Why we should rethink ‘adoption’ in agricultural innovation: Empirical insights from Malawi

Thirze D.G. Hermans*, Stephen Whitfield, Andrew J. Dougill, Christian Thierfelder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


The challenges of land degradation, climate change and food insecurity have led to the introduction of conservation agriculture (CA) aimed at enhancing yield and soil quality. Despite positive biophysical results, low adoption rates have been the focus of studies identifying constraints to wider uptake. While the adoption framework is popular for measuring agricultural innovation, objective adoption measurements remain problematic and do not recognize the contextual and dynamic decision-making process. This study uses a technographic and participatory approach to move beyond the adoption framework and understand: (a) how agricultural decision-making takes place including the knowledge construction, (b) how agriculture is performed in a context of project intervention and (c) how practice adaptation plays out in the context of interacting knowledge. Findings confirm that farmer decision-making is dynamic, multidimensional and contextual. The common innovation diffusion model uses a theory of change, showcasing benefits through training lead farmers as community advocates and demonstration trials. Our study shows that the assumed model of technology transfer with reference to climate-smart agriculture interventions is not as linear and effective as assumed previously. We introduce four lenses that contribute to better understanding complex innovation dynamics: (a) social dynamics and information transfer, (b) contextual costs and benefits, (c) experience and risk aversion, and (d) practice adaptation. Investments should build on existing knowledge and farming systems including a focus on the dynamic decision process to support the 'scaling up, scaling out and scaling deep' agenda for sustainable agricultural innovations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1809-1820
Number of pages12
JournalLand Degradation and Development
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • climate-smart agriculture
  • conservation agriculture
  • Malawi
  • no-tillage
  • scaling
  • southern Africa


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