Model results versus farmer realities. Operationalizing diversity within and among smallholder farm systems for a nuanced impact assessment of technology packages

M. Michalscheck*, J.C.J. Groot, B. Kotu, I. Hoeschle-Zeledon, K. Kuivanen, K. Descheemaeker, P. Tittonell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Agricultural production in Northern Ghana is dominated by smallholder farm systems, which are characterized by low inputs and low outputs, declining soil fertility, large yield gaps and limited adoption of agricultural technologies. There is an urgent need for alternative farm designs that are more productive, yet more sustainable. Technology packages for sustainable intensification are promoted by an R4D project in the Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana. In this paper, we analyse differences in perceived suitability, and modelled technical impact per technology package. We used a locally validated framework to categorise farm systems diversity that considers both, the horizontal (between households) and vertical (within households) dimension of diversity. Farm households were classified along a gradient of resource endowment. We selected one representative farm per type and per region to assess and compare their socio-economic and environmental performance (farm profitability, labour and soil organic matter inputs) using the whole-farm model Farm DESIGN. We then used Farm DESIGN to assess the potential impact of five proposed technology packages and to explore promising alternative farm configurations. We discussed model assumptions and results with farmers, including alternative cropping patterns and trade-offs. We evaluated the packages with different household members using a weighted scoring technique, subsequently juxtaposing model results with farmer perceptions. Large differences prevailed among and within farms per type and per region, with low resource endowed farms being projected to benefit most in relative and least in absolute terms from an adoption of the packages. Farmer feedback confirmed the accuracy of alternative farm configurations, as determined by the model. However, the feedback also revealed that the most profitable farm designs would be hard to attain in reality, particularly for members of low and medium resource endowed households, due to high initial investment costs. Within households, women were more positive about the packages than men, since men heavily penalized extra costs and labour, translating into a greater congruence of model results with the male evaluation. We discuss the importance of distinguishing between technical (technology i.e. purchased tools and inputs) and managerial (techniques e.g. row planting) package components. We conclude that operationalizing inter- and intra-household diversity is a fundamental step in identifying sensible solutions for the challenges smallholder farm systems face in Northern Ghana.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)164-178
JournalAgricultural Systems
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • Ex-ante impact assessment
  • Northern Ghana
  • Technology adoption
  • Typologies
  • Whole-farm model Farm DESIGN


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