The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is pleased to present the 2018 Next Generation Delegates blog series. This year’s Delegation was comprised of 27 outstanding students from universities across the United States and around the world studying agriculture, food, and related disciplines. We were thrilled to feature these emerging leaders at the Global Food Security Symposium 2018, and look forward to sharing the exciting work of this extraordinary group.
It was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day when I had just finished an interview with one of the farmers in a village in Salima district, Malawi. As we walked back to our car, I commended the farmer for the promising efforts that he and his family were taking to adopt new technology that promoted conservation agriculture. As I showered him with praise, the farmer’s face, which a moment ago wore a bright, jovial, and excited look, had faded and instead was filled with fury and disappointment. Shocked and confused as to what I might have done, I asked myself, why would this simple compliment annoy someone that much? While I was pondering on this, the farmer broke his silence and asked me to switch off my recorder.
He proceeded to question me about the meaning and significance of the label on the shirt that I was wearing. I cordially explained that I worked for a company that promotes conservation agriculture and that I was proudly wearing the polo as a part of our efforts to promote the project. Without giving me a chance to respond and defend myself and the project, he questioned the integrity of my work by wondering who I was promoting the project to, who even sees my shirt when I’m sitting in an office, and even if I had a garden myself and practiced conservation agriculture. He continued by telling me that he really had not adopted conservation agriculture in his whole field. He only adopted the technology on the small piece of land that we had visited because he felt sorry for the extension agent and people like me who might lose our jobs if he doesn’t adopt the technology.
This experience dramatically impacted my thinking, and ever since that day it has made reflect on the following questions; Why did we start promoting the project if we didn’t understand the incentives and desires of the farmers? What message was I sending with my recordings where this farmer had expressed satisfaction with the project on record, but held contradictory views off record? Who exactly am I working for?
My internal reflections were echoed during at the Global Food Security Symposium by a smallholder farmer from Tanzania who was among the panelists. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they were a smallholder farmer and to her apparent expectation, no one did. The absence of small holder farmers in the audience and the remarks from the Tanzanian farmer confirmed the concern that the farmer from Salima had voiced to me. There is a need to pay more attention to farmers’ voices.
These experiences have prompted me to move forward with my research where I focus on exploring how various communication media can be used not only for dissemination of improved technologies, but to empower the farmers to share with policy makers and scientists their true experiences and opinions about various technologies and programs. While small holder farmers make a majority of farers in most of the Sub-Saharan African countries, there have been a lot of technologies and policies that have been developed and pushed to these farmers with little or no adoption and productivity in the small farms still remains low. If we are to indeed achieve global food security, then we need to start giving small holder farmers the opportunity to express their true opinions, not the public voices that we pressure them into when we as outsiders interview them in the expectation of hearing positive experiences.. Therefore, our new agenda must prioritize listening over advising.