This blog was written by Dr Chris Foster, a Lectuter in ICT and innovation at the Information School .

Research on innovation in the global south has increasingly highlighted the importance of continuous, small-scale innovation for small producers and farmers – be that an adapted machine or an improvised farming technique. Stemming from such research, there have been calls for innovation policy to better consider such activity, to ensure that innovation does not just support large industries but also the development of marginal groups.

However, it has been difficult to measure this lesser studied type of innovation. Actions such as improvised tools or novel crop planting are often “under the radar” and difficult to identify.  Conventional approaches taken by economists to measuring innovation would use so-called proxy measures for innovation (e.g. measures that represent aspects of innovation such as patent production, technology use or skills) but these approaches appear limited in this case.

Figure: Examples of small-scale innovation in Kenya: A locally-made fodder cutter (l); an improvised welding device (r).

Source: Making Do by Steve Daniels (licence: cc-by-sa 3.0)

With limited analytic studies, innovation by small-scale producers has nearly always been portrayed as something spontaneous. Innovation is seen as innate to the character of a specific marginal (typically male) individual. For instance, a novel machine is seen as the outcome of activity by a single entrepreneurial metal worker. Alternatively, small-scale innovation is seen as a response to external conditions, so an innovative product for the poor emerges as the result of the conditions of trading in resource scarcity. These narratives seem incomplete in their grasp of the sources of innovation. Such simplistic explanations also limit our understanding of the policy and interventions that might support small-scale innovation.

In a recent paper, ODI economist Aarti Krishnan and myself developed a new approach to measuring small-scale innovation; we then use this approach to explore innovation in value chains in the Kenyan horticulture sector. Instead of measuring innovation using proxies, small-scale innovation is measured through an interactive process of data collection on the ground in Kenya. This required spending extensive time talking with farmers in the Meru and Murang’a regions in order to build a detailed understanding of the farming activities. Only once we had built this knowledge, were surveys produced to explore innovation, and the learning and sharing of innovations.

What we found

Analysis from a sample survey of over 300 farmers highlighted several findings on innovation. Overall, the level of small-scale innovation correlated to three types of factor – labels, learning and linkage. Labels denotes the requirements of farmers from markets, in horticulture this means those adhering to stricter product standards are more likely to innovative than those who do not.  Learning highlights the link between innovation and learning opportunities available to farmers. Linkage highlights that farmers with better connections are more likely to be more innovative. These findings, that labels, learning and linkage should be important in shaping innovation, are to be expected and align with mainstream understanding of innovation. Still, these results confirm that our goal of detailed quantitative analysis of small-scale innovation can be undertaken.

Further insights were gained by digging into small-scale innovation amongst farmers. Unsurprisingly given the importance of labels, learning and linkage, small-scale innovation was greater amongst exporting farmers. These farmers who had to adhere to tougher labelling rules, were better connected and received more training from their supply networks, tended to be more innovative. However, we identified a significant number of horticultural farmers trading only in local markets who were also adopting small-scale innovations that might eventually help them export their goods internationally. When this occurred, innovation tended to spread through informal mechanisms such as farmer’s groups or even just observation of successful farmers. Another surprise in our results was the extent to which farmers use local knowledge and techniques, for example in using novel cropping techniques to ensure resilience from adverse conditions. These types of local innovation have often associated with traditional subsistence farming, but in the survey we found they were actually undertaken by all farmers, even more affluent ones linking into international markets. These two results highlight specific trends of small-scale innovation that require further attention.

This research is important in two ways. First, for horticulture farmers, this work reveals new insights about the nature of small-scale innovation and highlights potential new directions for intervention and policy. Second, more broadly, this work makes significant steps forward in identifying techniques for measuring innovation. It suggests improved partnership between economists and development researchers where in-depth understanding of the innovation context is needed in order to measure small-scale innovation.

Further research that surveys other small-scale producers and farmers can initiate improved evidence-based policy for innovation amongst marginal groups. Such work, when replicated, can also help us more broadly understand the conditions under which small-scale innovation can be beneficial and support development.

Chris Foster is a Lecturer in ICT and Innovation in the Information School, Sheffield; Aarti Krishnan is a Senior Research Officer at the ODI, London.

For more details, Krishnan, A. & Foster, C.G. (2018) A Quantitative Approach to Innovation in Agricultural Value Chains: Evidence from Kenyan Horticulture. European Journal of Development Research, 30(1), pp. 108–135.



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