Do-no-harm: lessons learnt from engaging pastoralists in co-production processes in Burkina Faso

Photo: Agropastoralist engaging into the participatory process in Bama, Burkina Faso.

Understanding the cultural values and social rules of stakeholders is critical to engage them successfully in a co-production process. Failing to do so, can not only threaten the project but also harm vulnerable stakeholders. This is the story of how putting the do-no-harm principle and the interest of vulnerable stakeholders above scientific interest has allowed us to have impact on the ground in Burkina Faso.

When we set up ReSLeSS (Research and learning for sustainable intensification of smallholder livestock value chains), a transdisciplinary project exploring options for sustainable livestock intensification in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Tanzania through a participatory process, we followed the best practices of transdisciplinary research. Among others, we spent a whole week with the local scientific partners on the ground to visit the major stakeholders, to explore their interests and identify missing stakeholders.

We talked to politicians, farmers’ organizations, a meat producer, and youth organizations. We visited feed producing plants, markets, innovative livestock keepers and an urban livestock fattening space. We went into this process in an open-minded way, without a set questionnaire to allow unexpected issues to raise, knowing that we just need to listen to people and cover livestock topics broadly, including feed and fodder, animal health, breeding, market and prices, transhumance, and gender. We were happy with the process and changed the project’s focus from sheep to cattle in order to cover the interest of all. We noted that the narratives of the different stakeholders did not add up, but thought that the up-coming multi-stakeholder process would help us find a common narrative.

During the first meeting of the co-production process, out of the blue, the representative of the pastoralists refused to engage in the discussion and threatened other participants in the workshop. As the facilitators of this discussion, we immediately realized that this unspoken conflict was the reason why narratives were not adding up and that if not made explicit, our project would harm the region. To avoid violence in the room, we had to adjust the whole workshop on the spot. We decided to split the stakeholders between those who were happy with the workshop process and those who were not. The latter included all agro-pastoralists and people whose wives and children are settled in the area while husbands and young men cross half of the African continent with their cattle. This group spent the rest of the workshop to formulate why the questions raised in the co-production process were wrong, what the right questions are and what the answer to those questions are. The key problem was that the pastoral system cannot intensify, and the intensification discourse (more widely and implicitly in our project title) is supporting crop farmers, who appropriate the pastoral resources, and threaten the pastoralist way of life.

As a token of respect and indication of goodwill toward the progress made by the end of the workshop, the representative of the pastoral community approached me, asking if I would accept the invitation for a cup of tea with him before the Friday prayer. The next day, I was sitting on the floor with a cup of bitter mint tea discussing with a respected elder of the pastoralist community about his vision of the world, his values and his fear that his children and grandchildren are being marginalized by a society leaving them with no other choice than violence. We ended our discussion by agreeing on three essential principles to ensure the participation of the pastoralist community: i) to ensure that pastoralists are listened to by all other stakeholders; ii) not to talk about the number of pastoralist cattle, but only about pastoral herds; and iii) not to challenge the on-going political process defining protected pastoral routes and grazing zones. Whereas the first agreement was not difficult to implement, the other two were sources of important tensions among the scientific team, as they required a total recoding of the simulation tool we had planned to use and expanding our initial study area definition to include the local pastoral herding zone.

Was the narrative of the local minority sufficiently important to justify reconsidering the whole project, adjusting the existing tool in a way that would increase uncertainty and decrease accuracy of the results? Led by the do-no-harm principle, the scientific team decided that an agreement with a pastoral elderly is more important than model accuracy, and ventured into enhancing tools of engagement to encompass the pastoralist narrative despite the required overtime and effort.

The whole project narrative changed to sustainable livestock transformation rather than intensification, suggesting that sustainability does not per se require only intensification. This opened the floor to pastoralists to bring in their arguments. The last multi-stakeholder event brought pastoralists and all the other stakeholders to the table to discuss how to transform the area. Equal space was given to each side’s arguments, until all discovered that there are options to make everyone happy: let the sedentary farmers intensify on the existing land and keep less but better performing cattle that does not feed on grass, and leave the pastoral grazing areas to the pastoralists, who do not need to intensify nor reduce the number of animals.

The end of this workshop was emotional; pastoralists for the first time in years shook hands with those who used to be their enemies. The hope and tears of happiness in the eyes of the elderly pastoralist man, made the effort worth it. A year after this event, local representatives report that both the sedentary farmers and the pastoralists happily greet and approach each other with more respect and understanding. It is not yet the complete solution, but it is a first step.

As we write this blog, violence between pastoralists and sedentary farmers are increasing in the north of Burkina Faso, not far from where we worked. We are spreading results from our work through conventional and less conventional media, such as reaching out to pastoralists through voice messages on WhatsApp, hoping to bring our message beyond our case study area and be able to play a small part in the ongoing debate on how to transform Burkina Faso’s livestock sector to benefit everyone.

We started a project without understanding one of the communities, the pastoralists. We had hints that narratives were not adding up but we were unable to understand what was at stake when we started our co-production process. Maybe we put too much confidence in the standard scoping process, but by putting the do-no-harm principle and the interest of the most vulnerable stakeholder group at the centre of the development of the project, we managed to keep the co-production process going, found unexpected synergies and brought the understanding that with a non-violent transformation, everyone is a winner.

Catherine Pfeifer is a Senior Scientist at FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) in Switzerland. Previously, she was scientist at ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute) where most of this work was done. Catherine has a formal education in agricultural economics, and worked many years as a Geographical Information System specialist and environmental modeller. She came to co-production as a way to make environmental models directly useful to people in support of the agro-ecological transition.

Joanne Morris is a Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) based at the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of York, UK. Joanne has a formal education in environmental studies and sustainability science and has worked with different approaches to modelling water management in small-scale agriculture in Africa. She came to co-production as a way to integrate social and ecological perspectives and go beyond models in collectively understanding the complex challenge of the agri-food system.


The Research and Learning for Sustainable intensification of Smallholder livestock value chains (ResLeSS) research project  was delivered in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Tanzania through the Sustainable Intensification Research and Learning in Africa (SAIRLA) programme under the aegis of the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of UK DFID, the British Government, WYG International Ltd, nor the University of Greenwich - Natural Resources Institute. The development of the CLEANED-R tool that was used in the ResLeSS project was additionally supported by the Livestock and Fish Program as well as the Livestock Program at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). ILRI thanks all donors and organizations that globally support its work through their contributions to the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) Trust Fund.