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Deeper nitrogen, more rice, a cooler planet December 25th, 2016 by

About 10% of greenhouse emissions are from agriculture, especially from wet rice cultivation. Rice plants need a lot of nitrogen which is often provided as urea, a chemical fertilizer which is usually broadcast by hand into the irrigation water: this is easy, but wasteful. Some 60% of the nitrogen fertilizer is lost as it is transformed into gases and enters the atmosphere. Some nitrogen is washed away by irrigation water. A practical alternative known as “urea deep placement” makes much better use of nitrogen.

usgUrea usually comes in round grains, the size of fine gravel. For deep placement, the small grains are pressed into larger, oval pellets, about the size of your thumbnail. The farmer pushes these “super granules” of urea into the soft soil, between four rice plants. This deep placement puts the urea underground, near the plants’ roots, so less nitrogen escapes into the air and water. The rice crop yields more and the farmers save money because they only need to use half as much fertilizer.

usg-bricketing-machineThe efficiency of urea deep placement was demonstrated by 1980. The practice has not been adopted more widely because of the lack of supply of the super granules, the additional labor required and the difficulty of correctly placing the super granules in the field.  But by the early 2000s, urea deep placement re-emerged in parts of Asia. The manufacture of small briquetting machines meant that the super granules could be made at the village level, and has led to a dramatic increase in their use, e.g. in Bangladesh (Giller et al. 2004).

urea-usg-granule-plantingThere are two types of innovations: some you can try alone and others need to be adopted by a network. A solitary person can plant a new crop variety, for example, but it takes many people to start using super granules.  A manufacturer has to build the briquetting machines. A second manufacturer has to buy a briquetting machine, make the super granules and sell them. Extensionists have to teach farmers how to place the super granules in the rice field. Then the farmers have to use the super granules, and make the idea their own.

It is kind of a chicken and egg problem. Farmers can’t use the super granules until someone makes them. Nobody will make them if there are no customers.

urea-granule-plantingA step in the right direction is to show farmers the value of the super granules. The IFDC (International Fertilizer Development Center) commissioned Agro-Insight to make a farmer learning video on how to use urea deep placement. The video was filmed in West Africa, but the concepts also apply to Asia or even Latin America.

Of the 80 million hectares of irrigated rice worldwide, two million are in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 800,000 smallholders make their livings growing rice: 59% of which is irrigated (i.e. appropriate for urea super granules). And the region has the most potential of any to expand irrigated rice production. Rice is a popular food; tropical Latin Americans eat an average of 37 kilos of milled rice every ear, equivalent to a generous portion of 1.3 cups of cooked rice per day. As incomes increase, Latin Americans eat (and import) more rice.

As Latin America and the Caribbean grow more rice, it will help to make better use of nitrogen. So the urea deep placement video was recently translated to Spanish (there was already a Portuguese version). The video is a start, as it can teach farmers and extensionists about the importance of using fertilizer more efficiently, so that farmers can start to demand super granules and encourage companies to make and stock them. Even without super granules, growers of any crop will harvest more and save money if they grasp the idea that urea goes further if it is buried in the soil. This innovation makes a small contribution towards solving the problem of global warming.

Further viewing

You can watch the urea deep placement video in English here, in Spanish here, and in nearly 30 other languages here.

Related blog

Take a stab

Further reading

Bent, Elizabeth 2015 The ground exhales: reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions http://theconversation.com/the-ground-exhales-reducing-agricultures-greenhouse-gas-emissions-40795

Giller, Ken E., Phil Chalk, Achim Dobermann, Larry Hammond, Patrick Heffer, Jagdish K. Ladha, Phibion Nyamudeza, Luc Maene, Henry Ssali, and John Freney 2004 “Emerging Technologies to Increase the Efficiency of Use of Fertilizer Nitrogen,” pp. 35-51. In Arvin R. Mosier, J. Keith syers and John r. Freney (Eds.) Agriculture and the Nitrogen Cycle: Assessing the Impacts of Fertilizer Use in Food Production and the Environment. Washington: Island Press.

Pulver, Eduard 2010 “Manejo Estratégico y Producción Competetiva del Arroz bajo Riego en América Latina,” pp. 350-362. In Víctor Degiovanni B., César P. Martínez R., & Francisco Motta O. Producción Eco-Eficiente del Arroz en América Latina. Volume 1. Cali, Colombia: CIAT. http://ciat-library.ciat.cgiar.org/Articulos_Ciat/2010_Degiovanni-Produccion_eco-eficiente_del_arroz.pdf

Ricepedia http://ricepedia.org

Savant, N. K. and P. J. Stangel 1990 “Deep Placement of Urea Supergranules in Transplanted Rice: Principles and Practices.” Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 25(1):1-83

 

 

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Inventing a better maize chopper September 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It can take years to perfect even a simple maize chopper. Agricultural research is harder than it looks, as we see in this case where researchers also found inspiration in their students, in farmers and later in their customers.

The Center for Research, Training and Extension in Agricultural Mechanization, better known as Cifema, its Spanish acronym, is part of the public university (UMSS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema started as a Swiss project in 1978 and has since split into an academic department and a company that manufactures and sells agricultural implements.

For years, Cifema specialized in animal-drawn tools, and made red metal ox-drawn plows that are now a common sight in the valleys of Bolivia. Much of Cifema’s work has been a long-term collaboration between agronomist Leonardo Zambrana and mechanical engineer Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeIn 2004, Cifema set out to make one of their first motorized implements. With funding from the Swedish government, Zambrana, Huanca and their student Henry Cabrera made a prototype forage chopper for family dairy farms. The machine would cut plants into small, digestible pieces. With rising labor costs, the farmers needed a way to save time while making animal feed.

By 2006, the prototype was finished and Henry Cabrera had completed his studies. He took the machine home, to his parents’ farm in the remote, highland municipality of Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Two years later Henry returned to UMSS with new ideas on how to improve the maize chopper. The first version had been ingenious—the farmer would feed the maize stalks through two rollers into a set of four blades that would cut up the plant. But it needed to be more robust; it had small springs were easily broken and were a nuisance to replace.

So Zambrana and Huanca made a second, bigger version of the chopper, with no springs and with six blades instead of four. They took it to an agricultural fair in Cochabamba to show it off. A dairy farmer stopped to admire the machine and asked if he could try it out. So Cifema took the chopper out to the dairy farm, and demonstrated it.

The dairy farmer kept the machine overnight to try it for himself. Mario Huanca recalls going back the next morning to collect the chopper. He was astounded at the huge mound of maize that the farmer had chopped, but off to one side was a smaller pile of just the ears.

“Why didn’t you chop up the ears?” Mr. Huanca asked.

“I wanted to, but they got stuck in the machine, so I had to break them off.”

This was a problem. Henry Cabrera was from a farm so small that people ate all the maize grain, and only cut up the dry stalks. But the dairy farmer who borrowed the machine overnight grew special forage maize and the whole plant had to be chopped up, ears and all.

máquina enteraZambrana and Huanca made adjustments and by 2009 they had created a chopper with eight blades instead of six. It had fewer moving parts. Instead of rollers, the maize simply slid in under a plate, right into the whirling blades. Then they added a Japanese-made, gasoline-powered motor. The chopper cost 12,000 Bolivianos (almost $1,700), but it was so useful that eventually 50 families bought one, as admiring neighbors followed the first purchasers.

Cifema made further improvements to the chopper design as they saw which repairs were most often needed.  Cifema also realized that they needed to make the machine cheaper. Many of the dairy farmers already had a two-wheeled tractor. If that could be used as the power source the chopper could be made without an engine, saving $400 from the price tag. That sounds simple, but it requires a lot of original research on the pulleys.

Cifema is now figuring out how to run a chopper at 1000 RPMs, powered by a two-wheeled tractor engine that runs at half that speed.  Slow innovation is like slow food. Sometimes the ideas have to simmer for a while, but they are worth the wait.

INVENTANDO UNA MEJOR PICADORA DE MAĂŤZ

4 de septiembre del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

Puede tomar años perfeccionar hasta una sencilla picadora de maíz. La investigación agrícola es más difícil de lo que parece, como vemos en este caso donde los investigadores encontraron inspiración en sus estudiantes, los agricultores y más tarde en sus compradores.

El Centro de Investigación, Formación y Extensión en Mecanización Agrícola, mejor conocido como  Cifema, es parte de la universidad pública (UMSS) en Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema empezó como un proyecto suizo en 1978 y luego se dividió en un departamento académico y una compañía que manufactura y vende implementos agrícolas.

Durante años, Cifema se especializó en implementos de tracción animal, e hizo rojos arados metálicos jalados por bueyes que ahora se ven por todos los valles de Bolivia. Mucho del trabajo de Cifema ha sido fruto de una larga colaboración entre el ingeniero agrónomo, Leonardo Zambrana y el ingeniero mecánico, Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeEn el 2004, Cifema empezó a fabricar uno de sus primeros implementos motorizados. Con fondos del gobierno sueco, Zambrana, Huanca y su estudiante Henry Cabrera hicieron un prototipo de una picadora de forraje para pequeñas fincas lecheras. La máquina cortaría las plantas en trozos comestibles. Con alzas en los costos de la mano de obra, los agricultores necesitaban una manera de ahorrar tiempo mientras preparaban los alimentos para sus animales.

Para el 2006, el prototipo estaba listo y Henry Cabrera había terminado con su ingeniería. Él llevó la máquina a la pequeña finca de sus padres en el lejano municipio andino de Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Dos años más tarde, Henry volvió a la UMSS con nuevas ideas sobre cómo mejorar la picadora de maíz. La primera versión había sido ingeniosa—el agricultor metía el maíz entre dos rodillos hacia un juego de cuatro cuchillas que cortaban la planta. Pero tenía que ser más robusta; tenía resortes pequeños que se quebraban fácilmente y eran trabajosos de reemplazar.

Así que Zambrana y Huanca hicieron la segunda, más grande versión de la picadora, sin resortes y con seis cuchillas en vez de cuatro. La llevaron a una feria agrícola en Cochabamba para mostrarla. Un productor lechero se detuvo en admiración y pidió probar la máquina. Así que Cifema llevó la picadora a su finca, e hizo una demostración.

El lechero se quedó con la máquina toda la noche para hacer la prueba. Mario Huanca se acuerda de su visita la mañana siguiente para recoger la picadora. Él se quedó impresionado con el enorme montón de maíz que el agricultor había picado, pero a un lado había otro bulto más pequeño de solo las mazorcas.

“¿Por qué no picó las mazorcas?” preguntó el Ing. Huanca.

“Quería hacerlo, pero se trancaban en la máquina, así que tuve que sacarlas.”

Eso sí era un problema. Henry Cabrera era de una finca más pequeña donde la gente comía el grano, y solo se picaban los tallos secos. Pero el lechero que se prestó la máquina toda la noche producía maíz de forraje, y tenía que picar la planta entera, incluyendo la mazorca.

máquina enteraZambrana y Huanca hicieron ajustes y para el 2009 habían creado una picadora con ocho cuchillas en vez de seis. Tenía menos partes movibles y en vez de rodillos, el maíz se metía bajo una placa, directamente a las voraces cuchillas. Luego agregaron un motor japonés de gasolina. La picadora costaba 12,000 Bolivianos (casi $1,700), pero era tan útil que 50 familias se compraron una, a medida que sus vecinos se admiraban de la máquina y seguían a los primeros compradores.

Cifema mejoró el diseño más mientras veía las máquinas que sus compradores traían para reparar.  Los ingenieros se dieron cuenta que tenían que hacer una máquina más accesible. Muchos de los productores de leche ya tenían un motocultor, un tractorcito de dos ruedas. Si se podría usar el motocultor como la fuente de poder, se podría fabricar la picadora sin motor, ahorrando $400. Suena sencillo, pero requiere de investigación original con las poleas.

Actualmente, Cifema está averiguando cómo hacer funcionar una picadora a 1000 RPM, usando el motor de motocultor que se gira a la mitad de esa velocidad.  La innovación lenta es como la comida a fuego lento;  a veces las ideas tardan en servirse, pero valen la pena.

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We share August 7th, 2016 by

Farmers love to experiment, especially in trying out new crop varieties, even if it takes patience to get results. With cassava, for example, one has to wait months or even a couple of years to see what a new variety is like. In 2015, the Nigerian Saint Paul Catholic Mission gave a handful of vitamin A-rich cassava stems to Mary Ntia and her husband Emmanuel. This variety produces a yellow root which, like other yellow vegetables, has a lot of vitamin A. The couple took the new cassava home to their village of Ikot Akpan Ntia, in Nigeria’s South-South State of Akwa Ibom. The community is so remote that extension agents have not been there in years.

I was visiting the village in May of this year, asking farmers about cassava varieties they grew, and what people wanted to see in new cassava varieties.

Mary and Emmanuel planted their vitamin A cassava and at the end of the rainy season harvested a few plants. The couple liked the large roots, so they replanted the stems in a full-sized garden, intercropped with maize. This garden experiment will allow them to see how the cassava performs under normal field conditions.

Mary and Emmanuel will also test the cassava’s suitability for processing, once they get enough roots to ferment and toast as gari (see previous story on making gari). They also want to see if the cassava stores well underground. The best varieties can be kept in the field and harvested a year or more after maturity. This is crucial in the humid tropics, where there are few long term techniques for food storage.

sharing vitamin A cassavaEmmanuel dug up one of the older plants. After showing off the large, yellow roots to his visiting social scientists, Emmanuel hospitably invited us to take the stems home. When we demurred, an elderly couple stepped forward. They had been quietly watching and they were keen to start experimenting with vitamin A cassava, so Emmanuel handed them the stalks of the harvested plant. The old couple would cut the stems into pieces and plant them. “This is what we do,” Emmanuel said as he handed over the stems, “we share the stems with our neighbors.”

When a new cassava variety enters a community, farmers grow the variety, share the planting material with others and evaluate the cassava for at least two years, until they feel that they know it. Then farmers will keep sharing and multiplying the new variety. If the new variety meets farmers’ standards, they will keep growing it and sharing it.

So far, most improved cassava varieties find a place in farmer’s fields and gardens. Participatory varietal selection (PVS) is one way of structuring collaboration between smallholder farmers and breeders, to select crop varieties that farmers want to grow. Formal efforts like PVS capitalize on tropical farmers’ inherent creativity and curiosity, but smallholders will still spontaneously share planting material, and experiment on their own.

Further viewing

You can watch videos about participatory varietal selection here: Selecting new rice varieties and Succeed with seed.

Acknowledgements

On this visit, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by Nigerian researchers Adetunji Olarewaju, Tessy Mady and Olamide Olaosebikan.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.

Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.

Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari.  To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cash—which they can spend or keep.

In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.

In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.

If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.

The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.

Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).

In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.

Acknowledgements

Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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To drip or not to drip June 5th, 2016 by

Despite huge support, drip irrigation hasn’t really taken off in Africa, as I was astonished to learn from Jonas Wanvoeke, who used to work with me at AfricaRice.

aa IMG_3307 drip irrigation in Burkina FasoI had been convinced of the value of drip irrigation. In 2012 we had made a farmer training video on drip irrigation in Burkina Faso, where Jonas later conducted his field research, and the farmers who featured in the video were all highly convinced of the benefits of drip irrigation, and were using it capably.

Jonas’s study showed that the projects all had a pro-poor focus and were often promoting low pressure kits to irrigate relatively small plots. The technology was always provided by a project without really involving the private sector in Africa. The projects ensured that boreholes (water wells) were installed and organised farmers to work in groups to manage the kit. Apart from farmers supported by projects, like the ones we filmed, Jonas found that hardly any one used the drip irrigation technology in Burkina Faso, despite two decades of project interventions.

Perhaps the problem with drip irrigation was not the technology itself, but how it had been promoted, as suggested by a recent experience in Benin by GĂ©rard Zoundji, who is currently doing his PhD on communication.

With support of Access Agriculture, GĂ©rard embarked on action research; farmer training videos on vegetables were translated into local languages and compiled onto a DVD. One of the videos happened to be on drip irrigation. GĂ©rard sold the DVDs at a subsidised rate to agro-dealers and to people who sell entertainment videos. On a note inside the DVD jacket, GĂ©rard printed his phone number so that people could call to ask questions.

Within three months nearly 400 DVDs had been sold and people were contacting GĂ©rard from as far away as Niger, Nigeria and Ghana.

The DVDs were travelling widely, almost under their own power. On the other hand, when NGOs distribute training videos, almost all of the DVDs stay in the villages that get them.

The farmers who bought the DVDs called GĂ©rard to ask where they could get more videos and where they could get the drip irrigation equipment. Farmers were interested in drip irrigation after all.

As projects gradually come around to the idea that they should work with the private sector instead of avoiding it, they need to understand that handing out gifts to farmers is often counter-productive. The private sector has a role to play, both in selling the hardware and in teaching farmers how to use it.

aa Innovation 1_drip videoLast week, GĂ©rard shared with me some photographs from a farmer in coastal Benin who had watched the videos. The farmer had made his own drip irrigation kit using buckets and some old hoses that had served to irrigate the intensive peri-urban vegetable gardens around Cotonou, Benin. Projects promote drip irrigation to save water, but in southern Benin water is plentiful, and available in shallow wells. Here individual farmers like drip irrigation to save time and labour.

So even without the handsome drip irrigation kit presented in the video, farmers see the value of it, and will make the concept work using their own resources. As we often say in this blog, if a video conveys the basic principles that underlie a new technology, the farmers may invent a different way of using the idea.

Projects prefer working with groups of farmers, which only functions when the project is there to hold the group together, but drip irrigation is a technique for intensive agriculture, best managed by a household.

Development projects offer room for farmers to experiment with novel technologies, like drip irrigation, and working in groups may be the easiest way for the project to get a critical mass of farmers together, and to start engaging with the private sector. In a second step, well-made farmer training videos can help to share the innovations with many more creative farm households and to enable the private sector to expand its products and services.

The video Drip irrigation for tomato was made for the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) and can be watched and downloaded in 26 different languages from the Access Agriculture website, along with many other training videos.

Further reading

Wanvoeke, J. 2015. Low cost drip irrigation in Burkina Faso: Unravelling actors, networks and practices. PhD thesis, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands.

Zoundji, G. 2016. Farmers pay for learning videos. In: Bentley, J., Boa, E. and Mundie, S. (eds). A Passion for Video. CTA: Wageningen, in press.

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