Indigenous Knowledge, International Development & Smallholder Agriculture

Recently, I was posed a question: How does indigenous knowledge fit into Nuru International’s Agriculture Program?

With such a vibrant history in our current countries of operation, Kenya and now Ethiopia, Nuru International’s Agriculture Program leverages the vast sum of knowledge accumulated by local people to create and implement sustainable and scalable agriculture interventions for local communities to make impact on their own.

To explore this topic, I break down the relevant parts using the Nuru Kenya Agriculture Program as an example.

First, a foundational question: What is indigenous, traditional or local knowledge?  These terms – often used interchangeably – describe a body of knowledge, know-how, and practices developed and maintained by peoples about their history of interaction with the natural environment.  In development work and academics, indigenous knowledge has become increasingly valued to understand, interact with, and implement projects in communities.

Indigenous knowledge is integral to Nuru International’s work to promote sustainable and scalable projects that communities eventually run by themselves. Nuru International staff generally come from outside the country and/or region. Indigenous knowledge helps them build trust with local counterparts, interpret the environment through the eyes of local people, and, ultimately, to create and implement programs with partner communities. On the contrary, if Nuru International staff lacked an intimate understanding of indigenous knowledge, they would have no common ground with local people.

Respect and understanding of indigenous knowledge, however, does not obviate a role for what we might call outside, modern, or Western knowledge. Nuru International staff bring a wealth of knowledge from Western universities, work in developing countries, and their life experiences.  There isn’t necessarily a very clear dichotomy here, and that’s the point. The Nuru International development model relies on synergizing modern and indigenous knowledge to create and implement robust solutions. The Agriculture Program in Kenya exemplifies this well.

Nuru Kenya’s Agriculture Program employs farm input loans, trainings, extension, group work, and loan repayment to help farmers increase crop yields of maize (corn) in a sustainable way. While there is a robust indigenous knowledge base around farming generally in Kenya, mistaken and missing information on modern farming techniques poses a challenge to optimizing agricultural yields.  The concern is to understand and bridge this information gap to increase yields, and thus help communities grow themselves out of extreme poverty.

The information gap is most pronounced in the use of modern farm inputs, which the Nuru Kenya Agriculture Program provides on loan. Many farmers don’t know how to correctly use synthetic fertilizers (missing knowledge). Other farmers mistakenly believe that more is better, and spread the fertilizer around their field (mistaken knowledge). Decomposed animal dung – a traditional fertilizer – works well when liberally spread over a field. Synthetic fertilizers, however, must be applied in a particular way to maize to maximize fertilizer uptake, minimize run-off and avoid root damage. Nuru Kenya staff correct missing and mistaken knowledge by training farmers on efficient and proper farm input use.

Local knowledge forms the basis upon which more rigorous guidance is applied to help farmers. For instance, farmers know that they need to space plants apart to allow them to grow well, but Nuru Kenya staff teach the more robust technique of planting with a string along a particular spacing of 30 cm by 75 cm for optimal maize yields. For other core farming skills such as site selection, ground preparation, weeding, and harvesting, Nuru Kenya staff similarly complement the basis of traditional agriculture knowledge with modern farming knowledge.

Other forms of traditional knowledge are used as is in the Nuru Kenya Agriculture model. For example, farmers organize themselves into groups with their neighbors to work and learn together. This group structure is deeply rooted in the traditionally collectivist society of Kenya.

Still other forms of traditional knowledge are actually amended entirely by the Nuru Kenya Agriculture Program. For example, the Agriculture Program introduces a modern conception of loans, which challenges the traditional custom of gift-giving. However, this change from gifts to loans has been well accepted in the Kenya project to become a foundational block of financial sustainability.

Indigenous knowledge is fundamental to Nuru International’s work in Kenya, Ethiopia, and beyond.  Nuru International relies on traditional knowledge where it helps offer quality choices and build agency for local communities. However, indigenous knowledge is not infallible. Correcting and complementing mistaken or missing knowledge is a valuable function for an international development organization to play. Sometimes, outside ideas challenge traditional conceptions. This is beneficial where the process intimately involves local communities and the outcome helps communities. Nuru International’s poverty alleviation interventions involve coming together with local people, on the basis of mutual respect and trust, to create and implement programs to better rural livelihoods and free communities from extreme poverty.

Matt Lineal

About Matt Lineal

Agriculture Program Strategic Advisor — Before joining Nuru, Matt worked with The Nature Conservancy and Peace Corps in Honduras. He earned his BA in Government and Spanish from Lawrence University and his MS in Forest Sciences from Colorado State University. Having first joined Nuru as an Agriculture Fellow for Foundation Team 7, Matt is thrilled to currently work as the Agriculture Senior Program Manager.

One Comment

  • Douglas says:

    Very nice blog entry! I would add that indigenous ecological knowledge has never existed in a vacuum, but is itself the result of dynamic global processes (whether political, economic, cultural, or environmental) and that many observed agricultural practices in developing countries are often the product of colonial-era interventions. On the most basic level, one can try to imagine agriculture in the “Old World” prior to the 16th century, when maize, cassava, cocoa, tomatoes, and other now-prominent crops didn’t exist in agricultural regimes. But often the picture is less clear than that. In Ghana, for example, most farmers in the south practiced a type of multi-storey (agroforestry) farming that was disrupted during the colonial era by higher demands for cereal crops in urban areas. Land was cleared and prepared in ways that were unsuitable (and remain unsuitable) for sustainable agriculture in the humid forests. Interestingly, with traditional revitalization many of the previous multi-storey (agroforestry) methods are being reintroduced, often by NGOs and organizations like the Peace Corps. Some farmers are in essence re-learning indigenous agricultural practices from archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and botanists. This has led me to argue, in my research, that indigenous knowledge should rather be re-imagined as having been hybridized to begin with and should be conceived as an evolving “local” adaptation process. This also creates space for a revamped approach to development – one that allows farmers to take pride in their traditional practices while simultaneously benefiting from the introduction of modern techniques.

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