An exploration of agricultural grassroots innovation in South Africa and implications for innovation indicator development

Brigid Letty, Zanele Shezi & Maxwell Mudhara


The core of this paper consists of two case studies of 'grassroots' innovation led by innovative smallholder farmers in a village in South Africa - one about developing an alternative production practice for growing potatoes, and the other about introducing a new cash crop (cherry peppers) and the establishment of a new marketing relationship. One of the purposes of the study was to explore questions about the development of innovation indicators that might support policy and management concerned with this kind of innovation. The case studies are therefore located in the context of a review of existing science, technology and innovation indicators and their limitations with respect to this area of agricultural innovation. Another purpose was to identify and clarify the position of 'grassroots' innovation within other perspectives on different kinds of innovation system (or mode of innovation) in agriculture in developing countries. The case studies are also therefore set in the context of a review of literature about these other system perspectives, focusing in particular in 'formal' and 'informal' systems, and on 'grassroots' and 'participatory' modes of innovation involving interactions between formal and informal systems. The combination of case studies and broader reviews leads to two main conclusions: (1) grassroots and other participatory modes of agricultural innovation merit much greater policy attention than they have received; but (2) the base of available analysis and indicators about these approaches to innovation and their effectiveness is still inadequate to inform and support policy and management in this area. The paper therefore concludes with a discussion of steps that might be taken to improve the available information, understanding and indicators about these modes of innovation.

JEL Codes: O13, O17, O33.

Key words: Agriculture, innovation, grassroots innovation, informal economy