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Robbing land from the sea March 25th, 2018 by

The low-lying Netherlands is famous for its polders, the land behind the dikes, reclaimed from the sea. Beginning about 1000 AD, people made dikes, or earthen dams, to protect communities from flooding. At first the water was simply drained through canals, but with time the land in the polders subsided, and by the 1400s water was being pumped out with windmills. Thanks to hard work, investment and some clever engineering, people still live in and farm the polders.

Much of Bangladesh is also right at sea level and densely populated. So why doesn’t Bangladesh have polders too? I wondered out-loud during a recent visit last October.

“But we do! Bangladesh has many polders,” my colleague Salahuddin retorted. He explained that there was a string of some 123 polders over much of southern Bangladesh, an area where several large rivers cut the delta into finger-like strips of lowland.

The polders were built between the 1960s and the 1980s, first by the provincial government of East Pakistan, and later by the Government of Bangladesh, after independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Each polder is ringed by a low earthen embankment (basically a dike), sometimes just two meters high and made by hand. The roughly oval-shaped polders are dozens of kilometers in circumference.

The Bangladeshi polders are drained by an ingenious network of canals, radiating like veins from the center of the polder to the edge, where the flow of water is controlled by a sluice gate in the embankment.The sluice gate is a concrete structure with metal doors that can be raised by a hand-crank to let the water out during the rainy season, and lowered during the dry season to keep out the saltwater.

Originally the wetlands of the delta region had been sparsely populated by fisher-farmers who grew low yielding rice varieties that tolerated brackish water. The polders soon became attractive places to live and settlers trickled in. The people who were born in the polders tended to stay there and so populations increased.

Some of the polders have benefited from some sort of project, and have been reasonably well managed. By 2018 the better polders are like gardens, with comfortable farm houses surrounded by shimmering green rice fields.

The polders have had their share of troubles. Sometimes one of the rivers changes course, depositing a bank of silt next to the sluice gate, so the water inside the polder cannot drain out.  Other problems are man-made. Loggers float timber down the canals, and when the logs reach the sluice gates, the workers take the easy route to the river. Instead of hoisting the logs around the sluice gate, the loggers force the timber through the delicate metal gates, twisting and denting them so they no longer open and close. Wealthy, powerful people sometimes block the drainage canals to raise fish in them. Or they string nets over the canal to catch fish. But this slows down the flow of water, allowing silt to settle and eventually block the canal. The canals are as wide as a highway, and can be just as difficult to maintain. So once the drainage canal stops working, villagers are unable to open them up again without help from outsiders.

The polders are essentially a government mega-project, which sounds at first like a recipe for disaster. But as one drives along the top of a polder embankment, the muddy river on one side and the tidy green fields and villages on the other, it is hard to ignore the fact that the government got something right.

Ironically, country that is flooded during the rainy season may be completely dry a few months later. Various initiatives are now promoting dry-season irrigation for high value crops besides rice, and the farmers in the polders are avidly buying motorized pumps. In many places the rich, black earth inside the polders is now producing two or three crops a year of rice, mung beans, mustard, watermelon and vegetables.

Such changes in the farming system are creating more wealth for the farmers in those polders that are well run. But it will take collaboration, for local government to protect the canals and embankments, for the private sector to provide farm supplies and buy the produce and especially for innovative farmers, to continue re-inventing the agriculture of this marvelous, human-made environment.

Further reading

In characteristic modesty it was some time before my friend Salahuddin told me that he had written his masters’ thesis on the polders of Bangladesh.

Salahuddin, Ahmad 1995 Operation and Maintenance of Small Scale Flood Control Projects: Case of Bangladesh Water Development Board. Master’s Thesis: Institute ofSocial Studies, The Hague.

See also Paul’s blog from last week on coastal Bangladesh: Floating vegetable gardens.

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to Md. Harun-ar-Rashid, Guy Jones and many others for enlightening me about polders on a recent trip to Bangladesh, supported by the Blue Gold Program, with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands. Thanks to Harun-ar-Rashid, Ahmad Salauddin, Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for reading and remarking on previous versions.

Private screenings February 4th, 2018 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

Managing nematodes in vegetables

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

Videos in the languages of Benin

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

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

Photo credit

Photos are by G. Zoundji.

Families, land and videos in northern Uganda January 14th, 2018 by

Enyang Bua Philips grew up in the remote Lira District of northern Uganda, an area which is only now emerging from the poverty and violence brought about by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Philips studied agriculture in High School. Then he went on to earn a diploma in marketing. In 2016 he was one of the co-founders of the Lango Family Farmers’ Association, which he organized to help farmers with land, marketing and technical issues. The association has four staff and 569 members, including 333 women.

I asked Philips recently how he was able to encourage so many women to join the association. It wasn’t hard, he explained. The women were already organized in village-based, self-help groups, and when he told them about the advantages of belonging to a larger association, all of these groups and their members signed up.

Land grabbers are a serious threat to family farms in Uganda, where rural people are easily swayed by the promise of money. The land grabbing companies take land, strip it of its fertility by growing export crops, and then abandon the community. Philips and his colleagues teach the groups that they have the right to reject the land grabbers, who come to the villages promising money. “The land grabbers come in disguise,” Philips explains to the groups, telling them “There are no benefits, no money. (Not only do they make false promises), but when they go the land will be degraded and useless.”

Another way to protect the land is by ensuring that family farmers can benefit from it.

In March 2017, Philips read an article in the Farming Matters online magazine about the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org. He downloaded over 20 videos and has shown 10 of them to the members of the association. He takes his laptop to the villages. There is seldom electricity, so he uses his battery to show the video to groups of about 30 people. He starts by introducing the video; afterwards he explains and discusses it with the members.

Philips recently shared the video on managed regeneration of forests with several villages. Many of the local people were amazed to see crops growing among the trees. “Here people cut down all of the trees before planting a garden,” Philips told me over the phone.

While some of the Ugandan farmers still doubt the wisdom of growing trees and crops together, other local people have started experimenting with the idea. In each community, the Association helps people set up a demonstration plot, where they can try out innovations shown on the videos.

The farmer groups loved the videos on maize, on striga biology, and the one on mucuna, or velvet bean, a hardy legume that can be planted as a cover crop to regenerate degraded soils (such as the ones stripped by the land grabbers).

Mucuna seed can be hard to find in Northern Uganda, but these observant farmers quickly spotted wild mucuna growing on the edges of their fields. They are now gathering seed so they can plant it in damaged fields during the next rainy season, to see if they can bring some of their land back to life.

The internet is quickly spreading, but it will be a while before most farmers in Lira District are online. Meanwhile, a grassroots community organizer finds useful videos online, and shares them with groups of village farmers. That is one way that videos from the internet are reaching the most remote places.  This farmers’ association is not only helping farmers learn from videos, but also to understand the potential of the Internet as a source of knowledge.

Other blog stories about mucuna

The big mucuna

The big, bad beans

Other blog stories about northern Uganda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Late night learning

The sesame cleaner

Watch videos in Luo

Luo is the language spoken in Lira and surrounding areas of Uganda and Kenya. Access Agriculture hosts 38 videos in the Luo language.

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan December 31st, 2017 by

In remote areas, in post-conflict countries, it may be difficult to get information from universities or extension agencies, but with a smart phone and an internet connection, anyone can watch videos and learn from them. While conducting an online survey of farmers who had previously registered on the Access Agriculture video platform, I recently had a chance to speak on the phone with some highly innovative people, like Isaac Enoch in South Sudan.

Isaac Enoch grew up in a village in what was then the south of Sudan, but the worsening war between the north and south drove his family across the border to Uganda. There was little for the kids to do in the refugee camp, so the teenage Isaac and his friends started to grow vegetables in small patches along the river. When Isaac got enough vegetables to fill a bucket he would hand the produce to his mother. He told me how impressed he was when she sold the vegetables in the market and came home with money. She began to buy books and shoes for her children, who had been going barefoot. Isaac says this was his first experience farming as a business.

In 2004, Isaac earned a B.Sc. from Makerere University in Kampala, thanks to scholarships for academic excellence which he was awarded from several UN agencies. He worked for several NGOs in the Sudan until he went on to get an M.Sc. from Bangor University in Wales, UK in 2007. After graduating, he went straight back to the south of Sudan, and he was there when the new nation of South Sudan was created in 2011, following 20 years of civil war. Isaac was part of a donor-funded project to promote cassava-growing with farmers, but he recalls that the returning refugees were not taking agriculture very seriously. So he said “I’ll show them how to do it.” He began growing vegetables on his own, before branching out by giving farmers seed, agreeing on a price once the produce was ready then coming back later to buy the vegetables. During this time Isaac was working in a rural area, with lots of land, but then violence broke out between different southern ethnic groups and between armed factions that had once been allies in the liberation movement. In these increasingly unsafe conditions, Isaac moved to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Land was scarce in Juba, so Isaac started a greenhouse on a small plot. He was not sure how to water his plants. At first he drew on his own imagination, poking holes in soft drink bottles, filling them with water and placing them near the plants. Then he saw how drip irrigation worked in a video on the Access Agriculture website. He followed instructions and installed drip irrigation in his greenhouse. In the video, the tanks are filled with hand-carried buckets of water. Isaac was able to fill the tanks with river water, using a small motorized pump.

This worked so well that he also began irrigating some land outside of the greenhouse. He covered the soil with mulch, to slow the rate of evaporation, and conserve water, an idea he also got from the video.

So much of the food sold in Juba is imported, even the cereals, that anyone who can produce crops locally has a ready market. Isaac is now starting a piggery, producing fodder using hydroponics. He learnt about this from a friend, who sent Isaac a link to a video. The original video showed special mechanized trays, but this seemed expensive to Isaac, so he is now growing hydroponic fodder in trays that he designed himself, and made by cutting jerry cans in half.

While many projects across Africa have failed to get community groups organized around drip irrigation, access to inspiring training videos can make a difference. Creative, motivated people are able to take ideas from the videos, and adapt them to local circumstances.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip

Why drip irrigation isn’t sinking in

Related videos

Drip irrigation for tomato

Hydroponic fodder

Acknowledgement

Photos courtesy of Isaac Enoch

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.

Acknowledgement

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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