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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.

Acknowledgements

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 a good lupine crop” will be hosted on the Access Agriculture website shortly in English, Spanish, Quechua and Aymara.

CULTIVO CON CARÁCTER FUERTE

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.

Agradecimientos

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” se colocará pronto en el sitio web de Agriculture en inglés, español, quechua y aymara.

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Big meeting, small message November 13th, 2016 by

Everyone wants to see lots of farmers benefitting from agricultural innovations, managing risks more effectively and creating new pathways out of poverty. Success in pilot projects is always encouraging but it is no guarantee that this will translate into bigger gains for the masses.

everyone-planting-beans-copyI recently witnessed a golden opportunity in Rwanda to spread the word about iron beans, one of several biofortified crops developed under the umbrella of Harvest Plus, a major donor-funded programme on nutrition which works closely with national governments around the world. A quartet of development practitioners working with HarvestPlus recently won the World Food Prize.

Rwanda is famous for its ability to mobilize lots of people. They have a special word: Umuganda, a ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. To some there’s a strong element of ‘come or else’, yet my experience of events in Gakenke district suggested clear enthusiasm and interest in attending.

meeting-with-tent-copyThe first event was a mass planting of ‘iron beans’ close to the main road, a prominent place that was both easy to reach and easy to see. The Governor of the North Province was there, as was a government minister, appointed to strengthen ties from national to local level. It was clearly a significant occasion and I watched in awe as over 100 people placed seed in prepared furrows, adding a dollop of fertilizer. It was a powerful way to promote a nutrient-rich variety of a key staple crop.

Everyone then moved a short distance to a much larger community meeting. New people arrived, swelling numbers to around 1500. As the audience settled on a gentle slope, a singer moved sinuously with microphone in hand, keeping them amused as the assembled dignitaries took their seats in a tented enclosure facing the crowd. My heart sank a little as I waited for long speeches. Managing a large meeting requires skill and active participation keeps people engaged. If they get bored they can leave, even in Rwanda.

I was unsure about the purpose of the community meeting. Was this an extension of the bean planting Umuganda? I could see a display of bean varieties at the end of the tent, but as the singer departed we turned to other things. A short line of people formed on the flat ground between the tent and the slope. It was a mixed group with a common purpose, but each seeking a different outcome. They had all come to petition the authorities about a problem or wrong-doing.

lady-in-crutches-speaks-copyMy friend Jean Claude Izamuhaye explained what was going on. “This woman is disabled, and so is her husband. She wants help with health insurance.” Another lady had problems paying school fees for three daughters. There was a land dispute that a man wanted resolving. Each case was dealt with courteously. A moderator relayed questions to the Governor, Minister and local officials present. A village leader commented on a case.

The large crowd also responded, and not always favourably. One petitioner was deemed to have a frivolous case and was pelted with clumps of grass by neighbours as she retook her seat. The petitions lasted for over an hour. I waited for someone to say something about the beans and point to the display, but nothing happened. When the meeting ended lots of people crowded around the bags of beans, eager to learn about the different varieties on show.

lots-of-people-interested-in-beans-copyAt this point I was mentally urging someone to stand on a seat and give a short message about the beans, encouraging farmers to talk to knowledgeable staff from extension, dressed in distinctive green T shirts, who had been present throughout the meeting as silent observers. Now was the time, I thought, to form small groups and talk about the iron beans or even some other hot topic – the meeting took place soon after maize lethal necrosis disease was found in Rwanda. The extension workers all knew how serious this was.

The farmers milled around, the extension workers talked amongst themselves, and gradually people drifted off, back to their homes and offices. Someone had thought it was a good idea to have an attractive display of bean seeds, in full view of 1500 people, mostly farmers, but that was it. A golden opportunity to ‘scale-up’ an innovation was only partially seized.

Piggybacking on a community meeting held to resolve social issues needs to be done sensitively, so as not to disrupt the main reason why people came. But with a little thought and effort – getting the agreement of the meeting organisers to talk briefly about beans to everyone assembled, then tagging on a short Q&A session at the end – so much more could have been achieved.

Read more about the World Food Prize 2016

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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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We share August 7th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further viewing

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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Meeting the need for groundnut seed March 13th, 2016 by

While saving seed on-farm is common practice, many farmers also rely on other seed sources, like local markets. When the rains start, however, the demand for seed may be so high that the market fails to supply it in a timely way. Fortunately, smallholders have their own creative ways of meeting the need for seed, as we recently found out.

0739 onion harvest and onions for seedOn our first day of filming in Bawku, a small town in northern Ghana separated from Burkina Faso by a river, we are amazed by farmers’ ingenuity and drive to succeed. We are making farmer training videos on onions under a scorching sun, in 40 degree heat. Issah Bukari, like many other farmers, grows onions in the dry season because that is when onions are attacked by fewer diseases.

0791 water is gold - digging well in riverbed to water onions“Let me show you where we get our water to irrigate our crops,” Issah insists, leading us to the nearby river.

To our surprise the river has no water. Women carry their babies on their backs and push their bicycles across the dry riverbed. Every year, the border between both countries changes from a wide river to a winding, sandy avenue.

Issah shows us a ten-meter wide circular pit he has had dug. We begin to realise how much effort it takes to get water in the dry season.

“I pay a lot for people to dig the well. Every three days they have to dig deeper to get enough water. But it is worth it, because in the dry season water is gold.”

0786 Issah Bukari grows groundnuts for seed on edge of sunken onion beds to profit from irrigation waterIssah grows his onions in sunken beds to conserve the precious water.

Issah’s garden is quite diverse. Papaya, mango and cashew trees grow scattered across his fields. On the edges of some of the sunken beds, healthy looking maize is grown. Not as a cereal crop, but as a snack: roasted maize cobs fetch a good price this time of the year. We also see some hibiscus plants used to make a refreshing, red lemonade.

0719 groundnuts for seed grown on edge of sunken onion beds profit from irrigation waterWhat looked like creeping weeds from afar, the only green spots left after the onion harvest, turned out to be groundnut plants.

“How come you grow some scattered groundnuts in the dry season?” I ask Issah.

“This is my guarantee to have groundnut seed by the time the rains come,” he replies.

By growing groundnuts for seed on the edge of the sunken onion beds, the groundnuts profit from the irrigation water given to the onions.

Groundnut seed, like many other legume crops, is rich in oil and gets quickly rancid in warm climate. Farmers therefore cannot easily save groundnut seed for the next season.

As illustrated in “African Seed Enterprises”, farmer groups and private seed companies that provide legume seed in one season may struggle to guarantee supply in the next.

FAO book coverContinuity of supply is a big challenge. Sometimes seed enterprises cannot get enough foundation seed themselves to grow enough legume seed when farmers need it (except when large orders are placed in advance by development projects).

To deal with the uncertainties of access to water and access to seed, farmers like Issah Bukari innovate with cropping patterns, space and time.

Seed agencies are often highly critical of farmers’ practices to save seed, claiming that farmer saved seed does not even deserve to be called seed at all. As we see here, there is a lot more to saving seed than simply putting it in a sack (or “brown bagging” as the practice is sometimes disapprovingly called). Farmers use creative solutions, sometimes going to great efforts to produce small amounts of the varieties they need, in the dry season, to have seed ready to meet the rains.

Literature cited

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and Guéi, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Downloadable from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

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