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What technology for African agriculture?

Time (GMT +01) 16:30 18:00


Sir Gordon Conway - Professor of International Development, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
Dr Christie Peacock - Chief Executive, Farm Africa
Jim Sumberg - Research fellow, Institute of Development Studies


Steve Wiggins- Head of Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth Programme (PLAG), ODI

1. Steve Wiggins introduced the topic by posing the following questions: which technologies are best for agriculture and livestock promotion? Are new technologies be prioritised, or the adaptation of existing technologies? How should technologies, and priorities, be generated?

2. The main speaker, Professor Sir Gordon Conway, Imperial College, began by placing technology in context, by positioning it as one of many necessary interventions to increase food production and tackle the chronic crisis underlying the recent food price shock. He stressed the need for technological interventions to be appropriate to the given context, identifying key factors to be considered: does the technology work? Does it add value? Is it resilient? Is it equitable?  What are the downsides? And what is the counterfactual?

3. He reviewed four types of appropriate technology: traditional, conventional, intermediate and New Platform Technologies, providing examples of successful uses of each type of technology, and stressing the importance of adoption of technologies successful at the experiment stage. All technologies, however, are threatened by climate change, so he discussed the need to build resilient livelihoods, with technology forming part of a multi-faceted approach.

4. He outlined two further necessary interventions: input markets — small-scale agro dealers are promising — and output markets (cooperatives, use of mobile phones and ICT in gaining market access). He concluded by questioning how best to scale up small scale projects, to bridge the gap between high level rhetoric and the huge number of achievements at village and household level across Africa.

5. Christie Peacock, CEO, Farm Africa praised the positive discussion of technology. While much technology is available, disappointingly it is often not applied so increasing production and implementation of technologies is important. To achieve this, she stressed the central but not exclusive role for farmers as drivers, arguing for the development community to become more aware of the critical role the private sector must play in achieving change.

6. She expressed concern that participatory research has become formulaic in certain contexts, and that for it to be valuable, it must bring together different groups (farmers, extension workers, private sector). Furthermore, she suggested that ethical supply of inputs through agro dealerships and appropriate and accessible advice are critical.

7. Commenting on the previous speakers, Jim Sumberg, Research Fellow at IDS Sussex, said he had little to disagree with, but concluded that many different kinds of technology are needed – and the appropriate technology is dependent on the situation. He then posed the question of where innovation comes from. Over the years, there have been many different approaches and corresponding programmes. He expressed concern about the simplification of valuable, complex ideas by turning them into ‘training manuals’, mentioning innovation systems moving towards this thus risking losing its intrinsic value.

8. He discussed whether lack of innovation could be a barrier to developing countries’ ability to respond to opportunities, suggesting that much could be learned about new product development from the private sector, for new approaches that could be very useful to agriculture.

9. A wide ranging discussion followed. For example, Felicity Proctor suggested there should be a constructive overview of recent initiatives such as CAADP, and wondered how best the private sector can be brought in. And Hugh Bagnall-Oakley asked how to get new technologies into investment plans, questioning whether, in spite of the promises, there was new money for agriculture. Vincent Gasana asked what alternatives are available if participatory research is not working.  And the issue of farmer to farmer transmission and communication with other actors was raised.

10. In response, Gordon Conway said that while there are good examples of farmer to farmer transmission, they are rare, and used the example of C18th UK and US to suggest the necessity of private sector involvement in technology development and dissemination. As for participatory research, he said it was never intended to be rigid or applied. Continuing this, Jim Sumberg suggested that rather than an alternative to participatory research, the question should be ensuring that the approach used is appropriate to the particular issue. He also stressed the importance of networks and relationships within the innovation system bringing together a whole range of actors to contribute to ongoing policy processes such as CAADP. Christie Peacock said she was sceptical of the CAADP process because it appeared top down, and suggested that there needs to be a strong government sector and a strong private sector, and that examples of this working are in the context of decentralised government.


Better use of technology is at the heart of ambitions to improve productivity and efficiency in African agriculture but issues around how to best implement the use of agricultural technologies are hotly debate. For example which technologies are most needed and should the priority be to produce new technologies or rollout the use of proven ones? Through presentations from the panel, including Sir Gordon Conway, the meeting explored how innovations should be generated, whether by formal scientific research, through farmer-to-farmer communication, or some intermediate approach.

Further to this the panel discussed who should take a lead in deciding these priorities and how, whether it should be scientists, ministers or farmers taking a lead. The discussion looked at how changes in African agriculture should be organised and how it should be governed.