Methodology for Designing Alternative Ecosystem for Restoring Indigenous Knowledge of Smallholder Communities in India

Maya Narayan & Anshul Agrawal, Holon Perspectives LLP India

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This ongoing research study aims at presenting a methodology for designing an alternative ecosystem for restoring indigenous knowledge of smallholder communities in India, which is conducive for their transition from the contemporary discourse of “Industrial Paradigm”, comprising of a top-down model of large agricultural research and development (R&D) agencies that provide the latest, formally researched innovations to farmers, to a “Participatory Paradigm”, comprising of a bottom-up model of community-based solutions that will provide them with more equitable as well as sustainable agricultural outcomes (Titzer, 2017).

This project took shape organically, from an earlier study conducted by us, for identifying leveraging points within the rice value chain to make it more equitable for smallholder farming communities in the state of Karnataka, India, in collaboration with a partner organization. While conducting primary research for the study, we realized these communities had developed an increased dependency on extension service agents to innovate, thereby losing their capacity to innovate individually as well as collectively.

Traditionally, most agricultural advancement in developing countries took place through informal innovations by smallholder farming communities that worked together, sharing best practices with one another, collectively. However, since the adoption of the Green Revolution, the transfer of knowledge to farmers regarding industrialized farming and increased productivity has been routed through agricultural extension service agents. This “expert-driven” approach systemically created a dynamic that has led to the break down of social networks and community safety net structures that were earlier accessible to smallholder farming communities. The inherent complexity of the extension service agent’s position is that they operate within the industrial paradigm, where although they are expected to help the farmer, the local knowledge embedded in the farming community is not leveraged into action and is in fact on the verge of being lost.When we looked at the present condition of the whole system using the 5R framework developed by USAID (USAID, 2016), which is a framework used to identify key aspects of a system, in terms of understanding how it functions and identifying key leverage points for introducing change within the system, we got the following insights:

  1. Roles – Farmer’s role is confined to his field. The main role is the cultivation of crops.
  2. Resources – Farmers have very limited resources in terms of landholding, financial capital, technical know-how, institutional capacity, etc.
  3. Rules – The current agricultural system is predominantly governed by profit, not by sustainability and equity, thus creating centralized power dynamics that benefit a few powerful actors
  4. Relationships – Relationship asymmetries exist, wherein farmers don’t have any decision making power, and the relationships among mid-level of value chain actors are strong. Existing power inequalities hinder the promotion of collective benefits
  5. Results – The system provides favourable economic results to the mid-level actors of the value chain and poor outcomes like poor fertility, food loss, high wastage, etc. for farmers. Also, the extent of poor outcomes is not adequately measurable due to lack of availability of data and transparency

To translate our insights from the 5R framework into the dynamic understanding of the system, we used causal loop diagrams(CLD). From the CLDs it emerged that the reinforcement of the industrial paradigm over decades, has been largely influenced by the economic and political interests of a few privileged individuals, communities as well as organizations, who have gained access to resources such as large quantities of cultivable land, market linkages, favourable credit supply, etc., thereby creating and/or reinforcing structures that exploit the labour of the most vulnerable landless farmers within the agriculture system.

Thus, there is a need to envision an alternative agriculture ecosystem, where existing structures and processes can be utilized optimally for creating a repository of indigenous knowledge and collective sharing of best practices, especially in priority areas such as access to seed banks, credit facilities, multiple cropping techniques, farm to table practices, etc.

To demonstrate the merit of transitioning to such an alternative agricultural ecosystem for restoring indigenous knowledge we are studying the current literature on topics related to Agroecology and Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK). We are performing a multiple case study analysis on previous IEK systems to understand the principal methods in their implementation, outcomes, opportunities, and challenges that they present. Through this paper, we will be presenting a methodology that will be useful for designers creating an ecosystem for reviewing restorative farming techniques and practices that have been adopted across India.

The methodology will incorporate the following parameters:

  1. Vertical as well as horizontal linkages across farmer communities, and their potential to scale
  2. Interventions that enable cultural knowledge transmission and climate adaptation
  3. Focus on power dynamics and intersectionality
  4. Focus on institutional support for collectives such as village enterprise groups, farmers’ co-operatives, self-help groups, water groups, indigenous seed banks, etc.

This methodology can enable designers to create more holistic participatory design approaches, owing to a better understanding of the context of the community members in terms of caste and gender intersectionalities, economic status, etc., making the participatory design democratic and equitable in a true sense (Harrington et al., 2019). Applying this methodology to their design praxis can also provide a more sustainable way to transition towards a climate-resilient agricultural economy. Lastly, this paper presents a different perspective on looking at considerations for engaging in community-led participatory design engagements that provide answers to many complex issues within a system.


Care International. (2015). The Sustainable, Productive, Equitable, and Resilient (Super) Principles.
Garces, L. M., & Gordon da Cruz, C. (2017). A Strategic Racial Equity Framework. Peabody Journal of Education, 92(3), 322–342.
Harrington, C., Erete, S., & Piper, A. M. (2019). Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 3(CSCW), 1–25.
McCarter, J., Gavin, M. C., Baereleo, S., & Love, M. (2014). The challenges of maintaining indigenous ecological knowledge. Ecology and Society, 19(3).
Staff, R. (2019). A Food System Built for Inequity. Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.
Titzer, L. (2017). Participating in Change: Farmer-Led Documentation. A Growing Culture.
USAID. (2016). The 5Rs framework in the program cycle. In USAID Learning Lab.

Posted: Oct-2020

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