For over a decade, the farmer field school (FFS) approach to agricultural advisory services has been adopted in the vast majority of agricultural development projects funded by IFAD in sub-Saharan Africa. This stocktaking exercise focuses in particular on projects funded by IFAD and FAO in six countries: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, and Niger. It also examines the results of a similar study on livestock farmer field schools in Malawi, Rwanda and Zanzibar. Through this assessment, we have sought to understand the extent to which the FFS approach helped peasant farmers engage in collective action, band together and become more autonomous in responding to the problems they face. This assessment has also helped us better understand the role and importance of farmers’ organizations and their apex organizations in these processes, and how they could help scale them up and ensure their sustainability by institutionalizing the approach. We divided the FFS into different categories based on their level of farmer participation and the scope of the topics they cover. Some of the projects analysed have “simplified” FFS, which are used to disseminate technologies in order to boost yields for priority crops defined in advance during the project design phase. Other projects have “consultative” FFS, where farmers collectively identify the issues they face in their agricultural practices, and discuss with experts who provide solutions for the farmers to test (development of curricula). “Collaborative” FFS (few of which were in our sample) allow groups to voice their requests and work together to find solutions with the help of a facilitator who is trained in leading adult groups and in helping those groups establish ties with local entities that can help them come up with solutions. The main finding of this analysis is that FFS are underutilized in many of the projects funded by IFAD. Although FFS have the potential to empower farmers to work together to solve the problems they face as those problems arise, the current ways in which the approach is implemented often reduce the level of ownership by farmers and prospects for sustainability.
The study also shows, however, that the involvement of FOs and their apex organizations is highly advantageous in terms of institutionalizing the approach and helping farmers become more autonomous. The potential of FFS is not sufficiently taken into account in the project design phase. Institutionalizing the approach through FOs can help ensure the sustainability of FFS, provided that those organizations receive investment and long-term support. This is well justified, as FFS provide a service that is in the public interest.