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The power of radio February 14th, 2016 by

Cell phones and FM radio stations can interact as if they were made for each other. In northern Uganda, Radio Tembo FM 103.5 broadcasts in the Luo language from a hilltop above the dusty town of Kitgum. The station combines radio with phones to help farmers get back to business after a long break. The surrounding area is still recovering from the 20 years of war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a conflict that more or less ended only about 2008. Most of the farmers spent much of the war in camps, and have only been farming again for a few years.

Radio Tembo first gained an audience by playing popular music, but then started a farm market program every Friday. The radio broadcaster would tell the listeners what was on sale in the various market towns, and list the prices. Farmers phoned, with information of their own. The market report was soon a bigger hit that the music programs.

radio announcerThe farmers use the radio to attract business. One farmer called to say that he had 20 bags of cassava for sale. Speaking live from his phone, he gave his name and the name of his village, and another listener left immediately, and bought all 20 bags.

Farmers had always liked the weather report, but the market show became so popular that Radio Tembo added an ago-business specialist, Patricko, and aired the market show every Monday through Friday from 11:30 to noon, plus an hour-long magazine program on Sunday evenings.

Radio TemboRadio stations can buy expensive hardware to handle multiple phone calls, but Radio Tembo simply places three cell phones on a desk. As soon as the announcer asks for calls, all three phones ring at once; the callers are eager to get on the air.

Some farmers call to tell their troubles. For example, one farmer rang up to say that buyers came to his house to take his four bags of sesame. They loaded the bags onto their truck, but only paid him for two bags. They said that they could give him the rest of the money in town. He gladly climbed on board the truck, but half way to town, while driving through a village, the buyers threw the farmer off the truck, shouting “thief, thief!” The bruised, humiliated farmer was able to explain himself to the villagers, but he was still hurt, and cheated out of his money.

Another farmer called to say that he had just sold his sesame for one million shillings (about $400). The next day some young thugs came to his house and beat him up and took his money.

Stories like this alert other farmers to the scams being used in the area. There are a lot of unemployed youth who grew up in refugee camps. Many of these youth are unskilled and desperate for money. Now that folks have moved out of the camps and are back on their farms, commodity buyers are returning. But it takes time for buyers and sellers to build trust, and some of the new buyers are dishonest.

Radio Tembo learns from the callers’ stories, and comes up with solutions. The broadcasters advise farmers to sell in groups, for greater safety and for more negotiating strength. The station suggests that farmers open bank accounts, so they don’t have to carry cash. In response to this, one of the local savings and credit cooperatives has begun to sponsor the market show.

Cell phones can combine with radio to allow smallholder farmers to lower transaction costs, to get accurate information about prices, to tell their problems and find solutions. Phones and radio fit together well; they are both based on the spoken word, and both are friendly to local languages. People in North Uganda didn’t invent talk radio, but they are remaking it, in their own style.

Walking the past February 7th, 2016 by

Old, abandoned roads may not have the appeal of a ruined temple, but I find them strangely appealing. Many of these old roads were important for family farmers.

In Europe, carts and plows have been pulled by cows and oxen (castrated bulls) from Neolithic times, 8000 years ago, until the twentieth century. In the 1980s, when farmers in northern Portugal were trading their local breeds of work cows for Holsteins and tractors, the old farm roads were still clearly marked in local memory. Yellow work cows were still pulling carts down a few of these roads, and many abandoned ones still crisscrossed the forest between the villages. The old roads were designed to a standard width, which was just enough to let two oxen pass each other, pulling a cart. A bit tongue in cheek, the farmers called this width “de res a res” (from beef to beef). The passage of thousands of cart wheels had often carved deep grooves through the pine forest.

Bentley finds old roadEuropean settlers in North America also left the remains of narrow roads. After the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created in 1934 in Tennessee and North Carolina, smallholder farmers were gradually squeezed out. They left behind churches, cemeteries (still visited by descendants), log cabins (some maintained by the Park Service) and old, rutted roads, carved through the low hills. Unlike the churches and cabins, the old roads are largely ignored.

This last week in Belgium, I noticed traces of other old roads, when Paul Van Mele showed me around the countryside that he loves in Limburg: a gorgeous patchwork of fields and small forests of oak and ash trees. One of these woods was Duivelsbroek (the Devil’s Swamp), between the villages of Ellikom and Erpekom. Boardwalks now made it easier to walk through the muddier places, and a sign, which Paul translated for me, explained how the Devil’s Swamp got its name. It was too wet and the soil was too thin to cultivate. People didn’t want to farm this rough bit of wetland. The devil could have it.

deep well worn roadAnd yet there on a little rise in the Duivelsbroek was an old road for ox carts, and, like the Portuguese paths, wide enough for two oxen to pass in opposite directions.

Charming public information signs explained the landscape for the hikers and mountain-bikers, who now travel through the forest, but as near as I could tell, no sign mentioned the old roads. By contrast the old stone grain mills had been graciously restored and turned into restaurants.

Oxen are strong, but slow. The farmers leading the little carts would have been eager to find the shortest way from home to field, which is one reason they made roads through inhospitable places, like Duivelsbroek. The shortest route from hearth to field was often through a forest.

As machines replaced oxen in Europe, farm roads became wider, and paved, with fewer roads than before. The new roads were expensive to build and maintain, but also faster to travel, so people could take a slightly longer way home on their tractor than they had on their ox cart.

Previous generations left behind not just the rubble of their buildings, but also traces of their roads, often still visible in the forest. The old roads remind us that farmers have always had to think about getting to the field and bringing the harvest home.

Aflatoxin videos for farmers January 31st, 2016 by

When developing videos for farmers many things can go wrong. Yet most mistakes and frustrations can be avoided by proper research, planning and networking.

Projects that want to make farmer training videos do not always have a good idea of what farmers already know and do. The content of a video has to be shaped by the learning needs of the target audience, but this is often given insufficient attention. It always pays to investigate farmers’ knowledge and practices before you start filming, to avoid unpleasant surprises and mistakes.

8995 woman with harvested groundnutsLast year, the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) asked Agro-Insight to develop a series of farmer training videos on aflatoxins in groundnut. Aflatoxins are invisible, poisonous and cancer-causing chemicals produced by certain moulds. Since the 1960s, many West African countries have seen their groundnut production and trade dwindle due to aflatoxin contamination and stricter food safety standards imposed by European and American markets.

8998 immature groundnuts attacked by insect because no crop rotationDuring a scoping mission in September 2015, I met farmers in three different places in southern Mali who had received training on aflatoxins. Only by interacting with such empowered farmers can you discover what they have learned and gaps in their knowledge. Few knew little about improved groundnut varieties that were resistant to aflatoxins or how to manage soils to suppress harmful fungi. The women we met on this field study wanted to learn more about how soil health and pest management strategies can reduce both the white worms (wireworms) that drill holes in the underground pods and the harmful fungi in the soil. We can make a video on these topics, if farmers tell us they need this information.

9061 Mariam CoulibalyMariam Coulibaly, president of a women’s group in Wacoro, with about 70 women seed producers, was one of the few women I met who had carried out small experiments to assess the effect of compost on groundnut diseases. One of the roles of the video producer is to highlight such experiments and local innovations. For instance, I learned about using chilli powder against insect pests in seed storage, or used engine oil against termites, which damage groundnut pods in storage and increase the risk of aflatoxin contamination.

At times, triggering farmers to adopt good agricultural or post-harvest practices may be hard unless there are sufficient incentives. A Belgian NGO (VECO) had trained groundnut farmers in Uganda for several years on good practices to mitigate aflatoxin contamination. Despite extensive trainings the farmers were reluctant to invest time and efforts in removing mouldy kernels, because they were not paid a higher price for cleaned groundnuts. A change in agriculture may demand social and economic innovations, which should be part of training videos.

aflatoxins 8879 Binta Coulibaly with her nutrition posterBinta Coulibaly from Kolokani village in Mali helped us in this regard by stressing how women food processors have a social responsibility to protect their children and families from poisons in their food. Before converting the groundnuts into flour and baby food products, she carefully sorts out all the bad peanuts, which she then turns into soap.

I thought this was a neat example of a practice adding an economic incentive to the tedious sorting. But after visiting farmers in Mali, I had a chance to interact with researchers and health specialists attending the Roundtable of aflatoxin experts in Brussels on “Building a multi-stakeholder approach to mitigate aflatoxin contamination of food and feed”, organised by PAEPARD. To my great surprise I learned that aflatoxins are also transferred via the skin, so even soap can be dangerous! The next step would be to tell farmers about this, and see if they can device a better use of the damaged peanuts. Sharing information between farmers and scientists can be a long-term dialogue.

For video topics that have such a global implication on human health, farmers’ livelihoods, and international trade it pays off to seek further international consensus on filming locations and final content of the videos. Even when local innovations look promising and attractive to include in farmer training videos, it is crucial to have further review by scientific experts.

Suggested reading

Bragdon, Susan H. and Smith, Chelsea 2015 Small-scale farmer innovation. Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva.

Other blog posts on developing videos for farmers

A hard write

A spoonful of molasses

On the road to yoghurt

The rules and the players

The end of the world January 24th, 2016 by

Crop pests and diseases have lingering economic and personal impacts on farmers and their families. We know surprisingly little about these impacts beyond bland statements about “reduced food security” that only hint at the personal calamities that smallholders suffer.

Lady sits by bananas greatBanana is a major staple crop in Uganda, so when a new disease, banana bacterial (Xanthomonas) wilt (BBW), was discovered in 2001 it created huge national concern. Uganda is the second largest producer of bananas in the world, with an annual production of around 10 million tonnes. With average holdings of a few hectares and less, millions of farmers depend on bananas for income as well as food. Average consumption of matooke (a staple dish of steamed, mashed plantains) is around 700 g per day.

A few years after the discovery of BBW I visited farmer groups in Uganda with my colleague Paula Kelly. The disease had spread quickly and more and more farmers were experiencing the devastating effects of a bacterial disease that appeared to come out of nowhere.

Paula interviewed one of the farmers about what had happened when she first discovered BBW. This is what Zowi Tinkamanyine told Paula.

Zoe interviewee Mabaale“I knew there was a new disease in the bananas because it looked different. I cannot tell where it comes from, but I saw it first in August 2004. I thought that this was the end of the world.

After seeing this for the first time, I tried to cook the banana. I peeled the fingers and dared my husband to eat them first. Before he ate them, I told him they were strange and that I was not trying to poison him. We could not eat them. It was a very bitter love potion [she laughs].

At first the disease moved slowly, but there was a great fear in me because I had also seen a bad disease in cassava (probably cassava mosaic disease). The bananas became ripe before their time, which was not normal. The leaves were yellow and wilted and the flower bud dried and rotted and remained where it was. There were also some black spots inside the banana.

I then took my husband see the banana plants. We opened the bananas and found that they had yellow things inside them. I told my husband that he should tell the neighbours as I was very concerned. Some already had the disease. Others were waiting for something to be done. I think that if we had taken rapid action, the problem would not be so bad.”

Farmers have their own knowledge and management strategies of common pests, such as aphids and mites, since they’ve been around for ever. Zowi’s fear at finding an unfamiliar disease that renders bananas inedible shows a different, more anxious type of response. She was frightened about losing a main food source and was unsure about what to do. She really did think it was “the end of the world”.

X holds BXW bunch VuhimbaWhen a new pest or disease arrives some farmers will spend money on pesticides, believing these to yield an instant fix. This might work for insect pests, especially in the short term, but it won’t control bacterial diseases. Other farmers will move to another crop – if they can – or revert to local varieties in the hope that they show some resistance. This is what some farmers in Kenya have done in reaction to maize lethal necrosis virus, a new disease, with some success it is claimed. This is not an option for BBW since all banana varieties are susceptible.

But the truth is we don’t really know enough about farmer reactions to new threats. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a timely reminder of the need to act quickly in educating everyone about key facts and rational responses. Local practices which favour spread of a disease need to be discouraged, whether it is the touching of the deceased before burial, in the case of Ebola, or sharing infected banana suckers with neighbours in the case of BBW.
Zowi’s world did not come to an end. She told Paula that BBW had gone away after they destroyed the affected plants and planted new ones. Zowi and her husband’s pragmatic response worked, at least in the short-term. Banana production has not been wiped out in Uganda, though it is not entirely clear why.

The encouraging news is that disease transmission in banana suckers is less important than plant pathologists first thought. Researchers and farmers have developed control measures to manage the disease and there have also been successful government-led campaigns to curb BBW in Uganda. Yet the threat of disease outbreaks remains. A 2010 resurgence was attributed to poor surveillance and to “incomplete and distorted information reaching the farmers”, according to the National Banana Research Programme.

Campaigns now focus on regions and multi-stakeholder involvement, rather than individual communities. Whatever the strategy, it is the actions of individual farmers, and the reasons for doing them, that will ultimately determine the success of keeping BBW at bay.

The whispered translation January 17th, 2016 by

New technologies do more than ease communication: they give rise to whole new ways of using the spoken language.

Simultaneous translation is difficult because as you interpret language A, your own voice drowns out the original speech, so you can’t hear the next line you are supposed to render into language B.

As David Bellos explains in his book on translation, simultaneous translation was invented for the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II. The accused, the court officials and the witnesses spoke several languages. They needed translation between English, German, Russian, French and other languages, all at the same time.

The translations were done by a host of talented interpreters. Many of them had spent their childhoods in more than one country, and spoke two or more languages equally well.

I have done simultaneous translations and I agree with Bellos that it is the most exhausting thing you can do with your brain. It requires total concentration. A stray thought will throw you off track. You must also be perfectly familiar with the topic, in both languages.

Simultaneous translation was made possible by the new radio technology of the 1940s. The interpreter sits in a booth wearing headphones which pipe in the original speech. The headphones allow the translator to hear, even over the sound of her own voice. She speaks into a microphone which carries her words live to the listeners.

7833 whispered translation 2There is another kind of low-tech, simultaneous translation, which Bellos calls the “whispered translation” or chuchotage. An aide sits behind an invited head of state at a banquet, for example, and softly translates into her ear. I have also done whispered translation, sometimes for a small group. Without the headset it is harder to concentrate and distracting for the people who are trying to listen to the original speech.

The whispered translation is also used now, writes Bellos, to translate American TV programs into Hungarian and some of the other languages of eastern and central Europe, where the speakers know some English, but not necessarily enough to follow the whole show. The Hungarian translation only partially covers the English original, which is still audible. This kind of translation, called “lectoring,” seems simultaneous to the audience, although the translators have the time to work up a script and read it out.

The international NGO Access Agriculture uses a version of lectoring to make farmer learning videos more accessible to rural people. When the farmer is speaking, the original language is still softly heard in the background, and the translation comes over it. Access Agriculture does this to avoid subtitles, since some people in the audience may not be able to read, but also because the original language conveys the speaker’s emotion, self-confidence, and lets the audience know that the farmer-experimenters are speaking from the heart.

7833 whispered translation 1One expert takes the time to do an accurate transcription and translation of the speech, which is then recorded by a professional broadcaster doing a neat voice-over. You can lector the original video into as many languages as you want, one version at a time, softly playing the original voice of the farmers, while allowing the audience to hear the translation in their own language. Access Agriculture collaborates with a network of over 200 communication professionals who do the lectoring. The farmer learning videos are then hosted on the Access Agriculture website, where you can choose the language you want on your computer screen. You can watch and download videos in more than 65 languages at www.accessagriculture.org.

Further reading

Bellos, David 2011 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. New York: Faber and Faber. 373 pp.

See also our related blog stories:

Salt and beans

The truth of local language

Translate to innovate

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