Sounds easy but it is rarely done well. In this insight piece, COSA’s Research Coordinator for Latin America, Carlos de los Ríos, uses solid impact data to demonstrate the value of having a structured listening process. “If you want results, he notes, then it is vital to have a demand-driven approach.” 

It has been thirty years (1987) since the seminal Farmer First workshop was held at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex and although participatory approaches and methods have rightly brought into focus farmer-centred priorities and ways of understanding, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate this in the context of increasing vertical integration within the agro-industrial food complex and the ongoing shift from public to private agricultural research. Nevertheless, the simple act of listening, through a process of participatory research, can make all the difference between a project that makes sense of the (always) complex reality of rural life and one that “just does not get it.”

Until the mid-1980s, development agencies favoured a ‘supply-led approach’ to development, one that inevitably favoured donor priorities and preferences. This supply-led approach assumed a few things. First, that a ‘one-fit’ solution was appropriate, regardless of contextual variation. So, the same prescription was deemed to work equally well, regardless of how different the context (e.g., development programs were perfectly ‘transferable’). Second, by design, the supply-led approach implied that farmers had little of value to say about their own lived experience.

Today, we know better. Thankfully, more participatory approaches are increasingly the norm because they recognise farmers as the active ‘agents of change’ in finding solutions to their own development challenges. Indeed, COSA has observed through experience that demand-driven approaches – listening to the farmer –  increases training adoption rates and helps to build long-term trust and stability to vexing development problems.

A recent COSA project in Peru serves as a good example. Here, farmers told us what they needed to be sustainable. Our job was to translate what they told us into a results-based program.

The first critical component to this case was is to identify a ‘promoter’. This is a farmer who is well known and respected in his or her community, and who agrees to become a farmer-trainer. Farmers who demonstrate clear communication skills and interest in sharing information are chosen. Most importantly, farmer promoters are embedded in the community, ensuring that they are sensitive to local cultures, mannerisms, and farming practices.

A demand-driven model of intervention tailors programs to the needs of farmers, rather than their “needs” as identified by donors. This is accomplished by working with farmers to diagnose the barriers that keep farm productivity below potential. In our Peruvian project, promoters and farmers came together to identify their own solutions.


The result of this process – the jointly agreed coffee diagnosis -was the starting point for developing a tailored coffee management plan and a specific calendar of activities.

The demand-driven model does not stop there, but is integrated throughout the project’s duration. For example, an ongoing training process led by the promoters kept farmers engaged and motivated. Unlike supply-led programs that provide training and follow up months later to measure changes, promoters represent a local source of information and inspiration that make learning outcomes and advice accessible. So, farmers do not just listen to an instructor, but actually observe the benefits of applying best practices.

The selection of training topics is similarly crowd-sourced. For instance, in the Peruvian project renovation and pest management, two of the most significant challenges facing Peruvian coffee farming (i.e., ageing and the leaf rust attack) were selected as learning topics. Even the learning materials were developed in a participatory way with technicians and promoters so that they were useful and clear to farmers.

At the end of this project, there was a strong consensus that farmer-trainers’ follow-up and advice was considered “useful” or “very useful” for improving their coffee farms. Remarkably, more than 95% of farmers declared that their coffee had significantly improved through the practices they adopted.

The bottom line: Listen to farmers. Collecting and using data effectively, allows you to really understand what they need so that you can implement a program that really works for them. The ensuing relationship can build the sort of trust that is key for innovation and adoption of new approaches and has intrinsic merit in all our lives.