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The early state and the bad old days March 4th, 2018 by

In his new book Against the Grain, Yale University’s James C. Scott argues that early states, like the ones in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, were not most people think they were like. The popular notion of the march of civilization goes rather like this: agriculture was an invention that allowed for more food, more leisure and freedom from wandering. Early farmers were able to settle down in villages and towns and this quickly spared some craftspeople from the toil of farming. Civilization, literacy and statehood soon arose.

The model is deeply flawed, Scott explains. First, in certain environments, such as the alluvium of Mesopotamia, people actually settled down before they became cultivators, because the abundance of wild food meant that people could hunt, gather and fish year round from a single place.

People may have started farming because of climate change or population growth. No one knows for sure why. But whatever the reason, early farming was more work than hunting and gathering.

But farming appeared 4000 years before states arose. During this long period of sustainable agriculture, people lived in farms, villages and small towns where they were able to keep everything they produced.

(I recall seeing just a few small cases in the National Museum in Cairo devoted to the settled villagers who lived well-fed for centuries before the Pharaohs arose.  Museums and their visitors much rather like to see the statues and monuments of kings than the farmers’ sickles).

The first states all arose in grain-producing areas, where farmers could be taxed in wheat, barley or rice, which could be stored and then distributed as rations. There were no early states based on cassava or bananas.

Early states relied on forcing grain farmers to work harder and then taxing them: expropriating labor and food beyond what farmers needed for their own comfort. Early states were based on crushing taxes and bondage. All states took slaves until the nineteenth century. Wars by early states were usually more important for taking captives than for conquering land.

Early states were also fragile. The crowding of ancient cities meant that infectious disease were common for the first time in human history. Early states often collapsed because of pests, crop disease, drought, and war. Scott argues that after an early state collapsed, the people left behind were better off for being left alone.

For a very long time, states saw people as a resource to be tapped, rather than as citizens to be served. Until as recently as the 1800s, three fourths of humankind was living in some form of slavery, serfdom or other form of bondage.

Most of Scott’s ideas are well-known to archaeologists, but he brings them together in an engaging narrative that tells the story in a fresh and compelling way.

Although Scott doesn’t say so, it is only since the mid twentieth century that most farmers have been allowed to keep more of their harvest, and to spend the profit instead of giving it to the tax collector.

I’m writing this week’s blog from Bangladesh, a country I have had the pleasure of visiting for the past 15 years. Things are definitely improving here. I asked one group of farm women how many had cell phones. They laughed at the question. “We all have one,” they said. Just in the last year or two, men who carry the bricks, timber and other heavy loads on cargo bicycles have acquired little electric motors to power their bikes and ease their drudgery. The village shops are stocked better than ever before, with sweets and seeds, with clothes and jewelry.

Life is definitely getting better on this part of the Gangetic Delta, which was also the site of early states. In a world of so much bad news, it is good to remind ourselves that for many rural people, the standard of living is improving, and that part of the reason is democracy, trade and technology.

Further reading

Scott, James C. 2017 Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Tools of the imagination February 10th, 2018 by

A few years ago, I was sitting in the airport in La Paz, Bolivia. At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level the air is so thin you can get light headed. I sat there fighting sleep after a two day trip home from Bangladesh. Then an airline official came to tell me that the police wanted to see me. I was wide awake now, as I followed the neatly dressed official downstairs to a backroom on the first floor where the criminal police search luggage for drugs and contraband. While screening my bag they had found a strange object.

A young policeman was sitting on a stool, holding a tool I’d picked up in Bangladesh. It was a crescent-shaped iron blade, with a metal shaft and a wooden handle, polished smooth with work and sweat. I’d bought it from a man selling used tools in a Bengali village.

“What is this?” the cop asked. His face and demeanor were more of curiosity than malice. I relaxed. I wasn’t a suspect. He was simply filled with that human sense of wonder.

And so I explained that the tool was a rice weeder. It’s called a “nirani,”or “khurpi.” It’s made to work the soil at ground level, while keeping your hand off the ground. People use the nirani to weed the rice while kneeling in the field. They also use it to uproot rice seedlings from the seedbed.

Many Bolivian police and soldiers grow up on farms. The cop listened to my story with the interest of a farmer; then he thanked me for my explanation and said I was free to go.

I think of that experience often, especially when I talk to farmers about videos they have seen. Rural people often recall the tools seen on a learning video, even devices not mentioned in the narration. Farmers notice tools that city people easily overlook.

For example, in Malawi I talked to farmers about rice videos made in West Africa. The Malawians often remarked on the little wheeled, hand-pushed weeders, and wondered where they could get one.

In Uganda, farmers noticed that the Malian rice farmers worked barefoot, and asked if the Malians could not afford gum boots, or if the bare feet were part of the technique. In fact, it is easier to work barefoot in a lowland, West African rice field, where the mud can pull the boots right off of one’s feet.

And in one final example, in my blog last week, “Private screenings,” I mentioned that farmers in Benin searched for drip irrigation equipment after seeing it on a video.

National officials and even some media experts insist that agricultural learning videos must be made locally, so a new video should be filmed for each country. Of course farmers can learn from a video made in their own country. But by watching videos made elsewhere they learn about tools and ideas they would not see at home. They learn how peasant farmers in other countries solve familiar problems with ingeniously different tools. That fires the imagination, and at times even inspires farmers to ask agrodealers to stock the new tools.

Photo credit

Top photo by Paul Van Mele

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Private screenings February 4th, 2018 by

A recent study by Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in Benin, West Africa, has shed light on a promising way to get training videos to farmers through local shops. Zoundji worked in four vegetable-producing regions of southern Benin, where farmers were so worried about pests that they sprayed pesticides even before the bugs appeared.  Convincing such apprehensive farmers to hold the pesticides would take some serious persuasion.

Zoundji took nine videos on vegetable production from the Access Agriculture video platform (www.accessagriculture.org), including how to reduce pesticide use, and put five language versions (English, French, Fon, Yoruba and Bambara) on one DVD. Zoundji had the brilliant idea of reaching the farmers through local shops, in an attempt to overcome the limited distribution available through the extension service. In 2015 he convinced 13 owners of small shops (mostly farm supply stores and movie DVD vendors) to stock copies of his DVD, titled Improving Vegetable Production. From August to December, the shopkeepers sold the DVDs to customers for up to $4. Starting in June, 2016, Zoundji tracked down 120 vegetable farmers who had bought the DVD, received it as a gift from friends or family, or watched it with their neighbors. He visited the farmers’ fields to learn more about what had happened after watching the videos.

Most of the video-watching farmers were young, with an average age of 28. Youth are drawn to vegetable production, which can be profitable on a small piece of land, and to videos, complete with music and a compelling narration. A third of the farmers were women. Almost half had no formal schooling, but the videos require no reading.

Zoundji found that only a third of his farmers regularly received extension visits, while twice as many got information from agro-dealers. All the farmers shared information through their own informal networks.

Zoundji’s collaborating shopkeepers sold 669 DVDs. I was surprised that only 58% of the DVDs went to farmers. Government officials, students, their parents and extension workers bought the rest. Such folks often grow their own gardens, or they have links to vegetable-growers.

After watching the videos, farmers realized that they had been over-using pesticides. Aristide, a vegetable farmer, from Abomey-Calavi said:

Before the video training, I used to manage nematodes, pests and other diseases by using any agrochemicals I could get hold of. I just needed to see insects and pests in the field to unleash a treatment. But after watching the video, I realized how wasteful and harmful I have been.

Farmers had been applying pesticides up to seven times during each season, but after watching the videos, 86% said that they had reduced pesticide use. Mr. David, a farmer at Sèmé-Podji, said:

To grow tomatoes on a 400 square meter plot, I often used for example 1 kg or 1.5 kg of fungicide, one to two litres of insecticide, 2 kg of nematicide and about 30 kg of NPK (fertilizer), but since September 2015 I started applying the knowledge from the videos. I’m progressively reducing the chemicals … and the tomato yield is still the same as before videos, but now they keep longer than before (I watched the) videos. This is the third time I’ve harvested.

Some farmers reported that although they had heard about alternatives to pesticides from extension agents they remained unconvinced until they saw the videos. The videos show farmers from Benin and other countries using the recommended alternatives, making a novel idea seem much more practical. A farmer on a video can be more convincing than a conversation in real life. “Videos stimulate learning and facilitate more experimentation for change than face-to-face extension carried out by an extension worker,” Zoundji writes.

It wasn’t only crop protection practices that were improved. Crop rotation, compost, and nets to keep insects out of vegetables were widely adopted as alternatives to agrochemicals.

There were further changes that took place in the shop owners selling the DVDs. One third of the agrodealers began to stock the equipment for setting up drip irrigation. This was astounding, an unexpected consequence of Zoundji’s original idea. Changing business practices matters because in previous experiences with drip irrigation, farmers have been dependent on projects to buy the necessary equipment. (See Paul’s earlier story, To drip or not to drip). Now, after watching the videos, farmers were investing in drip irrigation equipment and asking agrodealers to stock items they needed, such as hoses, nozzles and tanks. Other farmers were making their own kits.

Family farmers are used to shopping at family-owned businesses. It may not be necessary to have a project just to share information with farmers. Small shops may be just the place to sell videos with useful ideas that farmers can use.

Further reading

Zoundji, Gérard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. Vodouhê & Jeffery W. Bentley 2018 “Towards Sustainable Vegetable Growing with Farmer Learning Videos in Benin.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. Read it here.

Watch all nine of the vegetable videos (in English, French and other languages)

Managing nematodes in vegetables

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

Videos in the languages of Benin

Access Agriculture hosts videos in several of the languages spoken in Benin, including:

French, Adja, Bariba, Berba, Dendi, Ditammari, Fon, Gourmantche, Hausa, Ife, Idaatcha, Mina, Nago, Peulh (Fulfuldé), Yoruba and Zarma

Photo credit

Photos are by G. Zoundji.

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Spontaneous generation January 28th, 2018 by

A few days ago, I sat at my desk in Cochabamba, Bolivia, giving a talk over the Internet to graduate students who were taking a class in IPM (integrated pest management) at the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas. One professor, Rob Wiedenmann, was listening in from New Zealand, where he was on sabbatical, but still in touch.

I reviewed some ideas for the students about studying local knowledge of insects and plant diseases, and recent efforts to share ideas on pest control with smallholders via videos. I said that anthropologists have great respect for local knowledge, but those anthropologists had been looking at local knowledge of relatively large plants and animals, not pest control, insect ecology or plant disease. When I was in Central America in the late 1980s and early 1990s I was surprised to realize that Honduran smallholders didn’t understand how insects reproduced. The farmers didn’t know that male and female insects mated to produce fertile eggs which hatched into larvae. This gap in knowledge led to the farmers’ misperception that caterpillars that were eating the maize field had come out of nowhere, the result of spontaneous generation.

That caught Prof. Wiedenmann’s attention. “What can you say about US farmers?” he asked. He wondered what entomologists could do to help North American farmers monitor their insect pests. US farmers often don’t realize that pests are causing damage until it is too late to do anything about them. North American farmers don’t believe in spontaneous generation, but they might as well.

I thought I knew what Prof. Wiedenmann was talking about. I’d been reading Ted Genoways’ book This Blessed Earth, an intimate account of a year in the life of a Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds. These thoughtful, professional farmers were using state of the art technology, including harvesters that gathered in a dozen rows of soybeans at once while measuring the moisture content of the beans and following the furrows by using a GPS. But at harvest time the farmers were shocked to find out that stem borers had caused losses worth thousands of dollars.

I could see that sitting high up in the combine harvester could leave farmers with fewer opportunities to observe their plants. I wasn’t sure what to suggest as a remedy, but I said it is always good to spend more time with the farmers, whether in Arkansas or in Kenya, before jumping to conclusions about what they knew and understood, particularly when it came to pests and diseases..

“Yes, agricultural researchers are often leapfrogging over the lack of information,” Wiedemann quipped. Researchers rush to make recommendations for farmers, but without really understanding their perception or their production constraints.

Different styles of farming influence the ways one sees the world. US farmers have taken biology classes at school and understand that insects don’t come out of nowhere, but lack day-to-day contact with their crops. Tropical smallholders are often out in their fields, and are more likely to spot a pest before the crop is ready to harvest. Even so, most farmers the world over are busy and don’t have enough time to observe their crop regularly and systematically. This can lead to devastating crop losses. Whether farming on a large or a small scale, helping farmers to observe their crops better requires solid interaction with growers to develop and test possible solutions that work in the local context.


Thanks to Prof. John Obrycki for inviting me to give this virtual seminar.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Gonzalo Rodríguez 2001 “Honduran Folk Entomology.” Current Anthropology 42(2):285-301. http://www.jefferybentley.com/Honduran%20Folk%20Entomology.pdf

Wyckhuys, Kris, Jeffery Bentley, Rico Lie, Marjon Fredrix and Le Phuong Nghiem 2017 “Maximizing Farm-Level Uptake and Diffusion of Biological Control Innovations in Today’s Digital Era.” BioControl.

Related videos

Access Agriculture has over 30 videos on IPM, which you can watch here.

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Malawi calling January 21st, 2018 by

Written with Ronald Kondwani Udedi

I was at home in Bolivia when I got a surprise call from southern Africa. “I’m a chilli farmer in Malawi; you’ve been to my house,” said the confident voice on the other end, before the caller ran out of credit and the faint, crackling connection was suddenly cut off.

But the caller, Lester Mpinda, was not easily discouraged. In the time it takes to walk to the village shop and buy a scratch card, he was back on the phone. “I’ve made a lot of profit from chilli,” he said. Then the call was cut off again.

I remembered Mr. Mpinda well. Malawian media expert Ronald Udedi and I had visited Mr.Mpinda’s garden in September of 2016, in Mwanza, southern Malawi, where he showed us how he had started growing local chillies from seed he bought in the market after watching the videos on a DVD. I wanted to learn more, but the phone connection was too poor to chat. Instead, I contacted my friend Ronald on social media and asked him to find out more.

Ronald filled me in on the rest of Mr. Mpinda’s story. Shortly after our visit to his farm in 2016, Ronald and I made a short video on Mr. Mpinda. Access Agriculture then invited Mr. Mpinda to share his story at a meeting with partner organizations in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. I couldn’t attend, but I was a little apprehensive about the outcome, thinking that the event might distract Mr. Mpinda from his everyday work on the farm. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the meeting, Mr. Mpinda met Mr. Dyborn Chibonga, then the head of Nasfam (National Smallholder Farmers’ Association). Mr. Chibonga put Mr. Mpinda in touch with the nearest Nasfam extension agent in Mulanje, who later visited the farm and gave Mr. Mpinda some seed of bird’s eye chilli, the variety used to make tabasco-style hot sauce. The slender red bottles of hot sauce are a common sight on Malawian tables and the dried chilli is exported to food-makers in Europe and elsewhere.

Chilli seed is really small, and a little bit goes a long way, so Mr. Mpinda decided to share his generous gift from Nasfam with his neighbors. Mr. Mpinda started a chilli club with 12 members, of whom eight were women. He showed the club members how to plant the chilli, gave them seed, and once or twice a week he invited the club to his home to show them the chilli videos in Chichewa, the local language. Each member learned more about growing and drying this crop, which was entirely new to them. The club members created a chilli demonstration garden, where they tried out what they saw in the videos.

When the club had a stock of dried chillies, they phoned the Nasfam extension agent, who came from Mulanje, where Nasfam has a factory for making hot sauce. The agent bought 160 kilos of chilli from the individual club members, paying 2,500 Kwacha ($3.50) per kilogram, twice the price of tobacco which is number one export crop. The Nasfam agent left more seed.

Other friends and neighbors who heard of this success asked to join the club. Mr. Mpinda graciously welcomed them and now there are 80 members growing chilli and learning about the crop from the videos.

As Ronald puts it, “the most important thing (that started this new enterprise) was the DVD with the chilli videos. Mr. Mpinda and his friends watched it to learn about everything, from taking care of the nursery beds to transplanting and harvesting.” The videos meant that farmer didn’t have to rely on visits from extension agents, whose time and travel budgets are limited.

For many years only one company, NALI, made hot sauce in Malawi, but now there are over 10. Malawi is now enjoying a kind of chilli boom.  Mr. Mpinda’s story shows that smallholders can independently identify and respond to market openings. Peasant farmers are always open to new opportunities and eager to try useful innovations. I have no idea how long the chilli boom in Malawi will last, but agriculture will never go out of style. As long as smallholders have buyers, seed and good information, they will be able to market quality produce.

Related blog stories

A hot plan

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Related videos

Hear Mr. Mpinda tell, in his own words, how he became a chilli farmer. Watch Ronald Udedi’s video

Videos on chilli

Watch the videos on how to grow and process chilli here

Videos in the languages of Malawi

All the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org are in English and at least one other language, including the following languages spoken in Malawi:

36 videos in Chichewa

7 videos in Tumbuka

13 videos in Yao

13 videos in Sena

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