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.


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, 


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. 


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.