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New crops for Mr. Mpinda September 18th, 2016 by

A good video, one that lets farmers tell about their innovations, can spark the viewers’ imagination. A video can even convince smallholders to try a new crop.

mpinda-wateringLester Mpinda is an enterprising farmer in Mwanza, Malawi. Mpinda has a vegetable garden, known as a dimba, which is irrigated with water from a hand-dug well. A dimba is hard work, but worth it.

Mpinda grows vegetables, and sells them in the market in Mwanza. In 2013, he was able to use his earnings to buy a small, gasoline-powered pump to water his beans, onions and tomatoes. A $100 pump is a major investment for a Malawian smallholder, but also a great way to save time and avoid the backbreaking labor of carrying water from the well to the plants during the long, hot dry season.

mpinda-marches-up-to-get-the-hoseWith the money earned from his productive dimba, Mpinda bought a small stand, where his wife sells vegetables in the village.

In June 2015, Ronald Kondwani Udedi left some DVDs with videos at a government telecentre managed by Mathews Kabira, near Mwanza, Malawi. The DVDs had learning videos for farmers about growing rice and chilli peppers and managing striga, the parasitic weed.

handful-of-chilliesMathews took one set of DVDs to Mpinda, because he was “a successful farmer. Mpinda had a DVD player, but no TV, so he watched the videos on chilli growing at a neighbor’s house, using the neighbors TV and Mpinda’s DVD player. He watched the videos as often as the neighbor would let him. The more he watched, the more he learned.

Mpinda soon recognized the possibilities of chilli as a crop, even though he had never grown it.

To start a new crop you need more than a bright idea; you need seed. Getting chilli seed took some imagination. Mpinda went to the market and bought 20 small fresh chillies for 100 Kwacha (14 cents) and then dried them, like tomatoes, and planted the little seeds in a nursery, just like he had seen in the video. Mpinda had already been used to making seedbeds for onions and some of his other vegetables. At 21 days he transplanted the chilli seedlings, as he had seen on the videos.

lester-chizumeni-mpinda-in-gardenNow Mpinda has several dozen plants of chillies, a perennial variety which is eaten fresh in Malawi. People cut up the fiery chilli at table, to add some zest to meals.

Every few days Mpinda harvests three or four kilos of chillies and takes them to the market and sells them for 1000 kwacha a kilo ($1.40).

Mpinda has already planned his next step. After harvesting his little patch of eggplant, he is going to clear the land and plant a whole garden of chilli.

Mpinda has also watched the DVD of rice videos, and although no one in the area grows rice, he realizes that the crop would do well in the slightly higher space, just above his rows of vegetables. He has already looked for rice seed: there is none to be found in Mwanza and the agro-dealers won’t or can’t order it for him, so he is going to travel to the city of Zomba, 135 km away, and buy rice seed there. Mpinda has already identified the major rice varieties grown in Malawi and decided that one of them, Apasa, is the best for highland areas like his.

He is going to plant rice in October, possibly becoming the first rice farmer in Mwanza district.

Mpinda didn’t watch the rice and chilli videos as part of a farmer group. He didn’t have an extensionist to answer questions. He simply had the videos which he could (and did) watch several times to study the content. And this information alone was enough to inspire him to experiment with two crops that were entirely new to him.

Further viewing

You can watch the chilli videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/all/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/ny/

You can watch the rice videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/en/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/ny/

These videos and others are also available in other languages at www.accessagriculture.org

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Inventing a better maize chopper September 4th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

It can take years to perfect even a simple maize chopper. Agricultural research is harder than it looks, as we see in this case where researchers also found inspiration in their students, in farmers and later in their customers.

The Center for Research, Training and Extension in Agricultural Mechanization, better known as Cifema, its Spanish acronym, is part of the public university (UMSS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema started as a Swiss project in 1978 and has since split into an academic department and a company that manufactures and sells agricultural implements.

For years, Cifema specialized in animal-drawn tools, and made red metal ox-drawn plows that are now a common sight in the valleys of Bolivia. Much of Cifema’s work has been a long-term collaboration between agronomist Leonardo Zambrana and mechanical engineer Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeIn 2004, Cifema set out to make one of their first motorized implements. With funding from the Swedish government, Zambrana, Huanca and their student Henry Cabrera made a prototype forage chopper for family dairy farms. The machine would cut plants into small, digestible pieces. With rising labor costs, the farmers needed a way to save time while making animal feed.

By 2006, the prototype was finished and Henry Cabrera had completed his studies. He took the machine home, to his parents’ farm in the remote, highland municipality of Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Two years later Henry returned to UMSS with new ideas on how to improve the maize chopper. The first version had been ingenious—the farmer would feed the maize stalks through two rollers into a set of four blades that would cut up the plant. But it needed to be more robust; it had small springs were easily broken and were a nuisance to replace.

So Zambrana and Huanca made a second, bigger version of the chopper, with no springs and with six blades instead of four. They took it to an agricultural fair in Cochabamba to show it off. A dairy farmer stopped to admire the machine and asked if he could try it out. So Cifema took the chopper out to the dairy farm, and demonstrated it.

The dairy farmer kept the machine overnight to try it for himself. Mario Huanca recalls going back the next morning to collect the chopper. He was astounded at the huge mound of maize that the farmer had chopped, but off to one side was a smaller pile of just the ears.

“Why didn’t you chop up the ears?” Mr. Huanca asked.

“I wanted to, but they got stuck in the machine, so I had to break them off.”

This was a problem. Henry Cabrera was from a farm so small that people ate all the maize grain, and only cut up the dry stalks. But the dairy farmer who borrowed the machine overnight grew special forage maize and the whole plant had to be chopped up, ears and all.

máquina enteraZambrana and Huanca made adjustments and by 2009 they had created a chopper with eight blades instead of six. It had fewer moving parts. Instead of rollers, the maize simply slid in under a plate, right into the whirling blades. Then they added a Japanese-made, gasoline-powered motor. The chopper cost 12,000 Bolivianos (almost $1,700), but it was so useful that eventually 50 families bought one, as admiring neighbors followed the first purchasers.

Cifema made further improvements to the chopper design as they saw which repairs were most often needed.  Cifema also realized that they needed to make the machine cheaper. Many of the dairy farmers already had a two-wheeled tractor. If that could be used as the power source the chopper could be made without an engine, saving $400 from the price tag. That sounds simple, but it requires a lot of original research on the pulleys.

Cifema is now figuring out how to run a chopper at 1000 RPMs, powered by a two-wheeled tractor engine that runs at half that speed.  Slow innovation is like slow food. Sometimes the ideas have to simmer for a while, but they are worth the wait.

INVENTANDO UNA MEJOR PICADORA DE MAĂŤZ

4 de septiembre del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

Puede tomar años perfeccionar hasta una sencilla picadora de maíz. La investigación agrícola es más difícil de lo que parece, como vemos en este caso donde los investigadores encontraron inspiración en sus estudiantes, los agricultores y más tarde en sus compradores.

El Centro de Investigación, Formación y Extensión en Mecanización Agrícola, mejor conocido como  Cifema, es parte de la universidad pública (UMSS) en Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cifema empezó como un proyecto suizo en 1978 y luego se dividió en un departamento académico y una compañía que manufactura y vende implementos agrícolas.

Durante años, Cifema se especializó en implementos de tracción animal, e hizo rojos arados metálicos jalados por bueyes que ahora se ven por todos los valles de Bolivia. Mucho del trabajo de Cifema ha sido fruto de una larga colaboración entre el ingeniero agrónomo, Leonardo Zambrana y el ingeniero mecánico, Mario Huanca.

primer modelo corta forrajeEn el 2004, Cifema empezó a fabricar uno de sus primeros implementos motorizados. Con fondos del gobierno sueco, Zambrana, Huanca y su estudiante Henry Cabrera hicieron un prototipo de una picadora de forraje para pequeñas fincas lecheras. La máquina cortaría las plantas en trozos comestibles. Con alzas en los costos de la mano de obra, los agricultores necesitaban una manera de ahorrar tiempo mientras preparaban los alimentos para sus animales.

Para el 2006, el prototipo estaba listo y Henry Cabrera había terminado con su ingeniería. Él llevó la máquina a la pequeña finca de sus padres en el lejano municipio andino de Pasorapa, Campero, Cochabamba. Dos años más tarde, Henry volvió a la UMSS con nuevas ideas sobre cómo mejorar la picadora de maíz. La primera versión había sido ingeniosa—el agricultor metía el maíz entre dos rodillos hacia un juego de cuatro cuchillas que cortaban la planta. Pero tenía que ser más robusta; tenía resortes pequeños que se quebraban fácilmente y eran trabajosos de reemplazar.

Así que Zambrana y Huanca hicieron la segunda, más grande versión de la picadora, sin resortes y con seis cuchillas en vez de cuatro. La llevaron a una feria agrícola en Cochabamba para mostrarla. Un productor lechero se detuvo en admiración y pidió probar la máquina. Así que Cifema llevó la picadora a su finca, e hizo una demostración.

El lechero se quedó con la máquina toda la noche para hacer la prueba. Mario Huanca se acuerda de su visita la mañana siguiente para recoger la picadora. Él se quedó impresionado con el enorme montón de maíz que el agricultor había picado, pero a un lado había otro bulto más pequeño de solo las mazorcas.

“¿Por qué no picó las mazorcas?” preguntó el Ing. Huanca.

“Quería hacerlo, pero se trancaban en la máquina, así que tuve que sacarlas.”

Eso sí era un problema. Henry Cabrera era de una finca más pequeña donde la gente comía el grano, y solo se picaban los tallos secos. Pero el lechero que se prestó la máquina toda la noche producía maíz de forraje, y tenía que picar la planta entera, incluyendo la mazorca.

máquina enteraZambrana y Huanca hicieron ajustes y para el 2009 habían creado una picadora con ocho cuchillas en vez de seis. Tenía menos partes movibles y en vez de rodillos, el maíz se metía bajo una placa, directamente a las voraces cuchillas. Luego agregaron un motor japonés de gasolina. La picadora costaba 12,000 Bolivianos (casi $1,700), pero era tan útil que 50 familias se compraron una, a medida que sus vecinos se admiraban de la máquina y seguían a los primeros compradores.

Cifema mejoró el diseño más mientras veía las máquinas que sus compradores traían para reparar.  Los ingenieros se dieron cuenta que tenían que hacer una máquina más accesible. Muchos de los productores de leche ya tenían un motocultor, un tractorcito de dos ruedas. Si se podría usar el motocultor como la fuente de poder, se podría fabricar la picadora sin motor, ahorrando $400. Suena sencillo, pero requiere de investigación original con las poleas.

Actualmente, Cifema está averiguando cómo hacer funcionar una picadora a 1000 RPM, usando el motor de motocultor que se gira a la mitad de esa velocidad.  La innovación lenta es como la comida a fuego lento;  a veces las ideas tardan en servirse, pero valen la pena.

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Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.

Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.

Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari.  To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cash—which they can spend or keep.

In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.

In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.

If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.

The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.

Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).

In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.

Acknowledgements

Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.

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

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Modern ideas for an ancient land July 10th, 2016 by

In his beautifully crafted book, A Shepherd’s Life, British farmer James Rebanks describes what it is like to grow up on a smallholding in the north of England, in the mountainous country called the Lake District. He describes how it feels to be sitting in a concrete school building, enduring a lesson on Esperanto (the artificial language), when one could have been helping one’s grandfather catch a badger. Or the frustration of watching a hay wagon turn over late on a summer day, and all the bales will have to be dragged up the slope and restacked in the gathering twilight.

Hill scene LD 1smallThe book catches the dynamic tension of blending an ancient herding way of life with newer technology. The sub-title calls it: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks muses that if a Viking shepherd were suddenly resurrected on the mountainside on a fine day in late summer, he would feel at home, watching the men and women use their dogs to gather the sheep from the upland pastures. The Old Norse visitor would understand that the farmers were guiding their flocks to winter shelter.

Windermere smallFarming in the Lake District involves aesthetics as well as economics. For example, farmers take pride in rebuilding a handsome stone wall so that the flat, mossy slabs are back on top of the wall. At livestock shows, one particular old breed of sheep (Herdwick) is died red for the audience, as though the animal had rusted from the neck down.

Yet it is hard to make enough money in the sheep business. The price of wool is abysmal, thanks to competition with synthetic fibers. So farmers adapt in an effort to stay profitable. As Rebanks says of his grandfather’s career.

“(He) was an opportunist, like so many of his peers. If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change.”

James Rebanks continues to adjust and adapt, unselfconsciously describing the various modern vaccines, antibiotics and topical ointments that he applies to keep his sheep alive and healthy. He mentions his new metal barn, which was no doubt fast to build, spacious and easy to connect to electricity. It is a practical place for tending the sheep in the dark winter evenings.

Paradoxically, Rebanks says “resisting change is key for us.” I think I know what he means. Farmers have to always accept new ideas with some rational skepticism. On the Rebanks’ farm, new improved breeds of sheep were more profitable than the ancient breeds, but only as long as feed and fuel were cheap. When costs rose, the hardier native breeds became more profitable again, and more farmers switched back to them. The local sheep could withstand the northern winters and grow fat on the upland pasture.

The point Redbanks makes is not that the old ways are always better, but that smallholders must constantly use their creativity to adapt and be inventive. Never forget or abandon the old technologies completely because some day they will be useful again. Old breeds of animals cannot be recovered once they have become extinct. As Rebanks puts it “some of the smartest people I know are semi-literate.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading

Rebanks, James 2015 The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. New York: Flatiron Books. 293 pp.

The website www.accessagriculture.org hosts videos for creative smallholder farmers (literate and illiterate), who are looking for new ideas to experiment with.

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Things ain’t what they used to be July 3rd, 2016 by

Patchwork fields at anglesHidden away in the vast mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a largely forgotten former republic of the Soviet Union which gained independence in 1991.

As I landed in Bishkek a few weeks ago I marvelled at the sharp contrast between soaring, snow-capped mountain, and plains with multi-coloured strips, mature fields of wheat and freshly planted maize, sunflower and other field crops. On the ground there are plenty of hardy fruit trees, such as apples, pears, apricots, plums and other stone fruits. I watched a family pick cherries from trees they had planted in a hedgerow, making maximum use of their agricultural land. Kyrgyzstan is still hugely dependent on agriculture. A short growing season means that farmers have to be creative. There is plenty of water, if you have access to irrigation.

I heard mixed stories about the profitability of large scale field crops, much of this linked to the phrase that cropped up repeatedly: “after the collapse of Soviet Union”. In the winter of 1991-92 state farms lost their support and the new Kyrgyz Republic could no longer count on the USSR to absorb its exports, leaving farmers exposed to unfamiliar, global competition. Cotton, a major commodity during the Soviet era, is still widely planted in Osh district, in the warmer south, though areas have decreased.

The Kyrgyz language is related to Turkish, and expanding links with Turkey offer new opportunities for trade. Savvy buyers from Turkey have introduced improved cotton varieties, as have the Chinese, only a few hours away by road from Osh. Foreign buyers provide technical advice and training to farmers. Turkey and China also sell agrochemicals. The private sector is taking up some of the slack of a once dominant state-controlled agriculture. Farmers welcome the new sources of support.

Israil, Myrzabamov Payzulla, Tumar, OrunbayRussia’s influence has not entirely disappeared. They will build and equip a new plant diagnostic laboratory in Osh, and advisors from Moscow were discussing the start of construction during my visit. As they arrived in shiny 4 x 4 vehicles, the similarities to a development project in Nepal or Nicaragua were difficult to ignore.

The agricultural scientists I talked to constantly said how difficult it was for farmers to afford things, part of a general post-collapse pessimism. But it is easy for those who work in laboratories to underestimate farmers. I saw farmers who were investing in their farms and who appeared optimistic about the future. In a recently planted cotton field near Aravan, on the edge of Fergana valley, I was impressed by the size of Israil’s farm, the health of his plants and a modern tractor working the land. Israil has been growing cotton for the last five years, after deciding it was more profitable than wheat.

Farmers now have the freedom to change the crops each season, no longer bound by central planning that may have limited agricultural potential but created a dull kind of certainty. And, encouragingly, there are newcomers to agriculture with no previous experience of farming. Tima and his business partner, Mirlan, had left secure jobs in Tima examines plantsfinance and telecommunications to start a strawberry farm, complete with drip irrigation. They asked me to examine some unhealthy strawberry plants in a newly planted field on the edge of Bishkek, the capital city. They were learning the hard way that small-scale agriculture can be risky, particularly when you are growing a crop for the first time.

Tima and Mirlan wanted a change in lifestyle and were attracted by the commercial potential of fruit growing. Tima and Mirlan had done their homework before planting, sourcing the best plants and following recommended planting procedures. But Tima also told me that strawberry farmers were not so keen to share information and experiences. After years of working in enforced collectives I have read that farmers in ex-Soviet republics value their independence. On the way back to Bishkek we met Dilmurat, an experienced strawberry grower. He was more than happy to talk about what he did. Maybe my presence made a difference, but I think farmers everywhere want to learn and the best way to do this is to be open and share experiences.

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