The target groups of ERI are family farmers already organised (or willing to be) in small groups that want to engage in farming as a business. Although the principles and some of the training sessions are relevant to more commercially advanced farmers, the approach is not primarily meant for farmers already with successful agri-businesses and organised in higher-level associations or cooperatives.
The ERI approach includes women, youth and disadvantaged groups and creates appropriate livelihood opportunities for them. In ERI projects in Uganda and Tanzania, many women groups successfully built agro-enterprises upon their specific expertise, such as a catering service with collectively produced vegetables or producing and marketing products like local vegetable seed, sweet potato juice and crisps. It has proved useful for women’s husbands to be included in ERI training so that they gain a better understanding of their spouses’ activities and commitments.
As ERI is an approach that builds on attitudinal change and commonly applicable principles of learning by experimentation or market studies, it is not limited to a specific area of innovation. In earlier and on-going ERI projects in East Africa, farmers developed innovations in production technologies (e.g. by trying out different crop varieties or different cultivation or livestock management practices) and social innovations (e.g. collective production, storage and marketing of produce to different buyers, forming producer associations). Not only groups but also individual farmers embraced the idea of experimental learning and increased their innovative capacity.
Since applying the ERI approach starts with identifying locally available resources as a basis for developing agro-enterprises, it can be used in different ecological environments. In areas where opportunities for diversifying production and marketing of produce are limited, farmers try to overcome those obstacles with acquired knowledge and skills (e.g. by going to distant markets with larger quantities of bulked produce). Difficulties have emerged when working with farmer groups that have become accustomed to receiving free handouts – such as seeds or other farm inputs – from organisations in the region, as this lowers the farmers’ motivation to invest in their enterprise themselves. The approach is not suitable for farmers living in extremely remote areas, as they are too far from potential markets to collect market information and sell their produce.
Evidence of impact and potential scalability
Evaluations of ERI projects in East Africa showed that ERI empowered farmers and stimulated their self-confidence and critical thinking. Farmers developed business attitudes, knowledge, and skills that led to improved production and productivity, better quality of produce, better trade relations, better prices and increased incomes. Success stories and evaluations (see www.eri-approach.info/impact) describe how farmers can now transfer their skills in experimentation and marketing to other enterprises and can respond quickly to a changing environment.
Project evaluations showed that neighbouring communities to participating farmers also benefitted from ERI projects by starting new enterprises, applying soil and water management practices observed in farmer-led experiments or setting up kitchen gardens. However, scaling out the approach horizontally requires substantial funds for the implementing and supporting organisations. Moreover, ERI facilitation with farmer groups requires qualified CDFs to assure the quality of learning and follow-up activities. If the needed resources can be provided by higher-level institutions, e.g. national extension services, the ERI approach could be scaled up gradually while building capacities of CDFs and their trainers.