Sunday, April 24, 2016

Trip Blog: Human-Centered Design to Diversify Opportunities for Value-Chain Participation

First, I'll just apologize for the length of that title.  It's quite a mouthful, but I wanted to capture the essence of what I wrote about in the last entry, All Innovation is Social! Essentially, what I'll write about in this entry provides an illustrative example of what I wrote about in that one, namely that innovation is inherently a social process with social outcomes, and that it is important to be deliberate and inclusive about goals.

One of the center-led projects we're working on at GCFSI (in collaboration with researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)) concerns the design of a technology that is intended to promote greater participation of small-scale farmers and retailers in, and control over,* the pigeon pea value chain.** Pigeon pea is a legume that has been promoted as an agronomic innovation that can improve the sustainability of maize-based cropping systems, but adoption rates among farmers remain low.***

Many of the efforts to improve pigeon pea adoption have not engaged with value chain dynamics.  Historically, commercialization of the crop has been largely controlled by export companies that are exporting pigeon pea to India. This means that farmers can only engage with the value chain as price-takers. Farmers reported that they might be promised one price by the export companies, but, come harvest, would receive a much lower price. Such asymmetry, where control clearly is one-sided, results in a system where incentives to grow pigeon pea are minimal and unsure, especially for small-scale farmers who cannot take advantage of economies of scale.

In general, agricultural investments have focused on supporting small-scale farmers, but have not considered the larger food system within which farmers work.  The same is true of investments into pigeon pea production.  An almost exclusive focus on commodity production for export means that other local food system activities have not received support, effectively stifling development of local pigeon-pea related food industries and entrepreneurship. In contrast, we are exploring how the development of a more diversified pigeon pea value chain, one from which farmers and other local value-chain actors are able to derive more benefits and realize more of their interests, might be encouraged.

We hypothesize that local small-scale processing of pigeon pea can provide additional income generating opportunities, particularly for women (my colleague, Nathalie Me-Nsope, will write on the gender dimensions of this work). Our earlier research found that there is unmet demand for pigeon pea in urban markets, but that the current exchange relationships that comprise the value chain do not allow farmers to take advantage of this demand.  We are working with the idea that a locally-designed technology that splits pigeon pea would be a cost-effective tool for diversifying opportunities in local pigeon pea value chains so that farmers do not have to rely solely on the terms dictated by the large-scale exporters/processors. In turn, we hypothesize that increasing farmer choices in this way, and improving their capacity to connect with urban consumers, can incentivize them to plant more pigeon pea.

Image 1: Meeting with enumerators to discuss content of initial assessment
The first step towards an appropriately designed technology (what is often referred to as 'human-centered design') started with the testing of an instrument that will be used to gather data about local preferences, constraints, opportunities, and practices on pigeon pea growing, seed-saving, exchange, and consumption.  This will require interviews with actors all along the pigeon pea value-chain.  In order to develop an assessment that will provide us with the kind of foundation we need, Nathalie Me-Nsope and I traveled to Malawi earlier this month and met with LUANAR partners, Sera Gondwe, Charity Chonde, Joseph Dzanja, Joseph Chimungu, and Hankie Uluku.  We spent five days going through our instruments, tweaking them to be more relevant, and translating them into the local language, Chichewa.  We engaged in long and intense discussions over two of those days about the phrasing or applicability of certain questions (Image 1).

Image 2: Developing a plan for carrying out the field test of the initial assessment instrument

When we got to a point where we were relatively happy with the questions, we spent two days in the  field, where we interviewed farmers, retailers, transporters, and agrodealers in both Lilongwe and Dedza (Images 2 and 3).

Image 3: One of the enumerators testing out the questionnaire with a farmer in the Dedza region of Malawi
Upon completing those interviews, we again re-evaluated, re-configured, and re-worded our instruments according to the experiences and insights of all involved members of the team.  It was an exhausting process, sometimes contentious, but one which has resulted in the kind of data-gathering we need to put towards the development of a technological design process that meets the needs of users and informs us about the kinds of networks and training programs we should focus on developing.  Such a process not only recognizes the need to develop and test innovations in relation to the social context, but also recognizes that the context itself is a constituting factor in innovation design.

I'll periodically return to this project with updates about the process and design phases.

*I'm emphasizing the issue of control because development projects rarely engage with power relationships. In contrast, the work that we do explicitly recognizes that power and information asymmetries are fundamental.

**This project has evolved from a major research effort that MSU and LUANAR began in 2014, which set out to answer the question "“Where and how can multipurpose legumes be scaled for sustainable intensification of maize systems and what would the potential impacts be, in the medium term, across the food system in Malawi?”* The use of multipurpose legumes to sustainably intensify agricultural systems is a promising agronomic innovation, but adoption rates among farmers in Malawi remain low. For the most part, low adoption rates have been primarily addressed via farmer education, but there is increasing recognition that factors such as socio-economic context and off-farm food system dynamics heavily influence farmer decision-making and, thus, the potential for scaling agricultural innovations.  

***Pigeon peas are part of a group of legumes referred to as 'multipurpose legumes,' and are commonly found in Malawi, especially in the southern region. The use of multipurpose legume technologies is a common component of “sustainable intensification.” A legume is considered “multipurpose” when it serves several functions in a cropping system. For example, in addition to providing a food source for humans, a multipurpose legume may also provide a source of fodder for livestock; a reliable and sustainable source of soil nitrogen; wood that, when coppiced, can provide a source of fuel or building material; and, improved soil structure as a result of deep-rooted growth. 

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