False Start in Africa (1962)

Rene Dumont's "False Start in Africa" (1962) is arguably one of the most influential and widely read texts on agriculture in Africa. The book is more of a conversation, than it is an academic text. However, Dumont was a pioneering voice for identifying key issues such as soil erosion, micronutrient deficiencies, soil type and quality in agricultural planning, (a degree of) participation and ownership, and of the value of local procurement. Readers might not come across many "new" ideas, but it is certainly worthwhile reading (if nothing else to see what was being said 55+ years ago in agricultural development). 

Dumont recommends irrigation, fertilizer, erosion prevention, affordable energy and livestock as keys to agricultural development (p. 32). At the same time, he outlines many failures of large and inappropriate projects (in these same recommended areas). The book offers specifics as what Dumont feels is appropriate and worthwhile. The author suggests that machinery and equipment are essential - along with a reduction of luxury goods (p. 44) - but similarly outlines that the European model should not be blindly followed. Rather, a new path needs to be made by, and for, African nations (p. 58). In many ways, the book offers nuanced critiques and options for moving forward with positive examples (Dumont criticizes academics for their sole focus on failure, without recognizing success). 

Given that the book was written in 1962, Dumont offers some unique perspectives. He says that "Economic progress requires an exodus from rural areas" (p. 195). He also calls for a radical shift in education - one more focused on technical skills, and not the copying of more academic oriented European models unsuitable to the needs of the nation (p. 202). Dumont promoted African and regional unity, economic unions, and continent-wide coordination (p. 264). He also argued that Europeans should not dictate to Africa (note that the author was a former colonial employee), and says "before giving lessons on socialism to Africa, let us set our own houses in order" (p. 280). 

Amidst these interesting discussions, Dumont also offers his fair share of derogatory comments and bad ideas. For example, agricultural credit, he argues, should be given out by the local peasant leader to 'reinforce his authority' (p. 213). That authority, however, can act to entrench marginalization and exploitation. Although the language has changed, Dumont appears to favor the 'developmental state' model of a single party state to push development forward - at the expense of broad and inclusive participation (p. 240). While it is worthwhile recognizing the useful ideas of this book, we should also criticize it (as it is indeed well worth criticism). 

From one perspective, Dumont appears to contradict himself in different parts of the text. However, as mentioned above, the book reads more like a conversation than a structured flow of ideas. So, irrigation infrastructure failures are pointed out, alongside broad opposition to large projects of this nature, while irrigation is also recommended. In my reading, these are general critiques with specific exceptions, rather than contradictions. Another example of this is land tenure. Dumont argues that tenure security is key (p. 128) but also that the land should be communally or state owned, and land should be taken from farmers in some instances (p. 129). While apparently contradictory, it appears that the general rule advocated is tenure security while revoking that security is the exception. Others more versed in Dumont's opinions, or the rest of his works, may have a better understanding - it is nonetheless worth noting for potential readers that the book is one more akin to hearing stories and getting advice from an experienced grandfather, than it is a systematic research work with clearly stated positions / recommendations.

As a side note: Amongst his advice, Dumont recommends African students to read Frantz Fanon (p. 251).

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New Publication: Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Smallholder Farmers

Cochrane, L. (2017) Worldviews Apart: Agriculture Extension and Ethiopian Smallholder Farmers. Journal of Rural Social Sciences 32: 98-118.

Abstract: This paper presents an inquiry-based learning assessment into why farmers in the highlands of Ethiopia were not adopting a new planting methodology promoted by the government and non-governmental organizations. It offers a process of reflexivity whereby assumptions emerge as the key barriers to misunderstanding, and focuses on the concept of divergent worldviews as an important consideration for understanding (non)adoption. The learning process offers insight for policy, programming and research, emphasizing learning instead of definitive conclusions.

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Doctoral Dissertation: Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia

Cochrane, L. 2017. Strengthening Food Security in Rural Ethiopia. Doctoral Dissertation, University of British Columbia. 

Abstract: Food insecurity in rural areas of southern Ethiopia is widespread; in recent years over half of all communities in this region have been reliant upon emergency support. However, food security status varies significantly from year to year, as the region experiences variations in rainfall patterns. Research is required to better understand how food security can be strengthened. To do so, this research was driven by three research questions. First, what makes smallholder farmers in southern Ethiopia vulnerable to food insecurity. Second, according to the literature, the adoption of programs and services is low, and thus a community-based assessment was undertaken to understand why. The third question reflected on the methodology – a participatory, co-produced approach, evaluating whether this form of engaged research enabled positive change. The findings suggest that vulnerability to food insecurity differs by scale. At the community level, access to irrigation infrastructure strengthened food security, and was the most transformative difference between the communities. Within communities, food security distribution was complex and few generalizations can be made. The participatory processes identified that research often makes invisible the purposeful and insightful choices farmers make. When surveyed, they are asked to provide generalizations about input use, crop choice and practices, when in reality each crop, input and practice varies. Similarly, some commonly used measures of vulnerability can also be expressions of security; aggregated averages obfuscate localized inequality. For some programs and services, adoption was found to be quite high – it was only when all services were analyzed as a package that adoption was low. However, not all programs and services served the food insecure households, and the reasons for this are explored in detail. The participatory, co-produced approach enabled unique research questions and metrics and added significant value to the research process, which may also enable long-term positive change to programs and services.

Full text is available for download here.

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New Publication: Debt & Rural Development (Ethiopia)

Cochrane, L. and Thornton, A. (2017) A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Smallholder Borrowing and Debt in Southern Ethiopia. Journal of Rural Studies 49: 69-77.


  • This paper combines qualitative and quantitative research methods in an exploratory study of borrowing and debt in rural southern Ethiopia in order to understand the complexities of the rural finance system and frequency of borrowing and debt in rural, smallholder settings. By comparing geospatial location in relation to access to infrastructure, markets and services within a single agroecological setting, we explore the ways in which these factors influence the frequency of borrowing, sources, amounts and interest rates involved, as well as the duration and extent of borrowing and debt. We find great variation amongst the communities studied, highlighting the importance of the localized nature of borrowing and debt and identify barriers and opportunities that will support the (re)adjusting of policies and programs that would enable smallholder households to overcome cycles of borrowing and debt, and build assets.
The full article is gated. But available here. Abstract and further publication details available via the link above. If you would like a copy of the article, send me an email.
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Logan Cochrane


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