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A connecting business October 29th, 2017 by

More people than ever before are now connected to electricity and digital communication in tropical countries. Progress is slower in the countryside though high demand from rural customers is driving new efforts to give farmers the connectivity they crave.

Rural electrification has been high on the agenda of development aid for decades. Although significant progress has been made, donors, policy-makers and rural people alike have come to realize that connecting remote areas to the grid is more challenging than many had once assumed. The poor often lose out on electricity, which most people now consider a basic service. But if necesity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes, then the father of invention must be a new idea, as Jeff wrote in one of his inspiring publications in 2000. New technologies are giving rural people plenty of fresh ideas to experiment with.

New modes of communication and businesses have popped up to help the poor access the web and related services. Mobile phones have penetrated rural areas at an unexpectedly fast rate, even in villages off the grid. Two years ago, when making a series of videos on “Milk as a business” with pastoralist Fulani herders in Nigeria, I was amazed to see 13-year old Yussuf run a mobile phone charging business under a tree near one of the milk collection centres. Solar pannels provided Yussuf with electricity. When I asked him how he could remember which phone belonged to who, he smiled and showed me the name of each owner written on a little piece of masking tape he had stuck on the back of each phone. “I went to the madrassa and learned to write in Arabic.” In madrassas, Islamic religious schools, children learn Arabic, so they can read the Koran. When the dairy company installed a milk collection centre for the Fulani herders, Yussuf realised that the transporters who collect milk on motor bikes needed to have their phones regularly charged.

In countries such as India and Bangladesh with high population densities and lots of potential customers, local ICT-savvy entrepreneurs have developed popular apps to help farmers monitor real-time market prices and weather forecasts on their mobile phones.

Last week, Ahmad Salahuddin, of Access Agriculture, and I met with some 20 farmer seed producers in Jessore, Bangladesh, to introduce them to the free services offered by Access Agriculture. By the end of our presentation, three of these farmers had already started watching some of the training videos on the website, and one had registered to download videos. When Salahuddin asked how they could share the videos with other farmers, many said via “Share it”, a popular app to transfer videos from one phone to another.

Fernando Soussa, a Swiss researcher, and colleagues interviewed 460 farmers in Mali and Burkina Faso about their use of mobile phones. They found that many villagers, including young women who had until recently had limited access to information services, were now using 3G mobile phones with Bluetooth to watch videos.

Videos on mobile phones help to reach illiterate farmers, so new business ventures are more likely to emerge as it gets easier to watch videos and as good farmer training videos become increasingly available. Entrepreneurs typically innovate when new products like cell phones meet old demands for information, to create new market potential. Farmers increasingly want audio-visual information, and businesses will play a role to make this happen, for example selling inexpensive smart phones and charging phones for customers off the grid.  When my colleagues and I started placing farmer learning videos on the Access Agriculture platform, few farmers had access to computers or the internet. We thought that farmers would have to go through extensionists to watch the videos. But in a few short years, farmers in remote corners of the world have started buying smart phones, and eagerly getting on line themselves.

Read more

Bentley, J. (2000) The mothers, fathers and midwives of invention: Zamorano’s natural pest control course. In G. Stoll (ed.) Natural Crop Protection in the Tropics: Letting Information Come to Life (pp. 281-289). Agrecol, ICTA, MArgraf Verlag.

Sousa, F., Nicolay, G. and Home, R. (2016) Information technologies as a tool for agricultural extension and farmer-to-farmer exchange: Mobile-phone video use in Mali and Burkina Faso. The International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology 12(3), 19-36. Download article.

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Further viewing

Taking milk to the collection centre

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Ashes to aphids October 15th, 2017 by

Anyone interested in organic farming will eventually come across the use of ash to protect crops from pests and diseases. The internet has made it easy for people to consult, and to copy each other’s training materials. But one has to be cautious when borrowing ideas, as we recently learned during a script writing workshop in Bangladesh.

During the first day of the course, the 13 trainees from Bangladesh and Nepal laid out their key ideas to write a fact sheet and a script on a particular problem.

All of our script ideas were hot topics, that is, they are problems that occur widely across developing countries, requiring good training materials with ideas that are both feasible for smallholders and environmentally friendly.

One of the selected topics was how to manage shoot and fruit borer in eggplant, a pest for which many farmers in South Asia spray pesticides twice a week, or more. Just knowing this makes you frown when this tasty vegetable is presented to you in one of the delightful Bangladeshi dishes.

Another group worked on aphids in vegetables and suggested using ash to manage these pervasive pests. When Jeff and I asked why ash is useful, the group gave us various reasons: because it is acidic; it contains sulphur; it is a poison; the ash creates a physical barrier which prevents the aphids from sucking the sap of the plant. These all sound like plausible answers yet some are incorrect. Ash is rich in calcium, like lime, and therefore not acidic, for example.

We do know that ash makes the leaves unpalatable to insects and corrodes their waxy skin, making them vulnerable to desiccation. The FAO’s website on applied technologies (TECA) suggests controlling aphids by applying wood ash after plants are watered. If not, the sun may cause the leaves to burn. Our simple question about using ash reminded me that the scientific basis for many local innovations is poorly understood. There are too few researchers to validate each technology and limited resources often focus on high-tech solutions (e.g. plant breeding) rather than low-tech farmer innovations.

We may not always know why local innovations work, which is all the more reason to be cautious when recommending substitutions. During this workshop, for instance, I learned that not all ashes are the same. Shamiran Biswas, an extensionist with a rich experience working with farmers across the country, explained: “When one field officer told farmers to sprinkle ash on his crop, a farmer who followed this advice saw his entire bean field destroyed within half an hour. We were shocked and tried to figure out what went wrong. It seemed that the farmer had used ash from mustard leaves, which some rural women add to their cooking fires when they are short of wood. But leaf ash from mango, mustard, bamboo and other plants may also be harmful when sprinkled on crops. The only ash that is fully safe to recommend is ash from rice straw or rice bran,” Shamiran concluded. He added that “ the ash should be cold and sprinkled on the crop when the leaves are still wet from the morning dew.”

Experienced extension agents like Shamiran are experts at explaining farmers’ ideas to outsiders, as well as explaining scientific ideas to rural people.

When people give advice to farmers, or develop farmer training materials, it is easy to copy ideas from the Internet. It is easy to assume that because ash is natural that it must be harmless. In fact, tree leaves are often full of toxic chemicals, to deter herbivorous insects; it stands to reason that the ash of the leaves may also be poisonous.

A natural solution can go wrong, even one as simple as applying ash.

To develop good farmer training videos, solid interaction with farmers is crucial. And collaboration with a seasoned, open-minded extensionist helps to orient us in the right direction.

Related blogs

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Further viewing

To watch videos that merge scientific knowledge with farmer knowledge, visit the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform. All videos are developed by people who value local innovations, and feature technologies that are validated by real farmers.

Acknowledgement

Shamiran Biswas works for the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, an NGO working on food security and non-formal education.

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Your own piece of land July 30th, 2017 by

In earlier blog stories Jeff, Eric and myself have written about the value of growing and processing one’s own food. For people who don’t own their own land, one alternative is the allotment.

Allotments or community gardens are small plots cultivated by individuals who abide by rules set by the land owner, often a local council but sometimes the Christian Church, a private company or individual willing to provide a social service. Non-commercial gardeners pay a modest annual rent against the security over a longer-term land tenancy.

While a new trend of urban gardening is sparked by a young generation in favour of eating healthy food that is produced with minimal food miles, few people realize that allotment schemes originated out of a need of food security.

Across most of Europe, industrialisation in the 19th and early 20th century drove people from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs. Their working and living conditions were often appalling and, coupled with poor nutrition, meant that early deaths in a family were common. Church authorities and local councils started “gardens of the poor”. Railroad companies also allotted plots of land to their workers. The stretches of land along the sides of the railway were unsuitable for general agriculture, but offered a good opportunity for the large workforce to grow their own food. Through this social service, companies kept their workforce happy.

Your own piece of landDuring the first and second World Wars it became a real challenge to bring enough food from the countryside to the cities. Most of the male workforce was called up by the armed forces. Fuel was also rationed and prioritised for moving soldiers, weapons and supplies. As ships were no longer able to import as much food, the British government launched a “digging for victory” campaign that used waste ground, railway edges, gardens, sports fields and golf courses for farming or vegetable growing. Victory gardens were also planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops. By 1943, the number of allotments had peaked at an estimated 1.75 million.

To support newcomer growers, many of whom did not have prior farming expertise, numerous radio and TV programmes were developed to strengthen people’s skills while at the same time instilling a communal pride in the nation.

When looking at today’s allotment plots a few things strike the eye: each plot shows a unique mix of innovations as tenants experiment to get the best out of their garden. And secondly, the soil is often quite black indicating the many years the soil has been nourished with organic matter. Long-term leases encourage gardeners to cherish the land and invest in its future.

Throughout history and across countries, allotment gardens have taken many shapes and forms. Many that were started under the pressure of war continued long into peacetime, in part because of demands from gardeners who loved being outdoors and growing their own produce. While allotments often started as poverty relief, they now help salaried professionals unwind from the stress of the office. Like agriculture, gardening evolves, and does more than just produce food.

Credit

The British “Dig on for Victory” poster was produced by Peter Fraser.

References

David Matless 2016. Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaction Books. 491 pp.

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Village smart phones February 19th, 2017 by

village smart phones 1One of the most common questions about farmer training videos is how farmers will watch them if they don’t have electricity to run a projector, or own a laptop. As mobile communications improve, however, new ways are emerging that are making it easier for farmers to download, view and share videos.

This week, at a workshop in Tamil Nadu, southern India, my colleague Jeff and I were teaching local partners to validate fact sheets on major crop pests and diseases with farmers. We all learned a lot from farmers who read first drafts, and commented on their content. The fact sheets than served as basis on which partners developed scripts for training videos. Before leaving the village I was again reminded that farmers no longer need expensive hardware (such as a computer or TV and DVD player) to watch videos.

village smart phones 2Technology has evolved swiftly and influenced lives in rural areas in ways that were hard to imagine a decade ago. Over the past decade mobile phone companies in developing countries have been offering financial services that are just beginning to see the light in Western countries.

The boom in mobile phone use has triggered new types of service providers. Teenagers in Nigeria and many other African countries now tap power from solar panels to charge the mobile phones of rural folks coming to the weekly market.

village smart phones 3Last year, Gérard Zoundji (from the University of Abomey-Calavi) sent me photographs of a farmer in southern Benin who had watched farmer training videos about vegetables on his mobile phone. Someone had bought a DVD at the local agro-input shop and converted the videos from the DVD into 3gp format to watch on his mobile. Farmers are now able to watch videos even without DVD players.

village smart phones 4This week in India I saw farmers go one step further, and download videos. Kannappan, one of the trainees from the local NGO MSSRF, was chatting with some of the village farmers when one of them, Ramesh Permal, mentioned he was rearing fish in a pond. ICT-savvy Kannappan took out his mobile phone, connected to the Access Agriculture website, and searched among all Tamil videos, and found one on raising fingerlings. It took him less than 3 minutes to download the video to his mobile. Mr. Permal and another farmer then took out their smart phones, and swiftly connected to Kannappan’s mobile . The video file was nearly 50 Mb, but they transferred it to their mobile in just over 10 seconds using the SHAREit app. For ease of downloading to mobile phones when there is not a very good internet connection, Access Agriculture has also made all videos in its library available in 3gp format, which is about half the size.

After having said goodbye to the farmers, one of them saw the Access Agriculture website address (www.accessagriculture.org) on the back of my t-shirt and asked if he could take a photograph of it (with his phone). He would use the address to download more quality training videos in his own language.

Farmers may not have computers, but they are starting to get smart phones. Some smallholders rely on extensionists to get electronic information, but others are starting to use their phones to access information on their own, directly from the internet.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Farmer Science Centre) for helping to organise the workshop and field visits.

Related blog stories:

More than a mobile

Cell phones for smallholders

Village movies in Malawi

Watching videos without smartphones

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Puppy love February 5th, 2017 by

In the The Field Guide to Fields, Bill Laws colourfully depicts how fencing is a global and age-old practice. Fences mark field boundaries and they stop farm animals from straying.  Fences make it easier to look after animals but enclosed areas can make them more vulnerable to wily predators. During our recent trip in Bolivia we learned how farmers have come up with a clever way to protect their sheep from foxes.

puppy love 1After an amazing drive along winding mountainous roads of Chuquisaca, crossing a narrow improvised bridge just about the width of the car, and wading through riverbeds, we arrive at the farmhouse of doña Basilia Camargo early in the morning. Her husband is about to leave to mend some fences around their fields further up in the mountains. Doña Basilia and her husband keep their 15 sheep near the house in a corral fenced with brushwood and barbed wire.

puppy love 2I ask about the miniature house that has been built into the corral. The little mud house has a slanted roof to let the rainwater glide off, a small window and a door leading to the coral. It looks like a house for chickens, or a toy made by the children, but doña Basilia explains that it has a more serious purpose. She is raising a dog to protect the sheep from foxes.

Doña Basilia gets into the corral, and shows us an even smaller shelter in one of the corners. She calls it a “nest,” and she wriggles her hand through the small opening and brings out a little puppy that is only two weeks old, barely big enough to stand on its own legs. Most people only bring home puppies that have been weaned, but this puppy has a ewe as a substitute mother.

puppy love 3“I make the ewe lie down and then let the puppy suckle”, she explains. The dog will continue to suckle as it grows older, and will bond with the flock, following them to pasture and back to the corral.

It all has been properly planned. The small mud house that we saw along the fence is to become the house for the dog, once it has become bigger. When the puppy is old enough to follow the sheep, doña Basilia will take him with her, and spend two weeks herding the sheep. That should be enough for the dog to learn to tend the flock on his own.

Doña Basilia used to have a sheep dog but it died three years ago, and she has been trying since then to raise another one. Some dogs have died and others refuse to be trained.

She points to three dogs napping in the sun. “I tried training that dog there, but he is lazy and doesn’t like to walk. He goes out with the sheep, but comes back and just lies down near the house. I hope I will have better luck with this one,” she confides in us smilingly.

So while brushwood and barbed wire fences may be enough to keep the sheep in, a specially trained dog could defend them from foxes, both in the field and in the corral, where the dog will be sheltered from the cold in his own little house. Once more we were reminded of the marvelous ingenuity of local farmers to use their available resources to protect their valuable flock.

Further reading

Bill Laws, 2010. The Field Guide to Fields. Hidden Treasures of Meadows, Prairies and Pastures. Washington: National Geographic.

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