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Five heads think better than one July 9th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Innovation fairs are becoming a popular way to showcase agricultural invention, and to link some original thinkers with a wider community.

On the 28th of June I was at an innovation fair in Cochabamba, held in a ballroom that is usually rented for weddings and big parties, but with some tweaking it was a fine space for farmers and researchers to meet. Each organization had a table where they could set out products or samples, with their posters displayed behind the presenters.

For example, at one table, I met a dignified, white-haired agronomist, Gonzalo Zalles who explained his work with “deep beds” for raising healthy, odorless pigs. I told Mr. Zalles about some pigs I had seen in Uganda (Smelling is believing), but Eng. Zalles explained that he makes a slightly more sophisticated bed. He starts by digging a pit, then adding a thin layer of lime to the base, followed by a layer of sand. In Uganda, some innovative farmers raise pigs on wood shavings, but Zalles uses rice husks as the final layer. He says they are more absorbent than wood shavings.

I asked if he added Effective Microorganisms (a trademarked brand of yeast and other microbes that are used widely, not just in Uganda, but also to make bokashi fertilizer in Nepal, see The bokashi factory). But no, in Bolivia, swine farmers are using a mix of bacteria and yeast called BioBull, which is made by Biotop, a subsidiary of the Proinpa Foundation in Cochabamba.

José Olivera CamachoAt a nearby stall I caught up with José Olivera of Biotop who was displaying not just BioBull, but other biological products as well, including insecticides and fungicides for organic agriculture. José travels all over the Bolivian Altiplano selling these novel inputs to farmers. He may soon have another product to sell, if research goes to plan at the Panaseri Company, in Cochabamba. Panaseri collaborates with Proinpa to produce food products from the lupine bean, packaged for supermarkets under the brand Tarwix.  At the Panaseri stand, Norka Ojeda, a Proinpa communicator, explained that the Tarwix factory buys lupine beans (tarwi) from farmers and washes out the poisonous alkaloids, rendering the nutritious tarwi safe to eat. (Read more about lupines at Crop with an attitude).

tarwixThe people at Panaseri originally disposed of the alkaloids without any treatment. But they became concerned about the environmental impact, so they installed filters at their plant to remove the toxins from the water. Now researchers at Biotop are studying the possibility of using the alkaloids as ingredients in new botanical insecticides.

Linking researchers to farmers’ associations and companies seems to be bearing fruit. Raising swine without the bad smell is crucial for keeping livestock near cities, where it is easy to get supplies and the market for the final product is nearby. Inventing new bio-pesticides is key to keeping chemical poisons out of our food.  Many heads think better than one.

Acknowledgements

The innovation fair was hosted by FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap and other partners of the Fondo de InnovaciĂłn on 28 June 2017, with funding from Danida (Danish Aid).

Further viewing

Watch a video on tarwi here.

CINCO CABEZAS PIENSAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Las ferias de innovación se están volviendo una manera popular de mostrar la invención agrícola, y para organizar a algunas personas creativas en una comunidad mayor.

El 28 de junio asistí a una feria de innovación en Cochabamba, en un salón de eventos que normalmente se alquila para bodas y quinceañeras, pero con algunos ajustes sirvió perfectamente para el encuentro de agricultores e investigadores. Cada organización tenía una mesa donde podían mostrar sus productos o muestras, con sus pósteres a la vista detrás de los interesados.

Por ejemplo, en una mesa conocí a un destacado agrónomo con una cabellera blanca, Gonzalo Zalles quien explicó su trabajo con “camas profundas” para criar a chanchos sanos sin olores. Le conté al Ing. Zalles de los cerdos que yo había visto en Uganda (Smelling is believing), pero él explicó que él hace una cama un poco más sofisticada. Empieza cavando una fosa, agregando una capa de cal y una de arena. En Uganda, Algunos agricultores innovadores crían a los cerdos en aserrín, pero el Ing. Zalles usa cáscara de arroz como la última capa. Él dice que es más absorbente que el aserrín.

Le pregunté si él agregaba los Microorganismos Efectivos (una marca registrada de levadura con otros microbios que se usa ampliamente, no solo en Uganda, sino también para hacer fertilizante tipo bokashi en Nepal, vea The bokashi factory). Pero no, en Bolivia, los porcicultores usan una mezcla de bacteria con levadura llamada BioBull, un producto de Biotop, que es un subsidiario de la Fundación Proinpa en José Olivera CamachoCochabamba.

En otra mesa encontré a José Olivera de Biotop quien mostraba no solo el BioBull, sino otros productos biológicos, incluso insecticidas y fungicidas para la agricultura orgánica. José viaja por todo el Altiplano boliviano vendiendo esos insumos novedosos a los agricultores. Él pronto tendrá otro producto para vender, si la investigación va bien con la compañía Panaseri, en Cochabamba. Panaseri colabora con Proinpa para producir empaquetar tarwi (lupino) para supermercados, bajo la marca Tarwix.  En el stand de Panaseri, Norka Ojeda, comunicadora de Proinpa, explicó que la fábrica de Tarwix compra tarwi de los productores y lava los venenosos alcaloides, para que el nutritivo tarwi sea sano para comer. (Lea más sobre el tarwi aquí: Cultivo con carácter fuerte).

tarwixLa fábrica de Panaseri tiene que descartar los alcaloides, pero la empresa se cuestionó del impacto ambiental, así que instalaron filtros en su planta para quitar las toxinas del agua. Ahora los investigadores de Biotop están estudiando la posibilidad de usar los alcaloides como ingredientes en nuevos insecticidas botánicos.

Vincular los investigadores con asociaciones de productores y empresas parece dar fruto. Criar cerdos sin malos olores es crucial para la porcicultura cerca de las ciudades, donde es conveniente comprar la comida de los cerdos y vender los productos finales. El invento de nuevos bio-plaguicidas es clave para evitar de envenenar nuestra comida. SĂ­ parece que varias cabezas piensan mejor que una sola.

Agradecimientos

La Feria de InnovaciĂłn fue auspiciada por la FundaciĂłn Valles, Fundesnap y otros socios del Fondo de InnovaciĂłn el 28 de junio del 2017, con financiamiento de Danida (Ayuda Danesa).

Para ver más

Vea el video sobre tarwi aquĂ­.

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The bokashi factory November 27th, 2016 by

Some techniques in agricultural extension are like “waiter music,” explains Eric Boa. This is when waiters put on their favorite music, regardless of whether the diners like it or not. Extensionists do something similar when they promote techniques that are impractical or farmers don’t need them.

For me, the classic example of waiter music is bokashi, an organic fertilizer invented in Japan in the late 1800s. Bokashi is made of many ingredients, including rice husks and animal manure.

In Latin America, extensionists have been promoting bokashi since the early 1990s, if not before. The extensionists eagerly gather the ingredients, including some like molasses that have to be store-bought, and mix them together into 100 kilos or so of dough. Farmers are told that if they stir the bokashi every few days the mixture will be composted within three weeks.

Like any organic fertilizer, bokashi is bulky, and 100 kilos of it is only enough for a very small garden. As far as I know, no farmers in Latin America have ever adopted bokashi on their own, I suspect because it is a lot of work to make, and because some of the ingredients are store-bought. Despite these major drawbacks, extensionists continue to promote bokashi.

5-kg-bagsSo this week, when in Nepal, I was delighted to meet Amrit Narayan Shristha, who told me that he owned a bokashi factory. We met in Hemja, a small town in the hills, where Mr. Shristha was visiting agro-dealers to sell them neat, 5 kg bags of bokashi.

As luck would have it, my travels would later take me to the distant town across the country, where Mr. Shristha has a factory producing bokashi.

Even after 15 years of running his factory, Mr. Shristrha was breathless with excitement about the fertilizer. He gave us a pamphlet which expounded on the virtues of bokashi for soil health and clearly listed its chemical components, including the relatively low amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous compared to inorganic fertilizers. However, like any organic fertilizer, bokashi has all of the types of nutrients a plant needs, including the minor ones like zinc and boron.

With my Nepali colleague, Abhishek Sharma, we were warmly received. I was hoping to see machinery turning out large volumes of bokashi, because, if it could be made in large enough amounts, and cheap enough, it might be a viable option for smallholders.

A large mechanical grinder is used to reduce the rice hulls to dust, and another grinder for the other ingredients. The rice hulls go into a large machine that mixes them with chicken manure, cow dung, wood ash, mustard oil cake, sawdust and “effective microorganisms” These may be one of the most important ingredients, because they are beneficial bacteria and yeasts.

Later we talked to an extensionist and a group of farmers, who were using bokashi to improve their soil. They add a bit less than a ton of bokashi to a hectare of rice, along with chemical fertilizer, and they are pleased with the increases in yield that they get from the combination.

hand-sorting-for-impuritiesWe were surprised to see four workers on hands and knees on the factory floor, picking sticks and debris out of risks husks from a rice mill. There is still a lot of manual work even in a mechanized factory. Workers stir the bokashi on the shop floor, every few days, using a hoe. Labor and space limitations keep the factory from making more than 20 or 40 tons a month. However, as Paul and I saw during our study of African Seed Enterprises, if a company can stay in business for several years, this alone is a good sign of success.

The factory receives a government subsidy, but it is producing a product that farmers are using, if not as a bulk fertilizer, then as an amendment to improve their soil with organic matter, micro-nutrients, and beneficial microorganisms.

Farmers may not want to make their own bokashi, or need to. If someone else makes it for them, at an affordable price, farmers will use the stuff. As with many agricultural innovations, the trick is not to get farmers to make all of their own inputs, but to encourage entrepreneurs to make products that they want. Manufacturing a product that farmers will buy and use is like a waiter who plays the music his customers enjoy.

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Killing mealybugs with bananas April 21st, 2014 by

Most scientists work in disciplinary fields, a narrow focus that encourages researchers to promote what they believe in the most and discard alternatives. Thailand has made headway in controlling the cassava mealybug, a new pest that arrived in the country in 2008. While introducing a parasitic wasp surely contributed to controlling the cassava mealybug, it was only part of the solution, as we learned on a recent visit to make a farmer training video. Staff from the Department of Agricultural Extension embrace classical biological control, but seemed sceptical about farmers using botanical pesticides.

As often happens, farmer innovations are discarded because they have not been proven scientifically. But scientists may never have the interest, time and resources to validate all farmer innovations. And scientific validation is not always needed before one can promote a local innovation. Most of the other practical arts are not subject to scientific validation of all their innovations.

At the time of planting, Mr Sawart Jaimetta, an entrepreneurial farmer in northeast Thailand, told us that before he plants his cassava cuttings, he soaks them in a solution of water and an extract made from banana plants. It kills all the mealybugs hiding in the cassava buds and increases the vigour of the cuttings.

“There are beneficial microorganisms at the base of the banana stems. When we want to make a plant extract we have to dig the banana stems in the early morning. When the plant has not yet received sunlight, the hormones are still at the base of the stem,” Mr Sawart says, his choice of vocabulary suggesting how he has creatively blended outside knowledge with his own keen know-how.

Mr Sawart chops the corms and bottom halves of two young banana shoots into small pieces. He mixes 10 liters of molasses with 10 liters of water in a bucket to which he adds a small bag of effective micro-organisms (EM) to speed up the decomposition. He says the mix would also work without adding these beneficial bacteria, but it would take longer. Unless this seems far-fetched, think of making wine or bread without beneficial micro-organisms.

After stirring this solution, Mr Sawart pours it onto the banana cuttings in a plastic drum. The drum is tightly closed and placed in a shady place. Every week, he stirs the solution to speed up decomposition. A few months later, a white film covers the surface and the extract is ready for use.

As the extract is powerful, Mr Sawart mixes one liter of it with 200 liters of water before drenching the cassava cuttings for 10 minutes.

“If we use banana shoot extract to soak cassava cuttings, they will sprout twice as fast, in 5 days. We can also use the extract as foliar spray (applied to the crop’s leaves). It is like a hormone that makes the cassava grow well and strong to resist mealybugs,” says Mr Sawart Jaimetta.

Mr Sawart received training from various projects and added his own experience: “I have also made extracts from other plants, but the corms and base of banana stems give the best results.”

To kill the cassava mealybug he also reared Beauveria (a fungus that kills insects), parasitic wasps (that lay their eggs inside insect pests) and lacewings (their larvae eat mealybugs and other pests).

As this story shows, farmers are not restrained by scientific disciplines. Farmers need training and new ideas to test. They will apply whatever does the job, especially if it is low cost and of little risk to their health. Many scientists are yet to accept and learn from this pragmatic attitude. When we communicate with farmers, especially through mass media, we need to open up to solutions offered by different disciplines as well as to those developed by farmers.

To learn about a global programme that builds on and scales up farmer-led approaches to development, visit Prolinnova.

To see examples of farmer training videos, visit Access Agriculture.

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Effective micro-organisms April 9th, 2014 by

Mr Sawart Jaimetta lives in the small village of Nonemakharpom near Khon Buri in northeast Thailand. While he earns his living mainly from growing cassava and rearing crickets, chicken run freely around his house and a variety of plants are grown for food, medicine and spice. Like many farmers in developing countries, Mr Sawart creatively uses all resources available to him.

When Mr Sawart said, he also had pigs, pointing to a shed just behind my back, I just couldn’t believe it. In Europe you can smell pigs from quite a distance, but here I stood two meters from the pig house and hadn’t even noticed them.

“Last month a farmer in Uganda told us that he uses micro-organisms that he mixes in water and sprinkles on the bedding of saw dust to get rid of the smell,” I told Mr Sawart.

“I do the same. I sprinkle a solution with micro-organisms on rice husks on which I keep my pigs,” Mr Sawart replied smilingly.

“How amazing,” I thought, “within one month I have met two farmers in countries as far apart as Uganda and Thailand who apply micro-organisms in their pig house.”

The technology of effective micro-organisms (EM) was introduced to the world through an international conference held in Thailand in 1989, following extensive research by Dr Teruo Higa, a Japanese professor.

Nowadays, the Ministry of Agriculture in Thailand produces EM and distributes it freely to farmers  via the more than 700 community pest management centres across the country.

While probiotics seem to be hard to sell to the agricultural community in Western countries, which are dominated by a strong antibiotic lobby, the technology is making headway in Africa and Asia.

Sustainable technologies have a much higher chance of spreading in countries where the agrochemical industry is less well established. Governments like the one in Thailand who promote EM technology are to be applauded and could serve as an example to other countries across the world.

To read more about EM, read Farming And Gardening With Effective Micro-organisms

Related blog stories: Smelling is believing

Other stories about Mr Sawart: Six-legged livestock; Killing mealybugs with bananas

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Smelling is believing March 9th, 2014 by

In Uganda, Emmanuel Ssemwaga was telling us about a self-cleaning pig sty. The manure just piles up and has no odor, thanks to indigenous micro organisms the farmer applies to it.

Emmanuel was trying to convince Paul and me to help him make a video on what he called the “organic pig sty”. The basic idea is to dig a pit and fill it with sawdust and leave the pig on the sawdust bedding without hardly ever having to clean it. But we weren’t buying it. “That pit will turn to a cesspool” we said. And when Emmanuel said the idea came out of Makerere University in 2011 we said “This technology is too young. Wait until farmers adapt it.”

But they had. The day after we met local farmer Caroline Nansamba who told us about a family that was using the new pig sty, “and the pigs are so clean they look like they just stepped out of the shower,” Caroline said.

The next day, Paul, Emmanuel and I, joined Caroline, and colleagues James and Noel, along with John Kateregga, a friend of Caroline’s who knows how to get to the farm.

We got off the bus in the town of Entebbe, near the capital of Kampala and also the site of the international airport. It is an example of what is now called peri-urban: half-town, half-countryside. The small houses are close together. There is little land to spare and people are trying to grow crops and gardens and raise animals, but at least they have easy access to market.