|Rajasthan, India January 2009|
Our problem statement for the recently completed, two phase project on sustainable agricultural value chains, was framed as follows:
What are the barriers to adoption of sustainable agricultural practices that limit their spread and scaling? What are reasons and/or causes of the existence of these barriers?
The complexity and wicked nature of the problem space – why do farmers stop using innovation (new agricultural technology and methods)once donor funding ends in large scale public private partnerships (PPPs) for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid (among subsistence farmers in rural Africa, for eg)- meant that we had to step back massively in order to grasp the entire process of PPP initiation and conceptualization all the way through to impact assessment after the usually multi-year projects ended.
Our aim was to identify the potential barriers to adoption i.e. the problem areas, in current day program development processes, at the systems level, rather than overwhelm the problem space with attempting to identify situational challenges unique to each PPP proposal. Were there generalizable problems that could be identified, first, in the existing process, broadly speaking, and if so, could they be framed for solution finding at the individual project level?
We began with the premise that putting the user at the center of the program design would exponentially improve adoption rates as programs would seek to fill gaps in the existing infrastructure or services or validate and enable the end user’s aspirational goals. When we assessed the existing situation against this lens we discovered that in the majority of the cases, the first time there was any contact with the end-user of these programs (the beneficiaries) was at the impact assessment stage of the project, usually after hundreds of thousands of dollars and many months or years later.
Observations during our fieldwork on this project as well as from past experiences have always demonstrated the joy of recognition or appreciation end-users always expressed when the context of of user research and its relationship to a problem solving outcome of some sort (device, app, biz model etc) has been explained to them as background to our intrusions into their daily life. This project’s particularities emphasized this aspect and threw up the role of the end user’s agency in choosing to adopt an innovation in their daily work or not, as opposed to such programs tending to impose participation and outcomes as the only means to document measurable impact.
We offer the hypothesis, to be validated in the next phase of research in the field, that this explicit recognition of the end-user’s agency that the upfront design research conveys to the participants (and the general community) as well as the integration of their context and its constraints and conditions into the program design, inspires and motivates far greater rates of adoption of the “innovation” (whether a pruning technique or a new seed or even equipment) which then tends to be perceived as a custom tailored solution.