The preference of an innovation systems approach to development is based on its inclusiveness and interactions of the actors to co-influence each other to learn and innovate to bring about tangible benefits. As more actors with diverse interests engage, the innovation system becomes more complex and actors with higher influence power are likely to benefit more. Smallholder farmers in developing countries are the core actors of an agricultural innovation system but their ability to influence other actors to maximize their benefits is contentious. This paper applies a historical analysis of the progressive development and complexity of Malawi’s diary innovation system through phased emphasis on technological, organizational and institutional development to illustrate the centrality of smallholder dairy farmers in the innovation system. A social network analysis is applied to assess the influence of smallholder farmers on other actors. The existence and growth of the diary innovation system in Malawi is founded on the resilience of smallholder dairy farmers to produce milk. Whereas the smallholder farmers are the most connected in terms of interaction, they have the least influence on other actors in the innovation system. To take advantage of their central position to maximize benefits, smallholder farmers can only rely on their collective power to influence other actors. Organizing farmers in groups and associations is a step in the right direction, but deliberate interventions by innovation brokers as intermediaries needs to focus on empowering these groups.
- Actor network
- Dairy system
- Historical perspective
- Institutional transformation through innovation