Adaptive management to align sustainable land management with local realities

Sustainable Land Management (SLM) technologies are only one part of the story to stop land degradation: Even when farmers are trained about the application of SLM technologies and practices, they often abandon them after projects end. The success of SLM programmes often hinges on context-specific socio-economic, political and cultural problems. To address these challenges, it´s time to think beyond technologies and their application on individual fields.

How are SLM practices adopted in a particular context? Who benefits, and how can these benefits increase for all farmers? Adaptive management approaches can help steer and adjust SLM programmes in alignment with farmers’ needs and local realities.

Adaptive management can be supported by new forms of collaboration between researchers, communities and practitioners

In Benin and in the highlands of Ethiopia, TMG worked closely with the GIZ soil programmes in the form of Collaborative Adoption Research. As the title suggests, the research focused on how farmers adopt SLM technologies and why, and how they share knowledge about SLM. Over four years, quantitative and qualitative research activities involved farmers trained by the GIZ soil programme in selected locations.

The research can best be summarized as research in and for implementation: all research activities were developed along with the teams of the GIZ soil programme. Findings were regularly fed back into ongoing programme implementation in exchanges and planning meetings with GIZ staff. The aim was to provide additional knowledge on farmer´s challenges in SLM technology application. In ProSOL/ Benin and the ISFM+ project in Ethiopia, our research findings contributed to adapting the programmes’ up-scaling strategy: this was only possible thanks to close collaboration and openness for incorporating TMG’s research findings.

Accompanying research in Ethiopia: Adapting SLM technology diffusion strategies to the needs of disadvantaged farmers

In Ethiopia, the upscaling strategy of the GIZ Integrated Soil Fertility Management Project (ISFM) was adjusted to support disadvantaged farmers more effectively with a simple twist: farmers with more experience and resources were twinned with poorer farmers to support them in management of their own plots. These “ISFM ambassadors” for example visit the fields of women, who would normally not have taken part in such demonstrations and show them how ISFM practices work. This way, technologies were “localized”; with the adjusted outscaling strategy, more women and vulnerable farmers were reached.

Our research in the Amhara region had shown that, despite the positive results, the programme faced challenges in reaching more marginalized farmers: poorer farmers, youth and women had less access to Farmer Research and Extension Groups (FREGs), who were trained in the ISFM-practices and were at the core of the ISFM out-scaling strategy. It turned out that the trained farmers did not automatically share their knowledge with many farmers and that other farmers didn’t necessarily ask for their support. The demonstrations on fields belonging to model farmers were difficult to replicate for many, especially farmers with poorer land and less resources. “Eleven {people} will not change and develop a country,” as members of the FREG groups put it.

Now, ISFM- Ambassadors give trainings and run experiments of ISFM practices on farms of households who need special support within the community (e.g., female-headed households). They also follow-up and in return receive some seeds, fertilizer and other material from the project as incentive for their time and services.

This is, what adaptive management is about: learning from experience and being flexible; it means responding to new insights, like the finding that women or resource poor farmers were not reached with the farmer learner groups. And it means to adapt strategies and activities on that basis while the programme is ongoing. Working with the farmers in those FREGs in Ethiopia, we could identify the problem and find solutions with them. Adaptive management approaches aim to “strengthen local systems so that local actors continue to sustain key results after the activity ends” by working closely with national and local partners.

Adaptive management…

  • focuses on “solving problems” instead of “providing solutions”;
  • is based on testing, learning from experience and adapting programmes throughout implementation;
  • is process-based and locally driven:
  • all local stakeholders bring different forms of knowledge to debate and define local problems;
  • solutions are co-developed;
  • local actors take the lead, external actors are facilitators.
  • involves “intended target groups”, i.e. those persons most affected; and
  • is politically smart – building ownership and momentum by linking to local and national policies.

(based on Wild et al. 2017; Wild et al. 2015; Booth and Unsworth 2014)

Accompanying research in Benin: Reaching farmers beyond project beneficiaries thanks to the Tem Sesiabun Gorado model – an adapted farmer-to-farmer extension model

In Benin, the collaborative adoption research led to the development of an improved approach of farmer-to-farmer extension: The Tem Sesiabun Gorado model was recently integrated as the core for the GIZ project´s up-scaling strategy for promotion of sustainable land management in over 400 villages in Benin.

The Tem Sesiabun Gorado model responds to the challenge of effectively reaching the project’s indirect target group: farmers not directly trained by the project but living within in the intervention area. The model was developed in close collaboration between TMG, ProSOL/ GIZ Benin, farmers, agricultural service providers, and NGOs. The model essentially seeks to entrust elected community-based agents to pass on knowledge acquired through the SLM project to a pre-determined number of fellow farmers. Building on principles of trust, responsibility and accountability, the TSG model has already reached 1,055 non-project beneficiaries within the first two growing seasons of its implementation.

To support farmers in protecting soils, we need more adaptive programme management.

The concept of adaptive programme management sounds simple. Yet, our review of 39 SLM programmes in five countries did not reveal adaptive management approaches as a common feature in project implementation. For example, in a large-scale programme in Kenya, gender mainstreaming and inclusion of youth was an important goal of the programme. But many women and young farmers were excluded because they had no land for the demonstration of SLM technologies. What’s worse, even when the limited participation of women and youth was revealed, nothing changed.

In programmes where farmers had been more actively involved in project design and planning, higher rates of SLM technology adoption and continuation of activities was reported. For example, in the Kenya Agricultural Productivity and Agribusiness Project (KAPAP), farmer groups were responsible to select crops and farming strategies suited for their capacities. Furthermore, the activities developed under the programme continue even today, long after the programme’s end.

Likewise, in the «Projet d’Amélioration des productions agricoles et en appui aux organisations paysannes dans la province du Ioba de VARENA-ASSO » in Burkina Faso, SLM activities planned with the community were still being managed by the community after project finished.

Openness, flexibility and close feedback loops are key to adaptive programme management

The constant interaction of researchers, farmers and project implementers in Benin and Ethiopia supported the emergence of tailored approaches to SLM technology diffusion. GIZ’ willingness and flexibility to incorporate new ideas into their existing planning of activities was key in pursuing an adaptive management approach.

The results of TMG´s close collaborative adoption research in Benin and Ethiopia illustrate how action-oriented, transdisciplinary research can support adaptive management in ongoing SLM programmes and contribute to their effectiveness. Transdisciplinary research can be especially useful regarding systematic dialogue with stakeholders – from farmers, agricultural service providers and other practitioners to political administrators and decision makers. Such solution-oriented research can provide the kind of knowledge needed for adaptive management to reflect on programme implementation and potential need or possibilities for “course correction within the lifetime of programmes”.

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