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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

Acknowledgement

Photos courtesy of Isaac Enoch

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Sorghum and millets on the rise December 10th, 2017 by

For decades, various international aid agencies have pushed Africa towards adopting maize as the hunger-saving technical solution, with traditional crops such as sorghum and pearl millet only receiving a fraction of the support. But climate change is forcing donors and governments to re-think their food security strategies. Recent research in Mali highlights the importance of research and communication to help improve traditional crops and to support farmers as they cope with climate change.

While maize was first domesticated some 7,000 years ago in Mexico, sorghum and pearl millet have their origin in Africa. Sorghum domestication started in Ethiopia and sub-saharan Africa some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Through farmer selection numerous improved sorghum types were developed, which then spread via trade routes into other regions of Africa and India. Domestication of pearl millet started only around 2500 BC, in eastern Mali, and spread rapidly to other countries through pastoralists, spurred by the increasing desiccation of the Sahara desert at the time.

The rich genetic diversity of these traditional African crops and the wealth of farmers’ knowledge have formed the basis of recent crop improvement programmes. In West Africa, a handful of devoted sorghum and millet breeders, Drs Eva and Fred Weltzien-Rattunde, Bettina Haussmann and Kirsten vom Brocke, in close collaboration with partners, were able to develop improved sorghum and millet varieties by improving local germplasm. The new varieties cope better with pests and diseases, as well as with rainy seasons that are becoming shorter and more unpredictable.

But these breeders, then working for ICRISAT, did not limit their efforts to participatory plant breeding alone: they also invested heavily in supporting farmer cooperatives to become seed producers and sellers. Some of these examples were captured in a chapter written by Daniel Dalohoun as part of the book African Seed Enterprises that Jeff and I edited with Robert Guei from FAO.

Farmers across Africa are keen to learn how to better conserve, produce and market seed of their traditional crops. While making a video on Farmers’ rights to seed a few months ago at a seed fair in Malawi, farmers eagerly exchanged traditional sorghum and millet varieties with each other. As the government had so far focused on maize only as a food security crop, some communities lost certain traditional sorghum and millet varieties , but seed fairs and community seed banks helped them to again access these varieties. In addition to seed, farmers also want new knowledge about farming practices. Mr. Lovemore Tachokera, a farmer from the south who attended a seed fair in the north, told me: “The one thing I will make sure to tell my fellow farmers back home regarding conservation of indigenous crops is that we should also practice new farming technologies even on the indigenous crops.”

And right he was. Treasuring and improving traditional crops is important, but alone is insufficient to cope with climate change; good agricultural adaptation strategies also matter. GĂ©rard Zoundji, a Beninese PhD student, investigated how a series of farmer training videos on weed and soil management helped farmers in Mali to use climate-smart technologies.

The differences he found between video-villages (where farmers had watched the videos) versus non-video-villages were very significant:

  • crop rotation combined with  intercropping (99% in video villages vs 57% in other villages)
  • compost or microdosing fertiliser application (99% in video villages vs 0%)
  • crop diversification (94% vs 52%)
  • use of improved short-cycle seed varieties (78% vs 17%)
  • use of zaĂŻ pits (51% vs 0%)

Zoundji also found that after watching the videos on Fighting striga and improving soil fertility (see the related blog: Killing the vampire flower), farmers started demanding improved cereal seed. And as a result some women’s groups in the villages of Daga and Sirakélé became seed dealers in their village. Sorghum, millet and maize yields in the video-villages increased by 14%, 30% and 15% respectively when compared to non-video villages.

While maize crops are increasingly failing in parts of Africa due to climate change, the robustness of traditional African cereal crops contributes to to their renewed appeal to African farmers. The improved cultivation of traditional, drought-resistant crops, benefiting from research and training on improved cropping practices, will enable farmers to adapt to a harsher and more variable climate.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed

Succeed with seeds

Various farmer training videos on Sorghum & Millets

Further reading

Dalohoun, Daniel, Van Mele, P., Weltzien, E., Diallo, D., Guindo, H. and vom Brocke, K. (2010) Mali: When governments give entrepreneurs room to grow. In P. Van Mele, J. Bentley and R. Guei (eds.) African Seed Enterprises (pp. 65-88). Wallingfrod: CABI. Download chapter from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

Dillon, Sally L.. Frances M. Shapter, Robert J. Henry, Giovanni Cordeiro, Liz Izquierdo, and L. Slade Lee 2007. Domestication to Crop Improvement: Genetic Resources for Sorghum and Saccharum (Andropogoneae). Annals of Botany, 100(5): 975–989. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759214/

Hirst, K. Kris 2017. Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) – Domestication and History. https://www.thoughtco.com/pearl-millet-domestication-170647

Zoundji, Gérard, Okry, F., Vodouhê, S.D., Bentley, J.W. and Tossou, R.C. 2018. Beyond Striga management: Learning videos enhanced farmers’ knowledge on climate-smart agriculture beyond Striga management. Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1), 80-91. Download article from: https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Richness in diversity December 3rd, 2017 by

For decades, new crop varieties have been bred by relying heavily on farmers’ knowledge and the local landraces they grow. Landraces have provided a major gene pool readily used by breeders to make crops better adapted to drought, floods, pests and diseases. But with increased pressure from the private sector and insufficient support from the public sector, many rural communities struggle to maintain their diversity of crops and food, as I recently learned in Malawi.

When Marcella and I were asked by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) to make a video on Farmers’ Rights to seed, we only had a faint idea of how strong the debate raged among development organisations, policy-makers and farmers. We were surprised to learn that in Malawi, a draft seed policy had been written that would force farmers to buy commercial seed only.

Driving from Lilongwe to the northern town of Rumphi we passed many fields with dried stubble, where maize and tobacco had been recently harvested. Beyond these bleak fields lie rolling, dusty hills, but decorated during the dry season by trees flowering in white, orange, purple and other colours. But the beauty of the landscape doesn’t stop one from seeing the dire poverty in which the people live.

Maize is the staple food and many farmers grow it as a cash crop, encouraged by government fertilizer subsidies. Farmers who accept the subsidy are obliged to plant only hybrid maize seed.

Families growing tobacco for multinational companies have basically sacrificed their lives to the crop, but unlike the fluctuating world market price for tobacco over the years, their living conditions have remained stubbornly low at all times.

The reliance on these two key crops is beginning to change. Recent development efforts have started to take crop and food diversification seriously. As I talked to farmers over the next few days, it dawned on me how much effort is required for farmers to preserve local crop varieties that have been nurtured over many years. Many families have abandoned their traditional crops and dishes and the current generation of farmers has little idea of how to grow anything else apart from maize and tobacco.

On our first day of filming we visited the community seed bank in Mkombezi. As member farmers arrived in small groups, we filmed the shelves lined with glass jars full of seeds of local varieties of sorghum, millet, maize, beans, groundnuts and Bambara groundnuts.

“We keep seed of our local varieties and multiply them to share with our members, and also to supply non-members. At this moment we have 14 tons of seed in our store room,” proudly explains Shadreck Kapira, secretary of the seed bank.

Outside the seed bank more farmers have gathered. With the support of a local NGO, some eight farmers from southern Malawi have travelled over 600 kilometres to meet fellow farmers in the north. The next day, they will all attend a seed fair to exchange and sell seed of their food crops. The visiting farmers proudly display small plastic bags, each containing precious seeds. Each lot is poured onto a red, blue or green plastic plate and a label attached with the name of the farmer and seed variety.

During the group discussion the farmers from the north show great interest in the sorghum varieties on offer by their colleagues from the south. With the changing climate the hybrid maize varieties do not perform as well as they used to. If rains are not good, a farmer risks losing her entire crop. Some of the local sorghum varieties mature in just 2 months, a month earlier than the hybrid maize, and they can better withstand drought.

Farmers also talk about how they use different crops to prepare food and drinks for special events, such as weddings or the nomination of village chiefs. Millet is one of their favourite crops. It produces a porridge which is not only more nutritious than that made from maize, but can be prepared with less water and without cooking, so there is no need for fuel wood. Millet is also an essential ingredient of traditional sweet and sour beers.

The next morning we leave early, just before dawn at 5 o’clock, to reach Mpherembe on time for a seed and food fair. The local community has fenced off an area near the water well and tied bundles of local grasses to sturdy poles to keep out the dust-laden wind. Local NGO staff register each farmer, the type and amount of seed they bring to the fair. Women have also prepared a diverse range of foods and when I peek under the lid of the occasional plastic bucket I find millet beer, an important part of a fair.

According to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, signed by over 140 governments across the world, every farmer has the right to exchange and sell their local seed. When we interview Bena Phiri, she is very explicit: “My rights, I can say that my local crops that I grow are mine and no one can have control over my seed. I have the right to sell them at my own will and no one can say anything because they are mine.”

However, a draft seed policy wants to force farmers to buy all their seed at agro dealer shops. If approved, it would spell disaster for local crop varieties. Most agro dealers have few varieties for sale, and hardly any are local. The stores mainly sell hybrid maize from Monsanto, Syngenta and perhaps one or two other multi-national companies. Fortunately, pressure from development agencies and farmer organisations has delayed the new regulation and the draft seed policy has not yet passed Cabinet.

We hope that our video on Farmers’ right to seed, available in English and two Malawian languages (Chichewa and Tumbuka) will help to raise farmers’ awareness across the country. Distributed by Access Agriculture and its diverse partners in Malawi with the support of GFAR, the videos will soon be shown in farm clubs, on local TV, and aired on the radio. We also expect many farmers will view the video directly on their inexpensive mobile phones.

It is ironic that wealthy people are now able to access more food diversity than ever, at a time when the poor could have many of their local crop varieties wiped out by misguided laws. The media has a role to play in raising awareness among farmers, legislators and consumers and to ensure that local cultures based on a rich diversity of crops and foods is maintained.

Further viewing

Watch the training video Farmers’ rights to seed

Related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

Forty farmer innovations

Homegrown seed can be good

Meeting the need for groundnut seed

Onions from Agadez

The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil

We share

Quinoa, lost and found

Further reading

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. Download chapters here.

Timothy A. Wise. 2017. Did Monsanto Write Malawi’s Seed Policy? https://foodtank.com/news/2017/08/monsanto-malawis-seed-policy/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR). Support in Malawi was kindly provided by the Development Fund of Norway, Biodiversity Conservation Initiative and the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy.

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A connecting business October 29th, 2017 by

More people than ever before are now connected to electricity and digital communication in tropical countries. Progress is slower in the countryside though high demand from rural customers is driving new efforts to give farmers the connectivity they crave.

Rural electrification has been high on the agenda of development aid for decades. Although significant progress has been made, donors, policy-makers and rural people alike have come to realize that connecting remote areas to the grid is more challenging than many had once assumed. The poor often lose out on electricity, which most people now consider a basic service. But if necesity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes, then the father of invention must be a new idea, as Jeff wrote in one of his inspiring publications in 2000. New technologies are giving rural people plenty of fresh ideas to experiment with.

New modes of communication and businesses have popped up to help the poor access the web and related services. Mobile phones have penetrated rural areas at an unexpectedly fast rate, even in villages off the grid. Two years ago, when making a series of videos on “Milk as a business” with pastoralist Fulani herders in Nigeria, I was amazed to see 13-year old Yussuf run a mobile phone charging business under a tree near one of the milk collection centres. Solar pannels provided Yussuf with electricity. When I asked him how he could remember which phone belonged to who, he smiled and showed me the name of each owner written on a little piece of masking tape he had stuck on the back of each phone. “I went to the madrassa and learned to write in Arabic.” In madrassas, Islamic religious schools, children learn Arabic, so they can read the Koran. When the dairy company installed a milk collection centre for the Fulani herders, Yussuf realised that the transporters who collect milk on motor bikes needed to have their phones regularly charged.

In countries such as India and Bangladesh with high population densities and lots of potential customers, local ICT-savvy entrepreneurs have developed popular apps to help farmers monitor real-time market prices and weather forecasts on their mobile phones.

Last week, Ahmad Salahuddin, of Access Agriculture, and I met with some 20 farmer seed producers in Jessore, Bangladesh, to introduce them to the free services offered by Access Agriculture. By the end of our presentation, three of these farmers had already started watching some of the training videos on the website, and one had registered to download videos. When Salahuddin asked how they could share the videos with other farmers, many said via “Share it”, a popular app to transfer videos from one phone to another.

Fernando Soussa, a Swiss researcher, and colleagues interviewed 460 farmers in Mali and Burkina Faso about their use of mobile phones. They found that many villagers, including young women who had until recently had limited access to information services, were now using 3G mobile phones with Bluetooth to watch videos.

Videos on mobile phones help to reach illiterate farmers, so new business ventures are more likely to emerge as it gets easier to watch videos and as good farmer training videos become increasingly available. Entrepreneurs typically innovate when new products like cell phones meet old demands for information, to create new market potential. Farmers increasingly want audio-visual information, and businesses will play a role to make this happen, for example selling inexpensive smart phones and charging phones for customers off the grid.  When my colleagues and I started placing farmer learning videos on the Access Agriculture platform, few farmers had access to computers or the internet. We thought that farmers would have to go through extensionists to watch the videos. But in a few short years, farmers in remote corners of the world have started buying smart phones, and eagerly getting on line themselves.

Read more

Bentley, J. (2000) The mothers, fathers and midwives of invention: Zamorano’s natural pest control course. In G. Stoll (ed.) Natural Crop Protection in the Tropics: Letting Information Come to Life (pp. 281-289). Agrecol, ICTA, MArgraf Verlag.

Sousa, F., Nicolay, G. and Home, R. (2016) Information technologies as a tool for agricultural extension and farmer-to-farmer exchange: Mobile-phone video use in Mali and Burkina Faso. The International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology 12(3), 19-36. Download article.

Related blogs

Can I make some extra money?

Lost at sea

More than a mobile

Trust that works

Turning dumb phones into good teachers

Village smart phones

When a number matters

Further viewing

Taking milk to the collection centre

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The power of the pregnant man August 27th, 2017 by

A memorable poster catches the eye, conveys a simple message and makes you think. Achieving all this demands careful planning and good design, balancing content with visual impact. Too much information and the passer-by moves on, having failed to get the full message. Too little information and the viewer leaves unsatisfied, wondering what the point of poster was. When you know who you are writing for, it is easier to know what to include and what to leave out.

Armyworm is a generic term describing the tendency of some caterpillars to congregate in large numbers, chomping like hungry troops through crops. The African armyworm, Spodoptera exempta, has been around for a long time, causing lots of damage on cereals. Now a new species has made the journey from the Americas to Africa, where it is causing high alarm. S. frugiperda, known as the fall armyworm, has recently been recorded from most of sub-Saharan Africa and will doubtless spread to more countries that grow maize, the fall armyworm’s favourite crop.

Scientists have been quick to respond to the arrival of the fall armyworm, first recorded in Sao Tomé in 2016, and soon after in southern Africa. FAO have held meetings in recent months in Harare, Nairobi and Accra to bring interested parties together, marshal resources and make plans for combatting this new pest. Unlike other new diseases which have appeared in Africa, such as banana bacterial wilt, a lot is already known about the fall armyworm and control strategies are well established.

CABI has produced an attractive poster showing the life cycle and damage caused by fall armyworm on maize. The poster appears to be part of a general campaign to raise awareness of key features of the new pest, though details of the campaign are sketchy. The poster has attractive drawings and clear information, yet the more I looked, the more questions I had.

I noticed some curious omissions. There is no date on the graphic and no contact details, such as an email address or a website. The scientific name of the fall armyworm is not given. But my main question concerned the target audience: extensionists or farmers? Both? Scientists?

Some hints are given by the layout. The circular cutaways and links to the far left hand column of text, running from bottom to top, would confuse a low-literate audience. An understanding of the insect’s life cycle is essential for designing a control programme, yet do extension officers, for whom this poster appears intended, need all this information?

These questions reminded me of my first effort at designing a poster for Sumatra disease of cloves in Indonesia (see earlier blog). I assembled photographs of the symptoms and the insect vector, a planthopper called Hindola, my own drawing showing the spread of the disease in a plantation, and a cartoon of the insect feeding on the branches. The photos and drawings were accompanied by short bits of text explaining key features of the disease.

I was rather proud of my efforts until a visiting project evaluator, Caroline O’Reilly, asked me who the poster was for and what it aimed to do. My stumbling answers revealed that I hadn’t thought through these key questions. Before writing anything, the author must first decide who the story (or the poster) is for. Since then I’ve also learned the importance of validating all extension material with the people it is intended for, whether it is a poster or a fact sheet. The gulf between scientists who have never farmed or who have long since left their rural childhood behind, and the extension workers and farmers who live and breathe agriculture, is easy to ignore.

Posters can have great power, as shown in a brilliant example from a 1970s British health education campaign to promote better contraception. One’s attention is immediately caught by the swollen belly, looking remarkably like an advanced pregnancy, except that it’s a man in the picture. The statement in bold makes its point concisely before adding a clever punchline – contraception is one of the facts of life.

When I teach people how to produce extension material I emphasise the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. What does someone need to know? Depending on the audience it’s either: “Think like a farmer, act like an extension agent”; or “Think like an extension agent, act like a scientist”. The reason why the contraception poster works so well is because those designing it clearly understood the irresponsible ways of men. The poster designers also understood the power of simplicity.

The Health Education Council had a clear mandate to improve health outcomes in the UK. The pregnant man poster sought to change attitudes and behaviours, and was part of a wider campaign aimed at reducing unwanted pregnancies, particularl y amongst teenage women. It is less clear how the fall armyworm poster will reduce the impact of this new pest. Raising awareness about the biology and damage caused is a useful first step, but further posters are needed as part of a coordinated campaign that directly targets farmers and tells them how to manage this new threat to maize production.

Click here for a full copy of the fall armyworm poster.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Eric Boa 2013 “The Snowman Outline: Fact Sheets by Extensionists for Farmers.” Development in Practice 23(3):440-448.

Related blogs

Ethical agriculture (discusses clove disease)

The rules and the players (validating fact sheets)

Chemical attitude adjustment (validating fact sheets)

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