TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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Social innovations for healthy soils and human well-being

Supporting smallholders in safeguarding soil ecosystems

by Larissa Stiem-Bhatia | 2020-12-04

Social innovations for healthy soils and human well-being

Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity” is the motto of this year’s World Soil Day. It highlights the vital role healthy soils play in keeping ecosystems intact, as well as the need to protect the world’s soil resources. Healthy and biodiverse soils are essential to human wellbeing. Among other functions, they filter and store water, provide mineral nutrients, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and enable 95 percent of food production.

In a word, soils mean life! Yet today, our soils face unprecedented challenges. Deforestation, the overuse of chemical pesticides, mono-cropping, as well as droughts, heavy rainfalls, and storms — to name but a few — pose serious threats to our soils. The equivalent of one soccer pitch of soil is eroded and rendered infertile every five seconds.

Smallholder farmers — who make up roughly one third of the world’s population — play an important role in safeguarding soil ecosystems. They are, however, often impeded by an array of structural barriers in doing so. Smallholder farmers often lack the secure rights to the land they farm, the financial means for long-term investments in soil health, or access to the technical knowledge to deal with changing climatic conditions.

Smallholder farmers ploughing the soil in western Burkina Faso © Larissa Stiem-Bhatia/ TMG Research

Much knowledge about the technical aspects of sustainable land management exists, such as the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT)What is needed for the most part is tapping this knowledge and creating the enabling conditions for farmers to be able to apply this knowledge.

Rethinking innovation

Participatory, community-driven approaches focusing on local dialogues can address these gaps. TMG Research, in partnership with national and local non-governmental organisations (NGO), developed social innovations to overcome some of the challenges smallholder farmers face in managing their soils sustainably.

Social innovations — as a concept — emerged in response to the technocratic focus in innovation theory. The introduction of the social dimension is based on the idea that the diffusion and adoption of innovations depend on social contexts and require a change in attitudes and behaviours, as well as norms, systems, and institutions. The process of developing social innovations is particularly important. On one hand, the actors participating in the innovation process acquire new skills, and change their attitudes and perceptions by jointly developing solutions. On the other hand, the solutions developed by the affected people are locally embedded and socially acceptable.

One of the ways in which TMG and its partners have applied this concept to address the structural challenges faced by smallholder farmers is through social “experimentation” around alternative ways of securing land rights, and spreading knowledge about soil protection.

In Northern Benin, TMG Research, in partnership with farmers and local NGOs, developed an alternative approach to diffuse technical knowledge about soil protection from farmer to farmer: the so-called Tem Sesiabun Gorado model. The model was developed through a participatory process that involved more than 17 village consultation meetings with hundreds of farmers, and local NGOs. Based on the concept of social debt, community members elect their community-based agent (CBA) who receives the privilege of participating in trainings about sustainable soil management as well as inputs (e.g. seeds to soil improving cover crops). To repay this debt, the CBA selects five fellow farmers to whom he or she transfers the acquired knowledge and seeds (the latter after successful replication). These fellow farmers then become the new generation of community-based agents with the mission of diffusing the knowledge further. Over a period of two years, the project worked with more than 1,100 farmers in the two villages, of whom 38 percent were women. Today, these farmers apply a multitude of measures (e.g. nitrogen-fixing cover crops, mulching of harvest residues) that prevent soil erosion and enhance soil organic matter.

In Burkina Faso and Kenya, TMG and partners addressed another major obstacle for long-term farmer investments in soil protection: secure land use rights. In Kakamega County, located in the western region of Kenya, TMG and the local grassroots organisation Shibuye Health Workers facilitated a process for the development of community-led land lease guidelines. These guidelines have been developed in a stepwise approach involving local governmental actors, community members and development practitioners. The guidelines intend to make land leasing safer for both — land tenants and owners through formalisation and the presence of witnesses. Especially vulnerable farmers, such as widows gain from secure access to land through leasing — many of whom are now benefitting from soil protection interventions propagating conservation agriculture.

In western Burkina Faso, the national NGO GRAF and TMG, have developed a social innovation to improve women’s tenure situation within the family farm. The model builds on traditional land governance systems. Essentially, land use rights agreements are negotiated between the male head of household and his spouse or other female relatives. These agreements are then GPS recorded and validated by the village community. The goal is to modify existing tenure arrangements to enhance equality and security for women. In the pilot village of Tiarako, over 200 women today have, individually or collectively, today have secure access to a total of over 400 ha.

The social innovations developed in Benin, Kenya and Burkina Faso have one decisive process factor in common: effective, multi-stakeholder collaboration in research design and implementation of solutions that are not only appropriate to local contexts, but are also socially legitimate. Making such bottom-up approaches an integral part of development pathways will not only be key in removing the structural barriers for better management of soils but also for the transition towards a greener, more resilient and just future on the whole.


The research in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Kenya has been implemented by TMG Research (and earlier IASS) between 2015 and 2020 as part of the Global Initiative One World No Hunger financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). All publications, including short films of this research project can be accessed here:

The idea of this accompanying research project was born at the Global Soil Week, a platform bringing together a diverse range of actors to initiate and strengthen policies and actions on sustainable soil management and responsible land governance. The results of the accompanying research project were regularly discussed at the Global Soil Week and provided lessons learnt for a broad range of stakeholders from the partner countries and beyond. More information can be found here:

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