What is social learning and what role can it play in agriculture in West Africa?

Social learning is defined as a collective and deliberative learning form that can lead to shared understanding of a specific situation and support reaching an agreement. It happens through individuals' observation of or interaction with their social context.

Although social learning is sometimes linked to more well-known approaches, such as participatory methods (e.g. participatory action research), it differs from these in several respects. For instance, though participatory approaches can stimulate social learning through removing barriers to individual and community learning processes, they do not necessarily lead to interaction among different stakeholder groups for learning purposes.

Due to growing interest in the benefits of social learning in agriculture and natural resources management under a changing climate, CCAFS funded the project “Building resilient agro-sylvo-pastoral systems in West Africa through participatory action research” (BRAS-PAR). The aim of the project is to scale up climate-smart agriculture (CSA) technologies and practices and it has resulted in the creation of Climate-Smart Villages (CSV) in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Niger. One of the objectives of CSVs is to identify the existing endogenous social learning frameworks available to support the implementation of CSA technologies and practices.

The BRAS-PAR project is led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and implemented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Senegal Agricultural Research Institute (ISRA), Burkina Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute (INERA), Niger National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRAN) and Ghana Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (CSIR/SARI).

Evidence of the existence of endogenous learning process

Belem Madi, an 80-year-old man and user of fortified organic millet in Tibtenga, Burkina Faso. Photo: Jacques Somda (IUCN)

During the 2017 cropping, I received 60g of bio-fortified millet from the BRAS-PAR project. I was confident that this variety has potential. Some of my fellow farmers had underestimated the potential of this variety. In fact, when we received the seed from INERA, people said it's not a good variety. From the 2017 harvest, I was able to sow on a bigger farm plot this 2018 cropping season. In my household, we use it to make local soft drinks (zomkoom) and it is very tasty; the grains are bigger than our local millet grains and because of these characteristics I think it has high market value."

Belem Madi, farmer from Burkina Faso

Porgo Mariam, a 53-year-old woman and user of a bio-digester in Tibtenga, Burkina Faso. Photo: Jacques Somda (IUCN)

The scarcity of trees makes it difficult for women to access fuelwood. I was lucky to be part of a study tour in Senegal, organised by the IUCN-funded project on ecosystem protecting infrastructure for community. During this study tour, I had the opportunity to see bio digesters. Back home, I replicated the experience. Since then, I am relieved because I no longer walk long distances to get my fuelwood. I am also less overwhelmed and healthier."

Porgo Mariam, woman farmer from Burkina Faso

The above stories from the field demonstrate the existence of four key indications of social learning.

  • The first indication is the engagement of smallholder farmers, both men and women. Engagement leads the individual to continue and/or increase their involvement in finding a solution to their problems.
  • The second indication is the iteration of the learning. Learning should not be a one-way process from project to farmers. Farmers have their own way of evaluating the quality of what they have learned, and also possess valuable information about the situation in their communities. The project could benefit from their participation and feedback.
  • There is also an indication of capacity building, which implies that the project should consider establishing the baseline for capacity needed to properly implement a given CSA technology or practice.
  • Finally, the stories pointed out indications of challenging institutions

How can the CCAFS-funded projects build on the existing social learning frameworks?

In terms of the social learning structure, participatory action research should be geared towards bringing community members together to recognize each other’s goals and perspectives, and express their principles explicitly. It can also ensure the co-creation of knowledge, improve the understanding of interdependence, and promote the understanding of CSA. The most important outcomes from social learning for the community include the acquisition of factual knowledge, and technical and social skills; changes in the awareness and attitude of smallholders; and development of trust among farmers and researchers as well as among the community members.

In summary, social learning could contribute to many crucial areas: it can help develop a common understanding of climate change issues and CSA technologies/practices, can develop mutual agreement between participants; and it can support collective action.




Somda Jacques works at the Central and West Africa programme, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Anslem Bawayelaazaa Nyuor works for CSIR-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (CSIR-SARI) and Barry Silimana currently works at the Institut de l'Environnement et de Recherches Agricole (INERA).