Most recent stories ›
AgroInsight RSS feed

The future of agriculture is in the past October 23rd, 2016 by

With increasing urbanisation, fewer people have the chance to learn about agriculture. Our blogs tell stories that illustrate how it works, particularly through the experiences of farmers around the world.  But there are other ways in which the busy city-dweller can learn about crops and livestock.

precolombian-village-2I’m particularly interested in how young people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to society. I’ve just been to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Museum of Precolombian Gold) in San José, Costa Rica, a delightful place that many schoolchildren are taken to. It was an unexpected pleasure to see so much about agriculture and how early societies and communities began to move from harvesting nature’s bounty to growing their own crops.

The displays were in Spanish and English, clearly presented, not too long yet still informative. I read that from 2000 – 500 B.C. “agriculture encouraged the establishment of permanent villages and the development of … ceramics”. The horse did indeed come before the cart. Early crops included beans, yam and maize, still prominent in today’s diet. Coyol palm, whose sap is turned into an alcoholic drink, and pejibaye, a palm with edible, starchy fruits, were also shown and available in the streets outside the museum.

golden-frogThe museum displayed many exquisite gold objects, created to signify wealth, status and accompany their owners after death. There were fine ceramics on show, some used for ceremonial purposes, and a series of grinding stones (metates in Spanish) for making meal and flour out of grain. A photo-montage, as one exited the museum, showed indigenous people using techniques known from prehistoric time, including a Bribri woman grinding maize with a large stone. Such technologies are still in use today

Few museums in big cities pay much attention to agriculture, which is a great pity. Sophisticated systems for irrigation and storing crops were created a long time ago with skill and ingenuity, and deserve as much attention as visually appealing collections of artefacts, coins and costumes. At the Museo del Oro Precolombino you get to see both high art and quotidian endeavour. Without agriculture sustaining people and creating new wealth, there would be no fancy gold objects in the museum .

As Henry Hobhouse wrote in Seeds of Change, crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, tea, potato and cinchona have played a crucial part in shaping world history. The wealth of Great Britain is derived as much from trading in crops, as extracting minerals, for example. Yet you will be hard pressed to find much mention of agriculture in some of the great museums of major cities.

plough-model-detailAn irrigation channel is unlikely to excite a schoolchild, but I’m sure they would be fascinated by an amazing collection of miniature agricultural machinery I recently saw in the University of Padova in Italy. Lovingly worked in wood and metal, I marvelled at the fine detail of hand carts, grape presses and other examples of equipment used by farmers in Italy. There were five cases containing around 150 models, sadly languishing in a corridor and out of sight to the general public. We could all do more to showcase the industry, creativeness and intrigue of agriculture, not just in museums but in other public displays that everyone has the opportunity to see.

I found such an example in a small village in Cyprus, where the guide explained that he and a few others had wanted to celebrate the land and the dependency of local communities on agriculture. There were pitchforks, saws, axes, shovels and animal traps, as well as moulds for making bread. A timely and telling reminder that the things we depend on most for our survival and development come from agriculture, and that we should celebrate this more.

Museums dedicated to the past are a great way to showcase the evolution of agriculture and the shaping of societies. However, agriculture cannot really be fully understood without knowing more about the farmers of today. For example, the Access Agriculture video library offers everyone, including farmers or students, the opportunity to learn about agriculture and the people practicing this noble profession.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Clear numbers October 16th, 2016 by

Writing for smallholder farmers also means making the numbers clear and easy to understand, as I saw recently in Chiponde, Malawi, on the border with Mozambique. Ronald Udedi and I met Stanley Juma, a vegetable farmer, who had come to town on market day to buy maize grain from other farmers, in loads of 10 or 20 kilos, to resell to wholesalers. It is not that unusual for a farmer to double as a grain buyer. Smallholders’ economic portfolios are small, but complex.

eliasa-amado-and-stanley-jumaAs we talked, Mr. Juma told us that worms were spreading from his cabbages to his tomatoes. The problem was nagging him so much that when he realized that we knew something about bugs he left a friend to watch his grain, and took us to see his garden.

The tomatoes were growing in a dimba, a low-lying oasis of green vegetables, in the height of the dry season. In the garden, we were joined by a neighbor, Eliasa Amado, whose vegetables were suffering from the same worms.

I soon saw why the cabbage worms had suddenly developed a taste for tomato. The cabbage worms and the tomato worms were two different species. The tomato worm was recently introduced, but it was about the same size as the cabbage worm: small enough to slip under one’s fingernail. The two species of caterpillar were easy to confuse.

tuta-damage-in-tomato-fruitThe farmers accepted the idea of the two species, but went on to ask why insecticide was not killing either pest. I explained that insects become resistant to insecticides, and that Mr. Juma and Mr. Amado might have better results if they rotated insecticides from time to time: instead of using only one product, try a different one.

They had already tried at least three different insecticides and none were working.

Then they gave me a label and asked me to explain the dosage to them. It said 5 ml (one packet) in 20 liters of water. That much was clear. The farmers had figured that out on their own. Then I said, that the 20 liters should be applied onto 15 square meters. “That’s 3 meters wide and 5 meters long,” I said offhandedly, and suddenly something clicked.

The two vegetable growers confided that they had been applying 20 liters of water over an area of at least 1000 square meters. They were applying far too little of the product to do much good. That’s why nothing worked.

The problem is not the farmers, but the labels, which are confusing, obscure, written in fine print and hard to read. People with a primary school education and lots of valuable farming experience could understand the labels, and apply a proper dose, if the message was written for the audience. The arithmetic has to be easy to understand.

Scientific names

The cabbage worms are the diamond back moth, Plutella xylostella

The tomato worms are the leafminer, Tuta absoluta

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Turtle hunters October 9th, 2016 by

Hunting (along with gathering wild plants) is humanity’s oldest profession. In ancient times, peoples thrived or vanished depending on their hunting skills. Experiences passed on from elders and life-long observations meant that hunters fully understood the behaviour of the animals they hunted. Ecological knowledge mattered more than anything else for survival.

As people began to domesticate crops, some animals adjusted their behaviour and began feeding in farmers’ fields. The first farms were surrounded by large areas of wild lands, and birds and mammals may have been some of the first pests.

turtle-hunters-1While visiting a primary school in Malawi during a fact sheet and video script writing workshop, I was surprised to see a poster with drawings of what it said were the common pests of cassava. Clearly, skills to manage larger pests are still highly needed in rural areas.

Nowadays, few people live from hunting, but it remains an important pass-time in many areas, and hunters are still occasionally called upon by farmers.

Whenever soya farmers in northern Benin have problems with wild rabbits, they supply local hunters with free bullets and entice them to organise night hunting sessions.

In a previous blog Bullets and birds I talked about Vera and Johan, organic farmers in Belgium, who negotiated with local hunters to keep pigeons from feeding on the young cabbage seedlings.

turtle-hunters-2Dominiek Gielen, my brother-in-law, told me how his father Tien used to spend hours in farmers’ fields after working his day shift in the coal mine. As patches of forests had been cleared and turned into farming land, moles had become a real pest to such an extent that Tien quickly knew all about moles and how to catch them, always at the same time of the day.

Last year, as we were making a training video on climbing beans in Uganda, I learned that moles were also a key pest for farmers there. And likewise, farmers call upon young, knowledgeable “mole hunters”. They put a bait in the tunnel, bend a stick and attach a rope in such a way that when the mole comes to the bait, it is snatched up and pulled out of its tunnel. Farmers pay 5000 Ugandan Shilling (1.3 Euro) for each mole they catch.

turtle-hunters-3The last few days, I have had the luck to be able to interact with farmers in Tamil Nadu, southern India, while training partners from Access Agriculture to produce farmer training videos. Many farmers here have so-called integrated farms, growing crops, trees, and rearing animals and fish on their farm. Fingerlings, or young fish, are the most expensive input of fish pond farming. Maran, one of the young members of the Koveri Inland Fish Farmers, told me how via the village canal that feeds water into his pond, 20 large turtles had entered the pond and were devouring his young fish. Turtles are such a common pest that Maran could call upon turtle hunters. By making noise and using spears the large turtles ended up as a feast for the hunters and their neighbours. On top, for each turtle caught Maran paid them 50 Rupees (about 0.66 Euro).

As the various examples above have shown, hunters have a unique set of skills and continue to provide specialised services to farming communities. Farmer training videos offer a unique opportunity to document and pay tribute to these professionals.

To watch training videos that include examples of farmers working with hunters, visit:

Soya sowing density

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond (available on www.accessagriculture.org  soon)

Related blog stories

Waiting for rats

Bullets and birds

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

A hot plan October 2nd, 2016 by

In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly contrasts “planning” (which fails) and “searching” (which succeeds). He leads his readers to believe that development projects fail because they are planned.  But that is like saying that the cooks spoil the soup because they light the stove. Trial and error are certainly part of agricultural change, but planning is so important that even the smallest projects start with a plan, as Ronald Udedi and I learned last week when we visited Thako Chiduli, who teaches at St. Michael’s primary school in Mpyupyu, southern Malawi. Mr. Chiduli is also a smallholder farmer.

In a previous blog I told how another Malawian farmer, Mr. Mpinda, started growing chilli after he watched videos on this spicy fruit.

Like Mr. Mpinda, Mr. Chiduli also watched the chilli videos, several times. When I asked Mr. Chiduli what he had learned from the videos, he spoke easily for several minutes, describing the chilli videos in detail. For example, he had learned that seedbeds should only be one meter wide, so one would not step on them while working. He remembered that farmers can burn dry vegetation to control nematodes, the microscopic worms.

So when I asked Mr. Chiduli what new practices he had used in his chilli, I was a bit surprised when he said: “I don’t grow chilli.”

“Then why have you made such a study of the chilli videos?” I asked

“Because I am planning on growing it.”

When somebody tells me about a plan for the future, I am always slightly skeptical, so I like to ask a few specific questions, to see if the plan is well-thought out or not. So I asked Mr. Chiduli how much chilli he was going to plant.

“A hectare,” he said.

“A hectare?” I repeated in disbelief. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, or 2.5 acres. It is not impossible to farm that much chilli by hand, but it would be a challenge, and too much for a first timer.

I asked if we could visit his farm.

thoko-chidulis-houseWe were soon strolling through a typical Malawian village and into a small compound, where we met Mr. Chiduli’s uncle and his widowed mother, who was grinding meal with a mortar and pestle, to cook lunch on an open fire.

Below the home, Mr. Chiduli showed us a dry stream, which would be full of water when the rains came. He explained how he would plant his chilli just above the stream, so he could water his garden.

thoko-chiduli-in-fieldThe chilli would be planted on a small wedge of land between a path and a banana patch. I paced it off and made a quick calculation. The land was about 800 square meters, a good size for a chilli garden, but much less than a hectare. I’ve seen other people in Malawi make similar mistakes; estimating field sizes is a specific skill. After Mr. Chiduli and I resolved this simple error we agreed that his chilli plan was realistic.

Mr. Chiduli went on describing his plans in detail, how he would plant the variety “Dorado” and make a seedbed at the bottom of the garden, near the water, and carefully mix the soil with manure to enrich it. A month later he will transplant the chilli into rows, in the garden. It was a believable plan.

I have observed before that many farmer experiments are unplanned, such as fertilizing half of the field and then running out of manure, creating a spontaneous split plot trial. But farmer learning videos can also inspire rural people to dream of improving their incomes, and planning a complex innovation, such as starting a new crop

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Beating a nasty weed September 25th, 2016 by

All over Africa, small shops are offering affordable movies and music videos on DVDs and memory cards. In Malawi the shopkeepers who sell videos are called DJs.

In 2014, in Malawi, the international NGO Access Agriculture asked me and Malawian media expert, Ronald Kondwani Udedi, to meet some of these DJs and to explore their interest in distributing farmer training videos.

Later, Ronald travelled around southern Malawi, giving DVDs of farmer learning videos to some 70 DJs. Ronald gave away the DVDs for free, but told the DJs they could sell the videos to farmers; we hoped that the profit motive would encourage the DJs to copy the DVDs, and to install the videos onto farmers’ phones.

Ronald compiled 3 DVDs: one on chilli, one on rice and one on Striga, a parasitic weed. The videos were in English and in local languages: Chichewa, Senna, Yao and Tumbuka.

We wondered what happened when the videos left the DJ’s shop. Did the farmer-customers watch the videos and learn from them? Bear in mind that the farmers got these DVDs cold, with no one to answer questions. The videos had to be completely self-explanatory.

To answer this question, last week Ronald and I visited two farmers who had picked up the Striga DVD from DJs. Ronald rang up one farmer, Patrick Sungani, and introduced himself. Even though the call was a total surprise, Sungani readily agreed to meet us.

Sungani is a young smallholder in Mwanza district, in a village 14 km off the highway. Sungani bought his video at a shop near Mwanza town, on the Mozambique border, some 20 km from home.

afoso-jowanjge-patrick-sungani-and-mideo-chisimani-who-pull-up-strigaSungani watched the Striga videos with his friends. They learned that Striga reproduces by tiny seeds. Sungani, like many other farmers, had seen the Striga seeds without realizing what they were actually seeds. Sungani and four of his friends organized themselves to uproot Striga plants before it could set seed, just as the videos suggested.

As we went to look at Sungani’s garden, he showed us old, dry Striga plants in neighbors’ fields. He shook some of the seed capsules, to show us the dust-like seeds. His own garden was free of Striga. He and his friends had plucked all the Striga from five neighboring fields.

striga-seedsSungani watched the videos many times, which farmers often do when they have their own copy. African smallholders recognize Striga as a weed, but the plant spends much of its life underground and seems to appear late in the year, so many farmers do not realize how much damage Striga causes. Sungani learned that Striga “Is a unique plant. Its seed is like a dust. You can’t see the plant when it is inside the ground. I learned that it is a dangerous weed and how to control it.”

patrick-sungani-and-strigaThe video encouraged Sungani to make his own observations. For example, he taught himself that older Striga plants have a tough root, which can be dug up with hand tools.

We visited a second farmer, Lester Gandari, in Thambani, a town that is barely more than a farm village. Gandari was attracted to the idea of intercropping maize with cowpeas, another innovation shown in the video.  Legumes, like cowpeas, are trap crops that kill Striga before it can attach its parasitic roots to the maize roots. Gandari decided to alternate one hill (a cluster of two or three plants) of maize and one of cowpea, even though the video teaches several other patterns of intercropping, in alternate rows. Gandari had understood the basic idea from the video (intercropping legumes and grains controls Striga) so well that he could experiment with intercropping in ways not shown in the video.

Gandari was pleased with his efforts to control Striga. “It worked well. I have bumper crops of maize and of cowpea.”

Like Sungani, Gandari had watched the videos several times. Sungani then showed them to about 30 other farmers; about half of them were women. Gandari will continue to watch the videos “because there is (still) more to learn.” Gandari is excited about videos now, and would like to see some on maize, eggplant, sugar cane, bananas, and potatoes.

These finely crafted videos feature real farmers, speaking on camera, explaining practical innovations. The videos capture the audiences’ imagination, and inspire them to experiment with the technologies.  No one convinces a smallholder like another farmer, even when (or especially when) they are on video.

Further reading

Other stories about the DJs in Malawi Village movies in Malawi, Watching videos without smartphones, and Can I make some extra money?,

Stories about striga videos in Africa Fighting striga and improving soil fertility with videos in Mali, Killing the vampire flower, Travels around the sun,  I thought you said “N’Togonasso”, and The truth of local language.

Further viewing

You can watch the striga videos here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

Share on FacebookTweet about this on Twitter

Design by Olean webdesign