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Research through theatre – using participatory methods to spark discussion and empower local communities

Marketing may be a difficult concept to explain to people who are involved in only some stages of the value chain. Theatre can be a useful tool to convey complex issues to a diversified social group, with different levels of education, in an engaging and fun way.

By Ewa Hermanowicz

How does one engage farming communities in markets?

Marketing may be a difficult concept to explain to people who are involved in only some stages of the value chain. Theatre can be a useful tool to convey complex issues to a diversified social group, with different levels of education, in an engaging and fun way.

Participatory theatre helps to explore questions of importance to communities and initiates a process of dialogue and interaction that can effect change at a broader scale. It involves community members from the very early stages of script-writing, rehearsals and the selection of the venue and the final performance in front of the rest of the village. Scripts are adapted to local realities and involve researchers, artists and other interested individuals.

In the context of the Tropical Fruit Trees project in Sirsi (India) and Sarawak (Malaysia), Bioversity International researcher Hugo Lamers used theatre play to explain the concept of marketing of native fruit diversity to the local communities. In a short video, he shares his experience of using participatory street theatre in his research and gives useful tips on how to best use this tool in other projects  to encourage dialogue and knowledge-sharing among research partners.

The communities in both sites enjoyed the theatre plays. A similar script was used, but the product – in this case an agricultural crop – at the center of the plot was changed to best reflect the local market: mango in Sirsi and durian fruit in Sarawak. The idea of the script originated from the participatory market chain approach of the International Potato Center, but was expanded and modified to correspond to the village setting. After the show, a facilitated discussion helped to bring out the key messages of the play and created a forum for peer-to-peer consultation on the issues raised by the audience.

The theatre play was part of a sequence of participatory activities focusing on learning about local knowledge differences between gender and age groups, understanding the local market and collecting market information essential to adjust product design, improve processing techniques and to facilitate linkages with potential buyers. The activities produced some very promising results: people who had previously not been involved in marketing got started and those who were already selling some products gained the confidence to increase sales.

Many people from the Salkani village in India remembered the 'Blue square mango' play for a long time; when interviewed three months later they could easily recall the key messages of the play. Some women said that it was an eye-opener, along with other participatory exercises such as interviews with shop keepers in town (a method called ‘rapid market appraisal’) which made them realize the shops they visit on a regular basis for their groceries can serve as a great initial source of information to improve and market their home-made products.

The experience of using participatory theatre in the Tropical Fruit Tree project demonstrates that involving people from diverse backgrounds can spark useful discourse around subjects that may be difficult to grasp for an often illiterate audience. Participatory theatre continues to impress due to the strikingly positive effect it has on researchers, actors, collaborators and audiences.

This research is co-funded by UNEP-GEF and CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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