“Frugal innovations help farmers to combat effects of climate change”

Irmgard Jansen
By on December 9, 2015

We met Christopher Foster at a workshop at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) titled: “How can Frugal Innovation become Inclusive Innovation?” He presented research on inclusive and frugal innovations in the horticulture sector in Kenya and was prepared to share his insights with us.

Christopher is currently lecturing ICT and innovation at the University of Sheffield. Prior to this he worked as a researcher at the University of Oxford (2013-2015), exploring the impacts of broadband internet in East Africa. He achieved his PhD from the University of Manchester (2009 – 2013) where his research looked at mobile sector innovation in Kenya, and its implications for innovation theory, firm strategy and public policy. Before that he worked for various NGOs to find transformative ICT solutions for low income communities.

In your research you studied the difference between the innovations implemented by farmers that operate in local value chains and farmers that are connected to global value chains in the Kenyan horticulture sector. What kind of innovations did you find and why is it relevant to make the difference between the various kinds of innovations?

“When I worked for different NGOs in Africa, I got interested in everything that was happening around mobile telecommunications for example with the sales people in the kiosks, the mobile money, the repair shops and the traders. Looking at what their role was in innovations got me interested in inclusive and frugal innovations and also in the role of the larger corporations and intermediaries.

For the topic of frugal innovations in the Kenyan horticulture sector I worked with Aarti Krishnan, an economist from the University of Manchester, who is doing research in environmental upgrading of small scale farmers in value chains in Kenya. We brought together my interest in innovation and Aarti’s interest in climate and small-scale agriculture.

Together we looked into innovations that help small-scale farmers to combat the negative effects of climate change. In particular we look at the differences between farmers that are connected to global value chains and those who are not. The assumption was that the first group includes more formal innovators whereas the latter includes more frugal innovators.

We have defined frugal innovations as low-cost innovations involving lower complexity and we expected farmers that are connected to local value chains would mainly apply small and low cost innovations to solve problems linked to climate effects, for example by the shorter or unpredictable rainy seasons. On the other hand, farmers or farmer groups that work in global value chains have to comply with quality and environmental standards and many of the innovations they use, originate from partners in the northern hemisphere and from large corporates.

In our research, we looked at both these top-down formal innovations and the bottom-up frugal innovations and how these types of innovations interact more and more. Examples of the frugal innovations are some of the local irrigation techniques, local rainwater harvesting from rooftops, waste collection for use as fertilizer and intercropping techniques that result from informal learning amongst the farmers.

These bottom-up innovations are increasingly spreading not only to local value chain farmers but also to those in global value chains. Whilst these frugal innovations do not attract headlines, they are still important to positive development outcomes. After all, the local farmers invent these innovations to solve their day-to-day problems and improve their livelihoods.”

What is the relevance of your research for governments and businesses?

“In our research we looked at cost and complexity of innovations and found that global value chain farmers are generally involved in more complex and more costly innovations than local value chain farmers. But, when you start digging down a bit, you find that many global value chain farmers are also involved in frugal innovations. And some local value chain farmers turn out to be very innovative. It is not a majority but it is relevant for policy makers and NGOs and the way they define their interventions.

At the moment, we do not know how to best support farmers in the area of climate smart innovations. And this will certainly be one of the biggest questions for the next decades. Governments have signed up for various targets but do not really know how to get there. The increasing demand for climate adaptation makes our work very relevant.”

You focus on innovations connected to climate adaptations. Is your research also relevant for other types of innovation or other sectors?

“The results are not just relevant for policy development in agriculture. In broader terms our results are also very relevant because we use quantitative methodologies, something that is very rare. There has been a lot of research already in the field of inclusive innovations, talking about the diffusion of innovations and how to bring the insights to policy makers. A commonly heard comment from policy makers is: ‘we need hard evidence to see more strongly what innovations work and on which facts we can build policies’.

Our work is a first attempt to quantify the theories around innovations and to make them comparable between different sectors, countries and environments and to write about the possible implications for lead firms. That is why we developed a so-called ‘score-based scale’ for innovation complexity. Our findings give us insights into how innovations could be supported and how policy makers and corporate businesses might better integrate frugal innovations into their plans.

Our methods could also be developed for other sectors to make innovation typologies comparable for different types of producers. An important learning is that incremental and frugal innovations should be an important element in learning and upgrading also in businesses that are connected to global value chains.”

How can learning and diffusion of innovations best take place?

“We make the difference between explicit learning and tacit, informal learning. At the start of our research we expected that farmers connected to global value chains would be more involved in explicit learning through courses and workshops whereas local value chain farmers would learn in informal settings through their own communities. Surprisingly, there was not much difference between the different types of farmers in terms of how they learned about innovations. This has interesting implications for how governments, NGOs and lead firms think about the diffusion of innovations.

Farmers partly learn about innovations through other farmers even when they are involved in official training programs. Learning programs should be based on hybrid forms of knowledge diffusion instead of sequential learning modules. An example is the use of pesticides that normally starts top-down from large farmers who use the proper tools and masks and the proper way of spreading on the fields. Smaller scale farmers copy it, buy the pesticides informally and use it in their own way, without protection masks and in different concentrations. How can we change this? How can we make sure that we use the informal networks for the correct teachings? Opinion leaders can for instance be the champions and spread the right messages.”

How can policies encourage innovation in the informal sector and how can the links between modern and traditional, often informal sectors be strengthened?

“In the future, we should identify the most innovative local value chain farmers, assess their innovations and include those in interventions and diffusion models. In addition, we need to push local farmers to compete more in global markets and at the same time build on local innovations.

NGOs can add value by bringing these various forms of innovations together and work with farmer groups to support the diffusion of these innovations. Research-based NGOs can also push and lobby the global value chain firms and influence how they define their standards and how they link into the local networks and knowledge. They can help the small local value chain player to link to the global standards. Some of the standards are obscure and NGOs can help farmers to get through the so-called ‘tick list’.”

What is the most significant result of your own research?

“Bringing in the quantitative techniques is the most important characteristic of our research which more systematically compares various kinds of climate-based innovation undertaken by different market players. We hope that the measures that we have developed will be used for various sectors in the future.”