‘They don’t know what they are talking about’: Learning from the dissonances in dialogue about soil fertility knowledge and experimental practice in western Kenya
ABSTRACT: Knowledge-based development interventions for improved natural resource management have long advocated for the integration of local and outsiders’ knowledge. Participatory and conventional approaches frame this as a dialogue between “local” and “scientific” knowledges, using the relative strengths of each stakeholder’s experience to reinforce knowledge gaps. While the epistemological and methodological challenges of such dialogue are well-documented, this study uses a community-based learning project for integrated soil fertility management in western Kenya to explore the less understood dynamics of dissonance between and within knowledge systems. While participatory research did build a dynamic expertise for soil fertility management shared by both smallholder farmers and scientists, divergent expectations and understandings emerged after the initial enthusiasm of shared learning. This included scientists assessing farmers as “not very good” researchers and farmers seeing researchers as “not very good” farmers. Dissonances between actors’ different understandings of soil, the research process, and each other had multiple implications, including on the validity of conclusions reached by different actors and on the possibility for scientific support for local experimentation. While many dissonances ultimately fueled learning and improvements to the project, this required both farmers and scientists to move beyond initial critiques of each other’s knowledge and practices. At their worst, dissonant knowledge claims were actually political ones, hiding competition for control of the development process. Recognizing the nature and extent of dissonances is therefore a crucial step in understanding how best to apply limited resources and disciplinary expertise within participatory teams attempting to build hybrid knowledge.
The first colloquium of the Laboratory for the Interdisciplinary Study of Food (LISF) was held on 4 April 2014 (full programme here). Local activists and researchers presented cutting edge work (in English and French) on:
Global and local food issues
How make universities’ food systems more just
Land grabbing and food security in Africa
Book launch of “Globalization and Food Sovereignty”
Huge thanks to all who joined me and my fellow panelists (Lincoln Addison; Regina Hansda; Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt; Chris Huggins) at the American Association for Geographers (AAG) meeting in Tampa, Florida. Feedback, questions and comments continue to be welcome. Please keep in touch!
Abstract: Western Kenya has been a labour-exporting region for over a century, with many households opting to “straddle” both rural and urban contexts by deploying multilocational livelihoods that have reproduced themselves over generations. Ethnographic and historical investigations show that while this densely settled landscape (with the highest population densities in Kenya) was self-sufficient in food production up until the 1940s, for the last 70 years households and communities have relied heavily on off-farm income and reciprocity to maintain food security, thereby staving off major food crises despite environmental and socio-economic pressures. Indeed, contrary to the dominant, capitalist models of rural-urban migration and agrarian change, these household coping strategies have actually supported a continued growth in the rural population even while agricultural output has remained stagnant and land per capita dwindled. This paper draws on thirteen years of interviews and survey data from several western Kenyan communities to interrogate the role of new technologies (especially cellphones) in accelerating the ways in which migrants are (re )enrolled in rural struggles for land, labour, and food security. Multilocational livelihood strategies are significantly reshaping gender relations and household decision-making but appear to dilute and spread the scarce resources of all but the most advantaged households.
Kenya is on the frontline of changes to the global climate. Local communities report that weather is becoming more variable and less predictable.
Although many people label this “climate change”, the reasons for these changes and their impacts on already difficult, rural lives are not always obvious!
The VALUES project (full title “Global Climate Change and Kenya: Vulnerability and Adaptation of Livelihoods Under Environmental Stress“) ran from 2010-2013 and involved multiple students and multiple sites. We wanted to see what role “climatic” factors played in already complicated rural livelihoods.
Publications and findings will be uploaded soon! (watch this space)
More Kenyans have access to a mobile phone than to electricity or even to clean water.
Considering that most of rural Kenya was not even covered by cellphone networks a decade ago, the spread of cellphones has had a rapid impact on the countryside, and how rural households relate to their migrant family members. Kenya pioneered phone-based money transfer technologies (mPesa) but the widespread use of cellphones is also changing gender dynamics and the power relationships between young and old.
This research project (funding proposal submitted to SSHRC Oct. 2013) asks “How do rural-urban interdependencies in Kenya affect livelihoods and food security?” Four interlinked objectives are:
To illustrate the extent and dynamics of multilocational livelihoods in contrasting socio-ecological contexts of Kenya, with focus on the extent and temporal patterns of mobility, migration, long-distance communication, resource transfers, and knowledge exchange.
To evaluate the socio-economic impacts of multilocational livelihoods, particularly the vulnerabilities and opportunities created by a) flows of resources (investments and support) and b) changes in the internal gendered and intergenerational dynamics of decision-making, access to land, and control of labour.
To evaluate the agro-ecological impacts of multilocational livelihoods, especially on food security through changing agricultural productivity and practice, and agroecological knowledge.
To evaluate the information and resource needs of differentiated, multilocational households, to identify poverty traps or other barriers to effective participation in rural or urban spheres.
Publications so far:
2014 Book Chapter (‘We will not farm like our fathers’) outlined some of the preliminary ideas for this research.
2015 Article (‘Never at ease’) uses new, field data to explore the challenges multilocational households face in Western Kenya.
Pierre-Anne worked with rice growing cooperatives in Gitarama, Rwanda from February until June 2011. Her Thesis investigated the rhetorical claims of inclusiveness and equal participation on which the cooperatives were based. Her findings, based on individual interviews with 27 farmers, as well as with cooperative leaders, NGO, and government officials, depict the boundaries of “participatory” development in the Rwandan context.
Ramisch, J.J. (2012) ‘This field is our church’: The social and agronomic challenges of farmer participatory research. Chapter 9 in Sumberg, J.E., Thompson, J. (eds.) Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World. London: Earthscan. Pp. 146-174.
Download the unrevised pdf from ResearchGate here.
Certain types of participation have gained legitimacy amongst agronomists in national and international research centres, e.g. “farmer field schools” and other group-based experimentation / demonstration approaches; participatory ranking exercises for variety appraisals; wealth ranking or other problem trees to identify constraints. This participation imperative means that on-farm research now necessarily engages twin (social and agronomic) objectives – “empowerment”, greater knowledge sharing, and improved social capital on the one hand, which in turn are supposed to foster improved crop husbandry on the other hand, visible as improved crop performance and yields, soil fertility, etc. However, it is not clear that the research products and data gained from these activities are effectively advancing either agronomy or farmers’ welfare.
Case study material from national and international agricultural research on soil fertility management in Kenya illustrates some of the challenges of implementing such participatory technology development. These challenges are related to the political, social dynamics of group-based learning, to the complexities of knowledge generation and sharing in a real, social context, and to the suspect validity and rigour of data generated in these hybrid ventures. Even projects that explicitly tried to subvert these problems were only moderately successful in implementing changes, and many examples show how difficult it was to generate useful (i.e. publishable) agronomic data or conclusions. Local actors ended up perceiving the researchers as “not very good farmers”, while research teams found farmers to be “not very good researchers”, obviously not the middle ground that these participatory approaches hope to achieve.