Create innovation centres to support sustainable agricultural intensification among smallholder farmers

By Edward Ssebbombo
Bobo Eco Farm, Mityana, Uganda


Over 72% of Uganda’s population of 38.8 million (World Bank, 2012/13) are smallholder farmers, majority being subsistence farmers who produce primarily for own consumption. They farm small pieces of land usually less than 5 acres, depend on nature for agricultural production, and use rudimentary tools & techniques. Small scale piggery and poultry production form a key source of their financial security, but are characterized by low output per animal and unit area, slow growth rates and small sized mature animals. Women heads of households constitute a significant percentage of smallholder farmers (30%) while youths 15 – 24 years of age comprise 21.2% (Uganda National Household Survey Report, 2009/2010).

The Problem

Agricultural production and productivity among smallholder farmers is very low, averaging 30% of its potential. They try to achieve agricultural growth through expansion in acreage rather than productivity – ending up encroaching on more fragile ecosystems; hence, sowing an inherent risk in their source of livelihood.

As biodiversity declines – for example, food, fuel (wood) and water become more unpredictable and scarce. Women and girls in this environment become more vulnerable to abuse (sexual harassment and assault) as they search for food, fuel & water long distances away from home. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rain is projected to decrease by 33% by 2020, and rain-fed crop yields will reduce by half by 2030. Given that smallholder farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture; the variability in rain sometimes means the difference between starvation and survival.

The Solution

Smallholder farmers need support to transit from subsistence to semi-commercial farming. Commercialization disrupts cultural obstructions that sustain backwardness, and creates linkages that allow communities work together for common good. As such, ‘disruptive’ innovations or game changers are required! Model farms such as Bobo Eco Farm should be re-oriented to play a leading role in the development and deployment of disruptive innovations so as to make use of their accumulated resources. Each district / region should have a ‘Bobo’ – call it a Centre of Excellence or an Innovation Centre aimed to facilitate continuous innovation in their communities.

Due to the very dynamic environment (market forces, political policies, climatic changes, impacts of globalization) focus should be on continuous innovation because; what is cutting-edge technology today will be obsolete tomorrow. Consequently, technologies are not sustainable in themselves; what should be sustained is the process of innovation itself! Thus, the importance of innovation centres. The Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) – mandated to facilitate technology transfer and adaptation in the country should find efficient ways to work with these innovation centres in pursuit of this goal.

How the model operates

Development partners should leverage the power of the private sector to help communities mobilize their own resources in pursuit of development outcomes. First step is to identify already existing reputable model farms with reasonable infrastructure, and support them to become innovation centres for their communities. Innovation centres should pioneer revolutionary innovations that push the limits of what is possible in terms of development outcomes for their communities. Such innovations should generate social and environmental benefits as well as commercially viable products, technologies and services. These innovation centres should operate as businesses – whose innovations should be used at a fee or acquired by clients. The business approach does not only help to mobilize private commercial capital and expertise to address development priorities for their communities but also creates mutually beneficial opportunities that help achieve transformative progress. This way, we’re creating structures that can last, and a platform on which partners can build to address important development challenges.

We do not need to re-invent the wheel, some technologies are already out there, but are not yet in use within our geographical zones. The UNCST should facilitate North – South, and South – South technology transfer through these innovation centres. Such technologies can be piloted at the innovation centres. Where necessary innovation centres should involve farmers surrounding their farms in piloting the new technologies – to gain an early real-world assessment for acceptability, viability, sustainability and pathways to scale.

Innovation Centres and the academia / researchers

Universities and researchers should take advantage of these innovation centres. Since innovation centres are real agricultural farms in communities, they provide a context-responsive real-world experience. Students can access apprenticeship and internship opportunities at innovation centres to reinforce and expand on classroom learning with practical, hands-on experience.

Innovation Centres and Farmer Association

Empowering small-holder farmers with innovative methods, tools and techniques will enable them grow beyond survival to thriving. Innovations make inputs cheaper, farming activities more resilient, yields abundant, and enable value addition. That is the contribution of the innovation centres. On the other hand, farmer associations or cooperatives pick it from there and promote cooperative models of production and marketing as well as use of financial services. In the end, we shall see smallholder farming units turn into agro-enterprises; creating new jobs, new businesses, and raising living standards. If farmer cooperatives aggregate the operations and assets of these smallholder commercial production units, they can even attract investment capital at scale. This model will ensure sustainable agricultural intensification, not only from an ecological view point but also from social, political & economic stand points. It therefore, represents a sustainable path out of poverty for smallholder farmer communities.