Using novel agricultural technologies to boost farm productivity in the face of climatic and demographic disruption remains a priority for African policy and research. This paper uses an innovative, participatory and ethnographic methodology to explore, through farmers’ experiences, the historical pathways of social, ecological and technical (socio-eco-technical) change that have reshaped agriculture, livelihoods and rural landscapes in three sites in Kenya (Machakos, Siaya and Kisumu Counties) over recent decades. The paper identifies events and processes that triggered major changes in farming systems at household and community levels.
Insights from engagements with farmers reflect an evolution in the strategic direction of agricultural development in Kenya from a more ‘bureaucratic’ mode during the colonial and immediate post-independence periods to a more ‘technocratic’ mode today. In the bureaucratic mode, the state was at the centre and aspired to align all farming practices and technologies with the priorities and programmes determined by the national government. In the contemporary period of technocratic development, agricultural programmes and interventions have been designed by scientific experts and implemented by technical agencies through the institutional form of short-term projects and programmes. In both the bureaucratic and technocratic systems, the agency of local farmers has remained weak and constrained. Both systems of management established formal development processes and power structures that largely sidelined meaningful contributions by ordinary farmers to technological change processes.
We argue that the agency and capacities of farmers and rural communities, to make choices and respond to opportunities arising from or introduced into their local situations, should be recognised as an important engine of socio-eco-technical transformations towards a sustainable future for African agriculture. We therefore propose that this exploratory study helps to build a platform for further research both conceptually and methodologically, with the potential to inform the design and implementation of future agricultural development interventions.