Smallholder Systems Innovations

About SSI

The Smallholder System Innovations (SSI) programme is a multidisciplinary applied research programme with direct relevance to rural development. It addresses the environmental, social and institutional conditions required to enable a sustainable upgrading of rainfed agriculture among smallholder farmers in water scarce tropical and sub-tropical environments. It thereby contributes to livelihood security and poverty alleviation in rural communities of sub-Saharan Africa.

The programme operates at field, watershed and basin scale together with rural communities studying the potential and consequences of introducing water system innovations to upgrade rainfed agriculture.

The programme will generate knowledge on the extent to which rainfed farming can sustainably be upgraded and what capacities are required among local farmers, community institutions and formal watershed and basin authorities to make a process of sustainable agricultural water use possible.

The programme links participatory development methodologies with multidisciplinary research on water and environmental processes and management within the context of adaptation and adoption of system innovations.

The fundamental scientific basis is formed by the natural sciences, covering primarily hydrology, geography, soil science, ecology and agronomy, combined with social sciences in terms of institutional and participatory development and economic sciences in terms of evaluating ecosystem service generation (including ecological economics) and rural economy.

The programme is carried out in two river basins (the Thukela river basin in South Africa and the Pangani river basin in Tanzania) representing typical semi-arid to dry sub-humid climates.

The programme involves five interacting R&D components:

  • Adaptive and participatory identification, development and assessment of system innovations in rainfed farming systems.
  • Spatial analysis of potential and criteria for upscaling of system innovations at watershed scale.
  • Research on vulnerability and resilience of ecological functions to water dynamics in managed tropical agro-ecosystems.
  • Research on hydrological, environmental and socio-economic impacts of upscaling.
  • Research on institutional and policy requirements to balance water for food and environmental security at watershed and basin scale.

Innovative aspects

The programme addresses fundamental livelihood and environmental challenges in water scarcity prone agro-ecosystems by seeking to fill fundamental research gaps using a multi-disciplinary approach and by feeding the results into planning and management of natural resources. Filling the research gaps will enable us to answer so-far unanswered questions regarding how far rainfed smallholder land management can go in securing human livelihoods in semi-arid tropical savannahs; what the upstream-downstream implications of upgrading of rainfed agriculture are; how scales interact from field to river basin; and what the trade-offs' are between water for food and water for the environment at field, landscape and basin scales.

Water system innovations for upgrading of rainfed smallholder farming, both indigenous and novel, are not new, but are rarely assessed and to our knowledge have never been analysed from a broad spatial and temporal perspective in order to understand system impact at large spatial scales.

The research programme uses several novel research methodologies for field research on rainfall partitioning, co-management based field methodology, integrated hydrological modelling at watershed scale, multi-scale assessment (linking field, sub-watershed, watershed and river basin levels using different tools in, e.g., modelling).

The programme is multi-disciplinary in that it links a broad set of disciplinary sciences, and inter-disciplinary in that it has the ambition of advancing the knowledge on eco-hydrology, integrated water resources management, ecological-economics, and integrated land management.

The programme thus links recently developed stakeholder oriented and integrated research methodologies and applied research, with a clear development orientation. Local adaptation needs, adoption constraints, policies to enable upgrading of rainfed agriculture, institutions and human capacity needs are areas of research that form an integral part of the programme.

The objective is to deliver results that are directly useful for regional and district rural development planners in the region of research, and that contribute to improved livelihood among rural poor.

System innovations in integrated watershed management

 There is ample evidence that rainfed agriculture in water scarcity prone tropical savannah environments at present is carried out below its realistically achievable potential. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that water per se is not necessarily the limitation, but rather the lack of management strategies available to the farmer in order to mitigate periods of dry spells and droughts, caused by the high variability of rainfall over time and in space.

There is furthermore a very rich knowledge base of promising water management innovations systems for rainfed agriculture, including a broad spectrum of water harvesting practices, conservation farming systems, water conservation techniques, integrated soil fertility management, and response farming. These have often been developed from indigenous knowledge at one location, but when transferred to neighbouring communities (even in the same country), constitute innovations in water management. Other systems are completely new to a region or community, e.g., watershed management practices from semi-arid watersheds in India, introduced in sub-Saharan Africa.

All these form part of water system innovations, which aim at improving rainfall productivity and reducing risk for crop failure due to poor distribution of rainfall.

They can never be adopted as blanket solutions, but need to go through a process of adaptive adoption, which include moulding them to local biophysical and socio-cultural conditions. Furthermore, water system innovations need to be addressed in an integrated fashion.

Water is generally not the only limiting factor for agricultural productivity improvements, but generally forms the logical entry point for upgrading.

Soil fertility, tillage, timing of operations, labour use, pest management, livestock interactions, land ownership and watershed stewardship, are other aspects that interact with the introduction of water system innovations in complex ways. These need to be addressed in conjunction with water management.

The frustration at present is that we know quite well what these water innovations are, and what they can do. We also have the tools to carry out adaptive adoption. However, water system innovations still are predominately found only as small islands of success within isolated development projects.

Very little is known on the actual reasons for non-adoption at larger scales, and the preconditions that need to be in place to enable adoption. Furthermore, very little is known about the consequences to downstream water dependent ecosystems and human communities, of large-scale adoption of water innovations.