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Developing an action research based approach for understanding local institutions and improving livestock-based livelihoods of communal farmers in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa


British Academy as part of the Newton Mobility Scheme




Stellenbosch University (SU)


Dr. James Bennett (CoI) Coventry University (CU), Dr. Colin Anderson (CU), Dr Cletos Mapiye (SU), Professor Kennedy Dzama (SU)

Project Objectives

The proposed project brings together scholars from Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University (CU) and Department of Animal Sciences (DoAS) at Stellenbosch University (SU) as part of a knowledge exchange around action based research approaches that can be applied in exploring local institutions and livelihoods of communal livestock farmers in South Africa. Staff and postgraduate students from DoAS at SU are involved in several livestock-based projects within rural communities in Eastern Cape Province focused on improving livestock nutrition, meat quality, animal marketing and livelihoods benefits for local people.

To date their approach to knowledge creation as part of these projects has mostly been grounded in traditional modes of scientific enquiry and has only recently begun to embrace more participatory approaches. In particular, there has been limited success in understanding the institutional dynamics of project delivery and its impact on livestock-based livelihoods, which is important as some project interventions are generating limited livelihood outcomes.

Local institutional interactions are often highly complex involving multiple actors from government, traditional authority and civil society and understanding how this impacts on local livelihoods and developing pathways for more effective engagement in project delivery that limit the opportunity for elite capture of livelihood benefits, is critical. Participatory action research (PAR) offers considerable opportunities in this context for improving understanding and potential livelihood outcomes. By recognising the importance of human agency in the co-production of knowledge there is the potential to better unpack current institutional dynamics around livestock-based livelihood interventions and adopt a collective approach to understanding and exploring alternative ways of achieving this. Researchers at CAWR have a strong track record in using PAR approaches to understand and reconceptualise local institutional dynamics associated with food and smallholder agricultural systems in both the UK and overseas. By drawing on this as part of a knowledge exchange, the project aims to explore the potential of action research to address these issues, by:

  1. Introducing PAR based approaches used by CAWR researchers to DoAS staff and students. Current research practices and experiences within smallholder agricultural systems in developing countries will be shared between CAWR and DoAS researchers and DoAS staff and postgraduate students will be familiarised with the key philosophies underpinning action research and key methodologies in PAR appropriate to these environments. This will involve visits by DoAS staff to the UK as well as CAWR staff to SU.
  2. Examining the potential for PAR approaches to improve understanding of institutions and livestock-based livelihoods for communal farmers. The project will synthesise current understanding of institutional dynamics and livestock-based livelihoods within the research communities. On this basis it will address questions such as: do we fully understand the all of the actors associated with livestock-based project interventions in the research communities, their roles and how they interact? How effective are these current interactions in delivering broad-scale livelihood improvements? Where are the current limitations in institutional interaction around livestock-based project interventions? What is the potential of action research based approaches over more conventional rural appraisal methods (e.g. questionnaires, interviews) to identify limitations in current practice and to collectively develop effective alternatives? Which particular action research approaches might be most effective in achieving this?


The project has created impact in three main ways:

  1. Firstly, it brought together scholars from Coventry University (CU) and Stellenbosch University (SU) to exchange knowledge about participatory action research (PAR) approaches for exploring local institutions and livelihoods of communal livestock farmers in South Africa. As part of this researchers from CAWR with expertise in PAR methodologies interacted with those from SU, both in the UK and South Africa, through a series of lectures, seminars and informal discussions designed to highlight best practice and strengthen understanding of PAR amongst development practitioners at CU.
  2. Secondly, a 3 day workshop was undertaken with local stakeholders (farmers and technicians) in Eastern Cape Province, designed to evaluate their experience of involvement in custom feeding programmes provided by government to support cattle production. This was also a very useful platform for encouraging participants to explore ways of taking greater responsibility for collective management of these programmes at a community level. Some very useful suggestions were made in this respect and these were captured in the workshop report that was written. This has been circulated to key stakeholders such as National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), who are currently responsible for supporting custom feeding initiatives. The aim is to stimulate further discussion between SU and governmental stakeholders as to how some of the suggestions proposed by the communities might be supported. The report has also been translated into Xhosa and provided to the local communities involved in the workshop. 
  3. On the basis of the wishes of the workshop participants a Facebook page was also set up to facilitate exchange of best practice between emergent farmers and technicians associated with the custom feedlot programmes.

For more information about this project please contact Dr. James Bennett

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