The challenges faced by rural communities — and the actors who engage with them — change over time. Therefore we need to regularly adapt our ideas on the role, meaning and dynamics of “rural innovation”.
The dynamics of rural innovation in the early 21st century derive, on the one hand, from the challenges that farmers and agriculture face in view of their ever-changing social and natural environment. On the other hand, changes occur within institutions such as NGOs, agriculture extension offices and development organisations in connection with issues such as emergence of new technologies (e.g. new seed varieties, mobile payment methods, renewable energy etc.), new theoretical approaches to rural development (e.g. inclusive business, grassroots movements etc.) and new funding arrangements (e.g. social investments, Prize Funds, etc.).
Rural innovations deal not only with technological solutions but a whole package of social, economic, market and political innovations, which often turn out to be more challenging than the technological aspects. Focal to the challenge is enabling people and organisations with different perspectives and different interests to work together creatively.
One of the most important driving forces for rural innovations are the emerging professionals in the South. Young, educated and close to the local context, they play an important role in catalysing rural innovations. They act as facilitators who mediate between different organisations and as professionals who link theory and practice to foster rural development. As the dynamics of rural innovation changes, these young professionals also need to employ new ways of thinking to see the big picture and acquire new competencies to tackle new challenges together with other stakeholders.
A new book entitled Dynamics of Rural Innovation: A Primer for Emerging Professionals has just been published by the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), aiming to fill the gap in educational material for young professionals and students in the South. It offers insight into the theory and practice of innovation systems and covers relevant background and concepts on the “how to” of facilitating innovation, and the role of the broader context. In other words, how to work with the changing nature of both the context and people involved in rural innovation processes and how to facilitate networks of stakeholders to stimulate innovation.
One of the relatively newer actors in rural innovation dynamics is the private sector, on which I contributed a chapter to that book. It reflects on the case study of a Dutch company which was trying to introduce a new technology for animal nutrition to small-scale farmers. The chapter reflects the obstacles that emerged, and solutions that were devised to facilitate introduction, adaptation and diffusion of a rural innovation. Enhancing the productivity and income generation of the farmers on the one hand, and having an eye on yielding long-term profits for the investor on the other hand, really needs a rough guide!