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Give rice a chance November 23rd, 2014 by

After an interview with farmers it’s important to get off one’s butt and go see what they’ve been talking about. There is always something to see, even if the crop has been harvested.

I was in Tampetou, Northern Benin last year with Florent Okry. When we got there, the chief (chef du village) was away at a cotton buying session, a mile or two away. His family rang him on his cell phone and he rode his bike home to meet with us.

Other people soon arrived and quietly took seats under the shade tree in the chief’s compound.

We were there to ask them about some videos they had seen five years earlier, about healthy rice seed and processing rice. We wanted to know if just watching some videos would lead people to experiment with any of the new ideas.

The people said that before the video, they didn’t give much importance to rice. They only grew a bit in the bas-fond, i.e. a humid low spot in the rolling West African plains.

After watching the video, many more people started growing rice. They said that there were 20 people growing rice before, now there are 45. That was quite a lot of people, more than in most villages. But every place is different. In Tampetou it was possible to grow so much more rice because they have plenty of low, humid land, and most of it was going unplanted.

The chef du village was willing to take us to see a rice field, but his back was hurting him, so he said he would ride his bicycle. He went to get his old, yellow bicycle. It was the same bike he rode up on when we first saw him, a girl’s bike. But as he took hold of it, he realized that the chain was now broken. (It was pretty rusty, and perhaps one of the various visitors had accidentally stepped on it).

The chief paused and said that if he pushed his bike, it would support his back so that it would not hurt. So off we went, the chief pushing his bike with us following, down the hard beaten path in the red dirt. After a bit the path sloped downhill ever so slightly and the chief got on his bike and slowly coasted. When the land started to rise again the bike came to a standstill. Florent trotted up to the bike and pushed it up the rise, for quite a way, joking all the time, encouraging the chief and convincing him that there was nothing he wanted to do more than push a bike uphill in the full glare of the blistering, mid-day sun.

In the lowlands we saw that there was indeed a lot of land here. The chief had tried a bit of rice in the corner of his millet field and further down in the lowlands he had planted some rice in between the rows of yam mounds, which is a traditional practice. But most of the lowland was in thick grass, and a youth was herding a large herd of long-horned cattle in it. We could see that this village had lots of land, perfect for rice, and some folks were trying their hand at it.

Further reading:

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Florent Okry & Espérance Zossou 2014 Videos that speak for themselves: When non-extensionists show agricultural videos to large audiences. Development in Practice 24(7):921-929. Download the full paper.

Free videos:

You can watch the videos that the villagers saw on rice seed ; on rice quality ; and on parboiling


The banana woods of Oxford November 16th, 2014 by

Even our heroes make mistakes, my favorite historian, included. The prolific Felipe Fernández-Armesto of Oxford writes an enchanting prose. He is a cosmopolitan reader who has mastered the great indoors, travelling the centuries in his armchair.

In his history of food, Fernández-Armesto says that the Cook Islanders make fire by “rubbing banana wood sticks together” (page 14). When I read that line, I realized that Fernández-Armesto had never actually seen a banana plant, because bananas don’t grow on trees. The plant is a tall, ridged herb. Its stalk, or pseudo-stem, as agronomists insist on calling it, is a spongy, layered tissue, filled with honeycomb-like cells loaded with a thin, watery sap. If left to dry in the hot sun, a banana stalk shrivels away to a papery nothing.

Unlike a tree, each banana stalk yields fruit only once; then it must be cut down. When you hack into the stalk with a machete, the sap flows out of it. The plant is so wet that you would have better luck starting a fire by vigorously rubbing together two sticks of celery.

Fernández-Armesto got his banana wood misinformation from a paper by food-and-wine writer Hugo Dunn-Meynell, who spent a week on Rarotonga, once ate some food cooked in an earth oven, and (obviously not having been there when the oven was lit) invented the tale of the cook who saved a match by rubbing together bits of dry banana wood. It’s just a story.

I lived for two years in Samoa, also in the Pacific, and was on hand when many an earth oven was made. Believe me, in the twentieth century, the fire always started with a match.

This leads to a more practical matter. Some plant pathologists, agronomists and other people who should know better often blithely recommend that smallholders should manage banana diseases by burning the diseased plants.

They might as well recommend burning a sopping wet dish towel. The only way to burn a banana plant is by putting it in a roaring fire of dry firewood, which is in increasingly short supply on many farms, and is always a lot of work to collect.

Food writers, historians and even plant pathologists are people too, and they can make cultural leaps of logic; a banana is a fruit, so it grows on trees, and trees are made of wood, so they can burn. To write meaningfully for farmers, you have to go out and spend some time in the sun.

References cited

Dunn-Meynell, Hugo 1997 “Three Lunches: Some Culinary Reminiscences of the Aptly Named Cook Islands”, pp. 111-113. In Harlan Walker (ed.) Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1996. Prospect Books: Totnes, Devon, UK.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe 2002 Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. Free Press: New York.

A hard write November 9th, 2014 by

Novice video makers are often surprised when we tell them that they should spend many days preparing their script before they ever get out their camera. Among other things, the video makers must organize their ideas and ask farmers to critique them. But one group of apprentice video makers was in for more than one surprise when they met farmers in central Benin to discuss a video on soya planting.

DEDRAS is one of the NGOs that Access Agriculture trained to make farmer training videos. As a first step, DEDRAS learned to write fact sheets for farmers. With my experienced colleague Jeff Bentley we have run many workshops in Africa and Asia, writing fact sheets as a stepping stone towards developing video scripts. DEDRAS and their colleagues based the first draft of their fact sheet on their technical manual and their own experiences in northern Benin where soya is planted on flat fields. But when they shared their fact sheet with farmers in central Benin, the farmers explained that their land was not only hillier but so rocky that they could not use a tractor and a plough. The video makers quickly learned that their video would need to address many kinds of farmers’ realities.

Later in the workshop, the team edited their fact sheet, and transformed it into a video script (one which now included alternatives to tractor ploughing). They then shared the script with another group of farmers. The first draft of the video script said that farmers had to use quality soya seed with a germination rate of 95% and that farmers should sow just two seeds per hill.

But the ten farmers in Togon village in Dassa, central Benin, had all grown soya for at least five years. Now the novice video makers were surprised to learn that farmers do not buy soya seed every year. Like other legumes, soya seed is oily, and spoils easily, but the farmers had ways to keep their seed viable during storage.

Farmers like to save their own seed, to save money, and to keep the varieties they like, so folks are quite happy if 80% of the seeds germinate. The farmers also said that turtledoves and rodents often eat some of the seed, so it is best to sow four seeds per hole. During the first weeding, the farmers thin the seedlings to leave just 2 plants per hill. Birds and rodents are among the pests most ignored by formal research; by talking to farmers the team learned to include ideas on these fine-feathered pests.

After these eye openers, the trainee video producers continued learning from other farmers to fine-tune their ideas. They gathered more insights on local innovations from the villages of Korobororou, Parisséro and Sakarou.

After a few weeks, birds leave the soya field alone, but wild rabbits can still cause damage. To control them, farmers organise night hunting and set traps in the fields, as the team learned from Apollinaire Ogoubi:

“I place traps. For this I look for the branches of thorn bushes, which I set all around the field to block the rabbits’ way. However, I leave small openings. At these small openings I set the traps. As the rabbits go through the small openings they get caught in the traps.”    

It took the DEDRAS video team 5 months and 8 versions of the video script, and another 2 months to film and edit the program (on top of 6 versions of the initial fact sheet). That may seem like a lot of writing and editing, but it is normal when making a high quality video. The team learned that developing effective training videos for farmers is much more than turning a technical manual into an audio-visual format, and that there is a lot of writing to do before getting out the cameras. As the novelist James Michener once said, “an easy read is often a damned hard write.”

Developing high quality videos with and for farmers requires time and devotion, and an openness to learn from farmers.

The Soya sowing density video made by DEDRAS is available in English and French. If you would like this video translated into another language, please contact

Acknowledgment: The soya video was made by Issiakou Moussa and Raoul Balogoun from the NGO DEDRAS, with help from the extensionists BĂ©renger Dohounkpan and Abou Sanni Ogbon from the Benin national research institute (CRAN-Ina).

The bird cliffs November 2nd, 2014 by

The red-fronted macaw is found nowhere but in the sandstone canyons of central Bolivia. There may be less than 1000 individuals alive.

The bird fills a niche, literally, nesting in small holes high in the cliff side. While this may have been an evolutionary breakthrough, freeing the bird from the predations of pumas and foxes, the stone alcoves eventually became death traps as we will see below.

Fortunately for this endangered species, a group of conservationists bought its largest nesting site, in San Carlos, Omereque, and built a visitors’ lodge near the food of the cliff, and taught local people to run the guest house, to keep the money and split it once a year between the three nearest communities.

It was a shrewd move because the macaw’s worst natural enemy is the human being. Once a year, just before the young birds are old enough to leave the nest, young men lower themselves over the top of the cliff-face on ropes and capture fledgling chicks to sell for $20 or more to people who cage them and teach them to imitate human speech, especially the sillier versions of it, such as football slogans and strings of cuss words.

Kidnapping macaw chicks is an easy traffic to stop, if a community wants to, because the nesting cliffs are in full view of the village, and the hunting season is just once a year: easy to anticipate and police. At least two other bird species, the Bolivian blackbird and the cliff parakeet also live in the cliffs, and while not quite as appealing as a brilliant, emerald and vermillion macaw, the other birds are also protected.

Not every endangered species can be protected by buying 50 hectares of land and putting up a comfortable lodge. Some animals range over vast forests and can be hunted in secret. But for some species, this is a model. The nifty part is that the donors who buy the land don’t need to make a profit. They are investing money to keep a species alive. The project generates small amounts of money that can be given to nearby communities, to spend on schools and potable water, and encourage people to protect the wildlife.

Since 2006, people from the Bolivian NGO Armonía have spent a lot of time teaching the local people about the value of the macaw. Farmers noticed the birds scrounging for peanuts in the soil or eating the occasional ear of corn, and assumed that the macaws were pests. Guido Saldaña of Armonía explained to the people that this damage was minimal, more unsightly than economically important.

Still, relatively few visitors come, because Omereque is so remote, a six to eight hour drive from the nearest airport (about equidistant from either Santa Cruz or Cochabamba).

A Bolivian newspaper article reports that the three neighboring villages received about $7000 last year. And the villagers earned money from agricultural projects with ArmonĂ­a, such as growing papaya.

Local people say that the youth who once robbed the nests still do so, they just go further into the canyons, in places where the birds are unprotected. I don’t say this as a criticism of the youth, the communities or any of the organizations that are involved. Villagers often protect a common resource and set up rules about how to use it, to conserve it. In Omereque, with the help of sympathetic outsiders, the villagers have turned the cliff-face into a formal, organized common, with rules that prohibit the extraction of birds. The village youth are still happy to risk their necks dangling over other cliffs to filch baby birds, but now the boys go outside the regulated common. The youth are free-riders, not apparently convinced of the conservation ethic, but benefitting from the increased supply of breeding pairs of macaws, thanks to the protected site. No solution is perfect.

At least we know that their nesting sites can be protected, one haven at a time.

Scientific names:

Red-fronted macaw, Ara rubrogenys (Spanish: paraba frente roja)

Cliff parakeet, Myiopsitta luchsi, (Spanish: cotorra boliviana)

Bolivian blackbird, Oreopsar bolivianus (Spanish: tordo boliviano)

The truth of local language October 26th, 2014 by

The many languages of Africa create niches for broadcasters like Gustave Dakouo, director of Radio Moutian, in Tominian, Mali. Moutian means “truth” in the Bomu language, spoken around Tominian.

Gustave (pictured, right) runs his small commercial station with just three people, from a small building with a simple studio on the edge of the small town. And while Truth Radio may enjoy a monopoly among Bomu-speakers (between 100,000 and 200,000 people), one of the problems is finding enough content in the language to play one the air. The station broadcasts from 8 to 11 AM and again from 6 to 11 PM, except on weekends when they start early, at 4PM. That’s eight or 10 hours of airtime a day, that needs to be filled with something.

Then in 2012, Gustave received copies of the Fighting Striga videos, which were published simultaneously in Bomu and seven other languages. The videos gave background information and practical, affordable ideas for beating the striga weed. Gustave would play the soundtrack of one of the videos at the appropriate time of year (e.g. videos about planting just before the planting season), so people found the advice timely. His listening public reacted warmly. The area is heavily rural, where people grow sorghum and millet for a living, and striga, the devil weed, was strangling out their crops.

Farmers began calling into the station, asking questions about the programs. Gustave was a journalist, not an agricultural expert, so he asked for help from Pierre Théra (pictured, left), an experienced farmer in Tominian. Pierre was also the head of UACT, a respected union of local farmer organizations. Pierre had worked on striga for a long time, in collaboration with agronomists, and he knew the videos well. So Gustave organized radio shows, where he would play the striga soundtracks and Pierre would come to the studio and answer the farmers’ questions as they called in.

Making a call on a cell phone costs money, and if farmers are willing to ring up and ask questions, it means they are paying for information with their own money. Farmers also came to the station and asked Gustave for copies of the DVD, so they could watch the videos in their home villages. Fortunately, he had some copies to give them.

While there is a niche for journalists who can serve languages with few speakers, the tricky part is generating hours and hours of content with a staff of two or three people. It’s a hard job, but Gustave seems happy. He estimates that he has reached 50,000 people, and broadcasting the soundtracks has given his station much more popularity. His listeners needed the information that he had.

To watch (and listen to) the striga videos in English, click here.

The videos are also on in Arabic, Bambara, Bariba, Bomu, Buli, Chichewa, Dagaari, Dagbani, Dendi, Frafra, French, Gonja, Hausa, Kiswahili, Kusaal, Mooré, Nago, Peulh-Fulfuldé, Portuguese, Sisaala, Wolof, and Zarma.

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