Understanding farmer co-learning processes under the learning centre approach to promote uptake of soil fertility management technologies in Zimbabwe
Mashavave, Tinashe Charles
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The current low levels of technology adoption among smallholder farmers in southern Africa do not reflect the high investment levels in agro-technological research aimed at addressing perennial food insecurity challenges. A study was conducted in the context of established Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa (SOFECSA) field-based Learning Centres (LCs) to assess the effectiveness of impact-oriented adaptive research in driving the benefits of integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) for improved livelihoods among smallholder farmers during the 2009/10 and 2010/11 cropping seasons. Specifically, the study sought to: i) identify determinants of farmer participation in knowledge sharing alliances around field-based learning centres; ii) explore interaction patterns that determine improved information and knowledge sharing among smallholder farmers participating in learning alliances; and iii) evaluate relative benefits of ISFM technology use by smallholder farmers participating in learning alliances. Data were collected through key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and direct observations. A questionnaire survey was also administered to a stratified random sample of 70 households drawn from learning alliance participant and non-participant groups clustered by resource-endowment. The main analytical tools used in this study were descriptive analysis, logistic regression, social network analysis and gross margin analysis. A major challenge encountered in this research was the number of farmers who volunteered to participate in learning alliances (68) which had the potential to compromise regression analysis due to small sample sizes. The time frame of the study could not effectively capture adoption of the promoted ISFM package as some potential adopters wait until they observe success from neighbouring farmers before integrating the practices in their cropping programmes. Gross margin analyses used in the study are point estimates, but in reality farmer production circumstances are not static. The study showed how farmers valued the attributes defining a LC with respect to its technical content, physical location and attitude of the host farmer, as a prerequisite for their participation in the learning alliance. A logistic regression analysis showed that socio-economic, physical and demographic attributes of the farming households influenced participation at varying scales. Specifically, farmer’s age, size of arable land, ownership of farming implements, household membership in learning alliances and social capital had a significant positive influence on participation. On the other hand, available active labour and number of cattle owned negatively influenced participation. Approximately 72% of farmers within learning alliances adopted components of the promoted ISFM package and these were often seen to be modified to suit particular farmer circumstances. To understand the potential of smallholder farmer social interactions in influencing the innovation-decision process, social network analysis was used. Results showed how exposure of farmers to field-based learning alliances altered their social interaction pattern producing a denser network structure implying access to more horizontal and vertical connections. Closeness centrality indices were generally higher for learning alliance participants than non-participants, suggesting higher communication efficiency in terms of sending and receiving ISFM information. While national extension dominated information dissemination within the network of non-participants, farmer-farmer interactions were the primary source of information for participant farmers. This suggested a digression from predominantly linear extension approaches to an innovation systems approach. There was a general indication that learning alliances enabled uptake of legume-cereal rotations by 42% of the farmers. Analysis of differential benefits of ISFM technologies showed that adoption of rotations led to higher maize grain yields and net benefits for both the 2009/10 and 2010/11 cropping seasons than conventional practices. Marginal returns to investment were close to 200% and 59% for 2009/10 and 2010/11, respectively. Resource-endowed farmers constantly had higher maize grain yields of >2 t ha-1, than the intermediate and resource-constrained farmers who averaged ~ 1.6 t ha-1 and ~1.8 t ha-1, respectively over the two seasons. However, adoption of rotations by the resource-constrained farmers resulted in maize grain yields 10-15% ii higher than the intermediate group farmers. The rotations not only improved the cropping environment for the staple maize crop, but also provided a food security buffer in the poor rainfall season of 2010/11.These results suggested that research and development initiatives that empower smallholder farmers and their partners to participate along agricultural value-chains are essential to enhance the generation, dissemination and adoption of relevant and improved soil fertility management technologies. It was concluded that mobilisation of farmers into learning alliances can be an effective approach for promoting their uptake of technologies such as ISFM. Extension approaches should consider the use of participatory methodologies that empower target communities to actively participate in the research and scaling-up processes as co-learners with researchers, extensionists and other agro-stakeholders along input and output market chains.