Participatory Research & Action Learning

Participatory Research & Action Learning

Participatory Action Research


Standard agricultural research has not always addressed the real world complexity of agriculture and livelihoods. Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa for example face high levels of environmental uncertainty, a rapidly changing context due to globalization and market fluctuations, and value conflicts associated with rural development. Participatory Action Research was developed as an alternative to a classical, reductionist model in an effort to improve the relevance of research for smallholder farmers given their diverse agroecological and socioeconomic conditions. In a Participatory Action Research approach, farmers and researchers collaboratively engage in practical problem-solving utilizing diverse research methods. Farmers, researchers and other stakeholders innovate together and co-learn in order to iteratively address the complex challenges faced by smallholders.[read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

Normative science takes a linear, reductionist approach to problem solving that is very successful when value conflicts are not present and uncertainty can be reduced. In agriculture this linear approach commonly follows the path of researchers developing information that is turned into extension messages intended for farmers. Conventional science can solve very complex problems, such as putting a man on the moon, by the reductionist approach of changing one variable at a time. However, over the past few decades it has become increasingly obvious that conventional science is not able to provide concrete solutions for what have come to be known as “wicked problems.”

Wicked problems are often poorly defined, have high levels of uncertainty, and are socially complex due to value conflicts (Batie, 2008). Many environmental and rural development issues are wicked problems. An example is that of conflicting demands around resource use and development of natural areas such as wetlands and forests in Southern Africa. Such lands are sometimes seen as underutilized by policy makers and slated for intensified production systems. Yet such areas are often accessed through customary norms, and of great importance to marginalized groups – both for livelihood strategies and resilience to shocks. Intensification and development of natural areas in a sustainable, equitable manner is a clear example of a wicked problem, one that cannot be solved through solving for one optimal solution or a reductionist, classical science approach. Yet progress can be made to more clearly define the problem, to dialogue constructively about value conflicts, and to monitor levels of uncertainty while conducting research that is relevant and brings new options for solving real-world challenges. To do this, researchers must actively engage with stakeholders.

Nobel efforts have been made to increase the sustainability of smallholder agricultural in sub-Saharan Africa yet ever-changing and complex challenges, hinder success and provides an important example of a wicked problem. This problem is clearly not easy to define. While most people agree that low productivity and land degradation are serious issues, there is much less agreement on the direct causes of those issues or about how they should best be addressed. Value conflicts are commonplace when trying to precisely define “sustainable agriculture” and value judgments are inherent in any description of a “better” future. There are also high levels of uncertainty associated with climate, soils, smallholder decision-making, and the distributional consequences of economic policies for agriculture.

In a participatory action research (PAR) approach, farmers, researchers and various stakeholders, identify challenges, experiment and innovate together using open dialogue which facilitates co-learning. Farmer available resources are used to address identified challenges using scientific principles and demonstrated in a structured framework. Farmers are then encouraged to experiment, adapt and innovate using applicable demonstrated principles in which they see fit in their unique system and circumstances. Results of are then disseminated throughout the community (Bezner-Kerr et al, 2007). Farmers conduct their own experiments within this approach, enabling farmers to productively communicate their knowledge with researchers taking into account local circumstances, which are instrumental for customized recommendation development. The importance of such adaptation is increasingly becoming more prevalent among farmers in Southern Africa as they try to cope with changing climate conditions. The process of enlisting farmers to explore different combinations of techniques, observe the results, and share findings with other participants and community members has been associated with improved learning and willingness to adopt new practices (Shaw and Kristjanson, 2014).

At a learning node in Central Malawi (see Our Approach) our interdisciplinary team of scientists (soil, ag economics, geography, agronomy) and extension educators have engaged with farmers to develop sustainable practices for rain-fed crop production, since 2012. This action research is funded by USAID Feed the Future, through IITA Africa RISING. We collaborate closely with LUANAR and the Northern Malawi Soil, Food and Healthy Community project in Ekwendeni. We initiated agrobiodiversification experimentation in 1994 (Kanyama-Phiri et al., 1998), and have carried out action research approaches country-wide in Malawi (Snapp et al., 2010).

One of the fundamental ways that we have strengthened communication and systematically pay attention to iterative co-learning is the mother and baby trial design. This is an approach first experimented with in 1995 by Dr. Sieg Snapp as a means to link on-farm research that includes central, replicated trials (mother trials), with farmer experimentation plots (baby trials, one farmer = one replicate). The mother and baby trial design has continued to evolve over twenty years, and has been adopted by plant breeders, agronomists and many other scientists in more than 30 countries.

The mother and baby trial design is a quantitative method to systematically integrate farmer assessment and stakeholder input into research programs, and in Malawi has lead to the release of farmer-approved varieties, and major revisions in agronomic recommendations to take into account the needs and priorities of the more resource-poor farmers. A recent example is the Malawi government technology release committee approval of the ‘doubled up legume’ system of pigeonpea intercropped with an understory of groundnut. This was developed with input from hundreds of farmers participating in mother and baby trials, and providing feed back that led to replacement of agroforestry doubled up legume technologies (such as sesbania sesban and groundnut) with pigeon pea, as a double food legume system was preferred over Sesbania and Gliricidia species, by all but the wealthiest farmers. Farmer input also demanded that researchers explore more options for managing pigeonpea. Instead of always treating pigeonpea as an annual crop that is uprooted after harvesting the grain, pigeonpea can be pruned or ratooned after harvest and continue to grow as a shrub for several more years. This farmer-approved option of including a perennial technology, treating the pigeonpea crop as a perennial has helped develop an entire new branch of agronomy in Africa: exploring the opportunities for perennial grain crops. This shows the value of full engagement of farmers as partners in research. [/read]


There are three essential elements of participatory action research:

  • Researchers and community members join together in a process of collaborative inquiry,
  • Aim is to address real-world issues and practical problems,
  • A variety of research methods are used to co-generate knowledge about the problem and possible solutions through iterative cycles of action and reflection

(Greenwood and Levin, 2006; Reason and Bradbury, 2008)


  • Agricultural research in the region largely focuses on carrying out classical science and this provides many important findings related to soil science, pest control, plant breeding, etc. The challenge is how to find the balance between technical elements of agronomic research and engaged research with farmers.
  • Interdisciplinary teams of scientists can help enhance collaboration across classical and engaged science; however this requires new skill sets and investment of time and resources.
  • Similarly, researchers designing participatory action research projects need to find a balance between the level of farmer participation and the level of researcher control to meet objectives of a project or testing a hypothesis.


Managing Natural Resources for Sustainable Livelihoods: Uniting Science and Participation

Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

Scaling Up and Out (pdf book chapter)

Learning Lab Resources:

Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Shumba, L., Msachi, R., 2007. Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental agriculture 43, 437–453.

Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., S.S. Snapp and S. Minae. 1998 Partnership with Malawian farmers to develop organic matter technologies. Outlook on Agriculture 27:167-175.

Snapp, S.S., Blackie, M.J., Gilbert, R.A., Bezner-Kerr, R., Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., 2010. Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. PNAS 107, 20840–20845. doi:10.1073/pnas.1007199107  [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

Snapp, S.S., Blackie, M.J., Gilbert, R.A., Bezner-Kerr, R., Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., 2010. Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. PNAS 107, 20840–20845. doi:10.1073/pnas.1007199107.

Snapp, S.S. 2004. Scaling up through participatory designs. In: “Sourcebook on Participatory Research and Development for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management: Volume 3. Managing and Sustaining Participatory Research and Development” International Potato Center (CIP-UPWARD), Lima, Peru. [/read]

Extended Bibliography & Works Cited

Batie, S.S., 2008. Wicked Problems and Applied Economics. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90, 1176–1191.

Greenwood, D.J., and Levin, M., 2006. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, 2nd edition. SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Reason, P., Bradbury, H. 2008. The SAGE handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice, 2nd edition. Los Angeles, Calif, SAGE.

Shaw, A., Kristjanson, P., 2014. A Catalyst toward Sustainability? Exploring Social Learning and Social Differentiation Approaches with the Agricultural Poor. Sustainability 5, 32.

Tags: Agronomy, Extension, Geography, Sociology, Sustainability Science.