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Veronica, Vice-President May 22nd, 2016 by

Veronica with bamboo croppedI’m never quite sure what to expect from a farmer interview. Many projects take visitors to see the same farmers over and over again, who become a little weary answering questions. There is something to be said for striking out on your own, as we did one Sunday lunchtime, about 30 km north of Nairobi.

I was in Kenya to learn more about how farmers use bamboo. Although typically associated with Asia, there are two native species in East Africa and huge natural stands (at least in Ethiopia). Several recent projects have explored the business potential of bamboo, tempted by an abundant, renewable substitute for wood, and the untapped riches of “green gold”, as bamboo enthusiasts often call the world’s largest grass.

Our quest for a farmer began in Kambaa Market. Mwai, the driver, asked if anyone sold bamboo baskets. The rest of us stayed in the car, keen to avoid distractions, but it is difficult for white people to remain unnoticed in a large white Land Cruiser. Kariuki, a bystander, was soon tapping at our window, asking us what we were looking for. At first he thought we wanted to buy baskets, but then he said: “I’ll show you a man who not only makes the baskets but is also a big seller”. How far was it? “Just around the corner, down the hill.”

Baskets in yard wee girl“Just around the corner” can mean anything, but Kariuki was true to his word. When we arrived at John Kabuga’s farm his wife, Veronica, said that he was away, tending another plot near Nakuru. We suggested coming back later when her husband was at home, but Veronica would have none of this. “If the president is away, it is the vice-president who acts on his behalf. I am the VP in this family and can tell you whatever you want to know.”

Even though Veronica was clearly busy, she stopped what she was doing and started telling us about bamboo. “We are makers and wholesalers of bamboo baskets and supply five tea estates with bamboo baskets for collecting the leaves and well as several other small-scale farmers.” Veronica gave us invaluable information about costs, retail prices and how many baskets they made each month. She opened the house to show me 80 baskets, ready to sell, stacked against a wall.

I asked Veronica where the bamboo came from. “Come, I’ll show you”. Twenty metres above the house, on the borders of their shamba (farm), stood two bamboo clumps. They were well managed with none of the tangled mass of collapsed and rotting culms that we had seen earlier in a government forest. Bamboo culms grow to their full length in a matter of months but take around three years to mature. Veronica tapped a culm to see if it was ready to cut.

Splitting culm with extra toolVeronica cut down a mature culm, which are much heavier than they look. She trimmed the leaves and small branches, and put them at the base of the clump as green manure. She used a hammer with her panga (a large knife) to split the culm lengthways, repeating with each half to create four equal lengths. Her damaged thumb suggested this was dangerous work.

Looking back on this remarkable day, I feel privileged that Veronica invited us into her house. I doubt she had ever been interviewed before, yet she performed with gusto, exuding hospitality and sharing personal information with strangers. I learned more during the short visit than I had during the previous week, all thanks to the vice president.

The Kabuga’s bamboo business had been created with just a bit of land and a lot of hard work. When I first wrote this story I hoped that it might encourage more support for people like John and Veronica. But the project that hired me wasn’t set up to work with small scale users, despite the rhetoric in project documents. A good interview is still worth its weight in (green) gold. The information gathered prepares you better for the next time you try, as E F Schumacher urged, to “find out what people do and help them do it better”.

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The smell of ants May 15th, 2016 by

weaver ants on bamboo 2Last week Jeff wrote a short blog story on Ants in the kitchen. It brought back memories on how nearly 20 years ago I embarked on an exciting project in Vietnam involving ants in biological pest control. Even though various ants really can control pests, it can be challenging to convince farmers that the ants are not all bad.

When in the early 1990s the American-French scientist Marco Barzman interviewed fruit farmers in southern Vietnam about managing insect pests in citrus with the red weaver ants, he came to a remarkable finding.

While many farmers went through great efforts to encourage weaver ants in their orchards, a few said they would like scientists to reproduce the smell of the ants so they could spray the trees and keep the insect pests away. This would be easier than managing ant colonies and, crucially, avoid their bites.

What seemed odd at the time has since been shown to be a sophisticated observation by farmers. Scientific research has revealed that ants leave behind chemical markers that ward off other insects, who smell danger and retreat.

1331 Lamatou harvests mangoesWomen who pick and sell mangoes for a living in Benin, West Africa, prefer picking and buying fruits from orchards that have weaver ants because they know that trees are less likely to have fruit with “white worms” inside. These are the larvae of fruit flies, which can destroy entire crops.

After decades of heavy scientific investments on fruit fly pheromones (odours that attract insects of the same or closely related species), commercial products are now available on the market that attract and kill fruit flies.

Research on how ant odours can be used in repelling fruit flies and other insect pests is still in its infancy. Revealing the exact chemical compounds involved in the complex communication system between different insect species is a daunting task and dependent on uncertain funding.

It may take decades for such products to be developed, tested and sold. But farmers do not have the luxury to wait; they want to protect their crops now.

1172 Martin Kwasi Agyeman rubbing ash against weaver ant attacksFor the time being, the best option is to support extension efforts that help orchard farmers to appreciate weaver ants. We can build on local knowledge, as across Africa and Asia fruit growers and pickers have developed various strategies to avoid being bitten by the ants. Promoting weaver ants as biological pest control also has to convince farmers that the ants are their friends.

The series of training videos that we are developing for CORAF in West Africa on fruit flies, will contain two videos on weaver ants. The videos will help farmers understand the economic importance of these ants, present scientific information on ant ecology, and share local knowledge on reducing ant nuisance.

Scientific names: Weaver ant: Oecophylla smaragdina (Asian species), Oecophylla longinoda (African species).

Further reading

Barzman, M.S., Mills, N.J. and Cuc, N.T.T. 1996. Traditional knowledge and rationale for weaver ant husbandry in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Agriculture and Human Values 13(4), 2-9.

Van Mele, P., Cuc, N.T.T., Seguni, Z., Camara, K. And Offenberg, J. 2009. Multiple sources of local knowledge: A global review of ways to reduce nuisance from the beneficial weaver ant Oecophylla. International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology, 8, 5/6, 484-504. Read article ›

DSCN1564 weaver ants building nestsThe training manual “Ants as Friends: Improving your Tree Crops with Weaver Ants” is downloadable for free in five languages:

English (2003, 2007)
French (2008)
Khmer (2010)
Vietnamese (2005)
Bahasa Indonesia (2004)

Other publications on weaver ants are downloadable from the Agro-Insight Resources.

Related blog stories

Sugar sweet ants

Guardians of the mango

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Ants in the kitchen May 8th, 2016 by

E.O. Wilson (renowned biologist and the world’s expert on ants) says that when he gives a talk to the general public, the question they most often ask him is “What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?”

No topic is too small for discussion when it is close to home, and some people loathe being invaded by ants in the very heart and hearth of home. This is the answer which Professor Wilson gives them, words which he says come straight from his heart:

“Watch your step, be careful of little lives. They especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch closely from the moment the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying down an odor trail. As a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet.

Edward O. Wilson (2014: 94-95)

It’s a charming answer, but probably not quite what people want to hear.  I’ve been reading Wilson’s books on ants for years, and based on that, and personal experience, I have some practical advice for the ant-fearing public.

You can kill quite a lot of ants without doing the colony much harm. Worker ants spend their younger days at tasks inside the colony. At the end of their lives, worker ants become foragers, which is a dangerous job. That is why the ants send their oldsters to forage for food. When you kill ants, you kill the ones whose days are already numbered anyway. And there are many thousands of other ants at home ready to replace the ones you kill.

The best solutions are to separate the ants from their food.

Good housekeeping. Ants patrol constantly, looking for scraps of food. When they find a morsel they recruit others, and that is when you probably first notice them. You can frustrate the ants in your kitchen by sweeping the floor, and by wiping up crumbs and spills. And don’t take food from the kitchen to the rest of the house.

ant moatThe honey moat. Ants can’t cross water. Keep your honey jar sitting in a small dish of water. The ants will not be able to get to the honey. Change the water once in a while, because if honey is dissolved in the water, the ants will go to the edge of the water to drink it.

Glass jars or other airtight plastic containers provide a physical barrier. Keep sugar and other sweet treats in tightly closed jars.

Moving time. Ants follow a trail that leads from the food back to the nest. Once they are off the trail, the ants are hopelessly lost. If you set some food down and the ants get into it, and you want to get them out of your snack, just move the food to a different surface. The ants will leave, and wander around lost. It will take the other ants a while to find the treat again, and before the ants find your snack again, you should be able to eat it. If you are in a hurry you can gently tap the food as you move it around, which will send most of the ants running.

airtight sugarDeep freeze. If ants get into your sugared cereal, and you can’t bear to throw it away, put the whole box into the freezer. The ants will die. The brave at heart will still be able to eat the cereal. You will hardly notice the dead ants, plus they are good for you.

Don’t poison your children. If after all this, you still want the quick fix of instantly wiping out a whole ant column (that line of ants moving from nest to food), don’t reach for that can of insecticide. It is poisonous and it lingers on your kitchen counters. Plain, ordinary medicinal alcohol is absolutely lethal to ants, and safer for humans. Alcohol evaporates without a trace. It’s cheap and you can buy it at the drug store. You can soak a cloth with alcohol or pour it into a spray bottle, and squirt it onto the poor ants.

Even after you have out-smarted the ants in your kitchen, you may still see a few from time to time, tidying up a bread crumb you left behind, or carrying away that dead cockroach that you really don’t want to touch. Wilson says that humans can learn nothing from ants about living in large, modern cities. (After all, we have little in common with ants). Yet Wilson may be overstating his case. We should at least be able to learn to tidy up after ourselves.

Further reading

Hölldobler, Bert, and Edward O. Wilson 1990 The Ants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. 2014 The Meaning of Human Existence. New York: Liveright Publishing. 208 pp.

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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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