Not all farmer experiments entail such a leap of imagination that they count as inventions, but some do, and I saw one last month in Mali, in a village called Togo.
Togo is a large village with a stone church, topped with a blue and white statue of the Virgin Mary. We met in the home of Dubassi Jean-Jacques Dacko, who is an important local leader (the vice president of the council of the Cercle of Tominian). Two other men and four women came to our meeting.
The people organized themselves into various church, civic and work groups as well as a youth group that plays cards, but also exchanges labor.
The people of Togo, Mali, saw a set of videos on Fighting Striga, a nasty weed. The folks had their own copy of the DVD and watched the videos many times in their own language, which is called Bomu. One of these videos was on how to make compost, to put it on cereal crops, as a way of managing striga.
One young man, LĂ©wa KamatĂ©, who belonged to the card playersâ€™ group, took us to see his compost pit, in his onion garden. The compost was for vegetables, not to control striga in sorghum. LĂ©wa saw in the videos that the compost pit should be covered with straw. So he covered his compost with a living layer of sweet potato plants. I had never seen a compost pit covered in living plants before, certainly not in Mali, and I have seen a lot of compost.
From time to time LĂ©wa pulls off some small leaves and feeds them to his rabbits. Later he can compost the rabbit dung. Heâ€™s got a complete system of compost to sweet potatoes to rabbits, and back to compost, which is quite a stretch from what he saw in the videos.
Creativity can be linked to the playful imagination of games. Maybe LĂ©wa and his young friends are onto a good idea, combining work and card games.
To see the video on compost that LĂ©wa watched, in English, click here
To see a video on feeding rabbits, click here
To learn how to build a house for rabbits, click here
Last month I was in Mali. Agronomist Samuel Guindo had organized the visits meticulously, and we drove to one village after another, meeting people who always had something original to say, about farmer field schools (FFS), about videos they had watched, about how they were now able to control the worldâ€™s worst weed, striga.
The driver, Sidi DembelĂ©, had fantastic taste in music, ranging from West African strings to Bob Marley to Cuban dance numbers. So the 40 minutes passed agreeably as we drove from the small city of Koutiala to the large village of Nâ€™Togonasso, complete with telephone towers, a big school health center and a mairie (the mayorâ€™s office for Gouadji-Kao). Mali is the land of wide open spaces, and there was a vast plaza between the school and the mayorâ€™s office. While people gathered there I amused myself by reading the facts displayed on the school latrine buildings (one for boys, one for girls). Every person makes 438 kilos of â€ścacaâ€ť a year.
When a few men came we shook hands and carried chairs from the porch of the school to the shade of a tree. We took our seats in a circle and as people began to politely introduce themselves, we realized that we were in the wrong Village. Well, these things happen. No one in Nâ€™Togonasso had seen our striga videos. We were supposed to have gone to Nâ€™Tonasso, near the city.
One of the friendly young men, Segou Sogoba, turned out to be the brother of Mr. Bougouna Sogoba, a colleague of ours, the director of AMEDD, an NGO that alleviates poverty through village agriculture. The family connection may have helped lead to the confusion of the villages with similar names. Although the youths in Nâ€™Togonasso had never seen the striga videos, Samuel Guindo seized the opportunity, and gave Segou a DVD with an anthology of the ten videos.
Videos, DVDs and TV sets are cutting edge technology in Mali, where you can buy a DVD player for about $30, affordable for a successful farm family. People are buying solar panels and batteries, to run lights and TVs at night, even when they are off the electrical grid.
We asked if any of the guys had a DVD player. One of them did, so Samuel gave him a DVD too. They said they would watch the videos that same day.
In the villages of Mali all the young adults have cell phones, as do many of the older folks. Two days later, Samuel rang up Segou, who said that he had shown the videos to 20 people and that he was impressed by the simple techniques to control striga, such as intercropping cowpea. He had not known how the striga germinates, and was glad to learn about it from the videos. He also said that it is important to make compost in pits, and that the information on the videos was very, very, very important.
In Mali there are some bright young people staying on the land.Â They are interested in appropriate new farm technology. Like most places in the world, the youth know more about the latest digital technology than the elders. Videos on DVD make the link between appropriate agricultural innovation and digital technology.
This past week I found myself on the pampas of Argentina. The romantic gauchos are largely gone, although painstakingly reconstructed by a few men who love horses and dapper period costumes. Modern highways and trailer trucks now cross the endless spaces and the grazing cattle have been largely replaced by large-scale mechanized agriculture: especially of maize and of soybeans, genetically modified (GM) to resist herbicides.
The soil is black and rich, and when it rains the water soaks into the plains, instead of running off. So harvests can be bountiful, but in the 1990s, mechanization squeezed some 60,000 smallholders off of their land. Most landowners with less than 100 hectares no longer farm own land, but rent it to pools of investors, and the Argentines use the English word â€śpoolâ€ť even when speaking Spanish. Los pooles took over the land. Wealthy investors from Buenos Aires gave money to managers who rented small farms and then hire other people to plant them in maize or soybeans, applying some mineral fertilizer and a lot of herbicides, to save labor.
The pool of investors use the land until they have degraded it, and then they give it back to the families that own it, and then they look for more land to spoil, at a profit.
Thus I found myself with some other international extension experts on one corner of La Fe, a large farm in Buenos Aires province. Maximiliano Eize and Patricia Carfagno were two young researchers who had come out to explain their trial. The landowners had been coming to them asking what to do when their farms were trashed and returned.
Maxi (as he is called) and Patricia worked for five years in the west of the Province, 250 km away, where it is drier. They had successfully tried mixes of vetch, oats and wheat as cover crops, which farmers were then starting to adopt. Now, here in the east of the province, the researchers were starting again; in wetter conditions the results would be different.
The basic idea: after the harvest, the land lies fallow for a few months, building up lots of weeds. Thanks to the GM soybeans, the crop can be sprayed with lots of herbicides, so only the nastiest species survive now.
The new technology being tried here is to plant wheat, oats, vetch or a mix of vetch and one of the grains. Maxi and Patricia had a whole string of plots with the different treatments. â€śWhich one works the best?â€ť I asked.
â€śThatâ€™s what weâ€™ll see at the end of this year,â€ť Maxi said, speaking like a true scientist.
But Maxi and Patricia doe realized that they need to come up with a soil conservation strategy that is profitable, even for the greedy pools of investors. Planting vetch and cereals in the off season must increase yields in the following crop of maize or soybeans, and be cheap to do. Earlier experience on the pampas suggests that an off season cover crop may increase the maize yield by 1.5 tons per hectare, enough to appeal to the cold logic of the pools.
Cover crops are an old idea. Years ago in Honduras many farmers tried mucuna, also known as the velvet bean, a legume so robust that when I planted it in my garden, the mucuna grew right over my orange trees, blanketing them in a thick, green mat.
Honduran farmers tried to plant the mucuna in between their maize, only to have to fight back the mucuna as it took over their crop. But farmers and scientists both learn from experience, and they eventually learned to plant mucuna in an off-season, or in an off-year, to give life back to exhausted soils. In our video, farmers show how they plant mucuna once the maize is at least two months old, so the mucuna benefits from residual soil moisture and has taken off before the dry season sets in.
I thought that mucuna in some form might work for the land destroyed by the pools.
As luck would have it, I just happened to have a DVD in my backpack, with a video on mucuna, filmed with a group of farmers in Togo, in West Africa. I gave Maxi and Patricia each a copy of the DVD. As experts in cover crops, they had read about mucuna, but had never seen it, so they were keen to watch the video.
Technology improves with experiments and with experience. I have no idea if mucuna will ever flourish in the pampas or if the pools of investors will be persuaded to take better care of the land. But I came away with a renewed conviction that the people who own the land should be the ones who work the land. The land rental â€śmarketâ€ť is flawed, and gives perverse incentives to free-riders who mine the soil.
Some economists like to sniff at smallholder farmers as â€śinefficientâ€ť. We see here that the big farmers that economists romanticize about, with their tractors, motorized herbicide sprayers and GM soybeans, may make efficient use of some workerâ€™s time, but they can make a mess of the land, a resource we cannot make more of.
Watch and download the video Reviving soils with mucuna mentioned above. The video is available in English, Spanish and more than ten other languages.
The other day I was talking to a Bolivian banker, Pedro MĂ©ndez, the head of the largest bank in Cochabamba. Two years ago, his bank had begun to make micro-loans to smallholders. Bolivian society is becoming more inclusive, more farmer-friendly in many ways.
These are small loans: on average $3000, and some families borrow as little as $500. Over twenty agents are managing a portfolio of about $500,000 each, and in two years, no farmers have defaulted on the loans.
â€śWhy not?â€ť I asked.
For one reason, the loan officers in this case are really agronomists who get some training in finance. â€śItâ€™s easier to teach banking to agronomists than to teach agriculture to bankers,â€ť Mr. MĂ©ndez explained. (We have had a similar experience: it is easier to teach agronomists to make videos than to teach filmmakers about farming).
And second, new software makes this possible. The bank agronomists have a questionnaire on a tablet which they take to the field. As the farmer supplies the answers, the bank agent types them in, and they are analyzed immediately. The agent asks the farmers in seven different ways how much produce they sell. One would have to be a genius to invent answers consistently in each different format. A built-in GPS helps the agronomist quickly measure the field that is to be financed, which helps determine the amounts of inputs the farmer will need, and to estimate the harvest.
I appreciated how much work it could be to administer that questionnaire. I once spent all day on a Bolivian tomato farm, collecting what is called a â€śpartial budget,â€ť asking the smallholder farmer about each task his family did, how much it cost, how many days they labored at it, and then we tallied the boxes of tomatoes they harvested each week and estimated the prices. Smallholder farms are complex, and it takes a lot of work to get the data on their costs and earnings.
The bank agronomists spend a day getting to know the farmer, and can then disburse the loan. Each agent signs up two farmers a week, and each banker agronomist loans to several hundred farmers. When the agronomist-bankers have large enough portfolios, they stop making new loans, and spend their time following up with the farmers. It has been a successful program, and is expanding.
I was surprised. I had heard bankers in Benin complain about loaning money to smallholders, complaining that they often default on their loan.Â In a recent blog â€śLet me teach you how to take out a loanâ€ť, we saw that Guatemalan farmers liked getting loans, but the loans had to be subsidized by donors or the government.
I asked Mr. MĂ©ndez what happened when Bolivian farmers couldnâ€™t repay their loan, especially because of drought or other troubles with the weather. He said that the bank agents worked with the farmers, analyzed their situation, and gave them more time and advice.
Now, just because borrowers repay their loan does not mean that they necessarily made money. Some micro credit programs have recently come under fire for loaning to groups, not individuals, and then using peer pressure to get the money paid back, even if the borrower lost money (Brett 2006).
So I asked Mr. MĂ©ndez if they loaned to individuals or groups. â€śOnly to individuals,â€ť he said, adding that the agronomist banker helped the clients to design and follow through with a repayment schedule.
Interest on these loans is 12%, not dirt-cheap, but less than a credit card. And while the interest rate is certainly not usurious, it is a commercial loan.
Loans in the city are a bit different. The bank knows that four out of every five businesses fail their first year. So the bank does not loan to new businesses, large or small. Entrepreneurs are only eligible for loans after they have survived their first year, gaining experience and proving themselves to be capable managers.
A few days later the story got better, when I happened to meet JosĂ© Luis Pereira, a Bolivian agronomist who used to work for the bank, but has now gone on to work for the Swiss cooperation. Mr. Pereira was involved in the private credit scheme from the beginning. At first the bank was cautious, afraid that the smallholders would be risky borrowers, so Mr. Pereira got $120,000 in seed money from an international donor, and the bank put in $30,000. From this hesitant start, the smallholder credit program soon became large, and profitable.
I draw two lessons from this story. One, new technology can make it easier not just to communicate with farmers, but to understand them. In this case, the tablets and software help the bank to see that family farms are profitable, and credit-worthy.
Second, small farms are old businesses, tended for a lifetime and then passed on to the next generation. They are already successful businesses, ones that survive. Those who pretend to lecture to peasants about â€śfarming as a businessâ€ť should first sit in the pupilâ€™s seat, and learn what the family farmers are doing right.
For a video on counting costs (and benefits) on farm, see: â€śLetâ€™s talk moneyâ€ť.
Brett, John A. 2006 â€śâ€™We Sacrifice and Eat Lessâ€™: The Structural Complexities of Microfinance Participation.â€ť Human Organization 65(1):8-19.