The overall purpose of farmer study circles (FSCs) is to create learning, capacity, and empowerment among small-scale farmers. FSCs are part of a multitude of approaches to agricultural extension for groups of farmers that are based on adult learning principles. Such approaches are self-directed/autonomour, based on existing knowledge and life experiences, goal-oriented, relevant, practical, and collaborative.
Philosophy and principles
FSCs are developed from the general concept of study circles (Box 1). The first study circles were founded in Sweden in 1912, and the approach has been applied worldwide, for example in the US Everyday Democracy movement, the Australian Study Circles Network, Bangladesh, study circles on HIV/AIDS for Swazi women (1), and Zimbabwean study circles on community-based human rights (2). Study circle methods and principles are also applied in related group approaches, such as the discussion groups used in Ireland by Teagasc (Agriculture and Food Development Authority); experience-sharing groups (erfa groups) (3) used by the Danish Agricultural Advisory Service; and farmer field schools .
The basic idea of FSCs is to promote democracy, skills development, education, and access to information through the establishment of small groups of small-scale farmers who come together to learn and improve their skills on topics of common interest. In this way, farmers can discover their ability to change their lives through common study and action.
A study circle is a small group of people with common interests who conduct voluntary studies on topics of their own choice. Together they are able to acquire new knowledge, and to scrutinise conditions and opportunities for developing their own society. Participants in a study circle learn from a combination of their peers’ experiences and the technical and factual information obtained through all of their studies. This involves interaction, to which all participants contribute.
The principles of FSCs are:
- equality and democracy
- experience sharing and cooperation
- freedom and the right to set one’s own objectives
- continuity, planning, and active participation
- use of study materials
- focus on action and change.
Farmer study circles differ from most other group methods in promoting self-governed groups of farmers who study on their own, without external facilitation other than mobilisation and provision of materials.
Depending on the context and purpose, FSCs may be implemented in various ways. Usually a network or organisation facilitates the mobilisation of a group and provides study material. The FSCs developed in Africa and promoted by We Effect are supported by farmer organisations. The steps involved in implementing an FSC through farmer organisations are as follows.
- Build awareness and capacity at all levels.The preliminary steps within the farmer organisation are to sensitise the staff, train core and field staff, and train farmers to become FSC organisers.
- Mobilise groups of FSCs. Farmer organisations implement FSCs through their existing local structures, such as information centres, cooperatives, and local area associations. The local structures choose representatives to be FSC organisers. The FSC organisers work in the community to encourage people to mobilise and form FSCs; facilitate the election of FSC leaders and orient them; distribute materials; and support activities. Once the FSC is formed, the group elects an individual to become the FSC leader, who takes responsibility for ensuring that everyone takes an active part in discussions.
- Choose the study topic. Participants plan for themselves what and how they want to study, based on the FSC’s principles.
- Access study materials. The FSC leader distributes the relevant study materials to the group. The materials are obtained from the farmer organisation via the FSC organiser. Participants decide how to share, use, and keep the material.
- Promote action. FSCs link the participants’ acquired knowledge to action and change through experience sharing, hands-on practice, demonstrations, visits, common field activities, and field days.
- Produce study materials. Learning materials may include booklets, radio (5), or video. The supporting organisations develop study materials to support group learning, based on the farmers’ requests.
Monitor the results
The FSC organisers monitor results in the field in terms of how participants’ lives have changed as a result of the FSC. They collect and consolidate information from the study groups’ self-assessments and pass it on to the farmer organisation.
Implementing an FSC requires a well functioning, visionary organisation from national to community level. This is important for planning the process and monitoring achievements, and for providing consistent supervision and support to the FSCs at field level. Training materials are key to successful implementation as technical study materials support the FSCs with new information and learning. Staff and FSC organisers are guided through an implementation manual.
The capacity and selection of FSC organisers is critical. Field experience (6) shows that communities tend to select FSC organisers based on their good behaviour, citing criteria such as good literacy level, model farmer, sober, trustworthy, honest, and hardworking.
The FSC organisers are trained in:
- mobilising and forming FSCs
- orienting FSC leaders in conducting sessions and facilitating active group participation and learning
- monitoring, supervising, and supporting FSCs.
Training and facilitation
Farmer study circles have few expenses. At the community level, FSCs are based on voluntary participation by both the FSC leader and the participants. An FSC may require external technical support; for example, FSCs in Africa use the links and networks of farmer organisations and government extension services to obtain technical support. The training of FSC organisers requires a venue and support logistics including transport, accommodation, an implementation manual, stationery, and meals. From the experience in southern Africa, training costs range from US$120–150 per FSC organiser established. One study circle organiser will typically manage 5–10 FSCs each with an average of 10 members. An organiser managing more than five groups will need support for transport. In Africa, a good bicycle typically costs about US$85–90.
Production and maintenance of training materials
The most common format used is a printed booklet. There will be costs for writing the text, illustrations, graphic design, and printing. In southern Africa, developing and printing 2,000 copies of a booklet will cost in the range US$6–10 per book. As the writing and layout are a one-off expense, reprinting is less expensive, at approximately US$3–5 per book. If an FSC organiser works with 10 FSCs, each with 10 participants, the approximate annual cost of starting and running an FSC is as low as US$4–6 per participant.
To date, FSCs have mostly used written materials, so it is important that participants are literate. However, this isn’t always the case, and the FSC leader must be able to accommodate illiterate participants. Materials must be easy to read and presented in the local language. Discussions must include all participants and bring out their experiences and concrete solutions to problems.
Strengths and weaknesses
Different categories of farmers and other rural people from all over the world have benefitted from learning through FSCs. The experiences have been particularly good among small-scale farmers. Farmer study circles are especially beneficial for rural women’s participation and learning. As FSCs are self-directed, they address the particular needs of the participants, and women can learn and contribute without being subject to the male bias of conventional extension services. Women tend to appreciate the collaborative and practical way of working in an FSC (8).
Innovations and community action
The concept is action-oriented for problem solving and innovation. Groups identify topics for study by identifying common problems. The materials promote new ways of addressing problems through innovation and community action, including the following.
- Links to financial services through group savings and loans associations; and to formal financial institutions such as banks in Zambia, and savings and credit cooperatives in Malawi, Kenya, and Uganda.
- Links to market services through forming produce-aggregation centres and selling in bulk. Similarly, input suppliers sell and deliver to FSCs, reducing the cost of doing business with individual farmers.
Generally, FSCs are most successful with homogenous groups of people in similar situations and with shared concerns. It may not be appropriate to introduce FSCs in contexts of highly hierarchical and authoritarian patterns, or in conflict-driven environments (10), unless ways are found for collaboration of equal members as seen in women’s FSCs in Bangladesh and in human rights work in Zimbabwe (11) .
Farmer study circles are self-governed. The FSC organisers, leaders, and members are trained on principles of democracy, equality, and cooperation.
Evidence of impacts, sustainability, and scalability
Improvement in incomes and livelihoods
Participants in FSCs showed 20% improved production and productivity, and 50% improved incomes and livelihoods. Through FSCs, participants improved the health and nutrition status of their families. Non-members also benefit from FSCs. For example, information centres built for FSCs also serve as libraries for communities, and some of the income generated from the FSCs is used to support orphans, the elderly, and people affected by HIV/AIDS.
Participants improve their public speaking skills, and FSCs effectively disseminate information on rights and policy issues and provide participants with a stronger voice in influencing policies or improving rights. Farmer study circles may raise issues and feed these into mainstream organisations for lobbying and advocacy, to influence both the local government agenda and central government policies. Farmer study circles are a vehicle for further change as members transfer their knowledge and democratic behaviour to other systems of community collaboration. They may also offer adult literacy classes, and there are FSCs on HIV/AIDS that provide a public voice for rural women (14).
Gender equality at household and community levels
Women experience empowerment both in their households and at community level. They voice their opinions and concerns in the presence of men. Women also practise this behaviour in their households, where they communicate more freely. With an improved economic situation and literacy levels obtained through participation in FSCs, women may take part in decision-making and control the resources in their houses and communities.
Realising the power of knowledge for innovation
The methodology promotes the sharing of both indigenous and scientific technical knowledge systems. Participants in FSCs have been able to innovate using locally available resources. In Malawi, women participants shared ideas on producing compost manure, built a raised goat-house, and constructed a clay stove to reduce the amount of firewood used for cooking. Women FSC participants from the Zambia Honey Council made clay/straw beehives as they could not afford wooden beehives.
Farmer study circles were originally intended to be temporary and to dissolve when the group had finished studying the selected topic. The reality, however, is that FSCs stay together for many years and continue studying new topics (15). Partner organisations support the permanent structure and see FSCs as important in their organisation at grassroots level.
Farmer study circles build sustainable capacity in communities, resulting in long-term empowerment and social transformation. Participants are able to sustain the activities and take the resulting innovations into sustainable actions such as savings and loan groups, small-scale businesses, and market initiatives. Farmer networks and associations have emerged as a follow-up effect, and these units allow small-scale farmers to access more lucrative markets.
Dos and don’ts
Carefully train promoters, organisers, and FSC leaders to encourage equality and democratic processes
Make FSC organisers and leaders ‘dictators’
Promote FSCs for 10–20 participants
Have groups smaller than 10, which makes an FSC vulnerable and too small to ensure adequate inspiration
Have groups larger than 20, which makes group processes too complicated
Promote homogenous groups in terms of wealth, power, education, and gender in communities with strongly unequal power systems
Promote FSCs with big inequalities in terms of power and voice
Insist on self-direction/ governance
Interfere with the FSC’s decisions about topics and activities
Provide support for monitoring and backstopping
Promote FSCs where there is inadequate capacity for monitoring and supervision in the support organisation
Facilitate links to service providers and market actors, and enable FSCs to make their own contacts and demands
Provide grant support, except for purchase of technical services
Develop study materials based on requests by FSC participants
Plan services on behalf of FSCs
Provide study materials in non-academic, simple, action-oriented form
Plan and develop materials that have not been requested
Provide study materials in vernacular languages
Provide theoretical materials in scientific language
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Sekeleti, M. 2015. Study circle implementation manual. 2nd edn. Lusaka: We Effect Regional Office Southern Africa
This paper was produced by We Effect with financial support provided by the agencies with the logos below.
This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This publication has not gone through IFPRI’s standard peer-review procedure. The opinions expressed here belong to the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of PIM or CGIAR.