Socio-ecological niche: A conceptual framework for integration of legumes in smallholder farming systems

Ojiem, J.O.; Ridder, N. de; Vanlauwe, B.; Giller, K.E.


There are numerous examples of technologies with great potential that have not been accepted by smallholder farmers. Quite often, these technologies do not fit well into smallholder systems due to the inherent high level of heterogeneity of these systems. For example, despite their great potential, the adoption of legumes by smallholder farmers in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa has remained poor. A wide range of biophysical (e.g. climate, soil fertility, etc.) and socio-economic variables (e.g. preferences, prices, production objectives etc.) influence the use of legumes in smallholder systems. While some of these variables constrain the adoption of some legumes, others offer opportunities for beneficial use of other legumes in the same system. Therefore, widespread adoption of legumes in smallholder systems can only be achieved if all of the major biophysical and socio-economic constraints are simultaneously identified and addressed. The `socio-ecological niche┬┐ concept proposed in this paper provides the framework through which this might be achieved. The socio-ecological niche, in any given region of agricultural activity, is created by the convergence of agro-ecological, socio-cultural, economic and ecological factors, to describe a multidimensional environment for which compatible technologies can be predicted. The socio-ecological niche concept can be applied in many different contexts in technology development. However, this paper discusses its use with respect to the development of legume technologies. Two case studies are presented to illustrate the concept and to demonstrate its practical significance. The concept is being used in on-going research on legumes in smallholder farming systems in western Kenya.