Agricultural Innovation and Biocontrol in sub-Saharan Africa


Across sub-Saharan Africa native and invasive crop pests continue to threaten farming systems. In recent years, an invasive pest, the fall armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, has rapidly spread across large areas of Africa, where it has become a major threat to sustainable food production and livelihoods. The impact of this invasive pest has highlighted a critical need to develop effective and sustainable methods of pest control.

Push–pull approaches to pest management in cropping systems have been developed, trialled and promoted since the 1970s, by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and other organisations. These are based on a dual mechanism of in-field planting of pest repellent crops in-field and bordering fields with an attractive trap crop. Such systems have been shown to effectively reduce the need for harmful chemical pesticides for controlling crop pests. However, while the scientific evidence for the benefits of novel innovations like push-pull technology (Midega et al. 2015; Midega et al. 2018) is compelling, documented adoption rates for such practices amongst African small scale farmers remains low.

Studies of agricultural innovation have shed light on why common conceptions about technology transfer and the adoption of agricultural practices, are often over-simplistic (Glover et al., 2019). There are many documented cases of technologies that work within controlled field trials, not translating into the complex reality of real farming systems, and encountering social, economic and ecological constraints that shape how such technologies are practiced and how they perform on farms (Whitfield, 2015). It is also well recognised that innovation is not a linear process that ends with the adoption of a practice, but rather that farmers are engaged in a continual process of learning, knowledge sharing, experimentation and local adaptation. Moreover, the promotion of different technologies and farming approaches takes place within wider politics of donor-driven agricultural research and development. It is only by understanding these complex dynamics that we can contribute to an appropriate and productive innovation process.


The PhD will be aligned to the UKRI-funded Scaling up Biocontrol Innovations in Africa project and in collaboration with ICIPE, in Mbita, Kenya. Working with ICIPE and drawing on their network of demonstration sites, agricultural extension activities and farmer field schools in Kenya, the research will adopt an interdisciplinary approach (working across social and biological sciences) to exploring and understanding the impact of and the innovation process around crop pest biocontrol practices.

Depending on the expertise and interests of the student, the proposed project will potentially involve a combination of:

(1) analysis of the impact of push-pull and other biocontrol strategies on farms, demonstration plots, and experimental field stations (including through fieldwork hosted by ICIPE in Nairobi)

(2) analysis of multi-country household survey data, and  conducting participatory rural livelihoods research, for evaluating farm level innovation and technology adoption in response to the promotion of biocontrol practices;

(3) analysis of the political and donor networks that drive agricultural research for development and promote different biocontrol technologies


Throughout the PhD programme, the candidate will benefit from a tailored programme of training to support their studies and career ambitions, informed and based on a detailed Training Needs Analysis. At the University of Leeds both subject-specific and transferable skills training will delivered through the Sustainability Research Institute and School of Biology, as well as through the NERC Panorama DTP.

ICIPE is an international centre of excellence in Africa delivering world quality science, developing sustainable pest and vector management practices. The Centre’s Capacity Building and Institutional Development Programme supports doctoral level training through the Dissertation Research Internship Programme (DRIP). PhD students are integrated into research projects in the centre’s four health (4H) themes where they pursue their passion in science and gain the necessary skills for a career in research. The student will be embedded within the Push-pull research programme.

Person Specification

The student should have a strong interest in global environmental problems, ideally with knowledge and experience of smallholder African farming systems research. A willingness to undertake fieldwork in rural locations and an ability to develop participatory skills in environmental assessments will be essential.


International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (2017) - JRS Biodiversity Foundation