One of the challenges facing farmers in developing countries is the prevalence of piece-meal information as opposed to consolidated evidence. Farmers are exposed to various pieces of information from diverse sources such as public extension services, fellow farmers, NGOs, parastatals, academic institutions, the private sector and consumers. There is an assumption that sending information to farmers is all that is needed. Very few organisations pay attention to how that information is used.
Towards Evidence – Based Agriculture
With most policy conversation now punctuated with evidence-based this and that, there is little understanding of what that means in practice. Since the majority of farmers do not have the capacity and time to conduct meta- analyses of all the information coming to them, they end up making decisions on half-baked evidence. They also resort to experiential evidence which unfortunately, is placed at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy by formal knowledge systems. Asking smallholder farmers and observing them working with diverse forms of evidence prompted eMKambo to come up with the notion of Evidence-Based Agriculture (EBA). This is essentially about ways through which farmers interpret and use evidence in their decision making.
The process of knowing and interpreting evidence
The majority of farmers that eMKambo spoke to and observed at work have mastered record-keeping, thanks to various training programmes from government extension and NGOs. Although each farmer has his/her own ways of interpreting evidence based on their learning styles, knowing is not a simple activity but a combination of activities. Farmers who have been taught to keep records are suddenly realizing records require more information and interpretation skills. Given the increasing amount of information, memory is no longer enough. Information is collected and stored in physical notebooks, mostly exercise books. Those with computers are now storing some of their information in computers with the assistance of their children. Mobile phones are also being used to store information such as contact details and short messages received through sms. However, given that mobile phones can only store a certain amount, some of the information is transferred from phones to notebooks which are kept in bedrooms together with other important resources such as cash.
eMKambo has identified the following ways through which farmers deal with evidence:
Recording and making sense of data and information
Many commercially-minded farmers now take recording of data seriously. This sensation process is the bedrock of record keeping which has become an integral part of farming as a business courses. They may not call it data, but every knowledge inquiry starts with a set of data as something important in farmers’ senses. The farmers are now aware that data they receive from many sources do not constitute knowledge but evoke knowledge when combined and explained. Conscious attention to data is becoming an important part of the knowing process for many farmers.
Interpretation of data into understanding
While recording data has received enough attention through farming as a business courses, little attention has gone into interpretation of the recorded data to produce solid understanding. For most smallholder farmers, questioning data such as market guides and comparing with other sources leads to understanding. Data are enriched through questioning and fitting new information into existing schemata of knowledge. Those farmers who collect a lot of information and records often face challenges. Going through notebooks for the past ten years with more than 1000 lessons is such a chore for farmers. They may need to curate their lessons and this involves going through their notebooks, selecting and grading lessons so that important ones are given high prominence. They are also forced to group similar lessons together, remove duplicates and throw away some of the out-dated information which has been over-taken by events. However, some information can be kept in the archive as a sign of the knowledge journey travelled. Curating makes it easier for farmers to find the most relevant and important information when they want it.
Weighing interpretations into judgement
This is another area where most farmers are found wanting. Basically, it implies evaluating whether their interpretations fit the data. Farmers with little appreciation of evidence use information that is given to them without weighing and comparing with other sources. Judgement makes the farmer self-accountable and become responsible for his or her interpretation while acknowledging that the interpretation can be different depending on context. Another important part of weighing interpretations is trying to synthesise lessons. This involves combining different lessons into guides. Youths who have been to secondary school or college help farmers to synthesize important lessons.
Choice of action – from facts to values
This stage involves planning and evaluating possible courses of action based on the acquired knowledge. It is also a very difficult task for most farmers, especially when they are overwhelmed with a lot of information from many sources. Having affirmed his/her understanding of the evidence, the farmer asks: So what now? The farmer moves from the domain of facts to the domain of values, from what s/he knows to what s/he should do. The right decision can never be drawn from the facts but is the farmer’s individual normative responsibility. Some youths interview their parents and gather useful insights before synthesizing. This is how key content can be extracted from farmers’ lessons, feeding into farmer and community guidelines. Combining guidelines from all the farmers in the community generates a rich community knowledge resource. There is too much re-invention of the wheel in most communities due to lack of a culture of gathering and synthesizing lessons into practical guides.
The importance of self- conscious questioning and critical interrogation
A key observation is that Evidence-Based Agriculture should be anchored on farmers’ self-conscious questioning as well as a critical interrogating attitude. That is how they can avoid mechanical use of guideline recommendations that are often not context-specific. Their self- awareness about the whole process of merging knowledge is very important. To successfully use evidence, a farmer must be able to choose from several possible interpretations of data and commit to one of them. S/he must also choose a course of action – moving from the sphere of facts to the sphere of values. This implies bearing the responsibility for his/her interpretation and not leaning on any prescribed guideline.
With the call for organized agriculture getting louder, it is important for farmers to be empowered to interpret evidence in ways that can inspire others to learn. Most farmer to farmer extension models and farming as a business training courses do not focus on building farmers’ capacity to interpret evidence. Building the capacity of farmers in Evidence-Based Agriculture can enhance their ability to integrate their experimental experiences with scientific evidence from formal institutions as well as their values and preferences. How to combine these knowledge components remains a big challenge for most farmers.
By consciously attending to what they do as knowers, farmers can develop their ability to make reliable and transparent judgements. Evidence-Based Agriculture tries to challenge the hegemony of empiricism and the idea that there is a reality already out there which formal knowledge systems aim to mirror or represent. The formal knowledge system seems to underestimate the importance of human intelligence. Objectivity is not a representation of what you observe but an achievement of the knower. That is why the quest for insight is the work of active, inquiring intelligence. Knowledge is not something out there that you discover but an activity – something that you do. Through Evidence-Based Agriculture we emphasize verb knowing instead of the noun knowledge.
eMkambo Call Centre:
0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6