User-centered innovation and localized rapid prototyping for agricultural technology co-development with women smallholder farmers In Malawi
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The current challenges and opportunities presented in the agricultural sector in “developing” countries continue to be a paradox. While agriculture forms the backbone of these economies, there are several external factors that present a plethora of bottlenecks for the smallholder farmers who end up realizing little to zero profits due to low productivity. In addition to these external challenges, smallholder farmers are already very attuned to “hard labor” type of field activities that are very labor intensive and time consuming, but which generate little to no benefits. Coupled with land degradation and water scarcity issues that climate shocks can aggravate, smallholder farmers who rely on agriculture for their subsistence and commercial needs remain at a great disadvantage. As these smallholder farmers are intrinsically aware of their daily challenges in meeting the subsistence needs and their commercial interests, they are best placed to address these challenges given the right tools and an enabling environment. This research investigated the challenges observed in the agricultural sector in Malawi with a special focus on women smallholder farmers who are one of the main sources of labor “human power” for on-farm and off-farm activities. The participatory research interacted with these women smallholder farmers to better understand their on-farm labor challenges as well as their household dynamics, demographics, levels of education, income generation, management of non-farm assets, among other key aspects of their lives. The assessment also involved an analysis of the household and communal labor distribution throughout the unimodal rainy season, as well as mapping the human and physical resources available to them in and around the community. More specifically, the PhD research conducted an in-depth assessment of these women farmers’ capacity to articulate from a technical/functional point of view, their opinions regarding the existing agricultural tools in Malawi and the suitability of these tools to the labor-intensive activities. In addition, the research attempted to capture their recommended solutions on how to improve the effectiveness of the existing tools. Such an assessment was crucial to capturing an understanding of their key challenges in relation to more sustainable livelihoods, as well as to assess their capacity to resolve these challenges. The assessment revealed the level of capacity needed to adopt new improved ideas to better manage their responsibilities. The research explored the potential of the women smallholder farmers to be innovative in finding their own solutions. Based on this innovation capacity and environmental assessment, the PhD research also provided a detailed overview of the technology co-design process explored with the “best-bet” innovators to co-develop new and improved agricultural technologies to save time and energy during labor-intensive on-farm activities. In addition, the research investigated the experimental application of Kinematic software sensors to assess energy expenditure when using the existing tools compared to those co-developed by the “best-bet” innovators. A detailed overview of the user-led innovation (bottom-up approaches) has been reviewed in the PhD thesis and arguments made to prove the concept in Malawi. In addition, the PhD research also generated an in-depth overview of the agricultural technology development and production options in Malawi and Southern Africa with an analysis of each of the rapid prototyping options i.e. options that speed up the prototype development process using methods such as 3D printing, local arc welding and metal casting. Finally, the PhD research also delved into the tool production process and the various challenges that limit the availability of viable productivity enhancing technologies within the manufacturing industry in Malawi. Shortage of electricity and lack of raw materials are just two of the problems the industry faces in the country. The PhD research attempted to investigate available options for rapid prototyping and production of labor-saving agricultural tools. Moreover, the PhD research thesis assessed the markets for agricultural tools in Malawi and the willingness of vendors to sell the improved hand-held technologies co-developed by women farmers in Malawi. The research also captured the willingness of other farmers to procure these tools compared to the existing tools currently in the market. Based on the research conducted, this PhD thesis attempts to explain the concept of a user-centered co-design process within the context of co-developing labor-saving technologies in Malawi, with women-smallholder innovator farmers who also tested and eventually used these labor-saving and time-saving tools. By using a range of innovative approaches, the tools were tested and an evidence base was developed to prove the concept that women smallholder farmers in “developing” economies such as Malawi can successfully conceptualize, co-design and test agricultural technologies that are tailored to their cropping systems and their needs. To assess any empowerment related gains associated with the research process, the research deployed a women smallholder farmers’ empowerment measuring system adapted from the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI). Using this “3D4AgDev-WEAI”, the research investigated whether such an inclusive bottom-up approach could result in higher levels of empowerment, among the women farmers involved, within the context of their agricultural livelihoods.
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