Module 14: Innovations in Agriculture

Case Study 1: Agricultural Innovations in the Millennium Villages Project(1)

The Millennium Villages Project sought to reverse the decline in soil fertility with subsidized fertilizers. Millennium Villages is also providing improved crop varieties appropriate for the location, empowering agricultural agents, and establishing grain storage facilities. Initially, there was a high cost for fertilizers and limited access to them. Improved crop varieties were used by fewer than 10% of farmers. Post-harvest losses were as high as 50% due to pests and improper storage, resulting in lower net crop yields.

The agriculture strategy in the Millennium Villages is to increase and sustain crop production using subsidized mineral fertilizers and improved seeds. The villages also use improved crop germplasm, farmer training by empowered extension services, organic inputs, agroforestry, cover crops, compost, manures, small-scale water management, soil conservation, storage and post-harvest management. Farm diversification for income generation was also implemented through cash crops, backed by market studies, farmer producer groups, business training, agro-processing, access to loads and savings, and links to markets and agro-input dealers. Millennium Villages also provides nutritious crops in farms and schools, food preparation and preservation, school meals, safety nets for vulnerable groups and climate shocks, as well as crop insurance and food-for-work cash transfers.

In Mwandama, Malawi, raised cribs were created for drying their maize cobs. In Sauri, Kenya, the farmers were trained in safe methods of dusting maize grain with pesticide to reduce attacks by the large grain borer. Croplands were subsidized in many cases. Farmers were encouraged to partially repay these inputs through in-kind payment to the school meals programs or to community grain banks. Farmers were also trained in early planting, plant spacing, seed and fertilizer placement, harvest and storage methods, and small-scale water management. Food storage options also provide farmers with the option to sell crops several months after harvest when prices can be twice as high compared to immediately after harvest.

In Bonsaaso, Ghana, cocoa production was low because plantations were old and neglected, and the links to markets were poor. The productivity of farmers was directly impacted by training farmers in agronomic practices and by providing links to markets. There was a significant increase in the production of food for consumption at home and for sale. Diversifying crops increased their nutritional value, and education programs were implemented on nutrition and food preparation. Loans and savings were essential for irrigation, agroprocessing, and equipment.

Case Study 2: Guatemala’s Farmer-to-Farmer Movement(2)

A Green Revolution in Guatemala dating back to the 1940s-1970s appeared to be the answer to hunger in Guatemala with farmers being able to have better-looking crops despite shorter working hours. However, these practices took a heavy toll on the land, leaving 75% of it severely degraded. The soils were less productive and more prone to erosion. Then, a new movement took place. Non-profits like World Neighbors began helping communities mobilize and organize themselves around sustainable production. These nonprofits worked with community leaders, or promotores, to implement collaborative research on practices using the promotores’ own land.

Non-profits provided resources and support for the promotores to share these techniques. Promotores created new promotores by passing on their agricultural methods to other members of the community. A network was created around sustainable practices and land conservation. Degraded lands were repaired, and yields increased significantly. However, the Guatemalan Civil War from 1960-1996 caused this movement to disperse; but it is now re-emerging with promise for the future of sustainable agriculture.

Farmers today face challenges since they use chemical fertilizers with large heavy metal content, pesticides that are often internationally banned, and tillage and crop residue burning. Farmers are aware of the damaging effects of these chemicals, but often do not know about alternative solutions. There is currently a lack of support for farmers in Guatemala, with only 17 government farmer consultants for its one million corn farmers. It has been reported that much of the advice offered by these government officials is influenced by the chemical companies who are affiliated with the government. In an effort to combat these challenges and revive the agricultural movement, Semilla Nueva (New Seed) was created. This organization is a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, and the goal is to revive the agricultural movement by empowering promotores to mobilize the communities and promote sustainable growth. By working within just a few communities, Semilla Nueva will ultimately be able to reach many farming families through a community network. The promotores system is an effective way to build farming communities, as well as to share practices and knowledge among farmers. By harnessing the power of the promotores, Semilla Nueva is enabling Guatemalan farmers to work towards sustainable farming practices that will benefit their communities now and into the future.

Case Study 3: One Acre Fund(3)

One Acre Fund is a non-profit organization that helps East African farmers to sustainably grow food to combat hunger. The organization, which was founded in 2006, uses a "market bundle" approach to tackle the hunger crisis faced by communities in Africa. This market-based approach consists of several components. The first is to empower local groups of farmers by using existing community groups that are specially targeted towards female farmers. These groups allow farmers to work together and to learn about existing markets in which they can sell their crops. The second component is agricultural education provided by the One Acre Fund field officer. The field officer takes the latest practices from agronomist academia and translates the research into simple and culturally-appropriate lessons. The third component is environmentally-sensitive planting materials and fertilizers. Fertilizers that are provided by the organization are high in nutrients, which is a necessity for the soil which lacks nutrition. The fourth component is the provision of a direct connection to local harvest markets, which is accomplished by One Acre Fund acting as a bulk-selling agent on behalf of the smaller farmers. This allows the farmers to receive much higher prices for their goods than if they were to sell them individually in the village market. The fifth component of One Acre Fund's approach is the creation of crop insurance that compensates farmers for their financial losses in the event of a significant drought or disease. This “market bundle” approach provides an effective solution to poverty for farmers who often enter the program with no capital. The One Acre Fund model is concentrated on one-acre smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. A comprehensive market system, complete with support, agricultural education, and a basic insurance designed specifically to protect farmers from crop failure makes it possible for impoverished rural farmers to generate a permanent and sustainable income. One Acre Fund currently operates in Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Case Study 4: Acumen Fund Agriculture Portfolios (4)

The Acumen Fund has invested in agriculture enterprises in order to improve farmer access to better agricultural inputs and equipment. 

Global Easy Water Products (GEWP): An Affordable Drip Irrigation for Small-Scale Farmers

Roughly 100 million smallholder farmers in India live on less than a $1 a day, and 500 million are part of small farmer families. Modern irrigation technologies cater mainly to large farming communities of four hectares or larger. This is not an affordable solution for small farms. In India, the amount of water available for agricultural purposes is quickly declining, and small farms are disproportionately affected by these shortages. 
GEWP utilizes the market by relying on existing small-scale manufacturers and a network of private local dealers to reach its target customers in rural India. GEWP’s products have been shown to raise the income of its customers by an average of $400/year. This is done through the conservation of water and energy, as well as increased crop yields. In 2003, Acumen Fund invested in GEWP’s parent organization, International Development Enterprises India (IDEI). GEWP has supplied 30,000 small farms with drip irrigation since Acumen invested in 2008, and the program is expected to reach 285,000 additional farmers in the next 4 years, representing 1.4 million individuals impacted. In 2008 Acumen, in partnership with a rural development non-profit in Pakistan, facilitated the technology transfer of GEWP’s low-cost drip irrigation products to Pakistan. The resulting company, Micro Drip, now markets and distributes these products to small-scale farmers in two regions of Pakistan.

Western Seed: Improving Productivity of Farmers in East Africa

A large percentage of Kenyan farmers hold plots of less than 2 hectares of land. Maize is a staple crop, serving as a primary source of food and accounting for 14% of income for rural households. The use of inefficient technology, however, is leading to small and irregular crop yields for smallholder farmers. Western Seed Company Limited (Western Seed) has invested heavily in crop research to produce hybrid seeds which provide more than double the yield of existing farm-saved seeds.

Acumen Fund’s investment aims to expand Western Seed's production capacity, which will increase the supply of available hybrid varieties. The use of Western Seed’s hybrid varieties will allow farms to double crop yields and increase income from maize crop sales. Western Seed will pioneered a Direct Access Sales program to sell the hybrid varieties to rural farmers in Kenya where most farms use low-yield seeds for what is primarily subsistence farming. In 2017, Western Seed reached over 300,000 farmers and has the potential to reach over 1,000,000 farming households annually. 

Case Study 5: Involving Farmers in Research and Development (5)

Traditionally, an approach known as the ‘Transfer of Technology’ has been used, a process where researchers develop the innovation, change agents promote its use, and farmers thereby either adopt or reject the innovation.
Participatory assistance is a farmer/farm-centered process that seeks to improve economic and environmental factors that may influence the behavior of researchers, change agents, and farmers during the research development process. It seeks to determine the technical knowledge necessary for an innovation's use and adoption. The program increases farmers' role in the research and innovation process, which enables them to share their perceptions while also gaining insights into current agricultural innovations. Change agents also gain a better understanding of the farmers' needs, and they become more sensitive to the innovation’s role and uses. Farmer involvement in the development of agricultural technologies ensures better promotion of an innovation’s adoption.

In Pennsylvania, researchers evaluated an agricultural innovation and describee the adoption of a nitrogen testing innovation. Focus groups and a mail survey provided feedback about factors, variables, and technology transfer strategies associated with the adoption of this innovation. Farmers indicated that economic factors and information sources strongly impacted their decision to use the technology. Involving farmers in the research, development, and introduction of this technology may have improved the uptake of the education program.

Case Study 6: IDEI Rural Irrigation Systems(6)

International Development Enterprises India (IDEI) is an Indian nonprofit organization that developd small scale irrigation projects and mass markets simple, affordable, appropriate, and environmentally sustainable technologies for small farmers. IDEI uses donor funds to create demand for affordable technologies, and to develop a supply chain for these technologies. IDEI focuses its efforts on smallholder and poor farmers. IDEI defines a smallholder farmer as someone who own less than 1.4 hectares of land and poor farmers- as those with limited resources including land, capital, skills, and labor. IDEI estimates that there are 93 million small farms including more than 500 million people, in India.

IDEI has developed a pedal pump for areas with shallow water. The device is operated manually and has been adopted by almost 750,000 farmers in Eastern India, in part due to the fact that women are able to easily use the machine and contribute to the farming labor. IDEI has also developed drip irrigation technology for semi-arid areas. Consumers attest that the system has been a great investment and is effective in conserving water, especially in times of drought, and in enhancing crop growth. This allows farmers to increase their incomes. Operating with the support of various stakeholders, IDEI focuses on enhancing participation of the rural poor in the market.


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(1) The Earth Institute, Columbia University, & Millennium Promise. “Harvests of Development in Rural Africa: The Millennium Villages After Three Years.” (2003). . Accessed on 3 August 2018.

(2) Bornstein J. “Can Guatemala’s Farmer-to-Farmer Movement Rise Again?” (11 June 2010). Accessed 10 August 2018.

(3)“One Acre Fund.” (2018). Accessed 27 July 2018. 

(4) “Acumen Fund: Agriculture Portfolio.” (2018). Accessed 27 July 2018. 

(5) King R., &  Rollins T. “An Evaluation of an Agricultural Innovation: Justification for Participatory Assistance.” Journal of Extension. (August 1999). 37:4

(6)“IDEI.” Accessed on 10 August 2018.