Mother and Baby Trial Design


Mother & Baby Trials- Participatory Research

Mother & Baby Trials is a trial design, and one approach to conducting on-farm participatory action research. Mother & Baby trials are designed to facilitate conversations among farmers, extension, and researchers. This is essential in order to develop, assess, and test various agronomic practices in a manner that incorporates diverse farmer priorities, and can evaluate performance across a range of management practices and edaphic conditions in a quantifiable and repeatable manner. It has been used most widely in participatory plant breeding, as a systematic approach to incorporate farmer assessment of crop varieties (and for participatory plant breeding approaches that involve farmer evaluation of early generation germplasm; Witcombe et al., 2005). Crop improvement efforts have used mother and baby trials in over 30 countries and on three continents (e.g., Lima, South America and USA, North America; Nepal, South Asia, and Malawi, Southern Africa). This quantitative method to systematically integrate farmer assessment and stakeholder input into research programs has led to development of agronomic recommendations and adoption of improved maize, rice, wheat and legume genotypes in SE Asia, Africa and the Americas (read more here).  The mother and baby trial design approach has proven effectiveness to improve upon recommendations that often overlook smallholder farmers’ distinct agroecological and socioeconomic conditions, and therefore improve the relevance of agronomic research. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

Farmers are a diverse group of individuals facing distinct challenges and varying resource endowments. As a result they generally employ unique strategies to address their individual needs. This heterogeneity is expressed in a number of different ways, including crop production, adaptation/adoption of alternative technologies, and farmer experimentation. Often, traditional agronomic research designs do not take into account farmer diversity, and are reductionist, carried out under researcher control, leading to outcomes that are inapplicable to farmer environments and local priorities. However, Mother & Baby Trials are a systematic design that samples variation across space and time by involving large numbers of farmers through baby trials (single replicates of sub-sets of technologies chosen by farmers) that are systematically linked to mother trials (where all technologies are evaluated in a replicated manner) (Snapp, 2002). This samples system heterogeneity and various non-agronomic drivers.  It is also grounded in the cooperative efforts of all individuals involved and in some circumstances it has been shown to encourage rapid technology transformation and dissemination by emboldening farmer experimentation.

The Mother & Baby Trial Design develops, introduces, refines and disseminates on-farm applicable technologies in a quantifiable manner. This is achieved through a farmer/researcher co-designed tri-level methodology. Providing both quantifiable treatment performance data and demonstrative application, the first and entry level (Mother Trial) is an on-farm, farmer-managed trial located in a highly visible and trafficked area. It contains multiple replicated co-designed treatments that meet a variety of farmer needs with controls (Rusike et al., 2004). It is at the Mother Trial that local neighboring farmers can observe and discover alternative technologies that may be applicable to their specific circumstances. Mother Trial technologies are a demonstration of alternatives based on theoretical agronomic practices in which farmers are encouraged to adapt or adopt technology appropriate for their particular system. The Mother Trial demonstration technologies are not prescriptive; rather, they are a starting point for farmer-researcher dialogue.

Following this observation and discovery, farmers are encouraged to set up baby trials to test technologies that are of the most interest to him or her (typically two to four technologies are tested per farmer baby trial). Using acquired knowledge, inspiration and, in some cases, small rations of inputs, Baby Trial farmers experiment with these alternative technologies by testing and adapting them to fit their specific needs throughout the growing season, and in the absence of researchers. Baby Trial experimentation and adaptation is a key contributing factor to researchers’ understanding of farmer priorities, challenges and management strategies, which are often overlooked in the development of alternative technologies. These key lessons serve as a catalyst for rapid technology transformation, further refining the applicability of Mother Trial demonstrated technologies.

Finally, as a result of alternative technology introduction, experimentation is carried out and a process of iterative co-learning initiated, and applicable innovations are conceived. This level of the Mother & Baby methodology is the innovation level (Grandchildren). It is here that the most promising of farmer-applicable alternative technologies are designed. This iterative and cooperative process results in technologies and results that are both quantitative and qualitative, and farmer adaptable and adoptable.



Agricultural research needs to take into account farmer priorities and challenges; therefore it is essential that farmer-researcher dialogue is encouraged and maintained. This dialogue ensures that APPLICABLE high quality data is generated. Encouraging farmer experimentation and participation is a necessary component in the development of alternative technologies and increases farmer adaptation and adoption. Research and technology development must be rapidly advancing in order to be farmer applicable and malleable.

  • Generation of high quality data,
  • Empirical evaluation of alternative technologies and agronomic management strategies
  • At scale understanding of farmer priorities and decision-making processes, [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
    • Rapid advancement and adaptation of innovations and technology,
    • Continuous farmer evaluation and adaptation,
    • Incorporation of farmer specific priorities and challenges,
    • Increased likelihood of farmer adoption and adaptation.



Participatory research, like that of the Mother & Baby trial design, is often regarded as costly and can be complex due to system heterogeneity; yet the lack incorporation of farmer priorities and circumstances result in technologies that are not applicable to the targeted population.  For an interesting critique and discussion of the Mother & Baby trial as they have been used in Kenya as part of soil and crop management research, see: J. Ramisch (2012).

Learning Lab Resources:

Drinkwater, L.E., Snapp, S.S., 2007. Nutrients in Agroecosystems: Rethinking the Management Paradigm, in: Advances in Agronomy. Elsevier, pp. 163–186.

Kamanga, B.C., Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., Snapp, S., 2001. Experiences with farmer participatory mother-baby trials and watershed management to improve soil fertility options in Malawi.

Kanyama-Phiri, G., Snapp, S., Wellard, K.K., 2000. Towards integrated soil fertility management in Malawi: incorporating participatory approaches in agricultural research. [read more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

Kerr, R.B., Snapp, S., CHIRWA (deceased), M., Shumba, L., Msachi, R., 2007. Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental Agriculture 43. doi:10.1017/S0014479707005339

Mhango et al. 2012.  Opportunities and constraints to legume diversification for sustainable maize production on smallholder farms in Malawi.  Renewable Agriculture and Food.

Pound, B. S.S. Snapp, C. McDougal and A. Braun (Eds.) 2003. Uniting Science and Participation: Managing natural resources for sustainable livelihoods. Earthscan, U.K. and IRDC, Canada.

Rusike, J., S.S. Snapp and S. Twomlow. 2004. Mother-Baby trial approach for developing soil water and fertility management technologies. Volume 2. Field Tested Practices in Participatory Research and Development International Potato Center (CIP-UPWARD), Lima, Peru.

Snapp et al.  2014.  Modeling and participatory, farmer-led approaches to food security in a changing world: A case study from Malawi.  Secheresse. x (1-9).

Snapp, S.S. and B. Pound (Eds.) 2008. Agricultural Systems: Agroecology and Rural Innovation for Development. Academic Press. 380 pp.

Snapp, S. 2004. Innovations in extension: Examples from Malawi. HortTechnology14:8-13.

Snapp, S., Blackie, M.., Donovan, C., 2003. Realigning research and extension to focus on farmers’ constraints and opportunities. Food Policy 28, 349–363. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2003.08.002

Snapp, S., 2002. Quantifying farmer evaluation of technologies: The mother and baby trial design. Quantitative Analysis of Data from Participatory Methods in Plant Breeding 9.

Snapp, S., Kanyama-Phiri, G., Kamanga, B., Gilbert, R., Wellard, K., 2002. Farmer and Researcher Partnerships in Malawi: Developing Soil Fertility Technologies for the Near-Term and Far-Term. Experimental Agriculture 38. doi:10.1017/S0014479702000443

Snapp, S.S. and S.N. Silim. 2002. Farmer preference and legume intensification for low nutrient environments. Plant and Soil 245(1):181-192.



Scaling-up soybean: “Mother and baby” demos– this approach from N2Africa includes an interesting Radio Listening Group approach to scaling up

Mother-Baby Trial Approach for Developing Soil Water and Fertility Management Technologies (pdf)

Short- vs. Long-Term Goals in Agriculture: Mediating the Trade-offs

Quantifying Farmer Evaluation of Technologies: The Mother and Baby Trial Design

Video: Africa RISING Sustainable Intensification Project in Malawi

Africa Rising- Malawi

Mother and Baby Trial System: Research For Development: DFID

Farmer and Researcher Partnerships in Malawi: Developing Soil Fertility Technologies for the Near-term and Far-term

International Potato Center: Participatory Varietal Selection, Mother and baby trial Design

Extended Bibliography & Works Cited

Bezner Kerr, R., Berti, P.R., Shumba, L., 2010. Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public Health Nutrition 14, 1466–1472. doi:10.1017/S1368980010002545

Pircher, T., Almekinders, C.J.M., Kamanga, B.C.G., 2013. Participatory trials and farmers’ social realities: understanding the adoption of legume technologies in a Malawian farmer community. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 11, 252–263. doi:10.1080/14735903.2012.738872.

Ramisch, J. (2012).  Chapter 9 ‘This field is our church’: The social and agronomic challenges of knowledge generation in a participatory soil fertility management project.  Sumberg and J. Thompson (Editors). 2012 Contested Agronomy: Agricultural research in a changing world Taylor and Francis, 222pp.

Witcombe, J. R., K. D. Joshi, S. Gyawali, A. M. Musa, C. Johansen, D. S. Virk, and B. R. Sthapit. “Participatory plant breeding is better described as highly client-oriented plant breeding. I. Four indicators of client-orientation in plant breeding.” Experimental Agriculture 41, no. 3 (2005): 299-320.

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