Bridging Indigenous Knowledge with Research in Malawi

Michigan State University is one of OpenTEAM’s original member organizations from 2019. The Michigan State University Hub, located in Malawi, is led by Dr. Sieglinde Snapp, professor of soils and cropping systems ecology and Associate Director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. In Malawi, they are working to build farmer-centric networks of extension officers, researchers, and farmers to generate a new way of working in agriculture that bridges farmers’ indigenous knowledge and researchers’ understanding of soils to create a better functioning farm.

The Malawi Hub is based out of the MSU Global Change Learning Lab, which facilitates agroecology research throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The co-learning lab is providing a platform where researchers can make long-term observations while interacting directly with farmers through on-farm experiments. Dr. Snapp was inspired to create this learning lab when she first visited the area in 1993.

“I could see that traditional approaches to understanding agriculture and soils were just not working. The idea of sending in soil samples from a small-scale farm, who were very poor farmers, and then they would somehow have to analyze the information sent back, it just seemed untenable,” she says. 

Dr. Snapp, along with others, decided to rethink how they approached agricultural research through the Global Change Learning Lab. “I realized more and more science is done on just a few research stations that aren’t very related to the real world. There are huge gaps between researchers and farmers,” she states. They needed to find a way that was more farmer-centric and took into account farmers’ own capabilities to enact new processes on their farms.

Researchers developed new methods to reverse the usual top-down approach by having farmers inform and contextualize the research that is happening, ultimately making each farm they work with a research farm. Using this participatory research method, researchers interact directly with those who actually manage the land. Informed by this, researchers can provide farmers with options that can improve their agricultural practices while being conducive to their needs and capabilities.

This is realized by Dr. Snapp’s innovative “mother-baby” trial design that links farmer-led and researcher-led research together. Through this, farmers’ own knowledge and choices inform the research happening at the university level and farmers themselves can be exposed to a wider range of ideas and options.

“It’s a way of communication, that what farmers choose tells researchers something about which practices farmers like the best and how farmers adapt things is a way for researchers to learn. What is in the mother trial, that has all the options, is a way for farmers to be exposed to a wider range of options,” says Dr. Snapp. 

This newer way of thinking creates positive feedback loops where farmers’ choices inform research and the research informs the farmers’ choices. Creating a process where farmers and researchers can learn from each other in a multi-faceted way.

Current research at the Malawi Hub focuses on giving farmers options in the field as they learn about their soil health. Over the past year, Malawi extension educators went to a thousand farmers and walked the fields with them, using the reflectometer tool provided by Our Sci, to give real time data on soil carbon status. This was the start of a conversation with farmers, asking what farmer’s observed. If farmers had observed issues such as parasitic weeds like ‘striga’, also called witchweed, and other signs of degradation, then options for soil rehabilitation were discussed. By knowing certain characteristics of a farmer’s soil, the educators can suggest options that farmers can try to fix their soil health. Exploring options and engaging in learning together is the start of an entirely new way to do research, a farmer-centric and community based approach.

Dr. Snapp looks forward to developing more interoperability within the OpenTEAM tech ecosystem to better support this participatory research model, such as e-surveys for systematic feedback, the development of apps that allow farmers to find each other and share options that have worked on their farms, and documentation of their soil status through LandPKS and other applications. This is just the beginning, as the Malawi Hub continues to grow in building out its farmer-centric processes and methods. 

Environmental Claims Clearinghouse Works on Statement of Need

The Environmental Claims Clearinghouse Collabathon, which completed in October, constituted a precompetitive effort of more than thirteen organizations, representing diverse market perspectives. They came together to address the global urgency of creating credible environmental service marketplaces that support paying the people working most closely with the land, often farmers or ranchers, for actions which produce specific environmental benefits. These “Environmental Claims”, whether the sequestration of carbon, increases in biodiversity, improvement in water quality, reduction in flooding risk, or any other science-based claim, will require a functioning multi-faceted system that will enable stacking of benefits without double counting. This will benefit land stewards, purchasers, project developers and markets. 

What is an Environmental Claim?

In this case, environmental claims refer to the ecosystem services someone, such as a land steward, is providing to others. This identifies benefits the individual’s work or business has on the ecosystem such as creating cleaner water by avoiding pesticide use and developing buffers. These claims operate similarly to carbon credits, where someone can buy and sell their claims to gain economic benefits from the positive effects they have on the environment.

The ‘markets’ for these claims provide opportunities for diverse participants to come together to buy and sell, but they are in an early stage. Governments, big corporations, start-ups, and nonprofits are all experimenting with different ways to verify and exchange these planetary benefits. It is too early to pick a winner, and attempting to do so would be counterproductive, inhibiting the innovation currently evident.

The purpose of a “clearinghouse” of environmental claims is to allow the broader market to continue to evolve, while bringing trust and stability to certain aspects of day-to-day creation and exchange of these claims. An operational clearinghouse would enable the development of new and diverse claim asset classes across the world, while providing a trusted methodology for claim identification and assurance of uniqueness.
— Collabathon Statement of Need

With multiple competing markets, though, comes a particular problem: how can a buyer know that the claim which they’re purchasing in Market A hasn’t already been sold to someone else in Market D and Market F? This concern for claim authenticity and exclusivity creates the need for a “clearinghouse” between markets. 

What is a Clearinghouse?

A clearinghouse is where all markets, in this case ecosystem services markets, meet to verify individual environmental claims that are being made, ensuring validity and minimizing double-counting of said claim.

Both the buyers and the marketplaces themselves benefit from a system which allows comprehensive and rapid comparison of claims between all participating markets. The clearinghouse can rapidly identify potentially conflicting claims, allowing deeper diligence if necessary. The enhanced trust and transparency achieved through a clearinghouse results in a reduced risk of getting involved for land stewards such as farmers.

A greater share of claims income can flow directly to the producers,
accelerating adoption and hence accelerating global benefits.
— Collabathon Statement of Need

As long as purchasers and the general public are skeptical of environmental claims, markets will remain underdeveloped and inefficient. As trust grows, markets operate more efficiently, with lower costs to market participants and more left over for the people on the ground, doing the work.

The Collabathon participants imagine a clearinghouse operated on a voluntary and non-profit basis to benefit all. Agreement on simple data formats and interchange will allow rapid flagging and resolution of potential conflicts, while maintaining the flexibility to support new and evolving types of claims.  The basic data required is a simple who (claim maker), what (claim type), when (dates and duration of claim), and where (what land is subject of the claim). This would allow member marketplaces to check all new claims before issuance, and provide the ability for any buyer to rapidly affirm the exclusivity of their claim.

As the Collabathon completes its work, the next step is to bring together two or three existing ecosystem services markets and build a prototype clearinghouse system.

Equity in Regenerative Agriculture Collabathon Wraps Up

From September through the end of October we ran our Equity in Practice in Regenerative Agriculture Collabathon in partnership with Open Rivers Consulting Associates and Terra Ethics. Over the course of five weeks, the participants worked to build new skills and create the outline of a toolkit for viewing their work through an equity lens. Much of the discussion focused on how a better understanding of ourselves and others can help bring equity into our daily work, projects, and organizations.

Equity, as contextualized by the OpenTEAM Equity Working Group, is defined as a proportional representation (by race, class, gender, etc.) in opportunities. Equity refers to the fact that different people have varying needs of support and assistance and strives to achieve fairness in treatment and outcomes.

The Collabathon covered a variety of topics needed to guide this equity work in the agriculture space. This included discussing concepts of value, understanding principles of equity, sharing historical context, learning various leadership tools, and developing ways to drive change.

Foundational Concepts

The co-leaders from Open Rivers and Terra Ethics began the Collabathon by defining and discussing foundational topics that would guide participants throughout the sessions. These concepts centered on recognizing  inherent and equal value. This opposes a value-gauging perspective where value arises from social constructs, such as status and wealth, and must be acquired. Racism is based on this value-gauging of individuals. 

This session also defined equity in practice as everyday engagement to ensure equity is upheld in our system, recognizing that any project or initiative must have equitable foundations and begin with an equitable perspective to avoid using the label of “equity” only to satisfy societal expectations. Participants further discussed allyship, defining it as an active and consistent practice of using power and privilege to achieve equity, collaboration, and justice while holding ourselves accountable. The conceptualization of  power and privilege was explored through a discussion of positionality, which requires people to identify their own degree of privilege. The goal is to uncover hidden bias and understand behaviors that cause harm. It was important to spend time defining, discussing, and understanding these key concepts to work towards a larger understanding of how to then put these principles into practice.

Providing Historical Context

Co-leaders also shared various resources such as Regenerative Agriculture Needs a Reckoning and a video on the History of Racism in U.S. Agriculture by Dr. Marcus Bernard, originally aired during “Field to Market’s Cross-Sector Dialogue on Racial Justice,” to provide context for why this Collabathon was happening in the first place. This article and video, among many other resources that were provided, tell the bigger picture of issues of racism in agriculture in the United States and the foundations that still hinder progress.

Leadership Tools

The group then learned about and practiced applying a variety of tools to become better leaders. By being a stronger leader, participants can learn how to best lead institutional and organizational change around equity. These tools focused on self-reflection and self-awareness. Understanding your own values, asking the right questions, and connecting with others in a meaningful and productive way are the underpinnings to this work.

For example, the influence model is used as a tool for approaching change and includes conditions for changing mindsets. First, role modeling emphasizes demonstrating the behavior we wish to see. Understanding and commitment then addresses that we must have and share knowledge of the proposed change to understand the ‘why’. Reinforcing mechanisms offer structures and processes that support the desired change, skills required for that change, and ensures that all parties have access to the expertise needed going forward. The group discussed ways to use these conditions to better engage and understand others in order to drive change. This model is currently being used within OpenTEAM to develop new ways of collaborating amongst each other and supporting Hub and Network farms and ranches, ultimately actualizing the change we want to see organization-wide.

Driving Change

Using leadership tools, the group began to build out a toolkit for bringing equity into their daily work. The emphasis of this toolkit is to recognize yourself, identify your motives and values, and evaluate how you interact with others before trying to change an organization or society as a whole. This structure brings together the leadership tools that participants learned to provide a three-level framework of understanding yourself, engaging with others, and finally leading change. This ties into all aspects of the Collabathon by utilizing foundational concepts and history as context for how these leadership tools can be applied to drive equitable change forward on an individual, organizational, and societal level. 

Throughout these five weeks, participants discovered that institutional change starts from within. To recognize your privilege and position in the space you are working in is key to putting equity into practice. Such work takes time, a better approach to change is slowing down rather than rushing to have an output. By prioritizing the need to recognize yourself, engage with others, and ask the right questions instead of jumping straight to trying to lead change, we lessen the risk of perpetuating harm.

All of these learned concepts, principles, and tools will be shared through a toolkit that can be used widely to help other organizations within OpenTEAM and beyond to start centering principles of equity and driving forward positive change throughout their projects and organizations. The toolkit will take this framework and weave together the fundamental concepts, leadership and interpersonal frameworks, project planning, and implementation tenets into a living, applicable document.