Skip to main content


  • BERNARD VANLAUWE (a1), RIC COE (a2) and KEN E. GILLER (a3)

In recent years, many studies have demonstrated the heterogeneity of the smallholder production environment. Yet agronomic research for development (R4D) that aims to identify and test options for increasing productivity has not consistently adapted its approaches to such heterogeneous conditions. This paper describes the challenges facing research, highlighting the importance of variation in evaluating the performance of soil management recommendations, integrating aspects of production risk management within the formulation of recommendations, and proposing alternative approaches to implement agronomic R4D. Approaches are illustrated using two multi-locational on-farm paired trials, each having one no-input control treatment and a treatment with fertilizer application for maize in Western Kenya and for beans in Eastern Rwanda. The diversity of treatment responses should be embraced rather than avoided to gain a better understanding of current context and its relation with past management.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Available formats
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Corresponding author. IITA Kenya, c/o ICIPE, Off Thika Highway, PO Box 30772, Nairobi 00100, Kenya, Email:
Hide All
Anderson G. D. (1974). Bean responses to fertilizers on Mt. Kilimanjaro in relation to soil and climatic conditions. East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal 39 (3):272288.
Bielders C. L. and Gérard B. (2015). Millet response to microdose fertilization in south-western Niger: Effect of antecedent fertility management and environmental factors. Field Crops Research 171:165175.
Birner R., Davis K., Pender J., Nkonya E., Anandajayasekeram P., Ekboir J., Mbabu A., Spielman D. J., Horna D., Benin S. and Cohen M. (2009). From best practice to best fit: A framework for designing and analyzing pluralistic agricultural advisory services worldwide. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension 15:341355.
Breiman L. (2001). Random forests. Machine Learning 45:532.
Buerkert A., Bationo A. and Piepho H. (2001). Efficient phosphorus application strategies for increased crop production in sub-Saharan West Africa. Field Crops Research 72:115.
Carter J. (1995). Alley farming: have resource-poor farmers benefited? Natural Resources Perspectives 3:18.
Cochran W. G. and Cox G. M. (1957). Experimental Designs. London: Wiley.
Collinson M. (2000). A History of Farming Systems Research. p. 448. Wallingford: CABI.
Djurfeldt G., Holmén H., Jirström M. and Larsson R. (2005). The African Food Crisis. Lessons from the Asian Green Revolution. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.
Fermont A. M., van Asten P. J. A., Tittonell P., van Wijk M. T. and Giller K. E. (2009). Closing the cassava yield gap: An analysis from smallholder farms in East Africa. Field Crops Research 112:2436.
Fertilizer Use Recommendation Project (FURP) (1994). Fertilizer Use Recommendations, Volumes 1–24. Nairobi: Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.
Fisher R. A. (1925). Statistical Methods for Research Workers. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Fisher R. A. (1935). The Design of Experiments. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Giller K. E., Franke A. C., Abaidoo R., Baijukya R., Bala A., Boahen S., Dashiell K., Kantengwa S., Sanginga J.M., Sanginga N., Simmons A., Turner A., de Wolf J., Woomer P. and Vanlauwe B. (2013). N2Africa: Putting nitrogen fixation to work for smallholder farmers in Africa. In Agro-ecological Intensification of Agricultural Systems in the African Highlands, 156174 (Eds Vanlauwe B., Van Asten P. and Blomme G). London: Earthscan.
Giller K. E., Tittonell P., Rufino M. C., van Wijk M. T., Zingore S., Mapfumo P., Adjei-Nsiah S., Herrero M., Chikowo R., Corbeels M., Rowe E. C., Baijukya F., Mwijage A., Smith J., Yeboah E., van der Burg W. J., Sanogo O. M., Misiko M., de Ridder N., Karanja S., Kaizzi C., K'ungu J., Mwale M., Nwaga D., Pacini C. and Vanlauwe B. (2011). Communicating complexity: Integrated assessment of trade-offs concerning soil fertility management within African farming systems to support innovation and development. Agricultural Systems 104:191203.
Le Mare P. H. (1968). Experiments on the effects of phosphate applied to a Buganda soil: III. A chemical study of the soil phosphate, the fate of fertilizer phosphate and the relationship with iron and aluminium. The Journal of Agricultural Science 70:281285.
Maat H. and Glover D. (2012). Chapter 8. Alternative configurations of agronomic experimentation. Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World, 131145 (Eds Sumberg J. and Thompson J.). London: Earthscan.
Maechler M. (2014). sfsmisc: Utilities from seminar fuer Statistik ETH Zurich. R Package Version 1.0–26.
Mead R. (1988). The Design of Experiments: Statistical Principles for Practical Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Nelson R. and Coe R. (2014). Transforming research and development practice to support agroecological intensification of smallholder farming. Journal of International Affairs 67 (2):107127.
Ojiem J. O., de Ridder N., Vanlauwe B. and Giller K. E. (2006). Socio-ecological niche: A conceptual framework for integration of legumes in smallholder farming systems. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 4:7993.
Ortiz R. (1995). Plot Techniques for assessment of bunch weight in banana trials under two systems of crop management. Agronomy Journal 87:6369.
Patel B. K., Muir-Leresche K., Coe R. and Hainsworth S. D. (2004). The Green Book: A Guide to Effective Graduate Research in African Agriculture, Environmentand Rural Development, 1250. Kampala: The African Crop Science Society.
Poulton P. R. (2006). Rothamsted - The Classical Experiments. Harpenden, UK: Lawes Agricultural Trust.
R Core Team (2014). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL:
Robinson G. K. (1991). That BLUP is a good thing: the estimation of random effects. Statistical Science 6:1532.
Ronner E., Franke A. C., Vanlauwe B., Dianda M., Edeh E., Ukem B., Bala A., van Heerwaarden J. and Giller K. E. (2016). Understanding variability in soybean yield and response to P-fertilizer and rhizobium inoculants on farmers’ fields in northern Nigeria. Field Crops Research, 186:133145.
Scaife M. A. (1968). Maize fertilizer experiments in Western Tanzania. The Journal of Agricultural Science, 70:209222.
Sperling L. and Ashby J. A. (2000). Moving participatory breeding forward: the next steps. In A History of Farming Systems Research, 354363 (Ed Collinson M.). Wallingford: CAB International.
Sumberg J. (2005). Constraints to the adoption of agricultural innovations - Is it time for a re-think? Outlook on Agriculture 34 (1):710.
Tittonell P., Muriuki A., Shepherd K. D., Mugendi D., Kaizzi K. C., Okeyo J., Verchot L., Coe R. and Vanlauwe B. (2010). The diversity of rural livelihoods and their influence on soil fertility in agricultural systems of East Africa - A typology of smallholder farms. Agricultural Systems 103:8397.
Tittonell P., Vanlauwe B., Leffelaar P. A., Shepherd K. D. and Giller K. E. (2005) Exploring diversity in soil fertility management of smallholder farms in western Kenya. II. Within farm variability in resource allocation, nutrient flows and soil fertility status. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 110:166184.
Tittonell P., Vanlauwe B., Misiko M. and Giller K. E. (2011). Targeting resources within diverse, heterogeneous and dynamic farming systems: Towards a ‘Uniquely African green revolution’. In Innovations as Key to the Green Revolution in Africa: Exploring the Scientific Facts, 747758 (Eds Bationo A., Waswa B., Okeyo J. M., Maina F. and Kihara J.). Dordrecht: Springer.
van Apeldoorn D. F., Kempen B., Bartholomeus H. M., Rusinamhodzi L., Zingore S., Sonneveld M. P. W., Kok K. and Giller K. E. (2014). Analysing soil organic C gradients in a smallholder farming village of East Zimbabwe. Geoderma Regional 2–3:3240.
Van Asten P., Wopereis M., Haefele S., Isselmou M. O. and Kropff M. (2003). Explaining yield gaps on farmer-identified degraded and non-degraded soils in a Sahelian irrigated rice scheme. NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 50 (3–4):277296.
Vanlauwe B., Bationo A., Chianu J., Giller K. E., Merckx R., Mokwunye U., Ohiokpehai O., Pypers P., Tabo R., Shepherd K., Smaling R., Woomer P. L. and Sanginga N. (2010). Integrated soil fertility management: Operational definition and consequences for implementation and dissemination. Outlook on Agriculture 39:1724.
Vanlauwe B., Descheemaeker K., Giller K. E., Huising J., Merckx R., Nziguheba G., Wendt J. and Zingore S. (2015). Integrated soil fertility management in sub-Saharan Africa: Unravelling local adaptation. SOIL 1 (1):491508.
Vanlauwe B., Tittonell P. and Mukalama J. (2006). Within-farm soil fertility gradients affect response of maize to fertilizer application in western Kenya. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 76:171182.
Voortman R. L., Brouwer J. and Albersen P. J. (2004). Characterization of spatial soil variability and its effect on Millet yield on Sudano-Sahelian coversands in SW Niger. Geoderma 121:6582.
Waddington S. R., Murwira H. K., Kumwenda J. D. T., Hikwa D. and Tagwira F. (Eds) (1998). Soil Fertility Research for Maize-based Farming Systems in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Harare, Zimbabwe: SoilFertNet/CIMMYT-Zimbabwe.
Zingore S., Murwira H. K., Delve R. J. and Giller K. E. (2007). Soil type, historical management and current resource allocation: Three dimensions regulating variability of maize yields and nutrient use efficiencies on African smallholder farms. Field Crops Research 101:296305.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Experimental Agriculture
  • ISSN: 0014-4797
  • EISSN: 1469-4441
  • URL: /core/journals/experimental-agriculture
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 20
Total number of PDF views: 280 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 551 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.