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  • The importance of ecological and socio-technological literacyin R&D priority setting: the case of a fruit innovation systemin Guinea, West Africa

    Paul Van Mele*

    Africa Rice Center (WARDA), 01 BP 2031 Cotonou, Benin

    The introduction of farmer participatory approaches over the past decades has to some extent improvedthe relevance and uptake of research results. While R&D prioritization increasingly involves morestakeholders, including the private sector, policymakers and civil society, building ecological literacyamong all stakeholders is urgent, especially for sustainable agricultural development. A case study ofan emerging fruit innovation system in Guinea, West Africa, highlights the challenges of supply- anddemand-driven approaches to R&D prioritization. Shallow ecological knowledge and a blind faith inmodern technologies by scientists and farmers alike distort prioritization. Locally available,appropriate technologies are dismissed in favour of high technologies that are inaccessible to mostsmallholder growers. Strengthening the ecological literacy of all stakeholders may help to overcomethis bias. On the other hand, building socio-technological literacy would allow innovationintermediaries, who typically act as brokers between the demand- and supply-side of technologies, tobetter understand the social and institutional contexts of technologies and how these affect potentialuptake by poor farmers. Member centres of the Consultative Group on International AgriculturalResearch (CGIAR) could use the notion of ecological and socio-technological literacy to betterunderstand supply and demand of technology and to work more effectively with their partners towardspro-poor and sustainable agricultural development.

    Keywords: CGIAR, ecological literacy, learning, R&D priority setting, socio-technological system


    As one of the social scientists who helped shape theearly movement towards participatory research,Bentley (1989) anticipated the challenges of translat-ing farmers demands into research questions. Heconcluded that researchers participating with smallfarmers to strengthen, invent or reinvent appropriatetechnology should understand that farmers haveinformation gaps in certain predictable domains ofknowledge such as insect and disease management,

    and that researchers could help fill these gaps whileat the same time learn from farmers to fill some oftheir own information gaps. Nearly 20 years later,the Institute of Development Studies organized aninternational workshop in Brighton, UK, calledFarmer First Revisited. In her keynote paper,Jacqueline Ashby (2007: 3) sadly observed that overthe years, participation has become a sales pitch todevelopment donors creating the distortion ofagenda away from the priorities of the poor inscience-driven consultations with farmers, where pri-orities were shaped a priori by supply-driven,commodity-focused research. Her assessment ofthe challenges for more equitable and pro-poor*Corresponding author. Email:


    INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY 6(3) 2008, PAGES 183194# 2008 Earthscan. ISSN: 1473-5903 (print), 1747-762X (online).

  • research indicates that researchers have an interest inencouraging farmers to choose to invest in those tech-nologies developed by researchers. Scientists havelearned to parrot the rhetoric of farmer participation,but have not always engaged with farmers.

    Following Biggs (1990) conceptual multiplesource of innovations model, various practical initiat-ives emerged that broadened the innovation base inagriculture. New diagnostic methods to set agricul-tural research and development (R&D) prioritiesemerged over the years (Farrington, 2000). Insti-tutional innovations to improve R&D prioritizationprocesses included the establishment of partnershipswith non-governmental organizations (NGOs) andproducer organizations (Collion & Rondot, 1998;Gilbert, 1990); the emergence of brokers betweenthe supply and demand side of innovation or inno-vation intermediaries (Howells, 2006; Klerkx &Leeuwis, 2008); the use of information and com-munication technologies to enhance rural learningand self diagnosis of problems and testable solutions(Burch, 2007; Gupta, 2006; Van Mele, 2006); thedevelopment of new professionals through insti-tutional change in higher education, such as the Con-vergence of Sciences Programme (Nederlof et al.,2007); and new funding mechanisms to makeresearch more relevant to resource-poor farmersneeds (Salahuddin et al., 2008; Waters-Bayer, 2005).All these examples imply a need to change mindsets,institutions and ways to enhance learning for allactors in the system if agricultural R&D prioritizationprocesses are to stimulate socially inclusive and envir-onmentally friendly development. This paper aims toprovide insights into how the demand and supply oftechnologies, with a focus on integrated pest manage-ment (IPM), are affected by the level of ecological andsocio-technological literacy among the actors in theinnovation system.

    Ecological and socio-technologicalliteracy

    Ecological literacy

    Farmers cannot inquire about something they areunaware of. The same is true for researchers, consult-ants, innovation intermediaries, private businessesand governments. As such, the ecological knowledgeor ecoliteracy of actors in an innovation system

    affects the way they managenatural resourcesand for-mulate R&D policies. In the preface of the book TheCultural Dimension of Development, RobertChambers and Paul Richards claim that in manyfields indigenous knowledge is far more relevant,valid and useful than had been supposed, and thatwe need to learn from people before trying to teachthem (Chambers & Richards, 1995). Althoughlocal people could offer alternative knowledge andperspectives based on their own locally developedpracticesof resourceuse (Berkes etal., 2000),mechan-isms of knowledge transfer to inform research policyand practice are less clear. As with scientific knowl-edge, folk knowledge is diffuse, fragmentary andpartial (Thompson & Scoones, 1994). In developingcountries, knowledge about plant and animal speciesand their use is often richer among the poorer layersof the society (Pilgrim et al., 2008). However,despite its values, folk knowledge is also constrainedby the interests and powers of observation of localpeople (Bentley & Valencia, 2003). In general,farmers know more about plants, less about insectsand less still about plant pathology (Bentley, 1989).

    Mechanisms of R&D prioritization processes, andmindsets of those involved, partly determine processoutcomes. Despite the rhetoric of being holistic,IPM practitioners have paid relatively little attentionto systematically assess local ecological knowledge onpests and their natural enemies (Greathead, 2003;Lenne, 2000; Van Mele, 2008). Scientists andfarmers may differ in opinion about the pest status(van Huis & Meerman, 1997). Even among scientiststhere may be disagreement on the status of beneficialinsects: although the role of the predatory weaver antOecophylla in protecting tree crops from harmfulinsects has been widely documented (Van Mele,2008; Way & Khoo, 1992), colleagues at variousinternational research institutes consider weaverants a pest as they interfere with the efficacy of the sol-ution they are proposing (rightly or not), namely theuse of parasitoids. Outcomes of R&D prioritizationprocesses therefore not only depend on farmers eco-logical knowledge, but also on the mindsets of thoseinvolved in the process, be they scientists, consultants,NGO staff or innovation intermediaries.

    Socio-technological literacy

    Prioritization processes are embedded in socio-technological systems whereby social relations and

    184 P. VAN MELE


  • networks play a crucial role in determining thenature of the resulting technology (Engel, 1997;Geels, 2004; Olsen & Engen, 2007). I refer to socio-technological literacy as the body of knowledge onmechanisms of technology development, dissemi-nation and use within the biophysical, social, insti-tutional, economic and political context. Over thepast 20 years, adoption and diffusion of technologyhas increasingly been seen as a collective evolution-ary process that is strongly influenced by the actorsinvolved and institutions shaping their interactions(Leeuwis, 1999; Silverberg, 1991). A socio-technological approach to innovations provides acoherent conceptual multi-level perspective, usinginsights from sociology, institutional theory andinnovation studies (Carlsson et al., 2002; Geels,2004; Markard & Truffer, 2008). It incorporatesthe user side in the analysis of innovation processes.It also suggests an analytical distinction betweensystems, actors involved in them, and the insti-tutions which guide actors perceptions and activi-ties, and the dynamic interplay between actorsand structures. Recently, innovation systems prac-titioners realized that the focus on the structure ofinnovation systems has been insufficient and thatprocess analysis or history event analysis are asimportant for well performing innovation systems(Hekkert et al., 2007).

    Participants to the Farmer First Revisited work-shop, held in Brighton in December 2007, exploredhow innovation systems and farmer first approachesin R&D could find common ground (Scooneset al., 2008b). This evolution points to an identi-fied need for a gradual convergence between inno-vation systems and socio-technological approachesin research.

    Combining the two

    To increase the impact of R&D for sustainable andsocially inclusive agriculture, this paper argues thatwe need to move beyond the rhetoric and that bothecological and socio-technological literacy of allactors in the system needs strengthening. AndyHall and colleagues (2004) argued that new agri-cultural R&D arrangements are needed thatare client-responsive, integrated into markets andabove all driven by the goal of poverty-focused,sustainable development.

    Goal, case selection and methods

    Based on a case study from an emerging fruit inno-vation system in Guinea, West Africa, this paperaims to elucidate how levels of ecological and socio-technological literacy among the various actors inthe agricultural innovation system affect the out-comes of R&D prioritization. It presents the chal-lenges to formulating research questions thatcontribute to sustainable and pro-poor develop-ment, and that take into account both the supplyand demand of innovation.

    Large economic losses due to a complex ofAfrican fruit flies, aggravated by recent outbreaksof a devastating new fruit fly, Bactrocera invadens(Vayssieres et al., 2005) has boosted donor interestin supporting the search for appropriate solutions.The generalist predatory ant Oecophylla is effectivein controlling fruit flies and is a pro-poor technol-ogy that is readily available to African farmers(Van Mele et al., 2007). However, opinions as tothe way forward differ among stakeholders,making it a relevant topic to study the dynamicsof demand and supply of farm technologies.

    To assess the actors, their interactions, level ofecological literacy and perception of problemsand solutions at hand for effective fruit fly control,I held informal interviews with scientists, plantprotection staff, growers, fruit pickers and staff(both in Guinea and at headquarters in Antwerp,Belgium) of the mango-exporting company (SIPEF)from 2005 to 2007. In October and November2006, IRAG agronomists and plant protectionstaff interviewed 100 tree crop growers in the majorhorticultural zones of Guinea, including Kindia,Kankan and Boke. The objective of the survey wasto assess farmers ecological knowledge and theirexplicit demand for pest management technologiesas a response to a new problem (the invasive fruitfly). Fifteen questions covered orchard management,pests and knowledge on weaver ants, and sourcesof advice. The questions were based on insightsinto the local context and similar research con-ducted during the last decade in various Africanand Asian countries. Our approach confirmed theimportance of having a short questionnaire withopen-ended, targeted questions. By being aware oflocal issues, the interviewers avoided the superficial-ity that can undermine long questionnaires that fishfor information.



  • The Guinea case study

    An emerging fruit innovation system

    Mango-based cropping systems in francophoneWest Africa are very varied with management andvarietal composition depending on the local con-text (Vanniere et al., 2004). Mali was the firstcountry in the region to begin exporting mangoesaround 1970, followed by Burkina Faso, Senegaland especially Cote dIvoire in the 1980s (Rey &Goguey, 1996). In Guinea, market-oriented policiesand free movement of people and goods did notemerge until after the death of president SekouToure in 1984 (Krebs & Vogel, 1995). Now, onlyone global trading company (SIPEF) exportsmangoes from Guinea to European supermarkets.It abides by the Good Agricultural Practices set bythe European Retailers Association (EUREPGAP)by cashing in on the fact that most local productionis organic by default. Besides these intercontinentalexports, business people from Cote dIvoire crossthe border to buy up entire harvests, even arrivingin some cases with their own teams of fruitpickers, but this trade is highly variable from oneyear to the next (Koumandian Camara, personalcommunication).

    Historically, research on fruit crops in WestAfrica (and many other developing countries) wasmainly conducted with support from the Frenchoverseas technical cooperation, currently calledCIRAD. Research prioritization was mainlydriven by external and national experts and littlethought given to alternative ways of setting thescientific agenda. Research focused mainly on varie-tal and agronomic issues (Rey et al., 2004). InGuinea, researcher-extension-farmer linkages havebeen extremely weak (Adesina & Baidu-Forson,1995). Currently, the national extension servicehangs on a thread, supported by only a few develop-ment projects. The national agricultural researchinstitute IRAG, like many other national agricul-tural research institutions in Africa (Beye, 2002),is aiming towards a more decentralized anddemand-led model.

    IRAGs fruit research centre (CRA Foulaya) islocated in an undulating landscape gifted withample rainfall and fertile land near Kindia, about130 km from the capital Conakry. It has beeninvolved in a few projects focusing on tree crops,

    the most recent one being the regional SustainableTree Crops Program (STCP Phase I: 20002005),supported by USAID and Kraft Foods, but nonepaid particular attention to local knowledge. In2006, I obtained a grant from the US-based Conser-vation, Food and Health Foundation to start activi-ties with ant-based pest control in tree crops inBenin and Guinea, later on joined by Tanzania.When I first met the director general of IRAG, hewas surprised to hear that someone showed aninterest in this native ant and that related researchwas already well advanced in Asia and Australia.Once the project was approved he granted fullsupport and, despite the small budget, mobilizedmore than 10 of his staff. All were initiallyunaware of the benefits of weaver ants, some evenopenly sceptical.

    Fruit farmers and perceived pest problems

    The growers interviewed were on average 57 yearsold with 16 years of experience in orchard manage-ment. Since the death of Guineas first president,Sekou Toure, many local government officers havetaken up agriculture, as reflected in our surveysample: 25% of participants were administratorsor teachers. In West Africa, government officialsfrequently return to the rural areas and grow treecrops as a retirement strategy. Consequently, manyolder farmers have not necessarily built up a life-experience and intricate relationship with farming.

    One-quarter of the orchards were mango orcashew mono-crops. However, among all orchardgrowers, 88% grew mango (Mangifera indica) fol-lowed by 57% cashew (Anacardium occidentale),44% oranges (Citrus spp.), 39% avocado (Perseaamericana), 17% cola (Cola acuminata) and 15%palm trees. Weeds, insect pests, diseases, lack ofaccess to fertilizers and bush fires were identifiedas key difficulties. About 86% of the growers spon-taneously mentioned insects, especially fruit flies, astheir principal pest problem, followed by weaverants (37%). Other pests included borers (19%),mammals (14%), termites (13%) and scales (12%).Mammals causing damage included squirrels, fruitbats, grasscutters (native rodents) and monkeys.

    Few growers managed pests, with only one-tenthof them applying mechanical control against borersand spraying pesticides. Farmers do not have readyaccess to pesticides and those using them received

    186 P. VAN MELE


  • them through the regional agricultural researchcentres or a private production and agriculturaltrading company (SPCIA).

    Different answers to similar questions

    The opening question as to what farmers know aboutweaver ants only brought out negative aspects, suchas Oecophylla rolling up tree leaves and being a nui-sance during harvest. When probed to elaborate onwhat weaver ants actually do to their own trees aslightly different picture emerged (Table 1). Thenegative perception that ants make the fruit dirtywas downplayed from 34% to 12%. Ants protectscale insects (Homoptera: Coccidae) in exchangefor their sugary excrements. As these scale insectsare mainly clustered on some of the new mangogrowth flushes and on a small proportion of thefruit, they are clearly visible with the naked eye.Farmers do not know that scales are insects of theirown right; some see them as dirt on the fruit. Scien-tists in particular consider scales as serious pests,and consequently have used ant attendance onscales as an argument to also classify Oecophylla asa pest. On the other hand, 26% of the growers high-lighted the positive effect of the ants on mango fruitquality. To a more targeted question, 57% reportedthat Oecophylla had a positive effect on fruitquality, such as a higher sugar content, a perceptionshared by fruit pickers in Benin (Sinzogan et al.,2008). Reasons given for improved quality variedfrom ants depositing their eggs on the fruit (6%),ants protecting the fruit from pests (24%), andbecause fruit in orchards with ants is allowed toripen before being picked (26%).

    Superficial interviews would have confirmedexisting scientific prejudices that nothing goodwas to be expected from weaver ants. Over theyears, smallholder farmers have become accus-tomed to emphasizing the negative aspects of theirfarm enterprise, with outsiders being seen as provi-ders of free technical inputs. Those limited ques-tions we developed allowed IRAG staff to obtaina fresh view on farmers realities and graduallydevelop their own ecological literacy.

    Farmers knowledge and explicit demandfor technology

    Despite the challenges of observing tree crop pestsand their natural enemies, 58% of the farmers had

    observed Oecophylla prey on pests, mainly onsmall insects (52%), followed by winged insects(29%), black ants (8%), worms (4%), scales (3%)and snakes (2%). Most mango orchards in Guineaare mixed cropping systems in which also shorterfruit and nut crops grow, which makes observingpests and natural enemies easier. However, theprocess of assessing the overall net effect of pest pre-dation is not simple when no systematic testing isdone. As a result, the opinions of growers variedconsiderably (Table 2). Long-term interactionwith scientists may help farmers clarify some oftheir ideas, but there are not enough scientists togo around.

    Because Oecophylla bites harvesters, manyfarmers classified the ant as a pest and requestedthe help of plant protection staff to treat theirorchard with pesticides even though over half of

    Table 1 Farmers response to open-ended questionsdealing with Oecophylla, Guinea, 2006 (n 100). Somefarmers gave multiple answers


    What do youknow about

    weaver ants?(%)

    What do weaverants do to your

    crops? (%)

    Make harvestand farmoperationsdifficult

    73 73

    Roll up leaves 36 44

    Make fruit dirty 34 12

    Improve thequality of fruit


    Chase awaysnakes andother pests

    18 22

    Affect flowering 7

    Deposit eggson the fruit


    Affect thedevelopment ofplants


    I dont know 2



  • the farmers knew the ant preyed on pests. Thefarmers may not have understood the extent ofinsect predation (i.e. they may think that the antsonly kill trivial numbers of pests) or the farmersmay have given greater weight to their owncomfort during harvest. This explicit demand forpesticides increased following outbreaks of a newfruit fly species, Bactrocera invadens, suggestingthat farmers, like everyone else, learn by observingchanges in their environment. Shallow knowledgeof ecological principles and a blind belief inmodern technologies by national scientists andfarmers alike seriously influence the demands thatfarmers express to researchers.

    Evolving supply and demand of technology

    In my review paper on Oecophylla (Van Mele,2008), and following recurring remarks by scientificpeers, I proposed the management of mango scalesas one of the areas for collaborative research withfarmers. At the time of writing the review, researchinto local knowledge of African fruit growers andpickers was still on-going. Results from Benin(Sinzogan et al., 2008), Guinea (this paper) andTanzania (unpublished) reveal that the principalreason for farmers considering weaver ants as apest is not its relationship with scale insects. Infact, some women fruit pickers in Benin even

    consider scales on mango as an indicator for topquality: fruit from trees with weaver ants beingsweeter and having a longer shelf life. Farmers donot insist on getting rid of the scales, they basicallywant to reduce the ant nuisance during farm oper-ations. Unlike many other ant species, the bite ofOecophylla is not particularly painful and thepain disappears within seconds (Holldobler &Wilson, 2000). Nevertheless, weaver ants can be anuisance and such feelings are likely to be strongerwhen one is not fully aware of the benefits theants bring. Beninese growers involved in on-farmresearch changed their negative attitude towardsOecophylla when they learnt about the antsimportance in reducing fruit fly damage (Sinzoganet al., 2008). Across Africa, farmers implicit de-mand for technology is about addressing the antsnuisance. The project documented various localpractices (Table 3) as part of an on-going effort toenhance SouthSouth learning. As Bentley et al.(2007) said demand and supply of farm technologyare like two sides of an unfolding conversation.



    The level at which national economies develop isdetermined by the efficiency of mechanisms set inplace to exchange ideas between the multipleactors operating in the system (Arnold & Bell,2001). Traditional R&D providers are required tobecome more client-oriented which calls fordemand-driven modes of working and establishinglinkages with the private sector and society as awhole (Klerkx & Leeuwis, 2007). Guidelines andtools to diagnose linkages and capacity to innovateare presented by Hall and colleagues (2006). Withinnovation systems thinking applied to agriculturalresearch, rather than research the innovation inter-mediaries take central stage as match makersbetween suppliers and users of technologies. Inno-vation predominantly derives from working withand reworking the stock of knowledge (Arnold &Bell, 2001: 288), not necessarily the creation of newknowledge, and from brokering networks, learningalliances or innovation platforms (Adolph, 2005).

    Research centres, such as those belonging to theConsultative Group on International Agricultural

    Table 2 Farmers perception of Oecophylla, Guinea, 2006(n 100)

    Perception % of farmers

    Effect of Oecophylla on pests

    Reduces pest damage 43

    Increases pest damage 24

    No opinion 33

    Global status of Oecophylla

    Pest 69

    Beneficial 24

    No opinion 7

    188 P. VAN MELE


  • Research (CGIAR) that emerged about 40 years agoto address key production constraints, operatewithin quickly changing natural, economic andsocietal environments. To what extent CGIARcentres are able to adapt their R&D priorities andpartnerships to new needs will determine theirfuture relevance. However, the current membershipof the CGIAR Science Council, lacking user repre-sentatives, means that the legitimacy of the prioritysetting and strategic direction can be challenged(Scoones et al., 2008a).

    In 2007, the World Bank started to attributefunds to individual CGIAR centres, placing moreweight on outcomes than on outputs. This incentiveorients the centres towards innovation systemsthinking, whereby partnerships, uptake andimpact have to be thought through right from thebeginning of the innovation process rather than atthe end (Van Mele, 2007). Centres have to rethinkand renegotiate their role within innovation trajec-tories. To transform Third World agriculture thenational systems of innovation need to be integratedwith outside knowledge sources through well-organized knowledge markets (Clark, 2002). So,are CGIAR centres to become process-oriented orcontent-oriented agricultural R&D agents, or acombination of both? The CGIARs intended bene-ficiaries are poor people in developing countries.Considering the disintegration of national exten-sion systems and the increasing number of (often

    small-scale) service providers, a new niche for theCGIAR as knowledge and network broker mayhave emerged.

    To increase the relevance and effectiveness ofR&D, publicprivate partnerships are increasinglybeing promoted by advocates of innovation systems(Hall et al., 2001; World Bank, 2007). SIPEF head-quarters showed little interest in the use and pro-motion of weaver ants. When the density ofprivate sector actors is extremely low, the scopefor pro-poor, sustainable market development islimited. Publicprivate partnerships contributelittle to sustainable agriculture in developingcountries where the agrochemical industry has aquasi monopoly in cashing in on the growing horti-cultural market. National agricultural scientists,short of research funds, may be more inclined toteam up with pesticide companies to test theirproducts in farmers fields. Years of superficial inter-actions and on-farm research led scientists to believethat weaver ants were pests rather than beneficialinsects, because both scientists and farmers lackedecological knowledge. Partnerships and partici-patory approaches are no guarantee for pro-poor,sustainable development when farmers explicitdemands are nave, or when researchers have onlya superficial grasp of the farmers reality, or whenresearch funding mechanisms affect scientistsimpartiality. Current trends indicate that fundingstreams will increasingly be conditioned by privatesector involvement. Especially in countries wherethe private sector and civil society organizations areweak, such innovative funding arrangements willcreate limited opportunities to work towards sustain-able development goals and pro-poor impact. Thewarning by Robert Tripp (1993: 20032004) stillholds that there is a real danger that both externaldonors and national governments will use the newalternatives (private sector and NGOs) as an excuseto abandon rather than to reshape the public sectorcontribution to agricultural development.

    Ecological literacy

    Apart from the establishment of new varieties, itis argued that limited impact of research by theCGIAR is due to the location specificity of mosttechnologies. Scaling-up of sustainable technologiesrequires building effective networks, but also devel-oping ecological literacy (World Bank, 2008).

    Table 3 Farmers practices to reduce nuisance ofOecophylla during harvest, Guinea, 2006 (n 100)

    Farmers practice % offarmers

    Dont do anything 38

    Apply ash to parts of body 20

    Apply petrol to parts of body 19

    Use a long picking pole 11

    Clean area around trees before harvest 6

    Wear boots and gloves 4

    Use leaves and twigs to sweep awayants




  • Farmers and scientists must learn to read fromthe same page. Few scientists have been involvedin developing pest management technologies forsmallholder fruit farmers with a focus on endemicpredatory ants (Van Mele, 2008). Even well-trainedscientists may not be aware of the potential ofcertain very abundant endemic natural enemies.As mentioned earlier, the director general of thenational research institute was unaware and plea-santly surprised to hear about the role of weaverants in protecting tree crops. In some cases, scien-tists were aware, but did not express their knowl-edge for various reasons. When I gave a presentationon the benefits of weaver ants during a workshop inTanzania in August 2007, staff from the Ministry ofAgriculture, Food and Cooperatives were surprisedthat no one had ever informed them about thisreadily available solution to the national fruit flyproblem. This was especially striking because oneof their senior scientists had done his PhD on Oeco-phylla in pest control. R&D prioritization anddeveloping demand-led research is an iterativeprocess that benefits from long-term engagement,but this may not always be enough. Researchers,growers, field workers and harvesters hold differentsets of ecological knowledge and can learn fromeach other (Van Mele et al., 2008). Their knowledgeneeds to be repackaged and communicated to theirpeers, as well as to a non-technical audience, suchas policymakers and the civil society, who increas-ingly play an active role in R&D priority setting.

    Apart from emphasizing the need to build eco-logical literacy among researchers and farmers,this paper also showed the importance of mindsets.Innovation intermediaries involved in R&D pri-ority setting exercises (scientists, consultants, coop-eratives, research user groups or others) need toappreciate that farmers explicit demand for pesti-cides stems from the problem of ants duringharvest and from their ignorance of the benefits ofweaver ants in pest control. In a review paper descri-bing the needs of tree crop growers, Williamson(2002) reiterates the need to build ecological literacyalong the value chain and to enhance institutionaland marketing innovations. Although embeddedin the CGIAR System Priorities (CGIAR, 2005),the building of ecological literacy within innova-tion systems needs more explicit articulation forresearch to optimally contribute to sustainable devel-opment objectives.

    While linkages within the national agriculturalresearch systems have improved considerably, amajor imbalance between research institutions, uni-versities, farmers organizations, NGOs and otherstakeholders still exists in many African countries(Beye, 2002). Apart from the nature and thequality of the linkages, outcomes of R&D prioritysetting for natural resource management largelydepend on the ecological literacy of scientists,farmers and innovation intermediaries. Votingexercises to bring in farmers voices in prioritysetting appear to work well for selecting varieties,but may be harder for technologies that rely onmore tacit knowledge, such as soil fertility or pestmanagement (Ayenor et al., 2004; Pingali et al.,2001). Farmers will never vote for the use ofweaver ants to control fruit flies, if they do notknow about its importance.

    Focus on appropriate technologies

    Responding to farmers explicit demands does notalways lead to sustainable agricultural practices.Treating pests in 10 m high trees with insecticides as frequently requested by farmers is expensive,ineffective and leads to human and environmentalproblems. With few exceptions, the bulk of scientistsresearching fruit fly control options at internationalresearch stations have focused mainly on high tech-nologies, such as parasitoids, baits and fruit flytraps that are unlikely to become available to themajority of resource-poor African farmers (VanMele et al., 2007). A convergence between naturaland social sciences is needed to better capturefarmers implicit demands and to make researchersrespond to them (Ayenor et al., 2004). Instead ofcomfortably sticking to high technologies, research-ers should attempt to find solutions that are cheapand accessible to the poor.

    Building socio-technological literacy within theagricultural innovation system enhances the povertyrelevance and potential uptake of research results.Innovation intermediaries who have good ecologicaland socio-technological literacy levels are more likelyto come up with a clear vision, strategies and researchpriorities than those who lack these capacities. Inturn, strategic research on technologies that areappropriate to the poor can have considerable poten-tial to improve both efficiency and poverty allevia-tion effects of research over wide areas (Byerlee,

    190 P. VAN MELE


  • 2000). Following research by Hedstrom in the late1980s and by Epsky and colleagues throughout the1990s, a breakthrough was made in developing cost-free and alternative fruit fly baits and traps based onurine and chicken faeces (Pinero et al., 2003). Ourresearch in Africa indicated that farmers explicitlydemanded insecticides, but their implicit demandwas for cheap fruit fly control and for managementof ants during harvest. This only became apparentas scientists and farmers taught each other to readthe local farm-and-ant ecology.

    New fundamental research questions arise

    More in-depth interactions with farmers and anopen mind to actual problems versus perceived sol-utions may equally inform fundamental research.To address the nuisance of the highly effectiveweaver ant, apart from local knowledge and prac-tices, the knowledge of more fundamental myrme-cologists could also be mobilized. Studies thatreveal the mechanical and neural functioning ofthe ants adhesive pads (Federle et al., 2004) maylead to new insights into reducing nuisance fromweaver ants during farm operations. The revealingof mechanisms to reduce the functioning of theants adhesive pads may lead to a new technologicalbreakthrough that could radically change the per-ception of the scientific and rural communitieswho often classify Oecophylla as a pest. Variousfarmers across Africa and Asia have already devel-oped technologies to reduce the ants nuisancethat may guide natural scientists towards newexperiments (Van Mele et al., 2008).

    In-depth local knowledge may have uncannysimilarities to scientific finding. For example, antsnot only protect plants from herbivores and otherinsect pests, but they also play a direct role in ferti-lizing the plants. Recently, researchers found thatwithin six days, up to 25% of the nitrogen ingestedby Pheidole ants was incorporated by the plants(Fischer et al., 2003). Interestingly, when entomol-ogists in Vietnam first interviewed citrus farmerson Oecophylla in 1992, the majority stated thebenefit of the weaver ant to be improved fruitquality rather than pest management (Barzmanet al., 1996). Farmers said the effect was compar-able to fertilizer use and was due to the ant urinedeposited directly on the fruit. Scientific validationconfirmed enhanced juiciness, external shine and

    overall appeal. Women organized in picking teamsto harvest mangoes in Benin equally target orchardswith weaver ants for reasons of improved quality.As they buy the harvested fruit on the spot andsell it at the local market, quality matters to them(Sinzogan et al., 2008). Weaver ants deposit dropsof a complex of exocrine compounds (Holldobler& Wilson, 2000) that may have similar effects tofoliar fertilizers. The effect of weaver ants on treecrop fertilization would be a good area for strategicresearch, considering that the bulk of Africanfarmers do not have access to mineral fertilizers.

    Learning and communication

    Lack of appropriate market and institutional incen-tives can lead to the rapid erosion of sustainableagricultural knowledge and technologies. Ecologi-cal knowledge also declines with economic growthwhen farmers start to perceive traditional practicesas old-fashioned. When Vietnam moved towardsan open market economy in the 1990s, continuedpressure from the pesticide industry and with onlyone national scientist promoting the use of weaverants, fruit farmers gradually abandoned their tradi-tional practices of conservation biological controlwhereas newcomer fruit farmers never learntabout these sustainable practices (Van Mele &Cuc, 2000). Capacity building of multiple Vietna-mese institutes and farmer associations, media cam-paigns, emerging markets for organic produce, andan increased interest from donors and nationalpolicymakers in sustainable fruit production hasshifted this trend (Van Mele, 2008). Environmentaleducation through farmer field schools (FFS) ormass media can be equally effective in changingfarmers pesticide use behaviour and appreciation ofnatural enemies (Price, 2001), especially if properattention is paid to the process of merging research-ers and farmers knowledge (Van Mele & Chien,2004). This resonates with the literature on conserva-tion education. According to Bride (2006), conserva-tion biologists should take every opportunity toeducate people about basic principles of conserva-tion, rather than just informing them.

    People can improve their understanding of bio-diversity and agro-ecological relationships at thesame time as they develop new social rules, normsand institutions. This process of social learninghelps new ideas to spread and can lead to positive



  • biodiversity outcomes over large areas (Pretty &Smith, 2004). New ideas spread more rapidlywhere there is high social capital. In 2007 and2008, associations of organic fruit growers, such asthe Coastal Out-growers Association whoproduce organic citrus in Ghana or Burkinature andFruiteq who produce organic mango in BurkinaFaso, were prime targets to build capacities onweaver ant husbandry in Africa. To build ecologicalliteracy among the broader society, also mass mediacampaigns have been launched. Under the auspicesof the Inland Valley Consortium (IVC), hosted bythe Africa Rice Center (WARDA) in Benin, a set ofrural radio programmes with women fruit pickers,scientists and experienced growers was developedto be shared with Farm Radio International, whichreaches out to over 300 rural radios across Africa.Educating a broad societal base on ecological issuesought to positively influence R&D priority settingtowards sustainable development.


    The introduction of farmer participatory approachesover the past decades has to some extent improvedthe relevance and subsequent uptake of researchresults. While R&D prioritization ought to open upto involve more actors, including the private sector,policymakers and civil society, building ecologicaland socio-technological literacy within the inno-vation system is urgent. At the same time, multi-stakeholder priority setting strategies will need tobe looked at through an ecological and a socio-technological lens, especially for agricultural devel-opment to be sustainable and socially inclusive.


    We thank the staff of IRAG who were involved inthe survey, and are indebted to all the growers andfruit pickers involved in the research. The Conserva-tion, Food and Health Foundation sponsored thiswork. The study was undertaken through theInland Valley Consortium (IVC), hosted by theAfrica Rice Center (WARDA). IVC aims at develop-ing appropriate technologies to help farmers to

    profitably increase productivity of inland valleys,while conserving the environment and biodiversity.


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