The West African country of Benin is the first country examined in the book ESFIM Experiences with Farmer-Led Research for Advocacy, a culmination of research conducted by the Empowering Smallholder Farmers in Markets (ESFIM) programme and published in November 2013.
Benin, with a population of 5.2 million, is bordered to the east by Nigeria, to the north by Burkina Faso and Niger and to the west by Togo. Its southern edge runs along the Gulf of Guinea. While maize is the most important food crop, “agricultural policies in Benin [have] favoured the cotton sector,” due to cotton’s role as a major main cash crop in a country where agriculture outputs account for 31.6 percent of the nation’s GDP. However, the plunge in the price of cotton during the early 2000s brought to light the need for diversifying agricultural production. Maize was prioritized as a key crop by the District Producers’ Unions (UCPs) due in part to its widespread production in both the rural north and densely populated southern portions of the country.
Within this framework, a collaborative research partnership was initiated in December of 2010 with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Benin (EKN Benin) approving a ten-month contract with the Federation of Unions of Agricultural Producers of Benin (FUPRO) and the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV Benin). This partnership was tasked with leading the Action-Oriented Research (AOR) programme looking at the central question of how to make “maize value chains more competitive, sustainable, and inclusive,” with a two-fold goal of increasing food security and the value of maize as a cash crop.
A combination of focus groups, surveys, and self-assessments were conducted with farmers and cooperatives, with results indicating that “various farmer groups differ significantly in terms of their goals, ambitions, and entrepreneurial capacities.” This knowledge provides a clearer picture of the market landscape from the production end, contributing to the overall goal of the research project to “improve the performance of maize value chains.”
When research concluded in late 2011, “three components were seen as crucial: promoting rural entrepreneurship, prioritizing topics that support innovation, and sharing evidence-based knowledge and experience.” Additional conclusions drawn from this project found that systematic methods of data collection and research are necessary for National Farmer Organisations (NFOs) to be seen as legitimate contributors to policy development. NFOs must also be engaged with the population they seek to represent and relevant documents must be compiled to support understanding and continued research. Despite setbacks during the AOR programme, the final report was still seen as innovative “as it ‘talked business,’ focused on specific value chains, stressed multi-stakeholder collaborations, suggest important areas for innovation and placed farmers at the heart of maize value chain development.”