Leveraging farmer household aspirations to target and scale agricultural innovations - an approach built on novel partnerships and methods

This timeline outlines the evolution of our investigation to understand better the aspirations of rural households in an effort to determine implications for agricultural research. It will highlight the major steps taken and progress made. We will also add the unique perspectives of the research teams involved and the new insights gained from this newly established collaboration between the World Agroforestry Centre, ICRISAT, the Cynefin Centre and Bangor University.

Some intractable research issues benefit from looking at them from another angle and from using new scientific methods or partnering with others in different fields of research. Such cross-disciplinary processes can be difficult and require time and commitment from the parties involved to fully understand the view from the other side and to make full use of the partnership as the partners bring their different expertise to the table.

We believe that the evolution of this research and partnership will be easily relatable to other researchers exploring new ideas. By maintaining an interactive timeline that includes the main milestones, but also changes in lines of inquiry and methodology as we learn lessons along the way, we hope that this timeline will be useful to other groups seeking to benefit from cross-disciplinary collaborations.

      Jan 01, 2014
      • What we planned

      Rainfed farming in Sub-Saharan Africa is risky, hard work and small parcels of land limit the returns from agriculture that many farming families could achieve. Engagement in other income generating activities such as wage labour, casual labour, running small businesses, etc., is widespread. These off-farm and non-farm activities have implications for the attributes that farmers value in agricultural technologies and more generally, for how they approach their own farming activities. The ongoing debate about those implications has two contrasting arguments:

    • Jan 02, 2014
      • Dr Kai Mausch


    • Jan 03, 2014
      • Dr Dave Harris


    • Oct 06, 2014
      • Related projects join forces

      Our colleague Simone Verkaart has been working on the link between diversified incomes and adoption of agricultural technologies for her PhD, so we were happy to bring her on board for this activity and expand the scope.

    • Feb 02, 2015
      • Sometimes plans do not work out

      With the approval of the activity under CRP PIM, we reached out to the Department of Psychology at Bangor University, UK. This partnership was aimed at ensuring that the psychology of these very complex life choices could be accounted for.

    • Apr 05, 2016
      • Opening up new opportunities

      The livelihood choices we were trying to study at the time were too complex to be captured using standard survey tools. We all went back to other commitments for a while until Dave Harris came across an announcement of an inaugural lecture by Dave Snowden at Bangor University. Prof. Snowden had just opened the Cynefin Centre at Bangor University that was intriguingly framed as a journey into complexity. The Cynefin approach seemed to directly address the problems we were facing at the time. After Dave Harris attended the talk by his namesake, he reached out to the rest of the team and shared several of Dave Snowden’s lectures that are available on YouTube. The whole team had a notion that the SenseMaker tool and Distributed Ethnography method that Dave Snowden and his team were using might be just what we needed to move forward. Consequently, we scheduled a face-to-face meeting with the Cynefin Centre team for October in Bangor in order to fully explore its potential use.

    • Jun 12, 2016
      • Managing In Complexity

    • Jun 13, 2016
      • Introducing SenseMaker

    • Oct 11, 2016
      • Jules Yim


    • Oct 11, 2016
      • Emma Jones


    • Oct 11, 2016
      • The first meeting - Cynefin Centre perspective

      The Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity was officially launched in April 2016 with an inaugural lecture by Professor Dave Snowden at Pontio in Bangor University. Dave Harris, who was present, decided to get in touch with the Cynefin Centre team soon after to arrange a meeting.

    • Apr 11, 2018
      • Households' aspirations for rural development through agriculture


      In sub-Saharan Africa, rural households are the focus of many development efforts and the transformation of smallholder agriculture is one entry point for this process. Understanding farming households’ technology choices remains one of the most critical aspects of agricultural research in rural areas. However, many technologies that are known to be effective and potentially highly beneficial have remained widely unused. One reason is that predicting farmers’ decisions concerning agricultural technologies using conventional economic theories is flawed. In this article, we suggest that human aspirations have a much greater influence on technology choices than hitherto believed. We further argue that a better understanding of aspirations will improve the targeting of technology development by researchers. We propose distributed ethnography to empirically test the influence of human aspirations on technology choice. From such insight, we anticipate better research priority setting as well as more effective rural development strategies in general.


      Mausch, K., Harris, D., Heather, E., Jones, E., Yim, J., Hauser, M.
    • Apr 23, 2018
      • Who are those people we call farmers? Rural Kenyan aspirations and realities


      ural Kenyan households have different aspirations and income portfolio strategies, including agricultural intensification and income diversification. This article reports on a study that interviewed 624 households to explore rural aspirations and derive lessons for agricultural technology development and transfer. Though few households specialised in farming, many households self-identified as farmers and aspired to increase their agricultural income. Despite the prevalence of agricultural aspirations, few aspired for their children to have a future in farming. Combining aspirations with potential to invest, the article provides suggestions for targeting agricultural interventions. We need to start listening better to those people we call “farmers” to develop and offer innovations that meet their realities.

      KEYWORDS: Environment (built and natural) – Agriculture, Food security, Labour and livelihoods – Poverty reduction, Technology, Sub-Saharan Africa


      Simone Verkaart, Kai Mausch, Dave Harris
    • May 16, 2018

      Agricultural research must listen to farmers and their aspirations while designing effective technology solutions

      Over 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s one billion people are under the age of 30. While most rural households engage in agriculture, more and more young people have chosen to migrate to cities and away from farming. This trend has significant implications for research and investment efforts underway to transform sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture.

    • Jun 04, 2018
      • Adding an MSc student to the team

      After an initial chat with Prof. Regina Birner from the University of Hohenheim, we agreed to look for an MSc student to work on the aspirations project and started advertising the opportunity.  

    • Jul 06, 2018

      Agricultural interventions should match household aspirations

      Just about six percent of rural households in Kenya, aspire for their children to become farmers. This is highlighted through a recent study that interviewed 624 rural households from Embu and Kitui in eastern Kenya.

    • Jul 09, 2018
      • Mary Crossland


    • Jul 10, 2018
      • Marys story: Rural aspirations through a gender lens

      I was first introduced to Dave Harris and Kai Mausch by my PhD supervisor at Bangor University, Tim Pagella. As a PhD student, my research explores how agricultural interventions to restore degraded lands can and cannot influence the livelihood trajectories of rural households. That is, the way that livelihoods change over time – and the extent to which innovations can reduce poverty and improve food security. Considering the increasing recognition that people’s aspirations influence their investment decisions, both in and out of farming, it was clear to Tim and me that understanding rural aspirations had important implications for the development, uptake and success of land restoration approaches. The types of restoration options a household may be willing to invest in will likely differ with their aspirations for the future. Compared to those who aspire to continue farming for the foreseeable future, households with aspirations to diversify away from agriculture may be less likely to invest in the often labour-intensive process of land restoration.

    • Jul 11, 2018
      • Survey design workshop

      The design phase of the survey instrument (link to the survey tool) for this project, led by Jules Yim and Emma Jones, kicked off with a 2-day workshop at Bangor University, UK. Ellie Snowden, a researcher at Cynefin Centre, provided remote support via video conference.

    • Aug 06, 2018
    • Sep 03, 2018
      • The enumerator training

      The enumerator training phase of the project, led by Jules Yim and Emma Jones, kicked off with a 3-day event at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

    • Sep 10, 2018
      • Katie LaRue


    • Sep 17, 2018
    • Nov 13, 2018
      • Youth Aspirations in Kenya


      My name is Katie LaRue and I am currently pursuing a Master Degree at Hohenheim University in Stuttgart, Germany. My studies revolve around environmental protection and agricultural food production, which seeks to answer the pressing problem of feeding a growing population sustainably. In culmination of my program, I wanted to see first hand the backbone of the world’s agriculture industry. So when I stumbled upon a flyer advertising a thesis opportunity in Kenya that would address the aspirations of rural farmers, I knew this was my chance. After a few months of tedious preparation, I arrived at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya and am well on my way to witnessing the