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Call anytime March 19th, 2017 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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To drip or not to drip

Beating a nasty weed

Watch all nine of the vegetable videos

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

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Simple is beautiful March 12th, 2017 by

Grove seen down the slope copyA lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that you’ve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.

I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoples’ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.

Mats used for construction big building copyEach year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.

When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.

Fuel bundles2 copyDuring the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.

The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.

In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.

Save Generation Assoc staff and goods2 copyWhat of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to ‘develop processes to make industrial and quality bamboo’. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.

But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale – though there’s no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.

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Why people drink cow’s milk January 15th, 2017 by

Nutritionists and physicians have started to question milk-drinking, suggesting that many consumers eat far too much dairy. Dr. Michael Klaper has even suggested that milk is just “baby calf growth fluid”, designed to “turn a 65 pound calf into a 400 pound cow”, and that unless you have long ears and a tail, you should never drink the white stuff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toZ7Mr-ClCE).

In other words, Dr. Klaper argues that cowÂŽs milk should be avoided because it was designed as calf food. But his reasoning is absurd reductionism, because most of what humans eat was meant to be something else, not people food. Wheat grains were intended to be seed, not flour. Honey is supposed to tide the hive over the lean season, not to be added to pastry. Fish certainly did not evolve so that people could make sushi.

sun, cow, strange toolSo why do people eat dairy products?

Before agriculture, all humans were hunters-and-gatherers. They ate meat when they could (but seldom as much as people who get their food from the supermarket). They ate a bit of fat (wild animals can be pretty lean). Fish were part of the diet in many places and so were insects in a few areas where other sources of animal protein were scarce. Honey was occasionally on the menu, but no processed sugar. Some grains were eaten, but not much, because large-seeded grasses were not very common in the wild. The ancestral human diet was mostly fruit, nuts, roots, tubers and vegetables, and no milk.

peris Njenga dairy farmerThis began to change about 8500 BC when wheat and a handful of other crops were dom
esticated in the Near East (Zohary et al. 2012). Studies at the site of Çatal HĂŒyĂŒk, in what is now Turkey, suggest that farmers began to domesticate cattle at that same time. But the transition to agriculture was gradual, and early farmers still hunted; most of their meat still came from the wild. Livestock only began to provide most of the meat for Near Eastern farmers about 7500 BC, around 1000 years after the beginning of animal domestication (Helmer and Vigne 2007). It seems that then as now, farmers were adapting gradually, experimenting as they went.

loading milk cans on wagonDaniel Helmer (a specialist in the ancient Near East) and Jean-Denis Vigne (a zoo-archaeologist) suggest that during these early centuries of animal rearing, domestic animals were not kept so much for their meat, but for other products like traction, skin, hair, and manure, but most of all for milk. Archaeological evidence (especially remains of milk residues on pottery sherds) suggests that dairying was established by about 7000 BC in the Near East, and by about 5900-5700 BC in Britain, and in central Europe (Helmer and Vigne 2007).
Over the centuries, ancient farmers selected for cows that gave more milk. The modern dairy cow yields around 40 liters of milk a day during the first month of lactation, far more than the calf can drink. Milking allowed farmers to take food from their livestock every day, without killing the animals. The milk was rich in fat and protein, both of which were scarce in early agricultural diets.

piles of cheeseThere was one problem with ancient dairying; most people could not digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Human babies can digest the lactose in their mothers’ milk, but most lose this ability in adulthood.

Humans managed to eat milk products in two ways. One was to make cheese or other fermented products, where the yeast or lacto-bacteria broke down the lactose. The second way: some peoples evolved a genetic ability to absorb lactose, a trait governed by a single, dominant gene. Anthropologist William Durham asked why people would evolve the ability to digest fresh milk, if they could simply make it into easily digestible cheese. There must be a high adaptive advantage to being able to digest fresh milk, since in some populations, e.g. in Northern Europe, nearly 100% of the population has the genetic ability to digest fresh milk. It turns out that fresh milk is rich in vitamin D, which allows easy absorption of calcium. Durham reasons that this conferred a special advantage on people in cold countries, where they did not always get enough sunlight to synthesize their own vitamin D.

Fulani woman selling snacksIt is also possible that when people had been raising cows for centuries, and milk was abundant, people who could drink fresh milk were better fed than their neighbors, and so the milk-drinking gene spread through the population. That is my guess, but there is no doubt that the modern people who can drink milk are the ones whose ancestors tended cows in ancient Europe, Africa or South Asia.

If your ancestors were not dairying folks, you may be lactose intolerant. If you can drink milk, you can thank your forbearers who herded cows and put milk on the table.

Further reading

Durham, William H. 1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 228-259.

Helmer Daniel and Jean-Denis Vigne 2007 “Was Milk a ‘Secondary Product’ in the Old World Neolithisation Process? Its Role in the Domestication of Cattle, Sheep and Goats.” Anthropozoologica 42(2):9-40.

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a small collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers.

Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows

Related blog stories on the prehistory of food

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat, The sunflower: From Russia with love, and oil

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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 EstratĂ©gico y ProducciĂłn Competetiva del Arroz bajo Riego en AmĂ©rica Latina,” pp. 350-362. In VĂ­ctor Degiovanni B., CĂ©sar P. MartĂ­nez R., & Francisco Motta O. ProducciĂłn Eco-Eficiente del Arroz en AmĂ©rica 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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