Putting farmers first in sustainable agriculture

Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Participatory research and innovation platforms have allowed farmers, researchers and state actors to work together for more efficient, inclusive and sustainable agriculture.


Innovation platforms – spaces for face-to-face learning, exchange and negotiation between local communities and other stakeholders – offer unique opportunities for researchers and state actors to work with farmers to test and scale innovations, build capacity and develop more inclusive and effective resource governance. WLE and partners have used innovation platforms, together with other participatory research methods, to support farmers and local communities in the Volta Basin of Burkina Faso to encourage the sustainable use and intensification of the region’s small reservoirs.


From 2010 to 2013, the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) conducted research in the Volta, Nile and Limpopo river basins to understand the management of small reservoirs and to strengthen their sustainable and efficient use for multiple purposes. Research from Burkina Faso and Ghana recommended the use of innovation platforms to bring this about. This was followed in 2015-16 by a WLE-funded project, Targeting Agricultural Innovations in the northern Volta basin, which used remote detection of small reservoir dynamics and participatory mapping in four case study sites in northeastern Ghana and eastern Burkina Faso.

Building on these foundations, in 2018 the WLE-supported project Pathways out of Poverty for Burkina Faso’s reservoir-dependent communities used innovation platforms and participatory research to improve the use and sustainable management of two reservoirs in Burkina Faso’s Boulgou province. A series of four meetings was attended by a total of 129 women and 178 men, including local water users (agriculturalists, horticulturalists, fishers and herders), civil society, non-governmental organizations and government representatives. Together they discussed and prioritized solutions in terms of feasibility, urgency, social impacts, ecological impacts and economic returns. Participants would first discuss governance issues in peer groups (women, young men, older men, state and institutional actors) before coming together for plenary sessions, thereby helping to ensure that all groups were able to voice their opinions and share experiences.


As a result of CPWF’s work from 2010 to 2013, local communities increased their understanding of reservoir productivity and the processes that govern it. Importantly, their interactions with WLE researchers also boosted their interest and confidence in scientific research and findings. WLE’s work in 2015-16 provided new knowledge of the distribution, dynamics and irrigation uptake of the Volta basin’s estimated 1,200 community-managed reservoirs. It also highlighted how changes in reservoir landscape management need to be carefully designed as they will differentially affect farmers across socio-economic groups.

Since 2018, innovation platforms have been successful in putting farmers at the center of reservoir governance development. Together with researchers and national partners, who had been specially trained in participatory research methods, farmers used the platforms to establish rules for reservoir use and to agree to improve water infrastructure by restoring irrigation canals and drilling boreholes. Project leads helped embed sustainable water management practices in local communities by providing training in crop selection and water monitoring methods.

These actions encouraged reservoir users to adopt more sustainable and equitable practices. The experimental sites have encouraged farmers to use more water-efficient growing methods. Fishers now observe ‘fishing blackouts’ – periods of time in which they do not catch fish – and use nets with larger meshing to avoid catching immature fish.

Another significant impact of the innovation platforms is that women and youth are now more involved in reservoir management decisions. A women’s subgroup has been established to advise the local water users’ committee, and young men have taken on important roles in local committees. With greater inclusion has come greater cooperation between the reservoirs’ various stakeholders. Herders, for instance, have agreed to use livestock corridors when leading their cattle to the reservoirs, to avoid damaging crops grown near the water’s edge. Relationships between local communities and state hydraulic extension agents have also improved thanks to knowledge and capacity training.

Lessons learned

Local participation in agricultural research cannot simply be assumed. Rather, farmers and other reservoir users need to see the value of engaging with researchers, trialing alternative approaches and adopting new agricultural practices. Innovation platforms need to be aligned with local interests and concerns to be effective.

Participatory research projects need to engage a wide range of stakeholders to stand a greater chance of influencing agricultural practices. This includes not only diverse community members, but policy makers and development practitioners as well. As these participants will have varying levels of local and scientific knowledge, project leads need to ensure that there is a shared understanding of the issues being addressed.

Next steps

The work of WLE and partners shows that the development of more inclusive and effective reservoir governance can allow local communities to improve and intensify their farming practices more equitably and sustainably.


CPWF research in the Volta basinPathways out of Poverty websiteCommunities improve water management in Burkina FasoPathways out of Poverty final report (in French)Equitable and sustainable reservoir managementTargeting agricultural innovations projectMapping small reservoirsSustainable intensification of community reservoirs

SDGs supported

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls Ensure access to water and sanitation for all

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