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A long and winding road May 1st, 2016 by

There are no magic solutions in extension, just persistent, unglamorous and long term work to share knowledge and encourage innovation. Given the importance of learning new things it is curious how little attention is paid to the teaching skills of extension workers. We spend more time on developing extension material and teaching approaches, less on the teachers themselves.

Farmer with notebooks 2 copyA small group of us recently started to review the effectiveness of farmer training on cocoa certification in the DR Congo. The teachers were field officers working for Esco Kivu, a cocoa exporter. Sarath, Joseph, Patrick and myself compared notes at the end of several farmer meetings. We considered the whole teaching package: materials, approach and the teachers themselves.

Packed into a schoolroom for a meeting, the cocoa farmers were eager to learn. They all understood the importance of following the guidelines set by certifying bodies in order to earn a higher price. Yet even the most attentive group of farmers deserves the field officers best efforts. Meetings need to be well organised, dynamic and not last too long.

Christian started well, speaking clearly and addressing all the audience. He used a blackboard to write key messages in a mixture of French and Swahili. Why not in the local language we asked later? Because French and Swahili offered a larger, easier to use vocabulary. Some of the farmers had notebooks and a few made notes. We estimated that maybe 60% of the audience were able to read but I also noticed some sharing information with their neighbours.

George closes meeting copyChristian glanced at a notepad he held throughout the meeting. His delivery became more hurried as he realised how much he still had to cover. The first set of messages were about child labour, a big issue with certification bodies (reflecting consumer concern). Christian continued with general work conditions. After an hour people’s attention began to wane. A few were asleep. Interaction with the audience decreased, with fewer pauses to elicit reactions and responses.

At the end of Christian’s session, I brought out the portable video projector, complete with USB speaker and power pack. A hasty screen was erected on the brick wall and we used the blackboard to block a window and darken the room. The audience revived for the video on coffee pruning. Fortunately this is a local crop. They oohed and aahed as they watched Kenyan farmers in action, reactions that the field officers used to guide a short discussion at the end.

Patrick showed a short Powerpoint on Verticillium wilt, the most important disease of cocoa in DRC. He spoke slowly, pausing to ask questions, making sure key points were explained fully. The audience clearly appreciated this measured style of teaching and I expect that Christian did too. We all recognize a good teacher even if mimicking what they do is far from easy.

Notetaker writes others turnThe teaching assessment team learned a lot. We thought Christian was a good presenter who tried to cover too much ground. The lack of training material and poor use of the blackboard made it difficult to get key points across, as did the general lack of discussion amongst the audience. The farmer learning video suggested ways of increasing audience interactions, though we need to work with the field officers on how to integrate quality training material into meetings.

The field officers need more visual aids and fact sheets and regular support on how to be an effective teacher. The majority of people in extension teach as they were taught. They have had no formal training in how to teach and without systematic appraisal and regular feedback they are unlikely to improve. We need to do this sympathetically so that the field officers are encouraged to improve rather than discouraged from trying.

Afterwards I recalled a project officer for a major development foundation who explained why they were reluctant to  fund extension: ‘we don’t do slogging’. He said this regretfully. It may have been official policy, but he knew there were no silver bullets in extension. Slogging doesn’t sound glamorous, yet dogged determination has its own rewards and I look forward to seeing steady improvements in teaching in DRC. Without good teachers extension will never fulfil its full potential.

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Congo cocoa April 24th, 2016 by

Pink jerkin ferments cacaoThe Democratic Republic of Congo is high on everyone’s list of failed states, with problems most acute in the east. Yet a closer look reveals pockets of success that suggest a rosier future than that revealed by frequent, grim news from Goma and beyond. I have been visiting cocoa farmers in the northern parts of North Kivu since 2004 and during the latest trip I saw further signs of how this crop is bringing about positive changes.

DRC is and will remain a tiny producer of cocoa on the world stage, but the money earned by farmers in North Kivu is hugely significant. Agriculture is the mainstay of Beni, whose major town of the same name bustles and throbs with life. The loud cheers from a nearby bar told me in advance of reading the latest update from the BBC online match report the latest goal in the Real Madrid football match. Satellite TV has arrived in town, as has Wi-Fi. Mobile phone coverage has improved dramatically in rural areas, where once we relied on a single mast in Beni ville.

There are now several fancy hotels and a modern factory on the outskirts producing beer and soft drinks. It is a radical change in a region whose history of conflict would still deter most businesses. At Nobili, the last major village before reaching Bundibugyo on the Ugandan border, there are now two motorcycle dealers. Inexpensive Chinese motorbikes abound in Beni ville and on the roads to Butembo, Komanda and surrounding villages. In farmer meetings I saw that more had phones and sensed that people looked healthier and wore better clothes compared to earlier visits.

Loaded up on motorbikeOf course these are just impressions based on fleeting glances. Smarter shops in Beni ville, more motorcycles everywhere, satellite TV and wider mobile phone coverage are hardly
robust indicators of widespread social and economic improvements. But there’s no doubting that progress has occurred and no denying the significant contribution of money
earned from growing cocoa.

There are few other sources of major income that people can rely on in Beni. Papain, the dried latex from papaya, is traded internationally, as is vanilla and coffee, slowly recovering from coffee wilt disease but displaced by cocoa in importance. In Lubero territoire to the south, where cocoa planting is still low, farmers earn a useful income from quinine bark. But none of these other commodities comes close to cocoa in value or potential to lift households out of poverty and give greater certainty to a more secure future.

And this is only the beginning. More and more farmers are catching on to the idea of growing cocoa and others are expanding cocoa plantings. Yields are still improving. Soils are fertile, the climate well suited to cocoa and the threat of pests and diseases is still relatively low.

Towards Basimba factoryBut anyone familiar with agriculture will know that the one predictable thing about the future is that it is unpredictable. North Kivu is still a fragile province, with social tensions that will take a long time to ease. Looking back over the last 12 years I am surprised and delighted by the positive changes I have seen. The popularity of chocolate – still a legal indulgence – is on the rise, and farmers in Beni are responding.

There will be glitches and setbacks ahead, but it is a real pleasure to see how agriculture is transforming a region rich in potential but supposedly weak in exploiting it. Growing cocoa can and is making a real difference to many people in North Kivu.

Read related blogs

Out of the shade (on cocoa and neighbour trees)

Eating bark (on quinine bark)

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Late night learning April 17th, 2016 by

It takes some effort to go to a remote village in the evening and show a farmer learning video, but it can be worthwhile, as I saw recently in Uganda. Robert Ogwang, an extension supervisor with GADC (Gulu Agricultural Development Company) took me to the village of Tumbafu, in Northern Uganda. We were joined by Obalim Morris Cankura, a local farmer who doubles as extensionist and as a commodity buyer for the company.

Morris and Robert set up speakersRobert and Morris quickly unload the sound console, a wooden folding table, laptop, big box speakers and a heavy steel frame that holds the screen (a bedsheet). Robert plays some West African, French pop music and attracts a crowd, including some toddlers who start to dance. Three Acholi music videos are next on the play list. Robert believes in local content. The videos are entertaining and playful but with serious messages. The first one is about taking your time when you decide who you want to marry; chose the right person to spend the rest of your life with. The second one is on the importance of staying in school to get a good education and the third one is a traditional Acholi dance, performed in modern dress, in what looks like a large, new hotel. The moral is: be Acholi, keep your identity, and adapt gracefully to the opportunities that this changing world offers.

The music ends and several people introduce the learning videos: first Morris, then a local leader, then me (briefly) and Robert. The people of Tumbafu have never grown chilli. Robert knows this so he starts by telling them that GADC will give them seed, and buy the crop from them. He explains how chilli is graded A, B and C, with different prices. Then he shows them four videos on chilli:

Then Robert shows his own video, featuring Rachel, the local farmer who has a solar dryer.

people watch the videoAfterwards, Robert invites questions. People come up to the microphone and speak one at a time. As they ask their question, in Luo, Robert types them in English on the screen. (He’s not typing in English to impress me, but as someone who’s formal education has been in English, it is easier for him to write in English than in his native language).

Robert then answers all of the questions in one go, in some detail, and then takes no further questions. He says that this keeps people from asking too many questions about one point, which can often be tangential. In 20 minutes Robert answers 14 questions. It is an admirably efficient system, and one that leaves a permanent record, at least of the questions. He doesn’t jot down his answers. The farmers are not just motivated; they also learn from the videos and from Robert’s responses. The local field agents, who live in the villages, also attend the viewings and can answer farmers’ questions over the next few days.

It was well after 9 pm by the time Robert completed the session on chillies. I was falling asleep, and it was way past the villagers’ bedtime, but they were excited by the videos, and wide awake. When Robert asked them if they wanted to watch more videos, they roared in appreciation and we watched all three of the sesame videos, plus Robert’s own video on how to make a sesame dryer.

No one left. There was more discussion after the sesame videos and we got back to town at midnight. The villagers had stayed up very late to watch the videos. They would have watched all 34 videos that were translated into Luo by Access Agriculture with support of Mercy Corps, but we were too tired.

Rural people will stay up way past their bedtime to learn new information, as long as it is relevant and in the local language. They know that video shows do not happen every day, so when an opportunity to learn arrives they embrace it. Robert often stays out late to show videos, starting at dusk and leaving late at night, with the audience still ready to see more.

Further viewing

The four chilli videos that Robert played can be viewed here (in English):

Making a chilli seedbed, Managing nematodes, Chilli solar drying, and Drying and storing chillies.

And here are the sesame videos:

Maintaining varietal purity of sesame, Row planting of sesame and Harvesting and storing sesame.

If you are interested in watching videos in the Luo language, you can see them all here.

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Forgotten food rites April 10th, 2016 by

Three decades ago in Europe, slaughtering and processing meat was still occasionally done on farm and in people’s homes, but recent food regulations have put an end to these practices and nowadays most Europeans have little idea of how animals are slaughtered.

Perhaps because Europeans have lost touch with the origins of the meat they eat, the way animals are slaughtered has become a highly sensitive debate. Reading the book “Food – A Culinary History” it dawns on me that the rhetoric used by right wing politicians to forbid ritual slaughter by Muslims in temporary slaughter houses (during EidalAdha, the annual Feast of Sacrifice) and without animals being stunned before slaughtering, is both hypocritical and based on false reasoning.

The politician argue that European values (rooted in Greek and Roman civilisation) are endangered by immigrants, and more recently by the desperate masses of refugees, many of whom adhere to Islam.

Forgotton food ritesHowever, meat eating in Greek and Roman society was not a daily business. In fact, meat was only eaten when it was obtained from a ritual slaughter. Even the meat that Romans bought in butcher shops was from public sacrifices. So rather than ritual slaughtering being an intrusion of foreign values undermining our values (as some claim), it is actually at the origin of Western civilisation. To make the (partial) ban of ritual slaughtering publicly more acceptable, right wing politicians cleverly hide behind animal welfare rhetoric.

A total ban on ritual slaughtering would be contradictory in a multi-cultural society. It would affect Muslims who slaughter animals according to dhabīងah, per Islamic law, and Jews who for centuries have slaughtered certain animals and birds for food according to shechita, in line with Jewish dietary laws.

Both halal and kosher food embody values of respect to the animal’s welfare that go beyond the Western notions of food safety imposed on industrial slaughter houses. The rituals give a cultural value to the meat and create consumer awareness. Even today, devout Christians pray over their food at meal time. The Islamic prayers in the slaughter house evoke a similar respect and gratitude for the animal that provides food for humans.

In a Western society that has by and large lost its sense of rituals (of which sacrifices are part and parcel), public debates might benefit from more inputs of historians and social scientists, to help us to see things in perspective.

While the ancient Greek society was “culturally elastic”, to quote Edith Hall, intolerance seems to be on the rise in modern day Europe. Remembering Europe’s forgotten food rites might be a small step in the right direction to help the lawmakers and civil society become more sympathetic to people’s other rituals.

Literature cited

Dupont, Florence (1999) The Grammar of Roman Dining. In: Food. A Culinary History. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari (eds), pp. 113-127. Colombia University Press.

Hall, Edith (2016) Classics for the people – why we should all learn from the ancient Greeks.

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There may be trouble ahead April 3rd, 2016 by

The olive tree is a hardy plant. Some trees are hundreds of years old and revered for their longevity, part of the cultural and historical landscape of Mediterranean countries. But the olive tree is also a hugely valuable crop in many of the poorer regions of Europe, such as Puglia in southern Italy. Major pest and disease outbreaks are therefore big news, as the unfolding story of olive quick decline syndrome (OQDS) illustrates.

OQDS good symptoms via Radio AnconiaPlant pathologists first reported OQDS from the Salento peninsula, the southern-most part of Puglia, in 2013. The foliage becomes scorched, branches dry up and eventually the whole tree dies in a matter of months, alarming farmers and local authorities and highlighting the urgency to confirm the cause. Up to 30,000 ha are now reported to be affected by OQDS. There is huge concern that the disease will spread further, possibly on to other valuable crops.

OQDS is a new problem, closely linked to a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa. Although Xylella has been intercepted on imported plants, the Italian discovery was the first confirmation it had become established in Europe. Xylella causes major diseases of grapevine, citrus and peach in the Americas, but not on olive, which often grows alongside these susceptible hosts.

Xylella is a diverse organism, found in many plant species that fail to show symptoms. The major diseases in the Americas are caused by strains different to the one associated with OQDS. Olive trees were dying in Puglia since at least 2010, though sporadically by all accounts. At first there was doubt that Xylella was the cause of OQDS, and it is only in the last week that its pathogenicity on olive has been confirmed.

Old olive treeIt takes a lot to kill trees and it is more than likely that Xylella has been associated with olive trees in Puglia for some years before losses due to OQDS became of public concern. Pathogens can lurk in plants for many years, causing few noticeable symptoms or losses. So what happened around 2013? Olive trees need care and attention, and prolonged droughts in southern Italy may have weakened them. Xylella is transmitted by insects and increases in populations could have hastened the spread.

It is difficult to say what happened in 2013, or to know exactly when Xylella was introduced to Italy. Uncertainty surrounds all major diseases outbreaks and it takes a long time to fill gaps in knowledge. Farmers and local, national and international authorities cannot afford to wait for answers, and this is where things start to get messy. In 2015 the European Union gave official notice that “eradication measures” should be applied with a “buffer zone 
 10 km wide”. Angered by the decision from Brussels to create a cordon sanitaire across the neck of the Salento peninsula (40 km wide), farmers and environmentalists took radical action.

UU S in redFirst, the protagonists claimed that Xylella was not the cause of OQDS, which they said was due primarily to fungi isolated from decaying wood. A panel of experts appointed by the European Food and Safety Agency (EFSA) roundly rejected these claims, even before the recent pathogenicity trials confirmed Xylella as the cause of the disease. The farmers took their case to local courts in Lecce, claiming negligence in handling of Xylella fastidiosa strains brought from the US for diagnostics training in 2010. Although the strains were different to those found on olive, local prosecutors indicted nine scientists, who were accused of “fraudulent misrepresentation and destruction 
 of natural beauty” and “spreading of a plant disease”.

Legal disputes about causes of medical conditions are not uncommon – vaccines linked to autism, for example – and gaps in knowledge create false hope in unproven remedies. I have never heard of plant scientists being prosecuted for honest endeavour. It points to a lack of trust and poor relationships between officials and farmers in Italy, and a more general failure to understand how science works. When scientists say ‘on the basis of the available evidence’ they are being honest about what they do and don’t know. Yet waiting for new knowledge is not an option for plant health authorities in Italy and Europe, who have to make difficult decisions that farmers in Puglia find acceptable while addressing the concerns of olive farmers elsewhere.

Mutual respect is in short supply in Puglia, weakened by the legal action, but also perhaps because the authorities showed a lack of empathy in imposing radical control measures. OQDS is a serious threat that needs serious, urgent action. Hopefully the science can move fast enough to restore public trust and come up with solutions that protect a valuable and much loved tree.

For regular updates on OQDS (CoDiRo in Italian) see:



See a previous blog story on the loss of the American chestnut. Of chestnuts and cherries.

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