Recent Publications

See below for a list of our most current publications. Unfortunately, many of these are published in academic journals with paywalls. We are happy to share these with you if you are interested — feel free to email our research collaborator Rachel (rbeznerkerr@cornell.edu) for a PDF copy of any paper!

Explaining the impact of agroecology on farm-level transitions to food security in Malawi. (2021)

Sidney Madsen, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Noelle LaDue, Isaac Luginaah, Chipiliro Dzanja, Laifolo Dakishoni, Esther Lupafya, Lizzie Shumba and Catherine Hickey

(Available Online)

Abstract

How does agroecology influence household food security? While previous studies have found that adopting agroecological practices can have a positive effect on smallholder household food security, there is limited understanding of how this transition occurs. This mixed-methods study draws on data from an ongoing agroecology project in Malawi to engage with debates about if and how an agricultural paradigm shift can contribute to smallholder food security. Researchers interviewed 60 farmer participants of an agroecology intervention to examine the mechanisms by which recent adoption of crop diversification and soil management practices had altered household access to a stable, adequate and diverse diet. Results from mixed-effects regression analysis of a case-controlled panel survey (n = 537) corroborated respondents’ reports that participating in agroecological trainings and farmer discussion groups had increased food security. Interviews indicated that, consistent with food security pathways literature, farmers were using direct-consumption and agricultural income pathways to improve food security. Furthermore, respondents were following food security pathways based on altering their production relations so as to regain control over their farming inputs, namely seed, fertilizer, land, and labor. In addition, we found that the agroecological approaches reinforced and widened existing social support practices such as food and seed sharing, fundamental to long-term community food security. The results presented in this paper provide evidence of the effectiveness of multifaceted participatory agroecological interventions to support transitions to food security based on environmentally sustainable farming practices.

Managing the new kapuchi: photovoice as a method for co-constructing knowledge in northern Malawi. (2021)

Stephanie K. Enloe, David Banda, Pressings Moyo, Laifolo Dakishoni, Rodgers Msachi & Rachel Bezner Kerr

(Available Online)

Abstract

A transdisciplinary project examining agroecological management alternatives in Malawi utilized mixed methods to learn from and about farmer knowledge of biodiversity. Wild biodiversity was assessed on 96 farms within a study area of 16 villages. Forty-two farmers from the 96 farms were involved in the photovoice sub-study discussed here. They received camera training then took photographs of plants and animals that were meaningful to them; subsequently 42 interviews were conducted with farmers to discuss the photos and elicit greater understanding of their perceptions about insects and pest management. Workshops were then utilized to discuss findings, facilitate horizontal knowledge exchange among project stakeholders, and encourage farmers to co-design experiments testing ecological management strategies. The photographs were used in the workshops to expand knowledge about pests and natural enemies. Combining photovoice interviews with workshops and field visits supported a process of co-constructing agroecological knowledge.

Does participatory farmer-to-farmer training improve the adoption of sustainable land management practices? (2021)

Moses Mosonsieyiri Kansanga, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Esther Lupafya, Laifolo Dakishoni and Isaac Luginaah

(Available Online)

Abstract

Human-induced land degradation currently threatens the livelihoods of over 3 billion people globally. While Sustainable Land Management (SLM) has emerged as a widely accepted approach for addressing land degradation in agroecosystems, the use of SLM practices remains low among smallholder farmers. Empirical research points to the potentially beneficial role of participatory farmer-to-farmer (F2F) training and knowledge sharing in improving SLM in resource-poor contexts. Drawing theoretical insights from social learning and using cross-sectional data from an agroecology intervention with smallholder farming households in Malawi (n = 609 farming households, comprising 463 households that received F2F training in agroecology and 146 households that did not receive F2F training), we examine the association between participatory agroecology training and the adoption of SLM practices. Findings from tobit regression analysis show that F2F training was positively associated with the use of SLM practices (β = 0.04 p < 0.05) two years following the intervention after accounting for demographic, agricultural and socioeconomic factors. These findings contribute to a growing body of literature that demonstrates the potential of participatory F2F training to improve the uptake and maintenance of SLM technologies. In the context of resource constraints and the associated low agricultural extension in sub-Saharan Africa, participatory F2F training may offer a cost-effective way to reach a wide range of smallholder farmers to promote the use of SLM practices.

Spatial and Ecological Farmer Knowledge and Decision-Making about Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity (2020)

Daniel Kpienbaareh, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Isaac Luginaah, Jinfei Wang, Esther Lupafya, Laifolo Dakishoni and Lizzie Shumba.
(Available online)

Abstract
Amid climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity, there is the growing need to draw synergies between micro-scale environmental processes and practices, and macro-level ecosystem dynamics to facilitate conservation decision-making. Adopting this synergistic approach can improve crop yields and profitability more sustainably, enhance livelihoods and mitigate climate change. Using spatially explicit data generated through a public participatory geographic information system methodology (n = 37), complemented by spatial analysis, interviews (n = 68) and focus group discussions (n = 4), we explored the synergies between participatory farmer-to-farmer agroecology knowledge sharing, farm-level decisions and their links with macro-level prioritization of conservation strategies. We mapped farm conditions and ecosystem services (ES) of two village areas with varying knowledge systems about farming. Results of the farm-level analysis revealed variations in spatial perception among farmers, differences in understanding the dynamics of crop growth and varying priorities for extension services based on agroecological knowledge. The ES use pattern analysis revealed hotspots in the mapped ES indicators with similarities in both village areas. Despite the similarities in ES use, priorities for biodiversity conservation align with farmers’ understanding of farm processes and practices. Farmers with training in agroecology prioritized strategies that are ecologically friendly while farmers with no agroecology training prioritized the use of strict regulations. Importantly, the results show that agroecology can potentially contribute to biodiversity conservation and food security, with climate change mitigation co-benefits. The findings generally contribute to debates on land sparing and land sharing conservation strategies and advance social learning theory as it pertains to acquiring agroecological knowledge for improved yield and a sustainable environment.

Determinants of smallholder farmers’ adoption of short-term and long-term sustainable land management practices (2020)

Moses Mosonsieyiri Kansanga, Isaac Luginaah, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Laifolo Dakishoni & Esther Lupafya
Published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

Abstract
Despite increasing land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, investment in sustainable land management (SLM) remains low. Empirical evidence show that smallholder farmers tend to prioritize investing in SLM practices with short-term turnover—e.g., composting and crop residue integration—in order to improve soil fertility and yields to the neglect of practices like agroforestry whose benefits tend to materialize in a relatively longer period. While it is crucial for farmers to prioritize both short-term and long-term SLM practices for the maintenance of overall ecosystem health, the factors that shape the concurrent adoption of short-term and long-term SLM practices remain underexplored. Using data from a cross-sectional survey with smallholder farming households (n = 512) in Malawi, we employed logistic regression to examine the determinants of the concurrent adoption of short-term and long-term SLM practices. Our findings show that plot size, farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, presence of a chronically ill person in the household, active household labor size, wealth and women’s autonomy are noteworthy determinants. A unit increase in plot size was associated with increased odds (OR = 1.41, p < 0.01) of simultaneously adopting short-term and long-term SLM practices. Similarly, a unit increase in the active labor size of the household (OR = 1.30, p < 0.001) was positively associated with the concurrent adoption of short-term and long-term SLM practices. Households with no chronically sick person were 3.2 times more likely to adopt short-term and long-term SLM practices simulataneously compared to those with chronically sick persons. Farming households that exchanged farming information (OR = 2.50, p < 0.001) with other households had significantly higher odds of adopting short-term and long-term SLM practices concurrently than those that did not share farming information. Compared to households in the poorest wealth category, those in the richer (OR = 3.14, p < 0.001) and richest (OR = 3.64, p < 0.001) wealth categories were both significantly more likely to adopt short-term and long-term SLM practices concurrently. These findings suggest that initiatives targeted at promoting the holistic adoption of SLM practices—a combination of both short-term and long-term practices—must pay attention to contextual nuances including household wealth, gender, farmer training and land access dynamics.

Agroecological practices of legume residue management and crop diversification for improved smallholder food security, dietary diversity and sustainable land use in Malawi (2020)

Sidney Madsen , Rachel Bezner Kerr , Lizzie Shumba & Laifolo Dakishoni on behalf of the SFHC team
Published in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.

Abstract
The role of agroecological practices in addressing food security has had limited investigation, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Quasi-experimental methods were used to assess the role of agroecological practices in reducing food insecurity in small- holder households in Malawi. Two key practices – crop diversi- fication and the incorporation of organic matter into soil – were examined. The quasi-experimental study of an agroecological intervention included survey data from 303 households and in- depth interviews with 33 households. The survey sampled 210 intervention households participating in the agroecological intervention, and 93 control households in neighboring villages. Regression analysis of food security indicators found that both agroecological practices significantly predicted higher food security and dietary diversity for smallholder households: the one-third of farming households who incorporated legume residue soon after harvest were almost three times more likely to be food secure than those who had not incorporated crop residue. Qualitative semi-structured interviews with 33 house- holds identified several pathways through which crop diversifi- cation and crop residue incorporation contributed to household food security: direct consumption, agricultural income, and changes in underlying production relations. These findings pro- vide evidence of agroecology’s potential to address food inse- curity while supporting sustainable food systems.

Beyond Ecological Synergies: Examining the Impact of Participatory Agroecology on Social Capital in Smallholder Farming Communities (2020)

Moses M. Kansanga, Isaac Luginaah, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Esther Lupafya & Laifolo Dakishoni
Published in International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology.

Abstract
The pivotal role of social capital in smallholder agriculture is widely acknowledged. The growth effect of social capital manifests in how networks and trust facilitate access to productive resources and knowledge sharing among farmers. While sub-Saharan Africa is considered a storehouse of rich social capital, recent literature indicates its rapid depletion due mainly to the rise of capitalist agriculture and concomitant reorganization of the relations of production that characterize smallholder agriculture. Agroecology is an alternative approach to agriculture aimed at addressing the adverse impacts of capitalist agriculture, including improving farmer-to-farmer networks. In this paper, we draw on longitudinal data from a five-year participatory agroecology intervention in Malawi using Difference-in-Difference (DID) to compare the social capital endowment of agroecology-practicing households (n = 514) and a control group of non-agroecology households (n = 400). We further employed linear regression to examine the relationship between social capital and agroecology adoption. Results from the DID analysis show a positive and statistically significant change in mean social capital for participatory agroecology households (β = 0.325, p< 0.001) compared to non-agroecology households (β = 0.108) after accounting for theoretically relevant factors. Overall, the average treatment effect of the intervention on social capital was positive (β = 0.217, p< 0.01). We also found a bidirectional relationship between social capital and adoption of agroecology practices (β = 0.12, p< 0.001). These findings reveal the positive inroads of agroecology beyond the farm-level and demonstrate the potential for policymakers to leverage these benefits to promote sustainable agriculture.

Rachel Bezner Kerr, Joseph Kangmennaang, Laifolo Dakishoni, Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong, Esther Lupafya, Lizzie Shumba, Rodgers Msachi, Godfred Odei Boateng, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Annita Chitaya, Esther Maona, Tinkani Gondwe, Paul Nkhonjera, Isaac Luginaah.
Published in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.

Abstract

This study examines whether agroecological farming practices, when employed by highly vulnerable households in sub-Saharan Africa, can improve food security and dietary diversity. The research involved a four-year study with 425 smallholder households, selected purposively based on high levels of food insecurity and/or positive HIV status. The households carried out agroecological experiments of their own choosing over a four-year period. Baseline (n = 306) and follow-up (n = 352) surveys were conducted in 2011 and 2013 respectively to assess changes in farming practices, food security, crop diversity and dietary diversity. Longitudinal mixed effects models were used with 203 matched households to estimate determinants of change in food security and dietary diversity at the population level. Qualitative interviews and focus groups were also conducted to provide depth to the survey findings. The findings show that participatory agroecology experimentation increased intercropping, legume diversification and the addition of compost, manure and crop residue amendments to the soil. Intercropping was associated with food security and the use of organic soil amendments was associated with gains in dietary diversity in bivariate analysis. Household food security and dietary diversity increased significantly over a 2-year period. Importantly, multivariate models showed that spousal discussion about farming was strongly associated with increased household food security and dietary diversity. Households who discussed farming with their spouse were 2.4 times more likely to be food secure and have diverse diets. Addition of compost or manure to the soil significantly influenced dietary diversity. These findings indicate that poor, vulnerable farmers can use agroecological methods to effectively improve food and nutritional security in sub-Saharan Africa. The study also highlights how linking agroecology to participatory research approaches that promote farmer experimentation and gender equity also lead to greater health and well-being. The study sheds light on how agroecological approaches can rapidly improve food security and dietary diversity, even under conditions of acute social, health or ecological stress. It draws attention to issues of equity and farmer-led approaches in addressing food security and nutrition.

Repairing rifts or reproducing inequalities? Agroecology, food sovereignty, and gender justice in Malawi (2019)

Rachel Bezner Kerr, Catherine Hickey, Esther Lupafya & Laifolo Dakishoni
Published in Journal of Peasant Studies.

Abstract

This Malawi study examines whether agroecology can be effectively used by smallholders to address food sovereignty. We build on the concept of the metabolic rift, arguing that repairing this rift includes social relations. Agroecological methods can be important strategies, but are labour and knowledge intensive, and require addressing power dynamics within and beyond households in order to address food sovereignty. The case study included participatory methods of dialogue, experimentation and horizontal learning to foster change. We argue that feminist concepts of intersectionality and participatory praxis are central to mobilizing agroecology to build food sovereignty and work to transform social relations.

Farming for change: developing a participatory curriculum on agroecology, nutrition, climate change and social equity in Malawi and Tanzania (2019)

Rachel Bezner Kerr, Sera L. Young, Carrie Young, Marianne V. Santoso, Mufunanji Magalasi, Martin Entz, Esther Lupafya, Laifolo Dakishoni, Vicki Morrone, David Wolfe & Sieglinde S. Snapp
Published in Agriculture and Human Values.

Abstract

How to engage farmers that have limited formal education is at the foundation of environmentally-sound and equitable agricultural development. Yet there are few examples of curricula that support the co-development of knowledge with farmers. While transdisciplinary and participatory techniques are considered key components of agroecology, how to do so is rarely specified and few materials are available, especially those relevant to smallholder farmers with limited formal education in Sub-Saharan Africa. The few training materials that exist provide appropriate methods, such as compost making, but do not explain relationships and synergies between nutrition, social inequalities, climate change and agroecology. Some food sovereignty and agroecology courses aim at popular political education for those with more formal education. Here we describe the process of development of an innovative curriculum, which integrates agroecology, nutrition, climate change, gender and other dimensions of social equity across 2 weeks of training explicitly for smallholders in southern Africa with limited formal education. The curriculum is highly participatory; we use concepts in popular education, transformative and experiential-based learning, and theatre. It is also integrative; we link agroecology with climate change, human and soil nutrition, gender, and related components of social equity. Developed in partnership with Malawian farmers, community development experts and academics from five countries, the curriculum was piloted with 520 smallholder farming households in Malawi and Tanzania, and evaluated using qualitative techniques. Clashes of language, cultural norms, and terminology were as great of a challenge as agreeing on and conveying technical information, to weave into a coherent whole. However, farmers who participated in the curriculum training demonstrated high interest, comprehension of material and interest in immediate application to their lives.