Participatory action research yields benefits for smallholder farmers, carbon sequestration, and much learning.
Among the many men and women toiling in rows of maize, sunflower, sugarcane, potatoes and beans in Bungoma County, Kenya, practically no one was interested in growing carbon. For one, no one has ever asked for a big bowl of carbon for dinner. Also, carbon does not make any money on the local market (nor on the global market for that matter).
Thus, it is a challenge to attract participation in agricultural carbon projects - and thereby to lower total net emissions from agriculture in the developing world.
So what if carbon storage was a happy by-product of more immediately rewarding investments by farmers? Are there climate-smart agriculture practices that make sense to farmers and include investing in storing carbon on their croplands? And could carbon funds feasibly finance investments in those practices? And how can the projects be implemented?
Carbon projects involving hundreds of farmers are very complex: they require training farmers, distributing inputs or supplies, measuring carbon stored and distributing carbon payments. The more farmers involved, the greater the necessity for more tasks. Project success depends, then, on the institional capacity of project implementers.
Over the last several years, EcoAgriculture Partners found that when local institutions drive the project management and problem-solving processes, they generate deep learning, empowerment and ownership over the results. Though sometimes overlooked when focusing on hard adoption targets, local participation in management is essential for sustained carbon sequestration.
Improving institutional capacity through locally led participatory action research
In two smallholder agricultural carbon projects led by Seth Shames and Krista Heiner of EcoAgriculture Partners and Lini Wollenberg of CCAFS, local groups identified ways in which they take on larger management roles through participatory action research. Partner Vi Agroforestry managed Kenya Agriculture Carbon Project (KACP) in Bungoma County, Kenya. And partner EcoTrust Uganda managed Trees for Global Benefit (TGB) near Mbale, Uganda.
While standard research can mean pre-formulated questionnaires, semi-completed forms, findings summarised in far-away offices, a formal report with recommendations for improvement, and perhaps a workshop to discuss the results in person, participatory action research involves more time and flexibility - and sustainability.
In their participatory action research approach, researchers and project leaders designed research questions together and based them on interventions that are feasible and desirable to participants. They provided technical assistance to project teams as they implemented interventions, monitored their impacts and chose evaluation methods that were reliable and practical for project leaders to conduct themselves. They worked together with project leaders to document lessons learned and produce materials that are valuable going forward. And they are sharing processes, lessons, and results with a broader audience.
The participatory action research methodology mirrors the climate-smart agricultural practices at the heart of the two projects: it provides local, short-term benefits to project leaders that offset the costs of their involvement in the creation of a global, long-term benefit.
In Kenya and Uganda, the approach has proven valuable.
"The process was educative and very informative. It helped us understand how to organise our learning curriculum for trainers within the community, provide training posters at the trainings and ensure easy learning," said Martha Kapukha, monitoring and evaluation manager for KACP in Bungoma County. "It emphasized the need for stronger capacity with the community and stakeholders for the sustainability of our project’s initiatives,” she continued.
Lilian Kiguli, TGB project leader with EcoTrust in Uganda, praised the project for being participatory and inclusive, saying: “This research process is informative and fills in learning gaps since it involves all participants at different levels in the project. It helps to pick input from farmers that can be used to improve the project. This feedback is not usual.”
“For nearly 15 years, people have been looking for ways to get carbon money to the smallholder farmers who need it the most, and who farm more than 80% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural land,” says lead researcher Seth Shames of EcoAgriculture Partners. “This process was great in that we got to help project leaders identify and prioritize what they thought would work, and then help them test those ideas. Both the process and the results provided very compelling lessons.”
Lessons learned were similar, though not identical, across both projects.
In both Kenya and Uganda, local government participation was critical to project success, though in both cases local government lacked a specific mandate to actively engage in promoting sustainable agriculture land management initiatives. In response, both projects targeted expanding the knowledge and capacities of local governments. And the excellent relationships between local governments and the carbon projects proved critical to success.
“EcoAgriculture Partners and CCAFS assisted Vi Agroforestry in involving local county departments in learning, training, and planning," said Amos Wekesa, KACP project manager for Vi Agroforestry. "The [county departments] learnt their weaknesses and mistakes, such as how sustainable agriculture land management is much cheaper and more effective at improving communities’ livelihoods than irrigation, which they keep promising.”
As part of the PAR process, each project produced a policy brief to use as a tool for engagement with local policymakers:
- Scaling up Sustainable Agricultural Land Management in Bungoma County, Kenya
- Scaling up Agricultural Carbon Activities in Mbale Region, Uganda
Increasing participation of women
Both projects aimed to increase the participation of women farmers. Existing research shows that women’s roles in projects increase if project benefits are aligned with women's needs, and training is accessible in terms of timing and location. In Kenya, KACP trained 12 women’s groups (180 farmers) on sustainable agricultural land management practices, carbon monitoring and resource mobilisation. The project considered women’s roles in the farm, household and community groups key in terms of capacity building and rapid implementation.
As with many projects, leaders struggled with how to engage women and men farmers with consistent and useful messages about the benefits of participation. But the research project helped address this too.
"The participatory research process was very useful in supporting EcoTrust’s attempts of transforming the training curriculum to develop the carbon mitigation message in a format that farmers would appreciate," said Researcher Moses Masiga, EcoTrust Uganda. "Additionally, the trainers and trainees experienced a sense of engagement and ownership that was built alongside the training materials.”
Local leaders for each project produced training manuals, identifying key activities, major knowledge gaps among their stakeholders, and the best language and visuals to use to help their own trainers understand the information. They are:
- Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Practices for Climate Change Mitigation: A training guide for smallholder farmers (Kenya)
- Smallholder Agricultural Carbon Projects in Eastern Africa: Trainers Manual (Uganda)