At first I was a little sceptical that a research method consisting of sitting with a group of farmers around a pile of rocks would produce anything useful—it sounded kind of patronizing to me. So I was surprised when our first group of women farmers burst into a rapid-fire discussion in Swahili without hesitation. Eruptions of laughter mixed with heated debate, all while different women reached out and picked up rocks, holding them out to the group.
Each stone was to represent a problem facing women in their community. The debate was over which issue would pair with which size stone. Low market prices, for example, prevent women from being able to afford fertilizer and other inputs for the next season. But without good weather they don’t even have crops to sell, said one woman, so maybe drought trumps all. For others, the control of household income by their husbands means they can not act on their own, leaving some women to conclude that lack of decision-making power was their biggest constraint, both in agriculture and in their lives.
The stones replaced written notes, allowing everyone to participate in the discussion, regardless of literacy skills. The row of rocks, lined up largest to smallest, that was the result of the intense discussion, offered also a good possibility to illustrate the women’s analysis of their challenges and possible solutions.
Using stones kept the discussion centred on the issues facing the community instead of narrow, individual complaints. This and other workshop techniques are a way to engage farmers in participatory research, research that allows the people who it affects to effect its direction and analysis. Most important, this kind of research allows participants to gain directly from their own insights into their lives. Research for “the field”, and not just for a researcher’s academic field: Cool.
I’m an intern with Purchase for Progress (P4P), a 5-year pilot initiative that uses WFP’s demand in innovative ways to support the development of agricultural markets and smallholder farmers' engagement in these markets. P4P strengthens smallholders who can produce a surplus beyond their household’s food needs, but who are still vulnerable to shocks and need support in order to reach markets. My short two-week trip to Tanzania gave me a taste of participatory research centred on women farmers’ experiences to craft a gender strategy that will help us to ensure that P4P benefits women farmers as well as men.
This is my second internship with WFP during my masters program. Both times I have worked on the programme side of the World Food Programme: fingers in the soil, talking to farmers, analysing the impact of how P4P buys its food. In Ethiopia, Tanzania, and now at WFP Headquarters in Rome, I’ve been able to look far beyond my own household garden in Ithaca, New York, to do research with farmers on theirs.
Written by: Kyla Neilan, Gender and M&E Intern, Purchase for Progress, WFP Rome -Cornell University