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How are we doing? A double century of blogs since 2013 September 24th, 2017 by

The first Agro-Insight blog appeared in October 2013. Jeff and Paul continued publishing weekly stories until May 2015, when I joined them. Now, after nearly four years, we have reached blog number 200, and I thought it was a good time to pause and reflect on what stimulates us to write, the subjects we’ve covered and what we’re trying to achieve.

We write mostly about personal experiences, prompted by meeting people, events we’ve witnessed or taken part in and other things we’ve come across while working on projects and consultancies. Stories about Africa have featured in nearly half our blogs. Latin America blogs account for 30% of the total, mainly because Jeff is the most prolific contributor and lives in Bolivia. The Asia-Pacific region is the next common source of inspiration (13%), plus a smattering of blogs from North America, Europe and Central Asia.

We are hugely privileged in being able to visit so many countries, to work with different organisations and learn more about the unsung efforts of their staff. Every visit we make confirms how much there is to learn, and share, about the ingenuity of farmers and the dedication of the many people (particularly in extension) who contribute in unseen ways to agriculture.  People and their actions are the main inspiration for our blogs.

Sometimes we also write about things that we’ve read, such as the last blog by Jeff on photographs of Bolivian miners or a more recent one by Paul on allotments in the UK and Belgium (where he lives: we don’t always have to go far to find sources of inspiration). I wrote about Wilson Popenoe after reading a biography. He was an intrepid plant explorer and the founding director of El Zamorano, the leading agricultural university in Central America. Popenoe’s endeavours resonated strongly because I’m intrigued by the discovery of new crops. And I remembered a visit, many years ago, to the marvellous La Casa Popenoe, a small museum, in Antigua, Guatemala.

Jeff is a keen linguist and trained archaeologist, hence a series of blogs on etymology (Reaper Madness) and links to historic and ancient agriculture (such as the Origin of the sunflower). Many of Paul’s blogs have come from his and Marcella’s (Paul’s wife) experiences of making videos with and for farmers (such as Aflatoxin videos for farmers). My own varied career has given rise to blogs on wild mushrooms, photography, the rise of cocoa in the Congo, and of course plant health. Sometimes we like to call attention to examples of natural resource management gone seriously awry, as in the near extinction of North American bison. We also like to see the lighter side of agriculture and development, as in Paul’s story about bullets and birds.

Each week we submit our ideas to the other two for comments. Writing is a collaborative effort and one of the big pleasures for me is being able to hone each other’s blogs, delivering a better and cleaner message. We try to avoid preaching and to lead our readers to gentle conclusions which encourage fresh thinking.

Not all ideas that we have are published as blogs. In one failed effort, I wrote unconvincingly about the new sustainable development goals. Paul and Jeff suggested it needed more work. They were right. The first blogs were quite short, just a few hundred words. They’ve become longer, though we rarely exceed 1000 words. We know that our readers are busy people, and there’s always a danger with a longer story that you stray from the main topic.

When we write about people we always try to show them the blog before we publish. We want to get our facts right and also check we haven’t written anything that an individual or organisation is unhappy about. Sometimes they don’t want too much publicity or maybe we’ve written prematurely about a work in progress. We had to kill one story about the problems with community centres to feed children, when our horrified partners realized that we were saying too much, too soon. Cannabis growing is legal but still controversial in Alaska, yet the owners were more than happy to share their experiences more widely, provided I didn’t reveal the precise location in the blog.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of having published 200 blogs is how little we know about our audience. Although we get regular comments from colleagues and others who we alert directly about blogs we welcome wider feedback via email (just add Paul or Jeff or Eric to @agroinsight.com.

We don’t know what we will write for blog 300 and beyond, but there is no shortage of things to discover or unheard voices of farmers to report. Thanks for staying with us. Feel free to pass these stories on to friends, family and colleagues. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Miners’ stories September 17th, 2017 by

Robert Gerstmann was a German engineer and professional photographer who spent much of his time from 1925 to 1929, and later on, taking pictures of the tin mines of Bolivia. There were only three tin mining companies in Bolivia then, and two were owned by foreigners. Gerstmann worked mainly for Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, who was also from Germany. The mine owners were eager to show off their work. Tin had replaced silver as the target mineral in Bolivia around 1885, and during the First World War the need for metal for arms had revolutionized Andean mining.

By 1925 Bolivian mines were largely state of the art, with massive diesel motors to power the mills and long cable winches to lower miners down the deep shafts. The mines were modernized with foreign investment and management, and fantastic profits from the tin went into just a few hands.

Taking photographs in the early 20th century was a clumsy business. The cameras were heavy and could only take one photograph at a time, using delicate glass plates. Gertsmann had to use a tripod and estimate exposure by trial and error. He had to develop the plates himself and make prints in his own darkroom. He was also an innovator, and in the early days of electricity he had found a way to run a cable into the mine galleries to flood them with light.

Despite the technical challenges, a skilled photographer such as Gertsmann was able to capture rich and detailed pictures. The owners gave Gerstmann the run of the mines, where the 30-year old’s curiosity took him from the head offices, to the tidy storerooms, the engine rooms with their monster machinery, and into the deep mines.

Gertsmann spent most of the rest of his life in South America, until his death in Chile in 1964. Recently, a group of Bolivian and foreign social scientists discovered Gertsmann’s photographs, including over 5000 prints, some original plates and 30 minutes worth of movies. Anthropologist Pascale Absi and sociologist-historian Jorge Pavez were intrigued by the scenes Gerstmann had captured and have published a selection of them as a book.

Absi and Pavez went one step further. They showed the selected pictures to retired mine workers, who told the story behind Gerstmann’s photographs. He wrote little himself, mostly noting the names of managers and engineers who appeared in his pictures. Laborers were labelled by their job description, e.g. mine cart operator.

Explanations by the retired Bolivian workers brought the photos to life. Two men are shown selling canned sardines and other goods in the company store (pulpería), created to entice workers to stay on the job as labor became more valuable. An engineer with a theodolite is measuring the length of the mine gallery, to tell how far the mine has advanced.  One photo conveys action and hard work, as a mine worker is shown drilling at the rock face. Yet a crucial feature is missing. The retirees explained that the worker had to pose, otherwise the drill would have made so much dust that one would have been unable to see the worker, even under Gerstmann’s bright light.

In another picture, a worker is drenched with water. A colleague has doused him with a hose to cool him off. It was often unbearably hot inside the mine.  In a moon-like landscape of dust and rock, women huddle in the cold to sort ore from barren rock. The retired miners can tell where the women are from by their distinctive clothing. For example, a woman in a white hat with a distinctive black ribbon is from Cochabamba. She has come over 100 km to take this job as a palliri (the Quechua word for the women who select the ore).

Photographs are a powerful communication tool which not only tell a story, but help to unlock people’s memories. Although the Gerstmann photos were taken to pad the egos of the mine owners, the pictures also reveal the lives of ordinary people from a bygone world of dangerous work and low pay, when shifts could be as long as 48 hours, and when injured workers were simply dismissed with no compensation. Photographers don’t always write very much, and by themselves the pictures don’t tell the whole story. But Gerstmann’s innovative pictures, when narrated today by people who lived through the times he recorded, have given us a rich and lasting record of Bolivia’s mining past.

Technical note

The digital photographs you take today may tell your story later. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, Eric Boa taught me to label the pictures. I have labeled them ever since. The more text you include with your photos, the easier it will be for you and others to later read the story behind the picture.

Further reading

Absi, Pascale & Jorge Pavez (eds.) 2016 Imágenes de la Revolución Industrial: Robert Gerstmann en las Minas de Bolivia (1925-1936). La Paz: Plural Editores.

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Farmers produce electronic content August 6th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación 

Earlier in this blog we have told how smallholders in India and Kenya are using smartphones and tablets to surf the web for information. In Bolivia, some smallholders are not only accessing content on the web, but also using it to share their own observations and experiences.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa and Antolín Salazar are two quinoa farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano, the astonishingly high plains at 3,700 meters, between the ranges of the Andes. At this altitude it can be difficult to grow even potatoes. Quinoa does well, if it rains, but the Andean rains are now coming later in the year, threatening a whole way of life on the high plains.

Bernabé and Antolín are part of a group of 98 expert farmers, called yapuchiris, who teach their neighbors techniques to adapt to the changing climate. In 2015 a Bolivian organization, Prosuco, formed a group on WhatsApp, an online social media platform that one can access from a cell phone. Ten yapuchiris from different parts of the Altiplano joined the group, and called it the Observer’s Network, dedicated to sharing information about the weather in their areas. Farmers in other parts of Bolivia, and a few non-farmers, have joined the network, so that it now has over 60 members.

In 2016 several farmers wrote in to tell how the drought was killing the harvest of nearly all the crops. But there is also encouraging information. Bernabé often reports on “indicators,” the name the group uses for signs that predict the weather in the near future. For example, when the foxes leave the plains to seek out warm cover in the hills, the night will be cold. This knowledge reminds farmers to double check that livestock are well sheltered.

nest of oven birdThe oven-bird makes a round, hard, covered nest. The birds seem to sense the coming wet weather and do their best to build a dry nest, so if the walls of the nest are especially strong and hard, it will be a wet year. Knowing this lets farmers know that they can plant even in somewhat dryer areas, and that they can start planting with the first good rains. Some of the users also upload satellite based weather predictions onto the Observers’ Network. At first I thought the yapuchiris might feel upstaged, and might stop uploading their own predictions, but they didn’t. The farmers are happy to see satellite images and bird nests alike. Information is appreciated no matter where it comes from.

The internet, inexpensive cell phones and user-friendly social media are making it possible for at least some smallholders to start posting their own ideas. It’s an exciting new trend, because those of us who share information with farmers on the Internet may soon find it easier to use the web to share high quality messages with farmers on a mass scale.

Acknowledgement

Written with the help of Eng. Sonia Laura who works at Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, a non-profit organization.

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AGRICULTORES PRODUCEN CONTENIDO ELECTRĂ“NICO

6 de agosto del 2017 por Jeff Bentley

Ya hemos escrito en este blog que los campesinos en la India y en Kenia usan smartphones y tablets para navegar la web para buscar información. En Bolivia, algunos productores no solo bajan contenido del web, sino que también lo usan para compartir sus observaciones y experiencias.

quinoa standBernabé Choquetopa y Antolín Salazar son quinueros del Altiplano sur boliviano, esa planicie sorprendentemente alta que está sobre los 3,700 metros, entre las cordilleras de los Andes. A esta altitud puede ser difícil producir hasta la papa. La quinua da bien, si llueve, pero ahora las lluvias llegan cada vez más tarde, amenazando toda una forma de vida en esas zonas altiplánicas.

Bernabé y Antolín son parte de un grupo de 98 productores expertos, llamados yapuchiris, quienes enseñan técnicas a sus vecinos para adaptarse al cambio climático. En el 2015 la institución Prosuco formó un grupo en WhatsApp, una plataforma de medio social que se usa desde el celular. Diez yapuchiris de diferentes zonas del Altiplano se unieron al grupo y lo llamaron la Red de Observadores, dedicada a compartir información sobre el clima en sus zonas. Algunos técnicos, y agricultores en otras partes de Bolivia, se unieron a la red, hasta tener más de 60 miembros.

En el 2016 cuando varios campesinos escribieron para contar que la sequía atrasaba azotaba a la cosecha de casi todos los cultivos. Pero también hay información alentadora. Bernabé a menudo informa sobre los “indicadores,” el nombre que el grupo usa para las señales que predicen el tiempo a corto plazo. Por ejemplo, cuando los zorros salen de las llanuras para buscar lugares cálidos en los cerros, hará frío en la noche. El saber eso hace recuerdo a los agricultores a asegurarse que sus animales estén bajo cobertura.

nest of oven birdEl hornero hace un nido redondo, duro y cubierto. Los pájaros sienten la llegada del tiempo húmedo y hacen lo posible para hacerse un nido seco, entonces si las paredes del nido son fuertes y duras, será un año lluvioso. Este conocimiento informa a los agricultores que pueden sembrar hasta en lugares más secos, y que pueden empezar a sembrar con las primeras buenas lluvias. Algunos de los técnicos también suben pronósticos basados en satélites a la Red de Observadores. Al principio pensé que eso podría quitar protagonismo a los yapuchiris, pero no fue así. Los agricultores están felices de ver imágenes satelitales y nidos de pájaros. Se puede apreciar información de varias fuentes.

Gracias al internet, los celulares baratos y los e-medios accesibles, hoy en día es posible que algunos campesinos empiecen a publicar sus propias ideas. Es una tendencia emocionante, que facilita el trabajo de los que compartimos información con los campesinos. En el futuro será más fácil compartir mensajes de alta calidad, a gran escala, por el web.

Agradecimiento

Escrito con el apoyo de la Ing. Sonia Laura, quien trabaja en Prosuco, www.prosuco.org, una entidad sin fines de lucro.

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Connected to the world May 21st, 2017 by

A few weeks ago in this blog, Paul told how he was pleasantly surprised to see village farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, sharing videos on their smart phones. At the time I thought that India might be an exceptional case, being the technological giant of the Global South. However, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are catching up fast, as I learned recently. I was completely taken aback on a visit to Awasi, a small, unremarkable town close to Kisumu in western Kenya, to find that many farmers are linked to the Internet.

I visited the home of Esther Atieno Okello, a smallholder farmer. She explained that her extensionist had been by two weeks earlier to show some of the women videos about striga (a weed) on his tablet.

“Will you ever be able to watch the videos on your own?” I asked.

She thought that might be possible. “My son has a tablet,” she said offhandedly. And then she called him in to come and talk to us.

Cal, Esther, Evans with smart phonesEdwin Ochieng Okello was a vibrant youngster of about 20, who played football with the local club and helped his mom on her farm. He watches sports and news on his tablet, has an email account and sends photos on Instagram. Edwin’s brother Calrina has a smart phone which he uses to “stay connected to the world,” via the BBC News, Facebook and a radio-based platform called WeFarm, where callers can phone in with agricultural questions.

The brothers have a slightly older relative, Evans Owuor Omondi, an independent commercial farmer growing maize, cassava and with his own poultry farm. He uses a tablet to get online. All three young men were more interested in news, social media and information than in entertainment.

Awasi is only 40 km from Kisumu city, but the town is a distinct, bona fide farm community, with scattered houses surrounded by corn fields. The generation just reaching adulthood wants to be plugged in to the rest of the world. These young people can read and write, speak English as a third language, and are actively surfing the web for information.  They buy their electronic gear in town, with their own money, earned by working in agriculture.

Six years ago, when Access Agriculture started to host videos for farmers, the idea seemed wildly ahead of its time. But since last year, farmers have become the largest group of people registering on the Access Agriculture website.

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Call anytime March 19th, 2017 by

It’s difficult to know who reads a fact sheet, listens to a radio broadcast or watches a farmer learning video, but those of us who produce such information always want to know what happens to it, once it leaves our hands. In 2011 my colleagues at Access Agriculture tried a new way to do audience research. Access Agriculture and partners distributed 20,000 copies of a DVD on striga (the devil weed) across East Africa. Each copy contained a questionnaire, formatted as a letter, asking the viewers to tick off a few boxes and mail back the letter in the post. No one bothered to return the survey.

GerardSo in 2015, PhD candidate GĂ©rard Zoundji tried a slightly different way to get feedback from viewers in Benin, as he explains in a recent paper in Cogent Food & Agriculture. First he compiled a DVD in five languages, with nine different videos on growing vegetables. Next, GĂ©rard distributed his DVD through the private sector, mainly through agro-input dealers and people who sell movie DVDs. Previously DVDs had been distributed through extension providers, NGOs or government agencies, not from small shops.

GĂ©rard asked the vendors to collect names and phone numbers of people who bought the DVD, so he could do follow up work with the buyers. GĂ©rard gave the vendors the DVDs for free, in exchange for their cooperation, but allowed them to keep the equivalent of a dollar or two which they collected for each sale. He also tried a new way of doing follow up. He put a sticker in the DVD jacket, with a note inviting the recipients to phone in if they had questions. The number was for a SIM card that GĂ©rard bought, just to receive such calls.

It was a pleasant surprise when people started phoning in. Of 562 who bought the DVD, a whopping 341 phoned GĂ©rard. Some just called to say how much they had enjoyed watching the videos. Others wanted to share their story. Nearly 20% of them had been so eager to watch the videos that they bought their own DVD player. Others called to ask where they could buy the drip irrigation equipment featured on one of the videos.

The six agro-input dealers who were selling the DVD were also impressed with the video on drip irrigation, and the interest it inspired in farmers. Two of these dealers actually began to stock drip irrigation supplies themselves.

As Paul has written in an earlier post, farmers who have been exposed to drip irrigation through development projects usually abandon drip irrigation once the project ends. Projects usually make little effort to involve the private sector. Yet here were dealers who were motivated enough to find out where to buy the drip irrigation equipment, and stock it, in response to interest shown by farmers who had watched a video. Sometimes simply watching a video can excite people more than participating in a full project.

I am always delighted to learn about someone using a cell phone in a new way, especially if it involves giving rural people the chance to make their voices heard. A sticker inside a DVD cover was enough to encourage buyers of a DVD to call in with comments.

Since publishing the paper, GĂ©rard has been discussing with Ministry of Agriculture staff in Benin about ways to design an advisory service via phone call.

Agro-input dealers and movie DVDs sellers, including some who were not involved in the study are now requesting new DVDs to sell.

In this story we see the phone was linked with the DVD. Both are ICTs (information and communication technologies), but the connection between the two was one of the oldest ICTs: the printed word on paper.

Further reading

Zoundji, Gérard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. Vodouhê, and Jeffery W. Bentley 2016 “The Distribution of Farmer Learning Videos: Lessons from Non-Conventional Dissemination Networks in Benin.” Cogent Food & Agriculture 2(1):1277838. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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