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  • The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacyin R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation systemin Guinea, West Africa

    Paul Van Mele*

    Africa Rice Center (WARDA), 01 BP 2031 Cotonou, Benin

    The introduction of farmer participatory approaches over the past decades has to some extent improvedthe relevance and uptake of research results. While R&D prioritization increasingly involves morestakeholders, including the private sector, policymakers and civil society, building ecological literacyamong all stakeholders is urgent, especially for sustainable agricultural development. A case study ofan emerging fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa, highlights the challenges of supply- anddemand-driven approaches to R&D prioritization. Shallow ecological knowledge and a blind faith inmodern technologies by scientists and farmers alike distort prioritization. Locally available,appropriate technologies are dismissed in favour of high technologies that are inaccessible to mostsmallholder growers. Strengthening the ecological literacy of all stakeholders may help to overcomethis bias. On the other hand, building socio-technological literacy would allow innovationintermediaries, who typically act as brokers between the demand- and supply-side of technologies, tobetter understand the social and institutional contexts of technologies and how these affect potentialuptake by poor farmers. Member centres of the Consultative Group on International AgriculturalResearch (CGIAR) could use the notion of ecological and socio-technological literacy to betterunderstand supply and demand of technology and to work more effectively with their partners towardspro-poor and sustainable agricultural development.

    Keywords: CGIAR, ecological literacy, learning, R&D priority setting, socio-technological system


    As one of the social scientists who helped shape theearly movement towards participatory research,Bentley (1989) anticipated the challenges of translat-ing farmers demands into research questions. Heconcluded that researchers participating with smallfarmers to strengthen, invent or reinvent appropriatetechnology should understand that farmers haveinformation gaps in certain predictable domains ofknowledge such as insect and disease management,

    and that researchers could help fill these gaps whileat the same time learn from farmers to fill some oftheir own information gaps. Nearly 20 years later,the Institute of Development Studies organized aninternational workshop in Brighton, UK, calledFarmer First Revisited. In her keynote paper,Jacqueline Ashby (2007: 3) sadly observed that overthe years, participation has become a sales pitch todevelopment donors creating the distortion ofagenda away from the priorities of the poor inscience-driven consultations with farmers, where pri-orities were shaped a priori by supply-driven,commodity-focused research. Her assessment ofthe challenges for more equitable and pro-poor*Corresponding author. Email:


    INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 6(3) 2008, PAGES 183194# 2008 Earthscan. ISSN: 1473-5903 (print), 1747-762X (online).

  • research indicates that researchers have an interest inencouraging farmers to choose to invest in those tech-nologies developed by researchers. Scientists havelearned to parrot the rhetoric of farmer participation,but have not always engaged with farmers.

    Following Biggs (1990) conceptual multiplesource of innovations model, various practical initiat-ives emerged that broadened the innovation base inagriculture. New diagnostic methods to set agricul-tural research and development (R&D) prioritiesemerged over the years (Farrington, 2000). Insti-tutional innovations to improve R&D prioritizationprocesses included the establishment of partnershipswith non-governmental organizations (NGOs) andproducer organizations (Collion & Rondot, 1998;Gilbert, 1990); the emergence of brokers betweenthe supply and demand side of innovation or inno-vation intermediaries (Howells, 2006; Klerkx &Leeuwis, 2008); the use of information and com-munication technologies to enhance rural learningand self diagnosis of problems and testable solutions(Burch, 2007; Gupta, 2006; Van Mele, 2006); thedevelopment of new professionals through insti-tutional change in higher education, such as the Con-vergence of Sciences Programme (Nederlof et al.,2007); and new funding mechanisms to makeresearch more relevant to resource-poor farmersneeds (Salahuddin et al., 2008; Waters-Bayer, 2005).All these examples imply a need to change mindsets,institutions and ways to enhance learning for allactors in the system if agricultural R&D prioritizationprocesses are to stimulate socially inclusive and envir-onmentally friendly development. This paper aims toprovide insights into how the demand and supply oftechnologies, with a focus on integrated pest manage-ment (IPM), are affected by the level of ecological andsocio-technological literacy among the actors in theinnovation system.

    Ecological and socio-technologicalliteracy

    Ecological literacy

    Farmers cannot inquire about something they areunaware of. The same is true for researchers, consult-ants, innovation intermediaries, private businessesand governments. As such, the ecological knowledgeor ecoliteracy of actors in an innovation system

    affects the way they managenatural resourcesand for-mulate R&D policies. In the preface of the book TheCultural Dimension of Development, RobertChambers and Paul Richards claim that in manyfields indigenous knowledge is far more relevant,valid and useful than had been supposed, and thatwe need to learn from people before trying to teachthem (Chambers & Richards, 1995). Althoughlocal people could offer alternative knowledge andperspectives based on their own locally developedpracticesof resourceuse (Berkes etal., 2000),mechan-isms of knowledge transfer to inform research policyand practice are less clear. As with scientific knowl-edge, folk knowledge is diffuse, fragmentary andpartial (Thompson & Scoones, 1994). In developingcountries, knowledge about plant and animal speciesand their use is often richer among the poorer layersof the society (Pilgrim et al., 2008). However,despite its values, folk knowledge is also constrainedby the interests and powers of observation of localpeople (Bentley & Valencia, 2003). In general,farmers know more about plants, less about insectsand less still about plant pathology (Bentley, 1989).

    Mechanisms of R&D prioritization processes, andmindsets of those involved, partly determine processoutcomes. Despite the rhetoric of being holistic,IPM practitioners have paid relatively little attentionto systematically assess local ecological knowledge onpests and their natural enemies (Greathead, 2003;Lenne, 2000; Van Mele, 2008). Scientists andfarmers may differ in opinion about the pest status(van Huis & Meerman, 1997). Even among scientiststhere may be disagreement on the status of beneficialinsects: although the role of the predatory weaver antOecophylla in protecting tree crops from harmfulinsects has been widely documented (Van Mele,2008; Way & Khoo, 1992), colleagues at variousinternational research institutes consider weaverants a pest as they interfere with the efficacy of the sol-ution they are proposing (rightly or not), namely theuse of parasitoids. Outcomes of R&D prioritizationprocesses therefore not only depend on farmers eco-logical knowledge, but also on the mindsets of thoseinvolved in the process, be they scientists, consultants,NGO staff or innovation intermediaries.

    Socio-technological literacy

    Prioritization processes are embedded in socio-technological systems whereby social relations and

    184 P. VAN MELE


  • networks play a crucial role in determining thenature of the resulting technology (Engel, 1997;Geels, 2004; Olsen & Engen, 2007). I refer to socio-technological literacy as the body of knowledge onmechanisms of technology development, dissemi-nation and use within the biophysical, social, insti-tutional, economic and political context. Over thepast 20 years, adoption and diffusion of technologyhas increasingly been seen as a collective evolution-ary process that is strongly influenced by the actorsinvolved and institutions shaping their interactions(Leeuwis, 1999; Silverberg, 1991). A socio-technological approach to innovations provides acoherent conceptual multi-level perspective, usinginsights from sociology, institutional theory andinnovation studies (Carlsson et al., 2002; Geels,2004; Markard & Truffer, 2008). It incorporatesthe user side in the analysis of innovation processes.It also suggests an analytical distinction betweensystems, actors involved in them, and the insti-tutions which guide actors perceptions and activi-ties, and the dynamic interplay between actorsand structures. Recently, innovation systems prac-titioners realized that the focus on the structure ofinnovation systems has been insufficient and thatprocess analysis or history event analysis are asimportant for well performing innovation systems(Hekkert et al., 2007).

    Participants to the Farmer First Revisited work-shop, held in Brighton in December 2007, exploredhow innovation systems and farmer first approachesin R&D could find common ground (Scooneset al., 2008b). This evolution points to an identi-fied need for a gradual convergence between inno-vation systems and socio-technological approachesin research.

    Combining the two

    To increase the impact of R&D for sustainable andsocially inclusive agriculture, this paper argues thatwe need to move beyond the rhetoric and that bothecological and socio-technological literacy of allactors in the system needs strengthening. AndyHall and colleagues (2004) argued that new agri-cultural R&D arrangements are needed thatare client-responsive, integrated into markets andabove all driven by the goal of poverty-focused,sustainable development.

    Goal, case selection and methods

    Based on a case study from an emerging fruit inno-vation system in Guinea, West Africa, this paperaims to elucidate how levels of ecological and socio-technological literacy among the various actors inthe agricultural innovation system affect the out-comes of R&D prioritization. It presents the chal-lenges to formulating research questions thatcontribute to sustainable and pro-poor develop-ment, and that take into account both the supplyand demand of innovation.

    Large economic losses due to a complex ofAfrican fruit flies, aggravated by recent outbreaksof a devastating new fruit fly, Bactrocera invadens(Vayssieres et al., 2005) has boosted donor interestin supporting the search for appropriate solutions.The generalist predatory ant Oecophylla is effectivein controlling fruit flies and is a pro-poor technol-ogy that is readily available to African farmers(Van Mele et al., 2007). However, opinions as tothe way forward differ among stakeholders,making it a relevant topic to study the dynamicsof demand and supply of farm technologies.

    To assess the actors, their interactions, level ofecological literacy and perception of problemsand solutions at hand for effective fruit fly control,I held informal interviews with scientists, plantprotection staff, growers, fruit pickers and staff(both in Guinea and at headquarters in Antwerp,Belgium) of the mango-exporting company (SIPEF)from 2005 to 2007. In October and November2006, IRAG agronomists and plant protectionstaff interviewed 100 tree crop growers in the majorhorticultural zones of Guinea, including Kindia,Kankan and Boke. The objective of the survey wasto assess farmers ecological knowledge and theirexplicit demand for pest management technologiesas a response to a new problem (the invasive fruitfly). Fifteen questions covered orchard management,pests and knowledge on weaver ants, and sourcesof advice. The questions were based on insightsinto the local context and similar research con-ducted during the last decade in various Africanand Asian countries. Our approach confirmed theimportance of having a short questionnaire withopen-ended, targeted questions. By being aware oflocal issues, the interviewers avoided the superficial-ity that can undermine long questionnaires that fishfor information.



  • The Guinea case study

    An emerging fruit innovation system

    Mango-based cropping systems in francophoneWest Africa are very varied with management andvarietal composition depending on the local con-text (Vanniere et al., 2004). Mali was the firstcountry in the region to begin exporting mangoesaround 1970, followed by Burkina Faso, Senegaland especially Cote dIvoire in the 1980s (Rey &Goguey, 1996). In Guinea, market-oriented policiesand free movement of people and goods did notemerge until after the death of president SekouToure in 1984 (Krebs & Vogel, 1995). Now, onlyone global trading company (SIPEF) exportsmangoes from Guinea to European supermarkets.It abides by the Good Agricultural Practices set bythe European Retailers Association (EUREPGAP)by cashing in on the fact that most local productionis organic by default. Besides these intercontinentalexports, business people from Cote dIvoire crossthe border to buy up entire harvests, even arrivingin some cases with their own teams of fruitpickers, but this trade is highly variable from oneyear to the next (Koumandian Camara, personalcommunication).

    Historically, research on fruit crops in WestAfrica (and many other developing countries) wasmainly conducted with support from the Frenchoverseas technical cooperation, currently calledCIRAD. Research prioritization was mainlydriven by external and national experts and littlethought given to alternative ways of setting thescientific agenda. Research focused mainly on varie-tal and agronomic issues (Rey et al., 2004). InGuinea, researcher-extension-farmer linkages havebeen extremely weak (Adesina & Baidu-Forson,1995). Currently, the national extension servicehangs on a thread, supported by only a few develop-ment projects. The national agricultural researchinstitute IRAG, like many other national agricul-tural research institutions in Africa (Beye, 2002),is aiming towards a more decentralized anddemand-led model.

    IRAGs fruit research centre (CRA Foulaya) islocated in an undulating landscape gifted withample rainfall and fertile land near Kindia, about130 km from the capital Conakry. It has beeninvolved in a few projects focusing on tree crops,

    the most recent one being the regional SustainableTree Crops Program (STCP Phase I: 20002005),supported by USAID and Kraft Foods, but nonepaid particular attention to local knowledge. In2006, I obtained a grant from the US-based Conser-vation, Food and Health Foundation to start activi-ties with ant-based pest control in tree crops inBenin and Guinea, later on joi...


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