Mozambique meeting
Research team explaining how drought-tolerant maize and index insurance work to a community in rural Mozambique. Photo credit: Jonathan Malacarne / MRR Innovation Lab

Information, Learning and Change to Strengthen Rural Livelihoods

Information and learning seem simple, but for smallholder farmers in developing countries so many aspects of their work are either unknown or difficult to learn without first-hand experience. Sometimes even first-hand experience isn’t enough.

“The more information you have, the more options you have,” said Travis Lybbert, a MRR Innovation Lab principal investigator and agricultural and resource economist at UC Davis. “Information can be powerful because it allows you to form expectations and beliefs that more closely match reality.”

MRR Innovation Lab research teams are testing ways to fill information gaps and spark learning across smallholder farming communities. These projects approach specific challenges, including a lack of knowledge about soils, risk caused by drought and even budget shortfalls that increase hunger. For each of these challenges, information and learning can empower rural families to increase their food security and resilience.

Soil Testing to Support Soil Management Decisions

Soil acidity is a major hurdle to higher for farmers in Kenya. In the last eight years, Kenya’s National Accelerated Agricultural Inputs Access Programme (NAAIAP) tested soils across 4,800 farms and found that 30 percent had acidity so high that it hindered maize plant growth. High acidity binds nutrients so plants can’t extract them from the soil.

“Soil acidity has been a major problem in Kenya,” said John Olwande, a Feed the Future ALL-IN principal investigator and a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute for Agricultural Policy and Development, Egerton University. “Farmers are spending money on fertilizer but the response of crops to fertilizer application is very low.”

Olwande and his team are testing ways to encourage farmers to invest in soil testing and to use the test results to apply appropriate soil management practices. In communities where the project takes place, few farmers have their soil tested, and the reasons range from a lack of awareness about soil testing to not having services available at all.

The cost of soil testing, when it is available, can be as high as KSh 2,500 (about $20). This is much lower than the roughly KSh 7,000 (about $55) subsidized cost of fertilizer planting and top-dressing for a one-acre maize plot. A soil test is only recommended every other year.

Olwande said that the reason fertilizer is so accessible and affordable is because of government policy, and that a similar top-down approach could increase accessibility and awareness of soil testing.

“If the government could invest in encouraging and supporting farmers to obtain information about their soils through soil testing, farmers could make informed decisions about appropriate management practices and improve the yields that they get from their farms,” said Olwande.

Learning with Stress-tolerant Maize and Insurance

For learning to occur, a person must receive new information, but even then learning isn’t guaranteed. Learning can be especially challenging when it involves technologies that deliver their greatest benefits only during infrequent but severe shocks like extreme drought.

“If farmers don’t experience a shock, they often won’t continue to use a technology designed for that shock,” said Jonathan Malacarne, a MRR Innovation Lab principal investigator and economist at the University of Maine. “It’s understandable why they don’t but it’s also a learning puzzle.”

In Mozambique, Malacarne is building on prior USAID-funded research to test the most effective ways for smallholder farmers to learn about a bundle of stress-tolerant maize seed and index insurance developed at UC Davis. This new research focuses specifically on the learning challenge posed by the bundle.

Malacarne and his team are testing a number of approaches to spark learning. These include a temporary subsidy to reduce the bundle’s cost as well as training on how the bundle protects against drought. The team is even testing a tablet-based game that simulates the outcomes of the insured seeds over multiple seasons. Each approach creates an opportunity for farmers to match their expectations of the seed and insurance bundle to their actual experiences during the season.

“People need a chance to learn about a technology’s true benefits, and those benefits come over a longer term,” said Malacarne. “If you can speed up that learning process, farmers will be more likely to stick with the technology and be protected when there is a shock.”

Overcoming Inaccurate Information

There are also situations in which it is difficult to learn from even a lifetime of experience. For example, in rural Zambia families have to stretch their maize harvests across a full year. In this context, it is common for families to experience the “hungry season,” which is a period during which their stores of food run out before the next harvest. Experiencing the hungry season every year is not enough to change how people plan the year’s budget at harvest time.

“When people think about their spending and savings over a long period of time, they often have biased beliefs and overoptimism about how much they spend,” said Kristina Hallez, a MRR Innovation Lab researcher and program manager at the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) at UC Berkeley.

Hallez is taking part in research led from UC Berkeley that tests whether a budgeting activity the research team designed would affect people’s savings across the year. The activity seems simple but leverages the literature from psychology to try and counteract the biases that lead to budget shortfalls during the hungry season.

Instead of asking participants to estimate their overall budget, the team asked for a detailed spending forecast across seven major categories, such as food, school fees and household supplies. This activity, which took place soon after harvest time, put the year’s actual spending needs into clearer perspective.

“Year over year, many people experience the hungry season but nothing changes,” said Hallez. “When people made detailed budgets, they had a realization that they will come up short based on what they have in their collective budget.”

Leveraging Information and Learning to Improve Rural Livelihoods

These and other MRR Innovation Lab projects provide information and create opportunities for learning that can have lasting benefits in rural communities. These benefits include higher crop yields and income as well as the ability to get more out of the year’s productivity. Also, the benefits gained from information and learning can last well into future seasons.

“Information and learning are really about people formulating mental models that are accurate depictions of the world,” said Lybbert. “The more accurate your mental model of the world the better you can formulate plans for the future.”


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This report is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) cooperative agreement 7200AA19LE00004. The contents are the responsibility of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.