How prizes can encourage African farmers to embrace innovation

Some farmers are suspicious of technological innovation. But technology can really help them. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Africa must transform agriculture to meet its food security needs and contribute to economic transformation. But change in this sector is usually slow. It is often bedevilled by popular opposition to the use of new technologies.

In my new book, “Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies”, I argue that the idea of agricultural transformation often creates perceptions about the potential loss of income and cultural identity among Africa’s farming communities.

These perceptions could lead to people opposing new technologies and ultimately undermine farming communities’ abilities to improve their well-being through agricultural innovation. In Kenya some farmers have, over the past decade, opposed the introduction of mechanical tea harvesters because of the potential impact on jobs.

Such perceptions aren’t new. Agricultural mechanisation, for instance, has been marked by long periods of opposition, largely by advocates of farm animals and human labour worldwide. American farmers objected to the introduction of tractors. They argued that horses could reproduce themselves while tractors depreciated. Anxiety about the loss of incumbent farming systems lay at the heart of this controversy.

Agricultural transformation requires both courage and sensitivity to social effects. This is why Africa needs a variety of incentives – particularly prizes for excellence – that promote agricultural innovation in ways that benefit farming communities. Research has proved how much prestigious prizes can boost cultural innovation. Why shouldn’t the same be true for agricultural innovation?

The prestige of prizes

One of the initiatives that’s trying to change people’s attitudes to agricultural innovation is the Africa Food Prize. It styles itself as “the preeminent award recognising an outstanding individual or institution that is leading the effort to change the reality of farming in Africa”.

The prize, founded by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa and the Yara Corporation, is worth much more than its monetary value of US$100,000. It “celebrates Africans who are taking control of Africa’s agriculture agenda.” It highlights “bold initiatives and technical innovations that can be replicated across the continent to create a new era of food security and economic opportunity for all Africans”.

More importantly, it aims to change African agriculture “from a struggle to survive to a business that thrives”. This involves pursuing agricultural excellence that isn’t usually associated with traditional farming systems whose emblem is an African woman oppressed by the inefficiency of the hand hoe.

Prizes aren’t without their detractors, of course. Their role in promoting excellence is one of the most hotly debated areas of social innovation in Africa. Each year, for instance, there is much discussion about the award or non-award of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

In his pioneering book, “The Economy of Prestige”, James English points out that prizes have been critical in promoting advances in literature and the arts. He argues that they’ve helped to create the “cultural capital” that’s needed to propel creativity and excellence in these areas. English shows how cultural innovation benefits from improvements in the prize sponsorship, nomination and judging procedures; presentation and acceptance; and publicity and even controversy. These lessons can all be applied to the world of agricultural innovation.

Today a number of prizes globally seek to foster innovation. A study by consulting giant McKinsey found that such prizes are most effective when there is:

a clear objective (for example, one that is measurable and achievable within a reasonable time frame), the availability of a relatively large population of potential problem solvers, and a willingness on the part of participants to bear some of the costs and risks.

More prizes needed

Hopefully, the Africa Food Prize will foster the creation of similar and complementary prizes. This is important. There’s a tendency for society to shun excellence prizes if they appear to serve only a small group of people. In social settings where patronage and entitlement are the default criteria for awards, resentment toward these prizes is particularly strong.

So what might new prizes in the field of agricultural innovation look like? They could have very specific objectives – rewarding young agricultural entrepreneurs, especially those who succeed across the full agricultural value chain. They could focus on newer agricultural fields like data processing. They could reward those who are innovative in production, processing and packaging, retailing, recycling and environmental management.

They could also provide more than a monetary reward. One of the factors that keeps young people from going into agribusiness is a lack of mentors. New prizes could incorporate mentoring functions, as is the case with the Africa Prize for Engineering and Innovation that’s managed by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering.

The diversity of agricultural activities calls for more prizes. As “The Economy of Prestige” suggests, society can rapidly accumulate cultural capital if there are as many prizes as they are winners. The Africa Food Prize should be the first seed in a broader effort to cultivate a culture of agricultural excellence on the continent.

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