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Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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Crop with an attitude January 29th, 2017 by

A plant has a personality and, like people and countries, some have stronger characters than others. Take the lupin bean (Lupinus mutabilis), for example. It is an oddly erect legume that forms a sort of cone shape, and its glorious flowers make the plant wildly popular with gardeners in many countries. In Bolivia it is called “tarwi”, from Quechua, the language of the Incas.

tarwi in bloomWhile making a video in Bolivia, my colleagues and I asked doña Eleuteria in the village of Phinkina to tell us what she planted after harvesting tarwi. She surprised me by saying that sometimes she followed tarwi with potatoes. That’s astounding, because potatoes are such a demanding crop that Andean farmers often rest the soil for years before planting a field to potatoes. Otherwise the soil may be improved by adding tons of chicken manure. Bolivian farmers in the Andes don’t buy manure for other crops, just the fussy and valuable potato.

I followed up by asking Reynaldo Herbas, from the village of Tijraska, if he had ever planted potatoes right after tarwi. “Yes, and it does very well. Planting tarwi is like fallowing your soil, or like using chicken manure,” he explained.

Tarwi seeds are also rich in oils and proteins and doña Eleuteria regularly feeds lupin beans to her children. Like some other Bolivians doña Eleuteria make a nutritious snack by boiling the seeds, but it’s a lot of work. The grains need to be soaked in water for three days before boiling, then left in the running water of the river for several days to wash out the bitter alkaloids.

Agronomist Juan Vallejos from Proinpa (a research institute) confirmed that tarwi takes a lot of water to process. This is ironic, because tarwi is recommended for dry areas with impoverished soils. Sweet varieties without the bitter alkaloids do exist, but in Bolivia the search for these sweet lupins is only just starting.

sorting tarwi or lupine seedWhile visiting doña Eleuteria to learn about processing seed, she showed us how to pick out the bad grains of tarwi, to ensure that the crop planted from them would be healthy. (The main disease is anthracnose, caused by the fungus Colletotrichum gloeosporioides). We asked doña Eleuteria what she did with the diseased grains. We thought that she might say that she buried them to keep the disease from spreading. But no, she buries the discarded grains because raw lupin beans are toxic, whether they are healthy or diseased.

“I do bury them,” she explained, “because they are so bitter that if the chickens eat them they will die.”

Agronomist Vallejos explained that tarwi plants are so packed with alkaloids that sheep and cattle will not touch a crop growing in the field. However, the lupin plant is drought resistant and even withstands hail, which often mows down other food crops in the Andes. Local governments in Bolivia are starting to promote tarwi as a way of adapting to climate change.

A plant may have a complex personality, with sterling qualities as well as some tragic defects. Tarwi or lupin is in many ways a perfect crop: well-suited to the punishing climate of the High Andes while nutritious for people and good for the soil. The downside is that you need lots of water to process the beans and to leach out the poisons that can kill your unsuspecting chickens.


For this story in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Paul Van Mele and Marcella Vrolijks of Agro-Insight and Juan Vallejos and Maura Lazarte and others from Proinpa. The visit was funded by the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Calisaya, J.J.,  M. Lazarte, R. Oros, P. Mamani 2016 “Desarrollo Participativo de Innovaciones Tecnológicas para Incrementar la Productividad de los Suelos Agrícolas en Regiones Andinas Deprimidas de Bolivia.” Read at the Community of Practice meeting, McKnight Foundation, Ibarra, Ecuador 11-16 July. See the paper here.

Further viewing

The farmer training video Growing lupine without disease can be viewed and downloaded on the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform in English, French, Spanish, and shortly also in Quechua and Aymara.


Por Jeff Bentley

29 de enero del 2017

Una planta tiene una personalidad, y como la gente y los países, algunos tienen más carácter que otros. Considere el lupino (Lupinus mutabilis), por ejemplo. Es una leguminosa que crece casi en forma de cono, y gracias a sus flores gloriosas la planta es querida por jardineros en muchos países. En Bolivia se llama “tarwi”, del quechua, el idioma de los Incas.

Mientas mis colegas y yo filmábamos un video en Bolivia, pedimos que doña Eleuteria en la comunidad de Phinquina nos contara qué sembraba después de cosechar el tarwi. Ella nos sorprendió cuando dijo que a veces sembraba papa después del tarwi. Es increíble, porque las papas son tan exigentes que muchos agricultores andinos descansan el suelo durante años antes de sembrar papas. Si no, el suelo tendrá que mejorarse agregando toneladas de gallinaza. Los agricultores en los Andes bolivianos no compran gallinaza para otros cultivos, solo la mimada y valiosa papa.

Luego le pregunté a Reynaldo Herbas de la comunidad de Tijraska, si él jamás había sembrado papas después del tarwi. “Sí, y produce muy bien. El sembrar tarwi es como descansar sus suelo, o como usar gallinaza,” explicó.

Marcella films Eleuteria soaking tarwiLos granos de tarwi son ricos en aceites y proteínas y doña Eleuteria a menudo los da de comer a sus hijos. Igual que algunas otras bolivianas, doña Eleuteria hace una merienda nutritiva con los granos cocidos, pero cuesta mucho trabajo. Los granos tienen que remojarse en agua durante tres días antes de cocerse, para después dejarlos en el chorro del río durante varios días más para expulsar los amargos alcaloides.

El Ing. Agrónomo Juan Vallejos de Proinpa (un instituto de investigación) confirmó que el tarwi toma mucha agua para procesarse. Es irónico, porque el tarwi se recomienda para zonas secas con suelos empobrecidos. Existen variedades dulces, sin los alcaloides amargos, pero en Bolivia recién empieza la búsqueda por esos lupinos dulces.

Cuando visitamos a doña Eleuteria para aprender cómo ella procesa la semilla, nos mostró cómo quitar los granos malos de tarwi, para asegurarse que el cultivo que siembra será sano. (La enfermedad principal es la antracnosis, causada por el hongo Colletotrichum gloeosporioides). Preguntamos a doña Eleuteria qué hacía con los granos enfermos. Pensábamos que diría que los enterraba para que las enfermedades no se diseminaran. Pero no, ella entierra a los granos descartados porque los granos crudos de tarwi son tóxicos, bien sea sanos o enfermos.

Eleuteria Sanchez burries bad lupine seed as chicken will die if they eat it“Los entierro,” explicó, “porque son tan amargos que si las gallinas se los comen podrían morirse.”

El Ing. Vallejos explicó que las plantas de tarwi están tan cargadas de alcaloides que las ovejas y vacas no tocan al cultivo en la parcela. Sin embargo, la planta de tarwi es resistente a la sequía y hasta aguanta a la granizada, que a menudo arrasa con otros cultivos en los Andes. Los gobiernos locales en Bolivia empiezan a promover el tarwi como una adaptación al cambio climático.

Una planta puede tener una personalidad compleja, con cualidades de oro igual que algunos defectos trágicos. El tarwi o lupino en muchas maneras en el cultivo perfecto: bien adaptado a los desafíos del clima altoandino, mientras es nutritivo para la gente y bueno para el suelo. Su lado oscuro es que requiere de mucha agua para lavar los venenos que pueden matar a tus gallinas inocentes.


Para escribir este cuento en Cochabamba, Bolivia, tuve la buena suerte de estar acompañado de Paul Van Mele y Marcella Vrolijks de Agro-Insight y Juan Vallejos y Maura Lazarte y otros de Proinpa. La visita se financió por la McKnight Foundation.

Para leer más

Calisaya, J.J.,  M. Lazarte, R. Oros, P. Mamani 2016 “Desarrollo Participativo de Innovaciones Tecnológicas para Incrementar la Productividad de los Suelos Agrícolas en Regiones Andinas Deprimidas de Bolivia.” Trabajo presentado en la reunión de la Comunidad de Práctica, McKnight Foundation, Ibarra, Ecuador 11-16 de julio. Ver la presentación aquí.

Para ver más

El video educativo para agricultores Producir tarwi sin enfermedad está disponible para ver y bajar en inglés, francés, español, y pronto también en quechua y aymara, en la plataforma Access Agriculture que se dedica a compartir videos.

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Turtle hunters October 9th, 2016 by

Hunting (along with gathering wild plants) is humanity’s oldest profession. In ancient times, peoples thrived or vanished depending on their hunting skills. Experiences passed on from elders and life-long observations meant that hunters fully understood the behaviour of the animals they hunted. Ecological knowledge mattered more than anything else for survival.

As people began to domesticate crops, some animals adjusted their behaviour and began feeding in farmers’ fields. The first farms were surrounded by large areas of wild lands, and birds and mammals may have been some of the first pests.

turtle-hunters-1While visiting a primary school in Malawi during a fact sheet and video script writing workshop, I was surprised to see a poster with drawings of what it said were the common pests of cassava. Clearly, skills to manage larger pests are still highly needed in rural areas.

Nowadays, few people live from hunting, but it remains an important pass-time in many areas, and hunters are still occasionally called upon by farmers.

Whenever soya farmers in northern Benin have problems with wild rabbits, they supply local hunters with free bullets and entice them to organise night hunting sessions.

In a previous blog Bullets and birds I talked about Vera and Johan, organic farmers in Belgium, who negotiated with local hunters to keep pigeons from feeding on the young cabbage seedlings.

turtle-hunters-2Dominiek Gielen, my brother-in-law, told me how his father Tien used to spend hours in farmers’ fields after working his day shift in the coal mine. As patches of forests had been cleared and turned into farming land, moles had become a real pest to such an extent that Tien quickly knew all about moles and how to catch them, always at the same time of the day.

Last year, as we were making a training video on climbing beans in Uganda, I learned that moles were also a key pest for farmers there. And likewise, farmers call upon young, knowledgeable “mole hunters”. They put a bait in the tunnel, bend a stick and attach a rope in such a way that when the mole comes to the bait, it is snatched up and pulled out of its tunnel. Farmers pay 5000 Ugandan Shilling (1.3 Euro) for each mole they catch.

turtle-hunters-3The last few days, I have had the luck to be able to interact with farmers in Tamil Nadu, southern India, while training partners from Access Agriculture to produce farmer training videos. Many farmers here have so-called integrated farms, growing crops, trees, and rearing animals and fish on their farm. Fingerlings, or young fish, are the most expensive input of fish pond farming. Maran, one of the young members of the Koveri Inland Fish Farmers, told me how via the village canal that feeds water into his pond, 20 large turtles had entered the pond and were devouring his young fish. Turtles are such a common pest that Maran could call upon turtle hunters. By making noise and using spears the large turtles ended up as a feast for the hunters and their neighbours. On top, for each turtle caught Maran paid them 50 Rupees (about 0.66 Euro).

As the various examples above have shown, hunters have a unique set of skills and continue to provide specialised services to farming communities. Farmer training videos offer a unique opportunity to document and pay tribute to these professionals.

To watch training videos that include examples of farmers working with hunters, visit:

Soya sowing density

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond (available on www.accessagriculture.org  soon)

Related blog stories

Waiting for rats

Bullets and birds

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Beating a nasty weed September 25th, 2016 by

All over Africa, small shops are offering affordable movies and music videos on DVDs and memory cards. In Malawi the shopkeepers who sell videos are called DJs.

In 2014, in Malawi, the international NGO Access Agriculture asked me and Malawian media expert, Ronald Kondwani Udedi, to meet some of these DJs and to explore their interest in distributing farmer training videos.

Later, Ronald travelled around southern Malawi, giving DVDs of farmer learning videos to some 70 DJs. Ronald gave away the DVDs for free, but told the DJs they could sell the videos to farmers; we hoped that the profit motive would encourage the DJs to copy the DVDs, and to install the videos onto farmers’ phones.

Ronald compiled 3 DVDs: one on chilli, one on rice and one on Striga, a parasitic weed. The videos were in English and in local languages: Chichewa, Senna, Yao and Tumbuka.

We wondered what happened when the videos left the DJ’s shop. Did the farmer-customers watch the videos and learn from them? Bear in mind that the farmers got these DVDs cold, with no one to answer questions. The videos had to be completely self-explanatory.

To answer this question, last week Ronald and I visited two farmers who had picked up the Striga DVD from DJs. Ronald rang up one farmer, Patrick Sungani, and introduced himself. Even though the call was a total surprise, Sungani readily agreed to meet us.

Sungani is a young smallholder in Mwanza district, in a village 14 km off the highway. Sungani bought his video at a shop near Mwanza town, on the Mozambique border, some 20 km from home.

afoso-jowanjge-patrick-sungani-and-mideo-chisimani-who-pull-up-strigaSungani watched the Striga videos with his friends. They learned that Striga reproduces by tiny seeds. Sungani, like many other farmers, had seen the Striga seeds without realizing what they were actually seeds. Sungani and four of his friends organized themselves to uproot Striga plants before it could set seed, just as the videos suggested.

As we went to look at Sungani’s garden, he showed us old, dry Striga plants in neighbors’ fields. He shook some of the seed capsules, to show us the dust-like seeds. His own garden was free of Striga. He and his friends had plucked all the Striga from five neighboring fields.

striga-seedsSungani watched the videos many times, which farmers often do when they have their own copy. African smallholders recognize Striga as a weed, but the plant spends much of its life underground and seems to appear late in the year, so many farmers do not realize how much damage Striga causes. Sungani learned that Striga “Is a unique plant. Its seed is like a dust. You can’t see the plant when it is inside the ground. I learned that it is a dangerous weed and how to control it.”

patrick-sungani-and-strigaThe video encouraged Sungani to make his own observations. For example, he taught himself that older Striga plants have a tough root, which can be dug up with hand tools.

We visited a second farmer, Lester Gandari, in Thambani, a town that is barely more than a farm village. Gandari was attracted to the idea of intercropping maize with cowpeas, another innovation shown in the video.  Legumes, like cowpeas, are trap crops that kill Striga before it can attach its parasitic roots to the maize roots. Gandari decided to alternate one hill (a cluster of two or three plants) of maize and one of cowpea, even though the video teaches several other patterns of intercropping, in alternate rows. Gandari had understood the basic idea from the video (intercropping legumes and grains controls Striga) so well that he could experiment with intercropping in ways not shown in the video.

Gandari was pleased with his efforts to control Striga. “It worked well. I have bumper crops of maize and of cowpea.”

Like Sungani, Gandari had watched the videos several times. Sungani then showed them to about 30 other farmers; about half of them were women. Gandari will continue to watch the videos “because there is (still) more to learn.” Gandari is excited about videos now, and would like to see some on maize, eggplant, sugar cane, bananas, and potatoes.

These finely crafted videos feature real farmers, speaking on camera, explaining practical innovations. The videos capture the audiences’ imagination, and inspire them to experiment with the technologies.  No one convinces a smallholder like another farmer, even when (or especially when) they are on video.

Further reading

Other stories about the DJs in Malawi Village movies in Malawi, Watching videos without smartphones, and Can I make some extra money?,

Stories about striga videos in Africa Fighting striga and improving soil fertility with videos in Mali, Killing the vampire flower, Travels around the sun,  I thought you said “N’Togonasso”, and The truth of local language.

Further viewing

You can watch the striga videos here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

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When bugs are named for the gods May 29th, 2016 by

Oliver with AgricAs local knowledge evolves, rural people must create new words for things, but may do so in surprising ways, as I saw this week while visiting Tiv-speaking farmers in Nigeria. The farmers told us that they were troubled by a white insect pest that lives in groups on the leaves of the cassava plant. The farmers told me the insect’s local name, which I wrote down phonetically: apolo, as in “ah polo”. We identified this as a mealybug and eventually realized that it is not apolo at all, but Apollo, the god of music, poetry and art. That’s a strange name for a soft-bodied insect that doesn’t move.

The Apollo Space Program (1966-72) was a big story in Nigeria, just as in most of the rest of the world. Coincidentally, West Africa suffered an outbreak of conjunctivitis (pink eye) in 1969, and people started to call the affliction “Apollo,” after the spacecraft.

caused by mealy bigsThe mealybug was then accidentally introduced to Africa from South America in the early 1970s and became a major pest.  Farmers all over the continent were forced to start talking about the mealybug, and they needed a new word for it. Some Nigerians called the tiny mealybug Apollo, because the gregarious, white insects reminded people of the white or yellow discharge that forms a crust on the eyelashes of pink eye sufferers.

This is why the Tiv have named the mealybugs for a Greek god.

Linguists call this “semantic extension”, where the meaning of one word is extended to include another concept.

By contrast, a word is “coined” when it is created out of thin air. Coining a new word is easy to do, but for some strange reason is quite rare. The Flemish chemist J.B. van Helmont coined the word “gas” in the 1650s, and George Eastman coined the name of his camera company “Kodak” in 1888, simply because he thought that the K was a strong sound and that Kodak would be easy for speakers of different languages to pronounce. There are other examples of coining, such as Gremlin and Jaberwocky, often linked to fantasy, but creating new words out of thin air is less common when naming things in the real world.

Semantic extension, on the other hand, is much more common than coining. Naming a mealybug in Nigeria for a Greek god is simply an extreme, if cross-cultural example, where the insect is named after a disease (based on symptoms), which was named after the rockets (historical coincidence), which was named for a Greek god (out of boundless self-confidence). Semantic extension can go on forever, on the most tenuous connections, even leaping from one country to another.

Apparently other Nigerian ethnic groups (not just the Tiv) also call the mealy bug the Apollo: a name which (like Kodak) is easy to say and to remember.

Local names for pests and diseases may not always be entirely local. Usually, farmers are fairly prosaic when they label new pests, e.g. calling an introduced moth larva “yuraj khuru”, meaning white insect in Bolivian Quechua, or naming new plant diseases “pocha rog” (rot disease) in Bangladesh (Bentley et al. 2009). But sometimes, as with the Apollo, local people reach out to current events for a fresh name. For example, in Kenya farmers had named the larger grain borer (Prostephanus truncatus) “Osama Bin Laden” because it was so destructive—the insect could destroy a family’s entire maize store (Mulira et al. 2011).

See our earlier blog story: Softly killing the mealy bug

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W., E.R. Boa, P. Kelly, M. Harun-Ar-Rashid, A.K.M. Rahman, F. Kabeere & J. Herbas 2009 “Ethnopathology: Local Knowledge of Plant Health Problems in Bangladesh, Uganda and Bolivia.” Plant Pathology 58(4):773-781.

Mulira, G., F. Lusweti, Macosore Lokwaleput, C. Mulusa, Khisa N. Wekulo, Kisaka Nicodemus, Kunikinah Justus, Wefwila Jotham, Dinah Wekesa, Esther Limo, and Mary Mwania 2011 “Osama Destroys Maize.” 13 Kenya Fact Sheets. Nairobi: CABI.

Acknowledgement. This story was written with Dr. Tess Madu, who is the real expert on Nigerian cassava farmers.

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