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Exploring expansive learning in sustainable agriculture: a case study of commercial sugarcane farmers and extensionists in KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and South Coast.

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Sugarcane production in South Africa is at a crossroads. Internationally, the South African sugarcane industry is a small player. But within South Africa it remains a significant commodity supporting a substantial number of livelihoods. Sugarcane agriculture has a significant impact on South Africa’s environment. The industry thus bears a large measure of responsibility to contain that impact. It is under pressure to conform to national legislation and international standards of sustainable production, whilst big players like Coca-Cola have indicated the sector needs to ‘green up’ or potentially face loss of sales. One response to this has been the industry’s development and adoption of the Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System (SUSFARMS) as a sustainability decision support tool for sugarcane growers. The implementation of SUSFARMS however demands an unprecedented level of integrated action on the part of competing actors in the value chain. Key among these are the cane farmers, the South African Sugar Association (SASA), millers, and the South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI) – the latter two being the dominant players in sugarcane extension. SASA’s and SASRI’s traditional top-down technology transfer approach was considered in this study as unlikely to achieve the learning and collaboration required to successfully achieve broad scale use of the SUSFARMS tool and implementation of both social and environmental sustainability practice. To begin the learning and collaborative process, this study examined the professional learning needed to foster multiagency partnerships supporting sustainability practices among SASRI extension specialists and large-scale commercial sugarcane growers in the Midlands and South Coast regions of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. This research explored whether sugarcane farmers and extensionists can be supported through interventionist research to identify and address inhibiting factors relating to sustainability, learning and understandings of SUSFARMS. Inhibiting factors are most likely to be related to tensions and contradictions of cultural and historical origin within activity systems. For this reason, the epistemological framework for the research was provided by cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) and the theory of expansive learning. CHAT supported the research process to surface and identify tensions and contradictions related to SUSFARMS. Once surfaced these tensions and contradictions were examined and probed for their root causes and possible solutions proposed. Expansive social learning theory and CHAT was used in the study to explore the processes by which growers and extension staff foster learning in settings where knowledge and practice are not necessarily stable, well-defined or understood. A key element was the capacity of professionals working in multiagency settings to recognise and engage with disputed knowledge and distributed expertise in complex workplace settings. Workshops modelled on Engeström’s (1996) ‘Change Laboratory’ examined data from 17 semi-structured interviews with growers, extension specialists and industry managers selected by purposive sampling. The interviews and workshops were used to surface tensions and contradictions regarding sustainability practices - particularly those relating to SUSFARMS - which were used to support expansive social learning, allowing participants to deepen their understanding and learning of workplace practice, and to formulate proposed solutions. The first part of the study found: no formal learning plan for growers and extension staff exists; participation from growers in formal learning opportunities is weak; lack of quantifiable cost-benefit evidence hinders grower and extension support of SUSFARMS; strategic leadership from industry is not evident to people on the ground; and scope, structure and budget hampers extension’s impact. The second part of the study found four different ways sugarcane farmers and extensionists learn: learning from a more knowledgeable other; learning from peers; learning through observation and learning through practice and experimentation. These framings of learning suggest multiple ways in which farmers and extensionists interact and experience the world around them. They also suggest avenues of focus for strengthening industry extension approach. Ultimately six Model Solutions were developed: Clarify with stakeholders SASA’s position and methodology regarding SUSFARMS and on-farm sustainability; ensure communication and dialogue occur with stakeholders; identify and respond to grower and extension staff knowledge needs; strengthen informal grower and extension learning using expansive social learning processes; strengthen organisational learning through formal learning plans; and prioritise action research that strengthens grower, extension and researcher networking and understanding and develops quantifiable evidence relevant to on-farm SUSFARMS use and the implementation of on-farm sustainability practices. The study concludes with providing recommendations for agencies such as SASA and SASRI on their extension approach when introducing new technologies such as SUSFARMS in complex and often competing multiagency settings. The study suggests that SASRI, at institutional and farmer-interface level, should play close attention to understanding how their client farmers learn and ensure their systems and field officers have the relevant capacity and skills to engage farmers in the required collaborative learning.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.