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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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Turning dumb phones into good teachers October 30th, 2016 by

We have run several stories about how farmers learn a lot by watching well-made videos. But we have wondered if the farmers learn much by watching such videos on small screens of ordinary, not-smart phones.

ronald-and-peter-bwanariPeter Bwanari is a Malawian DJ (as they are called) who copies videos for people, for a small fee, in the village of Naminjuwa. He knows everyone in the surrounding villages, having lived here all his life. He is a rice farmer, as are his sisters and his friends. Recently he’s started to deliver farming training videos.

After watching a series of rice videos, Peter adopted some of the practices, especially making a nursery and planting in lines. He improved his harvest by four extra bags of rice. He sold three and was able to buy a used laptop for his business.

In the nearby village of Ulolu, we meet one of Peter’s customers, Mr. Matola.

“Last year when I watched the video I noticed that our friends (the people in the video) were applying fertilizer, which was new to me. I did it and the results were amazing. I harvested nine bags. Before, it had been three or two. I applied 25 kg of urea… I also applied fertilizer in the nursery and transplanted in a row, like I saw in the video.” That is a lot of innovation to adopt after watching videos on a phone: urea, nursery, and row planting.

matolas-watch-video-on-phone-2Before deciding to adopt these new practices, Mr. Matola watched the videos five times on the phone, with about seven people, including men, women and children. Farmers learn more when they have their own copy of the videos, to watch several times, studying the content and discussing with others.

As we talk, some of Mr. Matola’s neighbors see us and stop to listen at a respectful distance, until we have eight or 10 men and women listening to this engaging story of innovation. Mr. Matola has a sense of humor, and a way with words. When we ask him if the videos’ sound and picture quality was good enough on the cell phones he snaps back: “Do you think I would be here telling you all these things I have learned and done if I had not been able to see and hear the video.” The onlookers burst into laughter, and so do we.

Then Mr. Matola shows that he has been thinking about the videos a lot, by asking a serious question. “Can you plant in lines without making a rice nursery?”

You certainly can. It is called direct seeding. We briefly explain it and Mr. Matola listens carefully. The video showed both practices used together, making a seedbed and planting in lines. His question about planting in lines without first making a seedbed shows that he is thinking creatively, and logically, about what he learned in the videos.

katherine-and-tamara-lihomaPeter is kind enough to take us home to meet his wife and two of his three sisters. His sister, Katherine Lihoma, explains that she watched the rice videos in January 2016, four times on the phone with her sister Tamara. The sisters said that the audio was good and the picture was clear. They learned how to plant in lines and made a nursery for the first time.

The sisters say that they harvested a lot more rice than in the past.

They thought that the videos were easy to understand. They just had to follow the sequence of straightforward steps.

Katherine says: “Only one farmer came to see the videos on my phone, but a lot of farmers who came to see my garden say that they are going to plant in the same way.” She used to get ten bags of rice, but this year she harvested 15. Dense trees are often difficult to see through, but the rice field is a visible landscape, as Van Mele (2000) observed of farms in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. It is easier for rice farmers than for orchard growers to see what innovations their neighbors are trying.

We know that farmers learn directly from videos, but we have always thought that it was helpful that the audience could see the videos on a TV set or a larger screen, where the sound and picture were loud and clear. However, watching videos on little cell phones has certain advantages. People can watch the videos even if they have no electricity. They can also watch the videos several times, studying them and mastering the content.

Further viewing

You can watch a video featuring the Matola family here.

You can watch the rice videos in English here. They are also available in Chichewa and many other languages at www.accessagriculture.com.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul 2000 Evaluating Farmers’ Knowledge, Perceptions and Practices: A Case Study of Pest Management by Fruit Farmers in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Doctoral thesis: Wageningen University, the Netherlands. 225 pp.

Earlier blogs on DJs and videos in Malawi

Village movies in Malawi

Watching videos without smartphones

Beating a nasty weed

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

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Clear numbers October 16th, 2016 by

Writing for smallholder farmers also means making the numbers clear and easy to understand, as I saw recently in Chiponde, Malawi, on the border with Mozambique. Ronald Udedi and I met Stanley Juma, a vegetable farmer, who had come to town on market day to buy maize grain from other farmers, in loads of 10 or 20 kilos, to resell to wholesalers. It is not that unusual for a farmer to double as a grain buyer. Smallholders’ economic portfolios are small, but complex.

eliasa-amado-and-stanley-jumaAs we talked, Mr. Juma told us that worms were spreading from his cabbages to his tomatoes. The problem was nagging him so much that when he realized that we knew something about bugs he left a friend to watch his grain, and took us to see his garden.

The tomatoes were growing in a dimba, a low-lying oasis of green vegetables, in the height of the dry season. In the garden, we were joined by a neighbor, Eliasa Amado, whose vegetables were suffering from the same worms.

I soon saw why the cabbage worms had suddenly developed a taste for tomato. The cabbage worms and the tomato worms were two different species. The tomato worm was recently introduced, but it was about the same size as the cabbage worm: small enough to slip under one’s fingernail. The two species of caterpillar were easy to confuse.

tuta-damage-in-tomato-fruitThe farmers accepted the idea of the two species, but went on to ask why insecticide was not killing either pest. I explained that insects become resistant to insecticides, and that Mr. Juma and Mr. Amado might have better results if they rotated insecticides from time to time: instead of using only one product, try a different one.

They had already tried at least three different insecticides and none were working.

Then they gave me a label and asked me to explain the dosage to them. It said 5 ml (one packet) in 20 liters of water. That much was clear. The farmers had figured that out on their own. Then I said, that the 20 liters should be applied onto 15 square meters. “That’s 3 meters wide and 5 meters long,” I said offhandedly, and suddenly something clicked.

The two vegetable growers confided that they had been applying 20 liters of water over an area of at least 1000 square meters. They were applying far too little of the product to do much good. That’s why nothing worked.

The problem is not the farmers, but the labels, which are confusing, obscure, written in fine print and hard to read. People with a primary school education and lots of valuable farming experience could understand the labels, and apply a proper dose, if the message was written for the audience. The arithmetic has to be easy to understand.

Scientific names

The cabbage worms are the diamond back moth, Plutella xylostella

The tomato worms are the leafminer, Tuta absoluta

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Turtle hunters October 9th, 2016 by

Hunting (along with gathering wild plants) is humanity’s oldest profession. In ancient times, peoples thrived or vanished depending on their hunting skills. Experiences passed on from elders and life-long observations meant that hunters fully understood the behaviour of the animals they hunted. Ecological knowledge mattered more than anything else for survival.

As people began to domesticate crops, some animals adjusted their behaviour and began feeding in farmers’ fields. The first farms were surrounded by large areas of wild lands, and birds and mammals may have been some of the first pests.

turtle-hunters-1While visiting a primary school in Malawi during a fact sheet and video script writing workshop, I was surprised to see a poster with drawings of what it said were the common pests of cassava. Clearly, skills to manage larger pests are still highly needed in rural areas.

Nowadays, few people live from hunting, but it remains an important pass-time in many areas, and hunters are still occasionally called upon by farmers.

Whenever soya farmers in northern Benin have problems with wild rabbits, they supply local hunters with free bullets and entice them to organise night hunting sessions.

In a previous blog Bullets and birds I talked about Vera and Johan, organic farmers in Belgium, who negotiated with local hunters to keep pigeons from feeding on the young cabbage seedlings.

turtle-hunters-2Dominiek Gielen, my brother-in-law, told me how his father Tien used to spend hours in farmers’ fields after working his day shift in the coal mine. As patches of forests had been cleared and turned into farming land, moles had become a real pest to such an extent that Tien quickly knew all about moles and how to catch them, always at the same time of the day.

Last year, as we were making a training video on climbing beans in Uganda, I learned that moles were also a key pest for farmers there. And likewise, farmers call upon young, knowledgeable “mole hunters”. They put a bait in the tunnel, bend a stick and attach a rope in such a way that when the mole comes to the bait, it is snatched up and pulled out of its tunnel. Farmers pay 5000 Ugandan Shilling (1.3 Euro) for each mole they catch.

turtle-hunters-3The last few days, I have had the luck to be able to interact with farmers in Tamil Nadu, southern India, while training partners from Access Agriculture to produce farmer training videos. Many farmers here have so-called integrated farms, growing crops, trees, and rearing animals and fish on their farm. Fingerlings, or young fish, are the most expensive input of fish pond farming. Maran, one of the young members of the Koveri Inland Fish Farmers, told me how via the village canal that feeds water into his pond, 20 large turtles had entered the pond and were devouring his young fish. Turtles are such a common pest that Maran could call upon turtle hunters. By making noise and using spears the large turtles ended up as a feast for the hunters and their neighbours. On top, for each turtle caught Maran paid them 50 Rupees (about 0.66 Euro).

As the various examples above have shown, hunters have a unique set of skills and continue to provide specialised services to farming communities. Farmer training videos offer a unique opportunity to document and pay tribute to these professionals.

To watch training videos that include examples of farmers working with hunters, visit:

Soya sowing density

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond (available on www.accessagriculture.org  soon)

Related blog stories

Waiting for rats

Bullets and birds

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A hot plan October 2nd, 2016 by

In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly contrasts “planning” (which fails) and “searching” (which succeeds). He leads his readers to believe that development projects fail because they are planned.  But that is like saying that the cooks spoil the soup because they light the stove. Trial and error are certainly part of agricultural change, but planning is so important that even the smallest projects start with a plan, as Ronald Udedi and I learned last week when we visited Thako Chiduli, who teaches at St. Michael’s primary school in Mpyupyu, southern Malawi. Mr. Chiduli is also a smallholder farmer.

In a previous blog I told how another Malawian farmer, Mr. Mpinda, started growing chilli after he watched videos on this spicy fruit.

Like Mr. Mpinda, Mr. Chiduli also watched the chilli videos, several times. When I asked Mr. Chiduli what he had learned from the videos, he spoke easily for several minutes, describing the chilli videos in detail. For example, he had learned that seedbeds should only be one meter wide, so one would not step on them while working. He remembered that farmers can burn dry vegetation to control nematodes, the microscopic worms.

So when I asked Mr. Chiduli what new practices he had used in his chilli, I was a bit surprised when he said: “I don’t grow chilli.”

“Then why have you made such a study of the chilli videos?” I asked

“Because I am planning on growing it.”

When somebody tells me about a plan for the future, I am always slightly skeptical, so I like to ask a few specific questions, to see if the plan is well-thought out or not. So I asked Mr. Chiduli how much chilli he was going to plant.

“A hectare,” he said.

“A hectare?” I repeated in disbelief. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, or 2.5 acres. It is not impossible to farm that much chilli by hand, but it would be a challenge, and too much for a first timer.

I asked if we could visit his farm.

thoko-chidulis-houseWe were soon strolling through a typical Malawian village and into a small compound, where we met Mr. Chiduli’s uncle and his widowed mother, who was grinding meal with a mortar and pestle, to cook lunch on an open fire.

Below the home, Mr. Chiduli showed us a dry stream, which would be full of water when the rains came. He explained how he would plant his chilli just above the stream, so he could water his garden.

thoko-chiduli-in-fieldThe chilli would be planted on a small wedge of land between a path and a banana patch. I paced it off and made a quick calculation. The land was about 800 square meters, a good size for a chilli garden, but much less than a hectare. I’ve seen other people in Malawi make similar mistakes; estimating field sizes is a specific skill. After Mr. Chiduli and I resolved this simple error we agreed that his chilli plan was realistic.

Mr. Chiduli went on describing his plans in detail, how he would plant the variety “Dorado” and make a seedbed at the bottom of the garden, near the water, and carefully mix the soil with manure to enrich it. A month later he will transplant the chilli into rows, in the garden. It was a believable plan.

I have observed before that many farmer experiments are unplanned, such as fertilizing half of the field and then running out of manure, creating a spontaneous split plot trial. But farmer learning videos can also inspire rural people to dream of improving their incomes, and planning a complex innovation, such as starting a new crop

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