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Finding solutions May 28th, 2017 by

Farmers may doubt the worth of an innovation, until they meet other people who have tried the idea on their own land. In 2015, the village of Korelach in West Pokot, Kenya, was suffering. The land was so eroded and degraded that it was getting difficult to raise crops. Many people were leaving the community. Then they got some help from researchers at the nearby University of Eldoret, who were looking for a community with challenging soil erosion problems. The researchers soon realized that the immediate culprit was sand extraction. Brokers from the city would come and load a lorry with sand in the dry river bed. A crew of local men could earn 3000 shillings ($30) for shoveling the truck full of sand, but no other villagers benefited. The sand would be sold in nearby cities for up to 60,000 shillings ($600), to use for construction.

carrying pale of water on headAs more sand was extracted, the dry river bed became a gully so deep that people could hardly walk to the other side of it. It was getting increasingly difficult to cross the river to farm or visit neighbors. When the researchers explained to the villagers how much the brokers were earning from the sand, the villagers said “We cannot let this gully hold us off; we need to hold on to it and fight it off.”

The villagers banded together and stopped the sand digging. With the next rainy season, the pits in the riverbed began to fill up with sand. The gully became easier to cross, and the riverbank stabilized. A minister from a church in Korelach convinced the local government to drill a well (a borehole) on the river bank, where women could pump their own water close to home, and avoid long walks to fetch water.

This success created enough trust for the researchers to propose new soil and water conservation techniques for the village. In May, 2016 the university took five farmers from Korelach to Tigray, Ethiopia, to learn about the new techniques. However, the results were disappointing: in part because the Kenyan farmers had to speak to their Ethiopian peers through interpreters, but also because the expense of international travel meant that the project could only take a few Kenyan farmers.

On their return, the five farmers were unable to convince the rest of the community to try the new techniques. The other villages had not been to Ethiopia, and were still skeptical that the land could be improved with simple techniques.

Then in December 2016, the researchers tried a different tactic. They took a whole bus load of farmers from Korelach to Machakos, on the other side of Kenya. This had several advantages, explained Professor Wilson Ng’etich of the University of Eldoret. First, the bus could hold more people, so women and youth were able to go on the trip, while only senior men had been to Ethiopia. Second, most Kenyans speak Kiswahili in addition to their local language, so the farmers from Korelach could speak freely to farmers in Machakos.

The farmers from Korelach were impressed with what they saw: “Those guys in Machakos have worse land than us, but they are taking better care of it than we are.”

After the visit, researchers were able to help the people of Korelach set up their own experiments with soil and water conservation, such as small, hand-made earthen “sand dams” to slow the rain runoff, so water would soak into the soil instead of washing it away. The farmers also tried cover crops, such as legumes that build soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and leaving biomass on the soil.

Now Korelach is ready to try other ideas, such as planting fruit trees and multi-purpose legumes (that not only enrich the soil, but also feed people).

“We didn’t want to be the solution bringers. We wanted to strengthen the idea that villagers can solve their own problems,” explained Dr. Syphylline Kebeney of the University of Eldoret.

The farmers are also starting to get a more positive vision of the future. One farmer could imagine her fruit trees so vividly that she said “I’m seeing myself with a gunny bag full of mangos on my back going to market.”

This experience shows that cross-site visits can spark farmers’ interest to overcome their own discouragement, engage in collaborative research and see a different future for their land.


The work in Korelach was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Watching other farmers on a video can often be as convincing as a meeting in real life, as we have seen in some earlier stories.

Call anytime

Stop erosion

Friends you can trust

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

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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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Stop erosion January 1st, 2017 by

stop-erosion-1When farmers have limited access to arable land and soils are poor, limiting soil erosion can make the difference between harvesting a crop or nothing at all.

Soils are indeed at the core of any crop production system. Without a healthy soil, crops cannot thrive. While measuring the effect of soil erosion at national and global scales is near impossible, all farmers see the difference when effective soil conservation techniques are in place.

Putting the right strategies in place to control erosion is becoming increasingly urgent as climate change is leading to rains falling more erratic and intense than before.

stop-erosion-2From the gentle rolling lands in Burkina Faso to the steep hills in northern Vietnam, I have seen the devastating effects of rainfall on poorly managed soils. On gentle slopes of even as small as five degrees, the torrential rains wash away the top soil and seal the top layer, after which no more water can penetrate the soil. To remedy this, farmers in Burkina Faso learned about making contour bunds (raised ridges every 20 meters across the field) to allow the rainwater to infiltrate. On steeper slopes, where the land is much more difficult to be ploughed by anaimals or machines, vegetation barriers or terraces are possible solutions to stop soils eroding.

stop-erosion-3Depending on the slope, type of soil, availability of labour and other resources a wide range of options are available to improve soil and water management. Networks such as WOCAT (the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) support organisations working on the ground with farmers by making hundreds of sustainable soil and water management technologies available in an authoritative website.

While many development agencies and projects believe that encouraging smallholder farmers to use mineral fertilizers is the quickest way to solve low crop productivity, without proper soil conservation techniques farmers will see most of their money invested wash down the drain.

Related videos

Grass strips against soil erosion; Contour bunds; Till less to harvest more; Conservation agriculture; Grow more, earn more

And many more under Sustainable Land Management

Related blogs

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Other resources

The WOCAT SLM database: https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/

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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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New crops for Mr. Mpinda September 18th, 2016 by

A good video, one that lets farmers tell about their innovations, can spark the viewers’ imagination. A video can even convince smallholders to try a new crop.

mpinda-wateringLester Mpinda is an enterprising farmer in Mwanza, Malawi. Mpinda has a vegetable garden, known as a dimba, which is irrigated with water from a hand-dug well. A dimba is hard work, but worth it.

Mpinda grows vegetables, and sells them in the market in Mwanza. In 2013, he was able to use his earnings to buy a small, gasoline-powered pump to water his beans, onions and tomatoes. A $100 pump is a major investment for a Malawian smallholder, but also a great way to save time and avoid the backbreaking labor of carrying water from the well to the plants during the long, hot dry season.

mpinda-marches-up-to-get-the-hoseWith the money earned from his productive dimba, Mpinda bought a small stand, where his wife sells vegetables in the village.

In June 2015, Ronald Kondwani Udedi left some DVDs with videos at a government telecentre managed by Mathews Kabira, near Mwanza, Malawi. The DVDs had learning videos for farmers about growing rice and chilli peppers and managing striga, the parasitic weed.

handful-of-chilliesMathews took one set of DVDs to Mpinda, because he was “a successful farmer. Mpinda had a DVD player, but no TV, so he watched the videos on chilli growing at a neighbor’s house, using the neighbors TV and Mpinda’s DVD player. He watched the videos as often as the neighbor would let him. The more he watched, the more he learned.

Mpinda soon recognized the possibilities of chilli as a crop, even though he had never grown it.

To start a new crop you need more than a bright idea; you need seed. Getting chilli seed took some imagination. Mpinda went to the market and bought 20 small fresh chillies for 100 Kwacha (14 cents) and then dried them, like tomatoes, and planted the little seeds in a nursery, just like he had seen in the video. Mpinda had already been used to making seedbeds for onions and some of his other vegetables. At 21 days he transplanted the chilli seedlings, as he had seen on the videos.

lester-chizumeni-mpinda-in-gardenNow Mpinda has several dozen plants of chillies, a perennial variety which is eaten fresh in Malawi. People cut up the fiery chilli at table, to add some zest to meals.

Every few days Mpinda harvests three or four kilos of chillies and takes them to the market and sells them for 1000 kwacha a kilo ($1.40).

Mpinda has already planned his next step. After harvesting his little patch of eggplant, he is going to clear the land and plant a whole garden of chilli.

Mpinda has also watched the DVD of rice videos, and although no one in the area grows rice, he realizes that the crop would do well in the slightly higher space, just above his rows of vegetables. He has already looked for rice seed: there is none to be found in Mwanza and the agro-dealers won’t or can’t order it for him, so he is going to travel to the city of Zomba, 135 km away, and buy rice seed there. Mpinda has already identified the major rice varieties grown in Malawi and decided that one of them, Apasa, is the best for highland areas like his.

He is going to plant rice in October, possibly becoming the first rice farmer in Mwanza district.

Mpinda didn’t watch the rice and chilli videos as part of a farmer group. He didn’t have an extensionist to answer questions. He simply had the videos which he could (and did) watch several times to study the content. And this information alone was enough to inspire him to experiment with two crops that were entirely new to him.

Further viewing

You can watch the chilli videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/all/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/ny/

You can watch the rice videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/en/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/ny/

These videos and others are also available in other languages at www.accessagriculture.org

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