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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.


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.

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Floating vegetable gardens March 11th, 2018 by

For much of the year Bangladesh appears more water than land. It can also be a chaotic place. Yet such impressions are misleading, and something I wanted to counteract with a genuine admiration for how people make the best of often difficult circumstances. Colleagues commented on my positive outline when I wrote about innovations in rural extension, in a book published in 2005. More recently, I’ve been reminded about the resilience and creativity of farmers after watching a video on floating vegetable gardens, now available on the  Access Agriculture platform.

The video is nicely made, with strong visual shots and compelling interviews with farmers. The dreamy traditional music carries you along in the wake of a wooden boat steered by a Bangladeshi farmer on a shallow, temporarily flooded area.

It takes a lot of work to make a floating vegetable garden, but the video reveals an amazing abundance of crops tended by farmers. For years, Bangladeshi farmers have turned two major recurring problems into an opportunity. The land lost to floods during the annual monsoons is used to grow crops; and the world’s worst aquatic weed, the water hyacinth, is turned into compost.

Scientists have tried for decades to find ways to control this weed, including the release of weevils that feed on its leaves. Governments and local authorities have tried in vain to mechanically remove this weed using heavy machinery, creating mountains of water hyacinth on the banks of rivers and lakes that no one is quite sure what to do with.

In the video, farmers in Bangladesh show a sustainable alternative. Instead of laboriously removing the bulky mass of water hyacinth, the weeds are left in place. A long bamboo pole is placed on top of a thick matt of water hyacinth and with a hook the water hyacinth is pulled from both sides of the bamboo towards the bamboo pole and compressed to make a compact plant bed. After 10 days the compacted leaves and roots start to decompose and a new layer of water hyacinth is added. Floating beds are about two meters wide and vary in length; some are as long as 20 meters.

In the meantime, back home, women have started to grow vegetable seedlings in round compost balls. Once the plants are old enough the gardeners carry them on the boat to their floating garden beds, and insert the compost balls with seedlings in the plant bed. Farmers grow okra, various types of gourds, leafy vegetables, ginger and turmeric. The video also shows how some innovative farmers even connect two floating beds with trellises made of bamboo and jute rope to grow yard-long beans.

Farmers across developing countries, and Bangladesh in particular, have a wealth of knowledge. The many training videos hosted on the Access Agriculture platform pay tribute to these farmers and allow them to share their knowledge and experiences across borders. At Agro-Insight we celebrate these respectable farmers in our weekly blog stories. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

Watch the video

Floating vegetable gardens

Related blogs on farmers’ innovations

Ashes to aphids

No land, no water, no problem

Specializing in seedlings

Tomatoes good enough to eat

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. (eds.) 2005. Innovations in Rural Extension: Case Studies from Bangladesh. CABI Publishing, UK, 307 pp. Download from: www.agroinsight.com/books


The Floating vegetable garden video has been made by the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), one of the partners trained by Access Agriculture to produce quality farmer training videos.

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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.

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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


Photos courtesy of Isaac Enoch

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No land, no water, no problem December 17th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

A hot, parched gravel patch on the edge of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia may seem like a poor place to grow high value vegetables, but a group of agricultural students and a local entrepreneur are making it happen.

The entrepreneur, René Cabezas, is an agronomist who gives training courses in hydroponics, where vegetables are produced in tubes of water. Mr. Cabezas also produces hydroponic vegetables himself, and he recently bought in three metal frame houses—each about the size of a modest suburban home, about 7 by 15 meters—at a cost of 45,000 Bolivianos ($6400) each. Aldo Chipana and Arturo Siles, two thesis students, were showing Ana and I how the vegetables are grown. The metal frames were covered in a fine, plastic mesh, a fabric which keeps out insects, such as aphids and whiteflies. The structures were a big investment, and making them pay off will depend on using them carefully for a long time. Several agronomy students are working in the vegetable houses, writing their theses on the experience, and keeping some of the profits from the produce.

One house was full of tomatoes watered with drip irrigation three times a day, carefully regulated by an electronic timer and a humidity-measuring device. Mineral fertilizer had been dissolved in the water, feeding the plants with every drop. The tomatoes had no obvious health problems: which is astounding for the tropics, where the plants grow year round, and so do the pests and diseases. I thought of some of the commercial farms I had seen in Bolivia and elsewhere, where the tomatoes were under constant attack by pests and diseases and dripping with pesticides.

These tomatoes are planted in small pots of soil with lots of organic matter. The dry climate of the Southern Andes helps to avoid disease, but Aldo and his colleagues also prune off any unhealthy leaves. The fine mesh covering will limit the fungal spores that blow in, though in this sprawling neighborhood, houses are more common than fields, so there are few other vegetables in the vicinity to act as sources of infections. Ana and I were lucky to visit; Aldo and colleagues allow few visitors, who might carry pathogens on their shoes or clothing.

Like much of peri-urban Cochabamba, this south-side lot has no city water. People have to buy expensive water from tank trucks, from 7 Bs. to 15 Bs. ($1 – $2) for a 200 liter barrel. It seems like madness to irrigate vegetables with water at this price, but these tomatoes only use about 200 liters of water a day, for some 800 plants, thanks to the carefully controlled drip irrigation, which makes the most of every drop.

In another metal frame house, Aldo showed us the lettuce growing in plastic (PVC) tubes filled with water, laced with mineral fertilizer. Unlike the tomatoes, which are growing in pots, the lettuce was growing only in water, with no soil. Like the tomato plants, the lettuce was free of disease and of pesticides, producing the kind of vegetables that demanding consumers really want.

There was one unforeseen problem: the sun. There was simply too much light for the lettuce. Even with the roots sitting in water, the little plants were wilting. Aldo and his colleagues had found that a thick, black net provided the best shade while still allowing the lettuce to thrive.

I had seen hydroponics before, but usually at universities, research centers (and once even at an amusement park), so until seeing these vegetables I doubted that plants could be grown for a profit in tubes of water. Now I was starting to change my mind, seeing these young people invest their time and energy to make it work, raising a commercial crop on a stony lot that was unfit for conventional gardening. They were saving so much water that they could afford to irrigate even when water is expensive.

My dad was a hydrologist and used to be fond of saying that agriculture could never compete with a city for water. City dwellers could always outbid farmers for water. But dad was thinking of old-fashioned ditch irrigation. As irrigation technology improves and becomes more efficient in using water, agriculture can afford to buy water at high prices.

As climate change continues to make for a warmer, thirstier planet it is good to see creative solutions providing healthy produce, and doing so without pesticides.

Watch some related training videos

Drip irrigation for tomato

Hydroponic fodder

Related blog

To drip or not to drip


Por Jeff Bentley

Una parcela pedregosa, caliente y reseca en las afueras de la ciudad de Cochabamba, Bolivia, puede parecer un lugar equivocado para cultivar verduras de alto valor, pero un grupo de estudiantes de agronomía y un empresario local lo están logrando.

El empresario, René Cabezas, es un agrónomo que imparte cursos de formación en hidroponía, donde las verduras se producen en tubos de agua. El Sr. Cabezas también es productor de verduras hidropónicas, y hace poco compró tres casas de marcos de metal, cada una del tamaño de una modesta casa suburbana, de aproximadamente 7 por 15 metros, a un costo de 45,000 bolivianos ($ 6400) cada una. Aldo Chipana y Arturo Siles, dos tesistas, nos estaban mostrando a Ana y a mí cómo se cultivan las hortalizas. Los marcos metálicos estaban cubiertos por una fina malla de plástico, una tela que impide la entrada de insectos, como los áfidos y las moscas blancas. Las estructuras fueron una gran inversión y para rescatarlo hay que hacer un uso cuidadoso durante mucho tiempo. Varios estudiantes de agronomía están trabajando en las casas de malla, escribiendo sus tesis sobre la experiencia y manteniendo algunas de las ganancias del producto.

Una casa estaba llena de tomates regados con riego por goteo tres veces al día, cuidadosamente regulados por un control electrónico y un medidor de la humedad. Se había disuelto fertilizante mineral en el agua, alimentando a las plantas con cada gota. Por lo visto, los tomates no tenían ningún problema de salud: lo cual es asombroso en los trópicos, donde las plantas crecen durante todo el año, igual que las plagas y enfermedades. Me acordé de algunas parcelas comerciales que había visto en Bolivia y en otros lugares, donde los tomates estaban bajo constante ataque de plagas y enfermedades y la fruta chorreaba plaguicidas.

Estos tomates se habían plantado en macetitas con suelo rico en materia orgánica. El clima seco de los Andes sureños ayuda a prevenir las enfermedades, pero Aldo y sus colegas también podan las hojas enfermas. Lo cobertura de malla fina limitará la entrada de las esporas de hongos por aire, aunque en este vecindario en expansión, las casas son más comunes que los campos, por lo que hay pocas otras verduras en la zona que serían fuentes de infección. Ana y yo tuvimos la suerte de visitar; Aldo y sus colegas permiten pocos visitantes, que pueden llevar patógenos en sus zapatos o en su ropa.

Al igual que gran parte de la parte peri-urbana de Cochabamba, este lote de la zona sur no tiene agua potable. La gente tiene que comprar agua cara de camiones cisternas, desde 7 Bs. a 15 Bs. ($ 1 – $ 2) por un barril de 200 litros. Parece una locura regar las verduras con agua a este precio, pero estos tomates solo usan unos 200 litros de agua al dĂ­a, para unas 800 plantas, gracias al riego por goteo cuidadosamente controlada, que aprovecha al máximo cada gota.

En otra casa metálica, Aldo nos mostró la lechuga creciendo en tubos de plástico (PVC) llenos de agua mezclada con fertilizante mineral. A diferencia de los tomates, que crecen en macetas, la lechuga crece solo en agua, sin tierra. Al igual que los tomates, la lechuga estaba libre de enfermedades y de plaguicidas, produciendo el tipo de verduras que los consumidores exigentes realmente quieren.

Hubo un problema inesperado: el sol. Simplemente había demasiada luz para la lechuga. Incluso con las raíces en el agua, las pequeñas plantas se marchitaban. Aldo y sus colegas descubrieron que una gruesa red negra proporcionaba la mejor sombra y permitía que la lechuga prosperara.

Yo habĂ­a visto hidroponĂ­a antes, pero generalmente en universidades, centros de investigaciĂłn (y una vez incluso en un parque de diversiones), asĂ­ que hasta ver estas verduras, yo dudaba que las plantas en tubos de agua fueran rentables. Ahora estaba empezando a cambiarme de opiniĂłn, viendo a estos jĂłvenes invertir su tiempo y energĂ­a para hacerlo funcionar, sacando un producto comercial en un terreno pedregoso que no era apto para la horticultura convencional. Estaban ahorrando tanta agua que podĂ­an regar incluso cuando el agua es cara.

Mi papá era hidrólogo y solía decir que la agricultura nunca podría competir con una ciudad por el agua. Los citadinos siempre podrían pagar más que los agricultores por el agua. Pero mi papá estaba pensando en las zanjas de tierra, al estilo viejo. A medida que la tecnología de riego mejora y se vuelve más eficiente en el uso del agua, la agricultura sí puede comprar agua a precios altos.

A medida que el cambio climático continúa generando un planeta más cálido y sediento, es bueno ver soluciones creativas que proporcionen productos saludables y sin plaguicidas.

Aprender más de los videos

Riego de goteo para tomate

Hydroponic fodder

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