An institutional perspective on farmers’ water management and rice production practices in Benin

G.G.E. Totin

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This thesis is part of the wider debate about the role of institutions in agricultural innovation processes. It

investigates how institutions shape rice production in inland valleys in Benin. It starts from a scoping study

(prior to this research) on smallholder irrigation in Benin, which indicated irrigation water stress as one of

the main problems in the rice production chain. The authors explain the water scarcity as the consequence

of poor maintenance of the irrigation canals, whereas others think that is a direct manifestation of climate

change. It appears that a mono‐technical explanation cannot give a deep enough understanding of the

existing water problem, which has various dimensions. The thesis therefore assumes that an institutional

perspective would provide a better insight into the barriers that hinder the efficient use of irrigation water

in the rice production chain.

Chapter 1 introduces the main problems teased out in the book. Between 1976 and 1990, the Benin

government initiated numerous interventions to increase local rice production. These different

interventions were ineffective because of the many innovation barriers that existed in the rice chain.

Therefore, the first research question addressed in this research is: what are the constraints in the local rice

value chain and the opportunities for innovation in the research areas?

After the 2007 rice crisis, the government introduced a new generation of interventions which

prioritised the institutional facilities (e.g., subsidies for seeds and loans for fertiliser, market facilities and so

forth) to support the intensification of local rice production. There have been successful outcomes in terms

of increased rice yield, rice production and farmers’ income. So, this research is interested in studying the

effectiveness of the two generations of interventions in the rice value chain. The following research

question is also addressed: how and to what extent does the new generation of interventions create space

for rice production in the research areas and overcome the shortcomings of previous interventions?

Which factors hinder the effective use of irrigation water and the development of the local rice value

chain in the three research areas are further explored in a diagnostic study and described in Chapter 2. The

diagnosis indicates that it is not only technical constraints that hinder the local rice production chain;

rather, a combination of technical and institutional factors affect the development of rice production.

Moreover, both local and higher level institutional barriers influence negatively the local rice value chain.

The barriers to innovation include: unclear division of responsibilities for canal maintenance between local

farmer groups and the government, lack of effective local rules for the distribution of the available water

and maintenance of the irrigation infrastructures, distrust among farmers and the constraining formal and

informal credit systems and uncertain market outlets. These constraints reduce rice output and farmers’


After identifying the main economic, institutional and technical constraints that limited the

development of the local rice production chain, the study also describes the potential opportunities that

exist for innovation in the chain. Chapter 2 shows that, from a bio‐technical perspective, in the three

irrigation schemes, the actual rice output remains far below the estimated potential of the command areas,

given the water and land available in the inland valleys. It establishes that there is room for a considerable

increase in rice production and associated incomes. For instance, in Koussin‐Léléand Bamè, farmers have

lands in the uplands as well as the lowlands. Less than 10% of the potential land is used for rice production.

Chapter 4 shows an option to improve soil moisture in the uplands and extend rice production in this part

of the valleys.

In the research areas, there are differences in the extent to which the rules for collective activities

are set and followed. The farmers cooperate, for instance, to collectively purchase inputs, make collective

credit requests or sell collectively the harvested rice. At the start of the study however, not all the farmers

contributed to the collective cleaning of the canals to increase the water discharge that serves all of them.

among the farmers, a comparative analysis of the three research areas was conducted, using a framework

to highlight key contextual differences such as the nature of the resource, the characteristics of the user

group and farmer‐based institutional arrangements in the geographical areas. The findings of the case

studies, reported in Chapter 3, draw attention to the balance between water demand and availability, the

existence of inequities and privileged positions within the groups and the strength of farmers’ group

organisation and the ability to sanction uncooperative behaviour. The existence of alternative sources of

livelihood also influenced cooperation. Contrary to our expectations, the analysis shows that the largest

and most diverse group of farmers appeared best organised and equipped to engage in cooperation. Large,

diverse farmer groups allow the emergence of institutional arrangements that can overcome social

dilemma situations and demotivation emanating from customary privileges and exemptions.

A collaborative action research approach was used to explore the opportunity to expand rice

production in the upland areas. In Chapter 2, it was already established that rice production could be

improved for the uplands if there was a better supply of irrigation water. This analysis inspired the action

research conducted in collaboration with the rice farmers (from the three production research areas), an

extension agent and a researcher to examine the application of mulch (three doses) and the use of a highyield

lowland rice variety to replace an upland rice variety (Chapter 4). Multiple methods suggested by both

the researcher and farmers themselves were used to evaluate the trial results: quantitative evidence was

combined with qualitative evaluation, using indicators agreed upon by the collaborating group. The results

show that the lowland rice variety IR‐841 with 10 t ha‐1 ‘rice‐straw’mulch allows farmers to better use

available water in the upland areas and increase rice yields. Although opting for IR‐841 over the specially

bred upland variety Nerica‐4 is risky because of its high water demand and the uncertainty in rainfall

distribution, farmers use IR‐841 for profit maximisation. Beyond its technical output, the joint

experimentation facilitated the exchange of knowledge, experiences and practices among the involved


Since the rice crisis of 2007, the government of Benin has initiated a variety of short‐and long‐term

programmes aimed at providing access for farmers to agricultural inputs for local rice intensification.

Chapter 5 explores the interplay between the external interventions of the government programmes and

the local actions of farmers, in the three research areas. Using an actor‐oriented perspective combined

with the timelines of the chronological events, the study concludes that farmers’ local actions interact at

diverse junctures with the external interventions. The study shows that it is not only external interventions

that trigger changes; rather, the interaction between external interventions and farmers’ local actions

makes room for changes to happen. Moreover, the investigations show that, although the same

institutional conditions (through the different government interventions) were provided to rice farmers in

the three study areas, located close to one another, there are similar, but also divergent, hence unexpected

outcomes regarding farmers’ social practices. The most obvious unexpected outcomes of the programme

interventions are the change from limited collective canal cleaning to individual effective canal cleaning in

Koussin‐Lélé, the use of pumps in upland areas in Bamèand farmers who changed from growing vegetables

or maize alone to growing rice in combination with these in Zonmon. The wish to satisfy subsistence

livelihood needs, the different production options available and natural biophysical conditions (e.g., floods)

are the main factors that contribute to shaping farmers’ local actions and explain the diversity of practices

in the three research areas, although they all received the same interventions.

Chapter 6 provides answers to the research questions formulated in Chapter 1 and reflects on how

the different results from the thesis contribute to the policy debate about how to improve rice production

in Benin. Reflection on the sustainability of the current rice intensification policy established that the

government interventions constitute a “protected space”. However, there is no guarantee that the

intensification of local rice production will still continue when the supports provided by the government

projects end. Another limitation of the rice intensification policy is that it relies on the use of the irrigation

schemes designed for one cropping season in a context where farmers are now producing up to three

cropping seasons a year. The inadequacy of the irrigation design concept for the intensification of rice

production might contribute to explaining why some of the farmers are suffering from the lack of irrigation

water. Moreover, although the inland valleys in Benin are a potential area for rice production, they are also

complex ecosystems with irregular water supply wherein smallholder farmers must carefully allocate

available resources.

The thesis shows the importance of institutions in agricultural production. Many institutional studies

are about social issues. One of the main contributions of this thesis relates to the points it established by

linking institutional issues with technical dimensions. Chapters 3 and 4 explain the interrelations between

institutions and water management practices. The experimental procedure described in Chapter 4 was

grounded in the institutional context but also has a technical purpose that is, identifying water use options

that allow the expansion of rice production in the uplands. By exploring a technical issue like water

management from an institutional perspective, the thesis provides clear understanding of the reasons

behind farmers’ seemingly illogical or irrational water management practices.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Stroosnijder, Leo, Promotor
  • Mongbo, R., Promotor, External person
  • van Mierlo, Barbara, Co-promotor
  • Agbossou, E., Co-promotor, External person
Award date10 Dec 2013
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789461738103
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • oryza
  • rice
  • crop production
  • water management
  • policy
  • benin

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