Zambia farmers

A new CABI-led study has demonstrated that 79% of rural farmers surveyed in
Kenya, Malawi and Zambia prefer to share their innovations with other farmers and stakeholders rather than protect them with Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs).

Dr Justice Tambo, a Socio-Economist based at CABI’s centre in Switzerland, headed a team of international researchers who found that while rural farmers develop high potential and locally adapted innovations – including farm tools and equipment as well as new crop varieties – they have limited awareness of the power protecting their inventions with IPRs and in any case prefer to freely share their ideas with other farmers and stakeholders.

The researchers, which included those from the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA), the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin and the Malawi-based Department of Agricultural Research Services (DARS), used data from 300 farmer-innovators to better understand farmers’ knowledge of and preferences for IPRs and open access innovation.

They found that while more than half of farmer-innovators were unaware of IPRs, 76%, 88% and 74% of those sampled in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, respectively, preferred the free sharing of innovations as opposed to IPR protection.

Dr Tambo, outlining the findings of the research published in the Journal of Rural Studies, said, “Innovations developed by farmers play a crucial role in improving the livelihoods of farm households and in maintaining genetic diversity as well as providing inputs for scientific innovations or even forming the basis for scientific breakthroughs.

“However, when scouting, documenting and promoting such farmer-generated innovations, the thorny issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) often emerges and more than half of those we surveyed in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia were unaware of IPRs to protect their innovations.

“Where there was awareness, the greatest being amongst those studied in Zambia and Kenya respectively, most farmer-innovators prefer an open access model to IPR protection which is motivated by their desire to gain altruistically from their ideas.”


Tambo paper fig1

The majority of rural farmers in Kenya and Zambia were unaware of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) – only Malawi bucked the trend with more aware of IPRs than not.


The paper highlights that in recent years there has been ‘considerable interest’ in IPR protection for farmer innovations and traditional knowledge as extenuated by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the FAO Resolution 5/89 on Farmers’ Rights and the Plant Variety Protection laws of countries including Costa Rica, India, Malaysia and Thailand, which acknowledge their contributions to agricultural innovations.

“Farmers are thought to be deserving of the same recognition and rewards as plant breeders, seed companies and other inventors and IPR protection could encourage them to devote more resources to inventive activities and generate more innovations.” Dr Tambo added. “But we found that small-scale farmer-innovators are generally willing to relinquish their IPRs in favour of open dissemination.”


Tambo fig 2

Sources of awareness of IPRs – the media ‘tops the tree’ with books and ‘others’ propping up the rest.


The survey of farmers showed that about 45% and 38% of the farmer-innovators were aware of IPRs in Kenya and Zambia, respectively. Conversely, relatively more of the innovators that were surveyed in Malawi were aware of IPRs (52%). Overall, about 55% of the innovators had never heard of IPRs. The 45% of the innovators that had prior awareness of IPRs were asked to indicate their source of information about IPRs with the media coming out top at nearly 63% of all farmers surveyed and books and ‘others’ bottom at 2.1% and 1.4% respectively.

Dr Tambo concluded, “Nearly 80% of the innovators in our sample would prefer to share their innovations freely with fellow farmers and stakeholders and we suggest that where there is a preference for IPR this is related to commercial interests.

“Overall, our findings imply that IPR protection may be of interest in situations where farmer-generated innovations have the potential for commercialization. However, this can be challenging in the countries studied (particularly in Malawi and Zambia), seeing as these countries currently lack the capacity to provide institutional support to farmers interested in IPR protection.”

The scientists also argue that public recognition of farmers’ innovations can also be used as a ‘prize’ for communities ‘where the privatization of knowledge is unpalatable or when the innovators would prefer the innovation to be part of the public domain.’


Additional information

Full paper reference

Tambo, J.A., Baraké, E., Kouevi, A., Timanyechi Munthali, G., ‘Copyright or copyleft: An assessment of farmer-innovators’ attitudes towards intellectual property rights,’ Journal of Rural Studies, February 2020, DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2020.01.004

This paper is available here: