"People and groups (farmer organisations) connect and collaborate based on identified factors such as common interests, shared commitment, integrated leadership, mutual understanding, respect and trust, accepted local norms and explicit agreed rules of operation."
This study entitles to illustrate African farmers’ approaches to foster connection and collaboration among farmer organisations within a complex and challenging farming business in West Africa.
In West Africa, developing and implementing social assets aimed at resolving wicked problems such as enhancing agricultural market prices of commodities, access to loans and market shared, has occupied farming organizations for decades. Such problems are enduring due to their complexity, resulting in a need to harness multiple skills and significant resources to solve them. Connections along common challenges and collaboration to share knowledge and ease decision making on feasible solutions are logical responses to these needs because such arrangements have potential to bring to bear multiple experiences, greater resources, and a higher level of understanding. However, connection and collaboration are not easy and, if not done well, can result in significant costs in time and money as well as poor outcomes for those affected, which manifests most often at harvesting times.
This case study discusses report from a summative evaluation of a survival yards project funded by the Catholic Blind Mission in Niger from April 2012 to December 2024. It illustrates African farmers’ approaches to foster connections and collaborations among farmer organisations within a complex and challenging farming business in West Africa, as well as illuminates the necessary attributes of successful collaborations by examining farming behaviours that provide important insights into sound collaborative practice. The original study involved a review of primary documents pertaining to the establishment and identification of each connection feature and collaborative parameters. Furthermore, semi-structured interviews were conducted with farmer-leaders from 18 farmer organisations engaged in the funded project in two regions of Niger namely Zinder and Diffa; and interviews with relevant stakeholders (15 individuals). As part of the evaluation ethical principles, written consent was obtained from all participants. The data obtained from the interviews was analysed using content analysis method and was further triangulated with observations drawn from primary documents and from secondary literature including peer-reviewed and gray literature from internet.
Attributes of connections and collaborations
Discussions revealed that there are various characteristics of successful connections and collaborations between farmers’ groups in the rural communities of Niger. Most of these are summarised as follow.
Involvement of institutional and organizational actors with prior structural relationships such as community leaders acting as confident authorities largely known by everyone.
Collaborations were framed around clear objectives and problem definition based on common interests.
Farmers engaged partners with a shared commitment to their objectives, having clear understanding of common goals and benefits flowing to the partnership.
Farmer groups had powerful sponsors providing formal authority such as philanthropic donors (in their context) under a standard setting of financial support.
Connections and collaborations were founded on mutual understanding, respect and trust (accepting that there might be differing levels of trust between collaborators at the outset); and employed explicit strategies for the purpose of building trust and alignment among collaborating partners.
Leaders offered catalytic, facilitative, and integrated leadership that instils trust and supports the contributions of stakeholders to the collaborative process.
Parties engaged had governance mechanisms, processes and structures with final decision-making authority that enable the objectives of all parties entering into the collaboration to be known and considered. Hence, decision-making is guided by the necessary data and farming market information.
Parties engaged had typically accepted local norms and explicitly agreed rules of operation, clear boundaries, structures, and identified roles for each organisation.
Uniqueness of each approach for connection and collaboration
Enigmatically, it became clear in the interviews that the collaborative approach was not expressly modeled upon an existing collaboration or upon an established model of collaborative practice among farmer organisations in the targeted locations. Each approach is seeking to address problems that have proved resistant to market barriers. Thus, it seems clear that recourse to a collaborative approach is a response to the twin effects of complexity and agricultural market failure. However, the collaborative solution must be designed specifically in response to the presenting problem.
The study also helps to note that a major strength of collaborative approaches promoted by farmers is the capacity to allow for the crafting of fit-for-purpose local solutions addressing local priorities whilst allowing for local stewardship. Whereas bureaucracies tend to favor more uniform approaches that are amenable to consistent and comparable impact metrics, collaboration requires an acceptance of complexity, uncertainty, and diversity of approach. Consequently, it is not feasible to impose a standardized collaboration framework with little regard to local circumstances and local aspirations.
Furthermore, people met raised the importance of a learned set of skills and cultural believes that are vital in forging and sustaining productive connection and collaborative relationships. Collectively, these can be linked to emotional resonance of systems, relationships between farmer organizations, and the know-how brought to the collaboration by each farmer group. In a very real sense, most of the people interviewed for this study have learned the fundamentals of collaborative practice on sales and price negotiation processes at the harvesting period. Although many people working in the farming sectors exhibit the value of cultural believes, differences in organizational culture can encourage or inhibit its expression.
Limit of approaches for connection and collaboration
Nonetheless, existing approaches for connection and collaboration have some limits. The study found that even though collaboration is often identified as an important ingredient when addressing wicked problems by farmers, it is difficult to implement in practice due to accepted local norms of governance and management. Indeed, some people met contend that collaboration for example is not counter-intuitive; rather, it is counter-cultural as most often member groups share common social norms and believes. The key challenge going forward, is to cultivate a set of operational tools that will support the establishment of secondary operating practices. This was firmly supported by a farmer leader in Zinder.
Furthermore, an approach used to foster connection and collaboration is dynamic tension with the dominant culture of partner organizations, which might exacerbate existing problems, if the approach isn’t shared and accepted by the entire farmer group as found in Diffa. It can be both a stimulus for innovation and problematic for organizational logic. As one interviewee supported that: “It gets confusing within the community and within farmer organisations about who decide and/or who take the lead. So, sometimes there are those kinds of ongoing tensions that we feel like we take two steps forward and one step back”.
Challenges in maintaining existing approaches for connection and collaboration.
The identified approaches documented in this study to foster connection and collaboration can be difficult to sustain. Indeed, its informal or semi-formal nature suggests ephemerality. Also, formalizing or normalizing collaboration can undermine its dynamism and sense of collective purpose, especially when there is high turnover from engaged farmer groups which might lead to the erosion of institutional memory. It can be difficult to maintain the founding purpose, sense of mission and personal commitment that saw the collaboration get off the ground in the first place. Any dilution of the capacity for collaborators to share and find validation in their foundation stories can diminish their collective sense of mission and commitment to change.
People and groups (farmer organisations) connect and collaborate based on identified factors such as common interests, shared commitment, integrated leadership, mutual understanding, respect and trust, accepted local norms and explicit agreed rules of operation. Most of these approaches were found relevant to addressing complex economic and social problems. Therefore, connection and collaboration most often occur in dynamic settings in which multiple logics are in play as seen among farmers in Niger. And, although effective connections have several things in common, all collaborations are in some respects unique. Nevertheless, established connections and collaborations might not be easy to maintain if there is constant turnover among group leaders who promote such arrangements. They also need to be outward-looking and able to offer assurance to a range of engaged stakeholders, some of whom might have perspectives that are not fully aligned with the organizing structures of the collaboration.