Recent Publications

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.


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


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


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.