawn from this action research are: direct accessibility to farmer innovators and not to development agencies working with them; use of funds for innovation, experimentation and learning by farmers; and decision-making on the use of the funds stays in the hands of the farming community.

As shown in Table 1, LISF grants are relatively small. However, they are significant in the hands of small-scale farmers who use them to further innovation. Smaller grants were used to buy tools or inputs (such as seed) for simple experiments by farmers themselves. Larger grants were given to farmers who were involved in more complex, capital-intensive innovations or joint research which required external services such as soil testing, hiring external services, etc.

LISF could be embedded into existing research and extension programmes, thereby enabling more farmers to be engaged in innovation. Building a LISF component into regular national ARD structures could be one sustainable option. Setting up a national farmer innovation fund could be another (PROLINNOVA, 2012).

Strengthening community resilience
To be prepared for the unknown, communities need strong social capital or networks of people, including community-controlled linkages with people outside the community, so that community members can share, learn and innovate continuously. Practising innovation is like developing muscles and constantly exercising them so that there is local strength to deal with a broad range of unpredictable forces.

Facilitating a participatory approach to developing local innovations in agriculture and NRM can strengthen the adaptive capacities of farmers and communities to deal with change. Local people involved become more proactive and are better able to analyse their situation and the changes affecting them, including those with a longer-time horizon. They are encouraged to collaborate and combine energies and knowledge, to experiment systematically with alternative options and to become better linked to other actors with whom they can continue to design and implement adaptive action to address newly emerging problems. They thus become more resilient to shocks and stresses in a constantly changing environment (PROLINNOVA, 2008 & 2016).

Integrating LI/PID approaches into mainstream ARD
Agricultural research and development (ARD) agencies are now becoming increasingly aware of the importance of enhancing capacity of small-scale farmers and their communities to innovate (e.g. FAO, 2014, Leeuwis et al., 2014) and thus become better able to adapt to new conditions, problems and opportunities – in other words, to become more resilient.

However, an approach that puts small-scale farmers in the driving seat requires transformative change in the policies and structures of ARD agencies. Stimulating scientists and rural advisors to join farmers' research calls for changes in job descriptions, research-approval procedures and performance appraisal and rewarding. Being in the supportive role in farmer-led experimentation is an unaccustomed role for scientists and rural advisors, who would need to shift from a position of control to one of facilitation. Such a shift of changes in behaviour and attitudes calls for iterative training and mentoring over longer periods of time (PROLINNOVA, 2010).

ARD managers need to make space for collaborative work with multiple actors, including small-scale farmers. Research funding as mentioned above needs to incorporate mechanisms for funding farmer-led experimentation. Institutes of agricultural higher education would have to incorporate methods of experiential and participatory learning that create spaces for interaction between farmer innovators and students. Staff of these institutions would be required to transform curricula to prepare ARD professionals who have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to engage with farmers as equal partners.

Promoting local innovation is an approach to sustainable agricultural development that goes beyond technologies and encompasses social aspects and institutions. Recognizing local creativity serves as a point of entry into building partnerships for joint experimentation which, in turn, triggers internal reflection and institutional change at higher levels. In this way, some space – however small – can be created to allow multi-actor learning processes and, thus, innovation to happen from the grassroots upwards. 

Content for this article is drawn from many PROLINNOVA publications, not all referred to below, but to be found at

(List of references can be made available upon request)