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Can I make some extra money? November 22nd, 2015 by

Should information be public or private? This is often presented as a stark choice between two alternatives, especially in agricultural extension. But just like with hybrid cars, blending two different power sources may be the way forward.

Access Agriculture has just held a two-day writeshop for some 40 people from Africa and Asia on experiences in producing, distributing and using farmer training videos. At a conference after the writeshop, about a hundred people listened to a selection of stories which revealed surprising and exciting developments.

aa DSCN7422 DVD selling shopRonald Kondwani Udedi from Malawi told the audience how young village people, known as DJs, set up “burning centres”, often nothing more than a second-hand PC on a table in a small room, to sell Malawian music videos, and movies from Hollywood, Bollywood and even Nollywood. For 5 US cents the customers can get their flash discs, or the memory cards of their cell phones filled up with films to watch at home. When Ronald provided some 100 DJs across southern Malawi with farmer training videos, the DJs may not have realised it, but they all became “new extensionists”.

GĂ©rard Zoundji from Benin told how he compiled a DVD with existing videos on vegetable-growing in different local languages. He distributed copies to mobile vendors of entertainment DVDs, agrodealer shop owners and even to taxi moto drivers. These vendors were able to sell these farmer training videos.

As part of his experiment, GĂ©rard put a sticker with a free phone number inside each DVD jacket. Surprisingly, people started to call from as far away as Niger, Ghana and Nigeria, yet he had only distributed the DVaa IMG_3346 drip irrigation on tomatoDs to vendors in Cotonou and Porto Novo, both large cities in southern Benin. Clearly, the DVDs had ended up where people needed them. All had clearly understood the videos and many asked where they could buy drip irrigation equipment.

One truck driver from Niger told Gerard he was passing through Benin when he noticed the DVD and bought one as a gift for his brother, who was just starting to grow vegetables. Many Africans living in cities have family in the rural areas, and as much as they can, they support their relatives. Goods are often delivered across thousands of kilometers, using a network of taaa IMG_1544 loaded busxi drivers, bus drivers, and people they know along the road who can pick up a parcel and put it on the next track.

In the above examples from Malawi and Benin, the videos were all produced by organisations using public funds. Nearly all translations of the quality training videos on the Access Agriculture website used public funds. Yet, recently Equity Bank in Kenya has started to invest in local language translations and the distribution of DVDs through their village agents. Making videos accessible to the thousands of agricultural service providers (in the broadest sense) will remain a public service that Access Agriculture continues to provide, but to deliver videos to farmers, the private sector may become as important or even more so than the public sector.

aa 6433 banana porridge cheersConferences are a great way to stimulate cross-fertilisation of ideas. When talking to Fatuma A. Nyanjong, a young staff member of the Kenya National Farmers Federation (KENAFF) that serves over 2 million members, she asked me: “Paul, can I sell farmer training DVDs?” When I said that Access Agriculture even encourages people to take such initiatives, she continued: “The presentations really gave me some new ideas. Farmers are eager to get their own copies of DVDs, they are willing to pay, and I am willing to start selling them.”

“My mum sells farm produce at the village market and not too far from her there is a young chap selling music DVDs. He has a TV screen and DVD player to attract customers. When I next go to my village, I will provide the man with some agricultural DVDs to test his reaction and see how it goes.”

Then Fatuma continues her reflections, clearly having seen the business opportunity it offers: “I learned we need to start thinking outside of the box. At bus stations people come from far away places, hanging around waiting for their bus to leave. I think it is a great opportunity to sell farmer training videos there as well, and I will also give that a try, providing vendors of entertainment DVDs with all the farmer training videos that are already available in Kiswahili.”

In Kenya, bus stations are where competition to sell entertainment DVDs is probably the toughest, with various DVD vendors cramped into the small area, each using TV screens and DVD players to attract customers to buy the latest music and film DVD releases. Letting one of the vendors offer something which the others do not have (DVDs with local language farmer training videos) will give him an advantage over the competition.

Improving extension is not only looking at what new skills extension staff require, but also about developing new distribution channels for quality extension materials. The presentations at the conference showed how young entrepreneurs across Africa have started to provide creative solutions to problems that the public sector has failed to solve. When farmer training videos are available in local languages, young entrepreneurs will find their way to earn some extra money.

The story-telling write-shop was facilitated by Agro-Insight, with backstopping from ICRA, CTA and Access Agriculture.

Related blog stories:

More than a mobile

Village movies in Malawi

Watching videos without smartphones

Myth of the coyote November 15th, 2015 by

Agronomists have myths, just like everybody else. Ask any agricultural researcher, bureaucrat or extensionist in Central America and they will tell you that the people who buy corn and beans are exploiting the peasants, charging any price that pops into their head. Most Central Americans call the buyers “coyotes”, a trickster figure of myths since pre-Colombian time, moving in and out of human society, up to no good. The grain buyers have been demonized.

visita de campoIn the rugged hills where Guatemala meets El Salvador and Honduras, several NGOs have supported bean-buying cooperatives. One day we heard several farmers say that they had tried to sell beans to the coops, but the coops offered a lot less than the regular buyers: 280 Quetzales (about $40) instead of 310 ($44) per hundred-pound bag. So the farmers took their beans to the nearest market.

At one of the coops the managers complained that the regular buyers paid farmers more than the coop could, while the commercial processers in the market sold their products for less than the coop. The cooperative folks had no idea how this was done, but the truth is that a wild, open market is highly competitive.

I was in Guatemala teaching field methods to agricultural researchers, so I asked them do some practical social research. We went to downtown Ipala, a municipality in Guatemala’s bean country, and walked into a wholesale grain shop.

Marvin CalderĂłn muestra frijolThe place was a small warehouse with a truck parked on one end, some dusty granaries, and bags of beans. In the sunlight of the open doorways, men were hard at work opening the bags, polishing the beans with a cloth, screening them and picking out the stones and bad bits. The workers were adding value.

We met Marvin, the owner, who soon overcame his suspicion of us and answered our nosey questions.

How do you set the bean price?

“We call the central market in Guatemala City and ask what they are paying for a hundred pounds (about 44 kg). If they are paying 110 Quetzales, we pay 100.”

This means that for a little over a dollar, Marvin is able to collect a 100 pound bag of beans at the farm gate, clean it, and deliver the beans to Guatemala city, a half-day’s drive away. He is working on slim margins.

We asked Marvin if he set prices with the other buyers in town.

He laughed and said that they don’t all get along, and that even if they did set a price, they would still try to out-compete each other.

Do you reward the good farmers with better prices?

No. Marvin said that if he trusted farmers he would sell them fertilizer on credit. This increased the bean harvest, and the grateful family was sure to sell to Marvin, who also picked the beans up at their house, an additional service.

zarandeando frijolTwo blocks away, we strolled into another storefront, just an old-fashioned living room, cleared of all furniture except for a desk, some pallets for piling beans, and the metal screens for cleaning them. We introduced ourselves to the owner, don Rigoberto. With his grey hair slicked neatly in place, he had more the air of a kindly grandfather than of a sneaky coyote.

He grew up in the grain business. When he finished the third grade, his father told Rigoberto to quit school to become his right hand man, buying and selling beans, maize and sorghum.

Rigoberto and other buyers knew that prices fell first with the local harvest in December, and further with the later harvest in the northern Petén, not to rise again until July.

But prices could simply collapse at any time if Guatemala received a big shipment of beans from China or Mexico, so small-town buyers avoid storing beans and sell their whole stock every week. A guy selling beans from his front room can sell 2000 sacks (8.8 tons) in a good week.

Don Rigoberto spoke fondly of the farmers. He knew they had bad years because of drought or disease. With almost ethnographic sensitivity he went on to explain “The farmers store the beans and sell them a few at a time, between five and ten sacks, when they need the money. If they sold all their beans at once the money would get spent. The farmers make the grain scarce by storing it and waiting for the price to rise. And they are right to do this. They must do it that way.”

It slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t the farmers who speak ill of grain buyers, but the extensionists and agricultural researchers.

The buyers in Ipala work with slim margins. They compete with each other and cannot influence prices, which are set in the central market in Guatemala City. A dealer can sell in a month what a coop can sell in a year (and there may be a dozen buyers in a town, but only one coop). In fairness to the cooperatives, they probably cannot compete with the open market, because the coops also perform other services, such as organizing farmers and offering them training, which has helped farmers double their yields and vastly increase their sales. But the grain buyers only buy and sell, working hard and managing high volumes.

Donors should see how the market works, before trying to distort it with cooperatives. Movies need bad guys, but development discourse does not. Speaking ill of grain buyers one has never met is simply lazy thinking.

Big potatoes: when too much is better than none at all November 8th, 2015 by

Big, expensive and abandoned development structures dot Latin America like monuments to failure. Built by local dictators and generous donors, maize storage centers, cooperative processing plants and other disused facilities have become part of the archaeology of development.

Wherever donors fund buildings or facilities, the tendency is to make the thing too big and elaborate.

vendedores y compradoresSo when I rolled into a large, newish potato wholesale purchasing complex in ConcepciĂłn de Chiquirichapa in highland Guatemala, I was expecting to see a disaster. Built with money from European donors, the complex is built around a central market area, with covered parking spaces big enough to accommodate trucks. The complex that surrounds the markets includes a two-story building for shops and restaurants, 11 warehouses, a potato washing factory and another, three-story building with an empty conference room, and unused offices. Just to top it all off there is a decorative stone water fountain, burbling away in the lobby.

But that’s where my mockery ends, because at 10 in the morning they threw open the gates, and Mayan potato farmers in their muddy, Toyota pickup trucks roared into the central market area. The farmers beamed self-confidence as eager buyers trotting after them shouting the prices they would pay for the two tons of potatoes on the over-loaded pickups.

cargando arpĂ­a de papasThe pickups were soon unloaded, by independent, but organized laborers who received 75 centavos per bag (about 10 cents of a dollar). Loading was made easier because the potatoes were all packed in standard-sized net bags (from the hardware store) that carried about 100 pounds (45 kg) each. The net bags made the product clearly visible to the buyers, and the standard size meant that there was no need to weigh or repack the produce, which saves on transaction costs.

Most of these potatoes were bound for the massive market of neighboring El Salvador. Second-hand trucks from the USA, once used for moving furniture, were soon filled with Guatemalan potatoes and on their way to the border. The farmers folded up their money and drove home.

It wasn’t always so, explains the young manager, Arturo Cabrera. The potatoes used to be bought and sold on the main streets of the little town of Chiquirichapa, blocking traffic until neither buyer nor seller nor passing motorist could get in or out.

So the municipal government used their own money to buy a patch of land just outside town and made it the designated potato market. The space was big enough for the trucks, and the local authorities cajoled the buyers and sellers to move there.

At first the farmers and wholesalers simply traded in the mud by the road side. Other people soon followed, offering goods like prepared food, to tempt the farmers to spend some of their cash.

The new market favored uniform prices. Everyone could overhear what their competitors were offering, so buyers matched prices. Farmers phoned ahead to learn of prices and delayed selling if they were low, smoothing supply and avoiding gluts.

We sat in one of the little restaurants, Los Antojitos, sipping hot mugs of atol de plátano, a sweet porridge made from bananas, just the thing for cold, rainy weather. At over 2000 meters, these are perfect conditions for potatoes, which have been grown in highland Central America since colonial times.

Some of the warehouses were rented to local people who bought small potatoes and conditioned them for seed, which they then sold on Saturdays and Sundays to potato farmers. The market is busy almost all year, as people now come from distant municipalities to buy or sell in such pleasant, well-ordered and busy surroundings.

The municipality pays for the staff to run the center, and the municipal council acts as the board of directors. If the local economy prospers, and people are happy, they will continue to re-elect the municipal officials. So as a result, this small town ships out about 42,000 tons of fresh potatoes a year to El Salvador and throughout Guatemala.

The wholesale complex cost $3 million, and could have become another ruin. It’s too big and fancy but it is benefitting farmers and improving trade. Arturo the manager is eager to expand into the empty offices. He wants an agronomist to come and advise the farmers, and he invited my colleagues, Guatemalan agricultural researchers, to give talks to the farmers.

The donors were not completely wrong to fund such a large complex; two loaves are better than none at all. The main thing is not size, but getting the topic right, and having creative, local people who want to make it work.

Onions from Agadez November 1st, 2015 by

9914 red onions for sale at roadside shopWhenever somebody has a monopoly over a certain food crop, or tries to create one, sooner or later other people will pop up to compete.

The red onion variety, Violet de Galmi, originally comes from the village of Galmi, a small community in Niger, about 500 kilometres east of Niamey close to the Nigerian border, where it has been grown for over 100 years. Its pungent flavour and thick bulbs, combined with the vast, informal Hausa trading network, has made this onion popular across West Africa. In fact, onions are Niger’s second most important export product after uranium, making Niger the largest exporter of onions in the entire region.

While companies sell packaged seed of this variety across the USA, India and Southeast Asia, in the 1990s, a private seed company in Senegal, Tropicasem, a subsidiary of the French seed company Technisem, further bred the Violet de Galmi onion and obtained rights to exclusively market it in nine West African countries. When farmers in Niger found out that a company had claimed exclusive rights to their onion, they were outraged and asked their government to act on their behalf in this case of bio piracy. The farmers won.

But monopolies can go beyond seed.

While thousands of farmers across West Africa grow this variety in the dry season, flooding the market with onions and making prices drop, Violet de Galmi is prone to diseases in the rainy season. This reduces the supply of onions, which become a sought after, precious commodity.

Although Violet de Galmi onions do poorly in the rainy season, there is one place in Niger where they thrive: the valley of Agadez, known as the gateway to the desert, some 500 kilometres north of Galmi. In the rainy season, the trade of red onions in West Africa has been in the hands of the Hausa people, all the way from collection at farm gate to the street hawkers in African towns, thousands of miles away from the Agadez onion fields.

9919 cutting leaves from onions at harvestAs more and more people in cities are eager to add onions to their daily dishes, even in the rainy season, the market now faces a huge demand. And innovations love an unmet demand.

While making a series of farmer training videos on onions in northern Ghana, I was impressed once more with the ingenuity of farmers, trying out seed of new varieties, adjusting their planting calendars and cropping practices to fill a market niche. Salifu, one of the farmers I talked to in Bawku, smiled as he told how he travelled as far as Kumasi, 600 kilometres south, to get seed of a new onion variety.

Seeds of new onion varieties are now making their way into West Africa, and more onions are now being grown in the rainy season, spurred by farmers’ ingenuity and their drive to make the most of high prices. With this expanded supply, the trade monopoly of the harvested onions is also bound to be broken.

Food is too precious a commodity to stay in the hands of a few.

Further reading:

GRAIN. 2015. Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback.

Ethical agriculture October 25th, 2015 by

It’s much easier to be an ethical consumer than an ethical farmer. I can pay more for organic and Fairtrade produce, for example, to promote ethical practices. These and other certification schemes have achieved much, but they are only available to a few farmers. Ethical agriculture faces a much more intransigent problem, namely the millions of farmers who grow illegal crops, or crops that many people would like to ban.

Sumatra disease starts in fieldI worked on a clove project in Indonesia, financed by the UK, that spent 15 years figuring out how to control a deadly disease. The clove you know is a dried, unopened flower. It’s a valuable crop for smallholder farmers and millions of others who depend on the clove trade, but much less so for human health. Cloves were historically important (and much fought over) as a spice. But this use has greatly diminished. Now most cloves are used to make kretek cigarettes. It was this link to human health that was the main reason why the clove project stopped in 1990.

Good crop, bad crop: it depends which way you look at it. Stop smoking and you improve your health, yet what happens to the clove farmers? Replacing high value crops is never easy, as many attempts to eradicate poppies in Afghanistan reveal. Jeff has written earlier about replacing coca with bananas but wholescale shifts away from valuable drug plants will never happen. Farmers will continue to grow drug crops that consumers continue to demand. As a Pakistani government minister once explained to his US counterpart: “Why do we export opium poppies? Because your citizens want them.”

Clove is a legal crop and farmers deserve technical and extension support. It’s more complicated with illegal crops, though some have legitimate medicinal uses, such as coca. During my time in charge of a diagnostic laboratory we received samples of diseased poppies from Afghanistan from an FAO project. We examined the samples, never quite clear if our main purpose was to confirm the success of a disease deliberately released by a drug-control agency or give advice to farmers on how to control the disease.

Tobacco twistedI recently wrote some fact sheets on diseases of tobacco, to help growers and field support staff identify problems and reduce pesticide use. Yes, consumers are requesting organic tobacco, and pesticide-free tobacco would arguably be less dangerous to their health, though only marginally I suspect. One of my unexpected discoveries is that tobacco companies have some of the strictest policies I know on promoting biodiversity conservation and non-chemical methods for pest control. Smoking will damage your health but growing tobacco aims to have as little environmental impact as possible.

The US has aggressive policies to reduce smoking. Walking in New York recently it sometimes felt that tobacco was an illegal drug. The US is also a big tobacco producer and federal and state governments continue to fund research and extension for tobacco farmers. At one time there were 60,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky. There are now 4500, so many have presumably either changed crops or left agriculture. Tobacco is still an important crop in a state where not so long ago 1 in 15 jobs depended on it, but clearly the crop is in decline, at least in the US.

P1100597Is it unethical to give advice to tobacco farmers on pest control? Doctors treat all patients, even murderers, and I think agriculturists have a similar responsibility to help all honest farmers, regardless of the crops they grow. I have never smoked and I’ve had relatives and friends whose health was damaged by smoking, yet many farmers and rural communities around the world still depend on crops which rightly cause huge health concerns but are still legal.

Consumers can choose what to buy and make decisions about ethical agriculture at little or no personal cost. Farmers don’t have the luxury of changing crops that many want to ban, including those that are legal but directly linked to ill-health. The sugar tax that Paul talked about in an earlier blog is apparently coming to the UK. Is sugarcane unethical? The US is legalising marijuana. Is cannabis now an ethical crop? It’s not clear that a moralising rich world understands the implications of their ethical choices on poor farmers. Farmers deserve all support they can get to grow what the market wants in a way that minimises impact on human health and the environment. A greener cigarette for a greener world is a small step in the right direction.


Blog stories referred to

Going bananas

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat

A time to smoke

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