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Floating vegetable gardens March 11th, 2018 by

For much of the year Bangladesh appears more water than land. It can also be a chaotic place. Yet such impressions are misleading, and something I wanted to counteract with a genuine admiration for how people make the best of often difficult circumstances. Colleagues commented on my positive outline when I wrote about innovations in rural extension, in a book published in 2005. More recently, I’ve been reminded about the resilience and creativity of farmers after watching a video on floating vegetable gardens, now available on the  Access Agriculture platform.

The video is nicely made, with strong visual shots and compelling interviews with farmers. The dreamy traditional music carries you along in the wake of a wooden boat steered by a Bangladeshi farmer on a shallow, temporarily flooded area.

It takes a lot of work to make a floating vegetable garden, but the video reveals an amazing abundance of crops tended by farmers. For years, Bangladeshi farmers have turned two major recurring problems into an opportunity. The land lost to floods during the annual monsoons is used to grow crops; and the world’s worst aquatic weed, the water hyacinth, is turned into compost.

Scientists have tried for decades to find ways to control this weed, including the release of weevils that feed on its leaves. Governments and local authorities have tried in vain to mechanically remove this weed using heavy machinery, creating mountains of water hyacinth on the banks of rivers and lakes that no one is quite sure what to do with.

In the video, farmers in Bangladesh show a sustainable alternative. Instead of laboriously removing the bulky mass of water hyacinth, the weeds are left in place. A long bamboo pole is placed on top of a thick matt of water hyacinth and with a hook the water hyacinth is pulled from both sides of the bamboo towards the bamboo pole and compressed to make a compact plant bed. After 10 days the compacted leaves and roots start to decompose and a new layer of water hyacinth is added. Floating beds are about two meters wide and vary in length; some are as long as 20 meters.

In the meantime, back home, women have started to grow vegetable seedlings in round compost balls. Once the plants are old enough the gardeners carry them on the boat to their floating garden beds, and insert the compost balls with seedlings in the plant bed. Farmers grow okra, various types of gourds, leafy vegetables, ginger and turmeric. The video also shows how some innovative farmers even connect two floating beds with trellises made of bamboo and jute rope to grow yard-long beans.

Farmers across developing countries, and Bangladesh in particular, have a wealth of knowledge. The many training videos hosted on the Access Agriculture platform pay tribute to these farmers and allow them to share their knowledge and experiences across borders. At Agro-Insight we celebrate these respectable farmers in our weekly blog stories. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoy writing them.

Watch the video

Floating vegetable gardens

Related blogs on farmers’ innovations

Ashes to aphids

No land, no water, no problem

Specializing in seedlings

Tomatoes good enough to eat

Further reading

Van Mele, P., Salahuddin, A. and Magor, N. (eds.) 2005. Innovations in Rural Extension: Case Studies from Bangladesh. CABI Publishing, UK, 307 pp. Download from: www.agroinsight.com/books


The Floating vegetable garden video has been made by the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), one of the partners trained by Access Agriculture to produce quality farmer training videos.

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Seed fairs February 18th, 2018 by

Seed fairs are gaining in popularity around the world, and are a great way to encourage farmers and gardeners to conserve global biodiversity. But the fairs can do more than just provide an opportunity for people to exchange and sell seed, as I recently learned during a visit to Guatemala to make a farmer training video on farmers’ rights to seed, with a particular focus    on women in biodiversity management. In Guatemala, donor agencies and organisations have supported community biodiversity conservation initiatives for over a decade.

Our local partner, ASOCOCH, is an umbrella organisation of 20 cooperatives and farmer associations, representing some 9,000 farm families in the western highlands of Huehuetenango. On Sunday, one day before the actual seed fair starts, we visit the venue. The seed fair has become a large annual event, unlike in Malawi, where seed fairs are less regular. The fair attracts hundreds of people from across the highlands, some travelling long distances. One elderly woman told me she rode a bus for five hours to get there.

The seed fair is a lively, social event, with a Ferris wheel, stalls with amusement games and one with wooden, artistically carved horses with leather saddles on which people can sit and have their photo taken against a painted background of lush vegetation, complete with mountains and waterfalls. Visitors can buy sweets and nuts. A young boy gently pushes his wheelbarrow full of mandarins for sale through the crowds, while indigenous women sell traditional delicacies. Families with grandparents and kids relish the event as the region does not have such a large fair very often.

But there is more to the fair than having fun and eating. The seed fair is held on school grounds and I soon see farmers in intricately woven, traditional clothes lining up to register for classes. There are four large rooms where farmers can learn about potato, agrobiodiversity, climate change and women’s rights. My wife Marcella and I first attend the talks in the agrobiodiversity room, where Juanita Chaves from GFAR explains about farmers’ rights to seed. To my surprise this is followed by two presentations on aflatoxins in maize by staff from a local NGO. The presenters graphically explain the relation between mouldy maize cobs and the disfigurement of children and internal organs. As most farmers conserve their own maize seed they need to be aware of the risks of fungal infections. I am still a little puzzled as to how this relates to the seed fair and agrobiodiversity conservation, but after lunch all becomes clear.

We accompany the farmers who attended the aflatoxin sessions to the Clementoro Community Seed Bank, less than 10 kilometers away. The farmers see seeds stored in plastic jars, clearly labelled and neatly stacked on the shelves. In the middle of the room, a young agricultural graduate working at the seed bank shows farmers how they can detect if their seed is contaminated with aflatoxins by using a simple methanol test. “When you store your maize crop and seed, you need to be sure it has less than 13% moisture so that moulds will not develop,” the enthusiastic young woman explains. “Here at the seed bank, you can have your seed tested and conserved in optimal conditions,” she continues.

Seed is one of farmers’ most precious resources, and storing it at a community seed bank requires lots of trust. They need to know that their seed will be safely stored until they need it, either for the next growing season or even a few years later whenever the need arises. By organising seed fairs, seminars and visits to community seed banks, ASOCUCH is building trust through sharing knowledge and explaining clearly what they do.

The next day, we film the actual seed fair itself. There is an overwhelming abundance of crop varieties, fruits, medicinal and even some ornamental plants. Farmers and their families are clearly excited as seed and plant material changes hands. There is brisk trading between farmers. While some exchange materials, most sell and buy seed. People tell each other about the seeds they have on offer. ASOCUCH, with the support of GFAR, had also prepared a booklet with traditional recipes. Copies are spread on tables at the entrance and they run out like hot cakes.

There is a judging competition to find the best seeds.  Judges visit each stand, measuring maize cobs, counting seeds, weighing potato seed tubers and taking notes. Agrobiodiversity is a serious matter. At the same time, outside the schoolhouse, sheep are being rated by another set of judges. In the late afternoon, the results are shared with the audience. People had brought dozens of varieties and over a thousand accessions of various crops. The audience is excited, and so are we. This has been a fascinating two-day event, and the drive of the farmers and their organisations has made us hopeful for the future.  Local initiatives are where conservation begins, but they need the support of local authorities, governments and international organisations to increase their impact.

Everyone has had a good time. More importantly, farmers have made new contacts, acquired seeds of traditional varieties that may have been lost in some areas and helped others to preserve them in new areas. They have learned about saving seed, but most of all, the farmers have learned that they have certain rights to seeds—they can plant their own native varieties as they wish, for example—and that these rights mattter hugely in sustaining local agriculture.

Related blogs

Quinoa, lost and found

Homegrown seed can be good

Bolivian peanuts

We share

Further viewing

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Guatemela

Farmers’ rights to seed – experiences from Malawi

Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage


Thanks to the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) and the European Union for funding the production of the video discussed here. Support in Guatemala was kindly provided by the AsociaciĂłn de Organizaciones de los Cuchumatanes (ASOCUCH).

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Tools of the imagination February 10th, 2018 by

A few years ago, I was sitting in the airport in La Paz, Bolivia. At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level the air is so thin you can get light headed. I sat there fighting sleep after a two day trip home from Bangladesh. Then an airline official came to tell me that the police wanted to see me. I was wide awake now, as I followed the neatly dressed official downstairs to a backroom on the first floor where the criminal police search luggage for drugs and contraband. While screening my bag they had found a strange object.

A young policeman was sitting on a stool, holding a tool I’d picked up in Bangladesh. It was a crescent-shaped iron blade, with a metal shaft and a wooden handle, polished smooth with work and sweat. I’d bought it from a man selling used tools in a Bengali village.

“What is this?” the cop asked. His face and demeanor were more of curiosity than malice. I relaxed. I wasn’t a suspect. He was simply filled with that human sense of wonder.

And so I explained that the tool was a rice weeder. It’s called a “nirani,”or “khurpi.” It’s made to work the soil at ground level, while keeping your hand off the ground. People use the nirani to weed the rice while kneeling in the field. They also use it to uproot rice seedlings from the seedbed.

Many Bolivian police and soldiers grow up on farms. The cop listened to my story with the interest of a farmer; then he thanked me for my explanation and said I was free to go.

I think of that experience often, especially when I talk to farmers about videos they have seen. Rural people often recall the tools seen on a learning video, even devices not mentioned in the narration. Farmers notice tools that city people easily overlook.

For example, in Malawi I talked to farmers about rice videos made in West Africa. The Malawians often remarked on the little wheeled, hand-pushed weeders, and wondered where they could get one.

In Uganda, farmers noticed that the Malian rice farmers worked barefoot, and asked if the Malians could not afford gum boots, or if the bare feet were part of the technique. In fact, it is easier to work barefoot in a lowland, West African rice field, where the mud can pull the boots right off of one’s feet.

And in one final example, in my blog last week, “Private screenings,” I mentioned that farmers in Benin searched for drip irrigation equipment after seeing it on a video.

National officials and even some media experts insist that agricultural learning videos must be made locally, so a new video should be filmed for each country. Of course farmers can learn from a video made in their own country. But by watching videos made elsewhere they learn about tools and ideas they would not see at home. They learn how peasant farmers in other countries solve familiar problems with ingeniously different tools. That fires the imagination, and at times even inspires farmers to ask agrodealers to stock the new tools.

Photo credit

Top photo by Paul Van Mele

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Private screenings February 4th, 2018 by

A recent study by Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in Benin, West Africa, has shed light on a promising way to get training videos to farmers through local shops. Zoundji worked in four vegetable-producing regions of southern Benin, where farmers were so worried about pests that they sprayed pesticides even before the bugs appeared.  Convincing such apprehensive farmers to hold the pesticides would take some serious persuasion.

Zoundji took nine videos on vegetable production from the Access Agriculture video platform (www.accessagriculture.org), including how to reduce pesticide use, and put five language versions (English, French, Fon, Yoruba and Bambara) on one DVD. Zoundji had the brilliant idea of reaching the farmers through local shops, in an attempt to overcome the limited distribution available through the extension service. In 2015 he convinced 13 owners of small shops (mostly farm supply stores and movie DVD vendors) to stock copies of his DVD, titled Improving Vegetable Production. From August to December, the shopkeepers sold the DVDs to customers for up to $4. Starting in June, 2016, Zoundji tracked down 120 vegetable farmers who had bought the DVD, received it as a gift from friends or family, or watched it with their neighbors. He visited the farmers’ fields to learn more about what had happened after watching the videos.

Most of the video-watching farmers were young, with an average age of 28. Youth are drawn to vegetable production, which can be profitable on a small piece of land, and to videos, complete with music and a compelling narration. A third of the farmers were women. Almost half had no formal schooling, but the videos require no reading.

Zoundji found that only a third of his farmers regularly received extension visits, while twice as many got information from agro-dealers. All the farmers shared information through their own informal networks.

Zoundji’s collaborating shopkeepers sold 669 DVDs. I was surprised that only 58% of the DVDs went to farmers. Government officials, students, their parents and extension workers bought the rest. Such folks often grow their own gardens, or they have links to vegetable-growers.

After watching the videos, farmers realized that they had been over-using pesticides. Aristide, a vegetable farmer, from Abomey-Calavi said:

Before the video training, I used to manage nematodes, pests and other diseases by using any agrochemicals I could get hold of. I just needed to see insects and pests in the field to unleash a treatment. But after watching the video, I realized how wasteful and harmful I have been.

Farmers had been applying pesticides up to seven times during each season, but after watching the videos, 86% said that they had reduced pesticide use. Mr. David, a farmer at Sèmé-Podji, said:

To grow tomatoes on a 400 square meter plot, I often used for example 1 kg or 1.5 kg of fungicide, one to two litres of insecticide, 2 kg of nematicide and about 30 kg of NPK (fertilizer), but since September 2015 I started applying the knowledge from the videos. I’m progressively reducing the chemicals … and the tomato yield is still the same as before videos, but now they keep longer than before (I watched the) videos. This is the third time I’ve harvested.

Some farmers reported that although they had heard about alternatives to pesticides from extension agents they remained unconvinced until they saw the videos. The videos show farmers from Benin and other countries using the recommended alternatives, making a novel idea seem much more practical. A farmer on a video can be more convincing than a conversation in real life. “Videos stimulate learning and facilitate more experimentation for change than face-to-face extension carried out by an extension worker,” Zoundji writes.

It wasn’t only crop protection practices that were improved. Crop rotation, compost, and nets to keep insects out of vegetables were widely adopted as alternatives to agrochemicals.

There were further changes that took place in the shop owners selling the DVDs. One third of the agrodealers began to stock the equipment for setting up drip irrigation. This was astounding, an unexpected consequence of Zoundji’s original idea. Changing business practices matters because in previous experiences with drip irrigation, farmers have been dependent on projects to buy the necessary equipment. (See Paul’s earlier story, To drip or not to drip). Now, after watching the videos, farmers were investing in drip irrigation equipment and asking agrodealers to stock items they needed, such as hoses, nozzles and tanks. Other farmers were making their own kits.

Family farmers are used to shopping at family-owned businesses. It may not be necessary to have a project just to share information with farmers. Small shops may be just the place to sell videos with useful ideas that farmers can use.

Further reading

Zoundji, Gérard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. Vodouhê & Jeffery W. Bentley 2018 “Towards Sustainable Vegetable Growing with Farmer Learning Videos in Benin.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. Read it here.

Watch all nine of the vegetable videos (in English, French and other languages)

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

Videos in the languages of Benin

Access Agriculture hosts videos in several of the languages spoken in Benin, including:

French, Adja, Bariba, Berba, Dendi, Ditammari, Fon, Gourmantche, Hausa, Ife, Idaatcha, Mina, Nago, Peulh (Fulfuldé), Yoruba and Zarma

Photo credit

Photos are by G. Zoundji.

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Malawi calling January 21st, 2018 by

Written with Ronald Kondwani Udedi

I was at home in Bolivia when I got a surprise call from southern Africa. “I’m a chilli farmer in Malawi; you’ve been to my house,” said the confident voice on the other end, before the caller ran out of credit and the faint, crackling connection was suddenly cut off.

But the caller, Lester Mpinda, was not easily discouraged. In the time it takes to walk to the village shop and buy a scratch card, he was back on the phone. “I’ve made a lot of profit from chilli,” he said. Then the call was cut off again.

I remembered Mr. Mpinda well. Malawian media expert Ronald Udedi and I had visited Mr.Mpinda’s garden in September of 2016, in Mwanza, southern Malawi, where he showed us how he had started growing local chillies from seed he bought in the market after watching the videos on a DVD. I wanted to learn more, but the phone connection was too poor to chat. Instead, I contacted my friend Ronald on social media and asked him to find out more.

Ronald filled me in on the rest of Mr. Mpinda’s story. Shortly after our visit to his farm in 2016, Ronald and I made a short video on Mr. Mpinda. Access Agriculture then invited Mr. Mpinda to share his story at a meeting with partner organizations in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. I couldn’t attend, but I was a little apprehensive about the outcome, thinking that the event might distract Mr. Mpinda from his everyday work on the farm. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the meeting, Mr. Mpinda met Mr. Dyborn Chibonga, then the head of Nasfam (National Smallholder Farmers’ Association). Mr. Chibonga put Mr. Mpinda in touch with the nearest Nasfam extension agent in Mulanje, who later visited the farm and gave Mr. Mpinda some seed of bird’s eye chilli, the variety used to make tabasco-style hot sauce. The slender red bottles of hot sauce are a common sight on Malawian tables and the dried chilli is exported to food-makers in Europe and elsewhere.

Chilli seed is really small, and a little bit goes a long way, so Mr. Mpinda decided to share his generous gift from Nasfam with his neighbors. Mr. Mpinda started a chilli club with 12 members, of whom eight were women. He showed the club members how to plant the chilli, gave them seed, and once or twice a week he invited the club to his home to show them the chilli videos in Chichewa, the local language. Each member learned more about growing and drying this crop, which was entirely new to them. The club members created a chilli demonstration garden, where they tried out what they saw in the videos.

When the club had a stock of dried chillies, they phoned the Nasfam extension agent, who came from Mulanje, where Nasfam has a factory for making hot sauce. The agent bought 160 kilos of chilli from the individual club members, paying 2,500 Kwacha ($3.50) per kilogram, twice the price of tobacco which is number one export crop. The Nasfam agent left more seed.

Other friends and neighbors who heard of this success asked to join the club. Mr. Mpinda graciously welcomed them and now there are 80 members growing chilli and learning about the crop from the videos.

As Ronald puts it, “the most important thing (that started this new enterprise) was the DVD with the chilli videos. Mr. Mpinda and his friends watched it to learn about everything, from taking care of the nursery beds to transplanting and harvesting.” The videos meant that farmer didn’t have to rely on visits from extension agents, whose time and travel budgets are limited.

For many years only one company, NALI, made hot sauce in Malawi, but now there are over 10. Malawi is now enjoying a kind of chilli boom.  Mr. Mpinda’s story shows that smallholders can independently identify and respond to market openings. Peasant farmers are always open to new opportunities and eager to try useful innovations. I have no idea how long the chilli boom in Malawi will last, but agriculture will never go out of style. As long as smallholders have buyers, seed and good information, they will be able to market quality produce.

Related blog stories

A hot plan

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Related videos

Hear Mr. Mpinda tell, in his own words, how he became a chilli farmer. Watch Ronald Udedi’s video

Videos on chilli

Watch the videos on how to grow and process chilli here

Videos in the languages of Malawi

All the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org are in English and at least one other language, including the following languages spoken in Malawi:

36 videos in Chichewa

7 videos in Tumbuka

13 videos in Yao

13 videos in Sena

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