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Agriculture VII

Tapping the potential of Africa’s futures



Bunmi Ajilore leads the foresight and exploration workshop at FARA in Accra, Ghana earlier this year


Populations in developing countries are becoming increasingly youthful, with Africa having the youngest population of all. Between 10 and 12 million young Africans aged 15-35 are entering the continent’s workforce every year. On a continent where 60% of the population derive their livelihood from the agricultural sector, the massive potential of the agriculture sector to drive economic development is clear. However, it is a future that must be secured quickly, as today a staggering 60% of African youth remain unemployed.


Agricultural production per capital has decreased consistently in Africa in the last 30 years, although production itself has increased but not at the same pace as population growth. (Haggblade & Hazell, 2010; Sason, 2012)


Future or Futures?

It is this challenge—and immense opportunity—which drive Mr. Oluwabunmi (Bunmi) Ajilore of the GFAR Secretariat to explore the futures of agricultural research and innovation systems in Africa. In the September issue of the Journal of Futures Studies, Bunmi and his colleague, Dr. Oluwole A Fatunbi of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), published an article on this very area of enquiry, proposing “four future scenarios of African agricultural research and innovations derived from the combination of dominant drivers as conceived by African experts”.


Access the article, “Exploring the Futures of Agricultural Research and Innovations (ARI) Systems in Africa” HERE.


What are these drivers and why posit multiple futures for Africa? To understand, it’s helpful to get a quick primer on foresight studies, which has been a technical area of expertise within the GFAR Secretariat for some years.

To be able to truly achieve sustainable development, farmers and rural communities need new and improved knowledge and technologies from agri-food research and innovation. However, for such products to be relevant and useful, they need to be tailored to smallholders’ needs and risks – both present and emerging. Too often, agricultural research and technologies are developed for farmers without understanding their real needs, nor taking into account their viewpoint and the multiple interacting challenges they face. Participatory processes are vital, to better include farming communities in design and implementation of agricultural research and innovation and enhance their ownership of the products from research.

Participatory grassroots foresight focuses on creating inclusive spaces, through foresight, for the co-development of research needs and priorities, with the aim of producing research and innovations that truly address farmers’ problems as they see them. It works to develop the capacity of farmers on the workings and use of participatory foresight processes.

The goal of these exercises is to establish what plausible futures could look like and how they will be impacted by major factors, such as climate change, changing markets and prices, availability of technologies, etc. Taking into account the perspectives of researchers and other service providers, ‘back-casting’ is used to determine the research and innovation needed now, in order to achieve those desired futures.




For years, GFAR has supported workshops to develop the capacity of rural farmers to engage in grassroots foresight training and bring their learnings to others, on a “training of trainers” model. For example, in North India, a project targeted the Kumaon and Garhwal administrative divisions in the Uttarakhand state, where farmers are struggling to cope with changing climatic conditions and other adverse circumstances. Such projects were also carried out in Indonesia and the Philippines.


“The project helped boost the agency of local stakeholders. Participants in the North India workshops found the scenario-building workshop very engaging and many said they had not experienced anything like it before.”

– Mrs. Sonali Bisht, Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education (INHERE)


These workshops were carried out as part of the Grassroots Foresight Initiative, according to a strategy developed through GFAR-supported Foresight Exchange Workshops. With the participation of representatives of Farmers Organizations, NGOs, and members of GFAR’s Forward Thinking Platform, an action plan was developed. The plan was executed by GFAR’s Global Foresight Hub, a platform to share lessons and resources for the enablement of effective foresight, as well as for networking and comparing stories across geographical regions and scales of influence (local, national, regional and global).


Anyone can engage in foresight

While the role of foresight experts is to train farmers and development practitioners, an important aspect of foresight is its ready applicability once the principles are learned. This is what makes foresight analysis truly participatory in nature: it is ultimately an exercise in identifying desirable futures for communities that are context-specific. Only the people involved—who have a vested interest in the possible future states of their communities, landscapes, markets, ecosystems, etc.—are equipped to make the best decisions to get to those futures.

As Ajilore and Fatunbi state in their paper, “Clarity on the purpose and focus of the work to be done is of great importance. Participants need to understand the scope and limits – such as geographical and time limits – of the system which they will be exploring at the beginning of the foresight exercise. The questions what, where, when and who need to be answered before proceeding to the main exercise.” Importantly, given economic realities in Africa, agriculture “will only support sustainable livelihoods if it is operated in a business mode”. That is, creating opportunities for youth and women to build enterprises must be kept as an overarching goal.

After getting a full picture of context, participants are led through a scenario building process. This requires first examining “the forces of change that have been driving or have the potential to drive or influence the system…under broad categorizations of social, technological, environmental, economic and political forces.” The forces are then defined and the mutual influences at work between them are teased out. With the help of proprietary software, this “structural analysis” results in a map of the direct influences of forces of change in the system in question.




From these numerous forces of change, the “driving forces” which have the strongest influence are culled out. These driving forces are used to build the frame of the scenarios; plausible scenarios are produced; and follow-up actions are identified that would be required to achieve these futures in reality.


The process of learning by doing


“Understanding plausible futures of agriculture and harnessing the knowledge to influence or shape agricultural development discourses and policies (and to guide the implementation of policies) will require a critical mass of a new generation of African agricultural scientists, research and development experts, innovators and policymakers with the ability to combine forward thinking and strategic foresight with their engagements. Building the capacity of this new set of agricultural development futurists that will embed futures thinking into their respective agricultural research and development roles, is important and urgent.”

– Excerpt from “Exploring the Futures of Agricultural Research and Innovations (ARI) Systems in Africa”


Ajilore and Fatunbi’s paper describes the foresighting process in greater detail, elucidating six scenarios that were developed by participants in a foresight training and exploration workshop co-organized and co-resourced by GFAR and FARA earlier this year in Accra, Ghana. Like past grassroots foresight workshops, the Accra workshop used the co-elaborative scenario-based foresight technique emphasizing “effectiveness, inclusion, relevance and capacity development of the participants – through the process of learning by doing.”



Group working on clarifying definition of driving forces by brainstorming


Looking specifically at the futures of agricultural research and innovation systems in Africa, the workshop served as the foundation for an Africa Foresight Academy. The 15 young African professionals involved are anticipated to build a critical mass of foresight practitioners who will help shape the futures of agricultural research and innovation for development. The practitioners will be expected to embed futures thinking and foresight processes into their own engagements; provide future-smart contributions to policy; and apply strategic foresight in the implementation of the Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa (and other relevant agricultural agendas) at regional and country levels.


Some testimonials from participants in the Accra workshop:

“[The training] has helped improve my role in exchanging knowledge with farmers as well as sharing agricultural technologies with smallholder farmers in rural Nigeria. I have been able to take on more responsibilities due to the new foresight knowledge gained during the workshop. It enhanced my scenarios building abilities [through creating] solutions before encountering barriers.”

“I have used the foresight knowledge and skills in strategic planning. I work for a manufacturer of agriculture machinery and I’m involved in the development of the strategy for the African market. The foresight training helped me to identify the 6 key driving forces of research and innovation and I always keep these forces in mind when developing strategy.”

“We are developing alternative future scenarios under a changing climate in a new project and foresight knowledge has come in handy. Of interest is the complementarity of climate modelling, scenarios and foresight.”

Read more about the Accra workshop HERE and HERE.


Going forward, Bunmi Ajilore will work alongside FARA Secretariat on developing the architecture of the Africa Foresight Academy. Follow-up meetings of the members of the Academy are being held to look at the futures of specific issues and areas of agricultural research, innovation and development in Africa.


More than a tool

Africa cannot rely on the way agriculture has been, and is being practiced. “It will have to draw heavily on locally relevant, sound science based, and well adopted agricultural research and innovations, tailored to African contexts,” Ajilore and Fatunbi advise.

The Africa Foresight Academy which has been launched this year is a promising step for Africa towards taking up appropriate innovations. Because, as is the case in all GFAR initiatives, it is an example of attitudes and approaches being changed, to encourage new behaviors and ways of working together. Foresight itself is much more than a tool; it is a way of thinking. It is a process that has the capacity to change the mindset of people, enabling them to explore what might happen to them, to their livelihood and their environment. With foresight they see more options today than they thought because they discover that, even if the future can never be predicted, plausible futures can be anticipated, influenced and shaped – hopefully for the better.


Click here for information on the GFAR Webinar: Beyond decision making: Foresight as a process for improving attitude towards change. A recording is available here. PowerPoint presentations can be found here.

Follow the conversation online on #Foresight4Ag.

Blog post by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat

GFAR Blog: https://blog.gfar.net/2018/12/12/tapping-the-potential-of-africas-futures/


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