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Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

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Pony Express December 13th, 2020 by

From April 1860 to October 1861, a private mail service, called the Pony Express, carried letters by horseback. By running at full throttle day and night, horses and riders could relay a mail pouch, called a mochila, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento California, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah: over 1,900 miles (3,100 km) away in ten days. Depending on the terrain, “swing stations” were placed about ten miles apart, where a stock tender kept a corral full of small, swift horses. The rider would gallop into the station, swing his mochila over the saddle of a fresh horse, and ride off. After some 70 miles, he would hand his mochila to the next man at a “home station” where the riders ate and slept.

The riders were just boys; “orphans preferred” said one classic ad (perhaps written to entice teens with the thrill of danger). Riders were small men, who could weigh no more than 125 pounds (57 kilos), to be light on the ponies.

As a teenager, I also worked briefly on the Pony Express, not riding it, but digging it. I was 19, about the same age as the riders had been. I worked as an archaeological laborer for one of my professors, Dale Berge, under a government contract to excavate the Pony Express home station at Simpson Springs in the Great Basin, southwest of Salt Lake City.

The sagebrush stretched for miles, rimmed by distant mountains, a bit like it must have looked when the ponies still ran. The ruined station was easy to spot. The lower walls of a three-room cabin and a corral were clearly visible.

For all its originality, the Pony Express did rely on some earlier endeavors, especially existing roads, like the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City. Some of the stations were already in place, including the one at Simpson Springs, founded in 1859 when entrepreneur George Chorpenning set up a tent on a stone foundation to serve his mail freight line from Utah to California. In 1860, the Pony Express simply bought Chorpenning’s station after the government conveniently cancelled his mail contract that same year.

The Pony Express built the stone cabin and installed a station keeper named George Dewees, to cook the bacon and beans, and to bake bread for the boys. No booze was allowed on the Pony Express.

In spite of the lure of sudden death, the Pony Express was well organized and dependable, operated by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. Yet expenses were high and the Pony Express never made money. The enterprise stopped taking mail two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed on 24 October 1861, linking the Eastern USA with California. The ponies’ last letters were delivered in November. The Pony Express was killed by the telegraph, a faster information and communication technology (ICT).

Bits of the Pony Express system lingered for a while. The telegraph was like the email of the 1860s. It carried text, but parcels had to go by snail mail, or in this case, by stage coach. Wells Fargo kept delivering mail to California in wagons along the old Pony Express route until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. A family named Mulliner was living at Simpson Springs in 1890, operating a local stage line. But by 1891 even the station was abandoned.

For all its originality, the Pony Express only lasted a year and a half. The Western Union telegraph that replaced it lasted for 145 years, until 27 January 2006. A communication technology that is carried on by many actors, like book publishing, can evolve for centuries, but a complex system like the Pony Express that is centrally controlled, complicated, and serves a narrow, localized demand, can end as suddenly as it began. Still, any enterprise as romantic and audacious as the Pony Express may stay in the public memory for a long time.

Further reading

My main source of information was Dr. Berge’s site report on Simpson Springs. Ever the gentleman, in his acknowledgements Professor Berge was kind enough to mention me, although I was just a 19-year-old student.

Berge, Dale L. 1980. Simpson Springs Station Historical Archaeology in Western Utah 1974-1975. Salt Lake City: Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Cultural Resource Series No. 6. https://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=45926

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Pony Express Route by Jkan997 source: http://sharemap.org/public/Pony%20Express%20Route

Pony Express recruitment poster from Berge (1980).

Book rate November 29th, 2020 by

Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General of the United States, during the second Continental Congress. He had experience, having been Deputy Postmaster General for all the American colonies under the British (1753-1774). But even in 1775, Franklin was one of the most respected of the founding fathers, and older than most of the others; he could have rejected the mail job. But he took it in part because he saw that a postal service would knit the States together. As a printer, writer and publisher, Franklin also understood the strategic advantage of the post for newspapers, and he established a special, low rate for publications. Newspapers could be sent through the mail for just a penny, or a penny and a half, while a letter could cost the fat sum of 25 cents. For its first 50 years, the post office was largely a newspaper delivery system, owned by the federal government, but financed by the sale of postage.

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, added to Franklin’s ideal by guaranteeing mail delivery at a uniform rate of postage, even to the new, distant states out west. Blair was clearly a visionary who also proposed the first international postal conference (held in Paris in 1863) and created the postal money order, to cut down on cash going through the mails, to avoid robberies. In recognition of these achievements, on 12 July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early burned down Blair’s home in Silver Springs, Maryland.

During the Great Depression, president Franklin Roosevelt introduced a special “book rate,” endowed with a subsidy from Congress in 1933, to allow anyone to mail any publication at a special, low fee. A book could go across the country for a few cents.

I had my first brush with the book rate as a little boy, when my mom sent me to the post office alone with a package. “Be sure and tell them it’s a book, and they will charge you less,” mom said.

I handed the clerk the book, wrapped in brown paper. I hesitated and added, “It’s a book.”

“Alright dear,” she said. “Then that will be …” and she quoted me some ridiculous price, low enough to surprise even a kid.

The book rate lives on in the USA, now called the “Media Mail Service”, in recognition that a nation should promote information and learning.

Now, in 2020, educational materials are increasingly shared online, not through the postal system. Millions of smallholders in Southern countries now have a smart phone, and are online for the first time, getting an unprecedented amount of information, from sports, and science to nonsense.

Fortunately, there is a lot of free educational material online. Wikipedia is well written, by citizen scholars. Respected British newspaper, The Guardian, posts online stories for anyone to read, as does the BBC, the Smithsonian Institution and many others. And Access Agriculture has posted over 200 well-researched training videos for farmers, for free, in over 80 languages. The spirit of the book rate lives on.

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Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1958 The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 434 pp.

For some history of the US postal service, see: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/

Photo credits

Benjamin Franklin. Colored aquatint by P. M. Alix, 1790, after C. P. A. van Loo. From the Wellcome Library. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Portrait_of_Benjamin_Franklin._Wellcome_L0017902.jpg

Smallholders reading, by Paul Van Mele, Bangladesh, 2013.


Thanks to Keith Andrews for suggesting the book rate as a topic and for reading an earlier version of this story. Thanks also to Paul Van Mele for his insightful comments.

Khipu: A story tied in knots September 27th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Writing was linked to farming from the time of the first scribes, when Sumerian accountants made wedge-shaped marks in wet clay tablets to keep track of trade in grain and livestock. These numbers and symbols were first used around 5,000 BC as a simple notational system for counting sheep and jars of olive oil, eventually evolving into true writing by at least 3,500 BC as shown by recorded hymns and myths. Original writing systems were rare: only the Chinese and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently of the Sumerians.

All writing systems use a flat surface, and until factories made cheap paper in the nineteenth century, material to write on was a limitation. Clay was bulky. Stone was hard. Papyrus was expensive. Parchments from animal skins were so valuable that old ones were often scraped clean to write something new; the old text was often still visible and called a palimpsest. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka took the trouble to write scriptures on palm leaves, painstakingly arranged in books, while rare Sanskrit manuscripts survive on birch bark.

High in the Andes, the Inka state was using its own system for recording data, based on a completely different medium: knotted twine, a technique that had been evolving since at least the time of the Wari Empire (450-1000 AD), long before the Inka (1400-1533). The multilingual empire of the Inka reached from Ecuador to Chile, with millions of subjects. Conquered communities paid tax to the empire, as textiles, and as maize and freeze-dried potatoes kept in storehouses (qollqa) and as a one-year labor turn every seven years (mit’a).

To tabulate all of these obligations, the empire used the khipu, knots on a string. The khipu maker (khipu kamayoq, or knot-master) started with long central cord, with secondary and tertiary twine fanning out from it like branches of a tree. Each string told a story. Meaning was distinguished by type of fiber (cotton vs llama hair), whether it was twisted left or right, by the type of knot, by a hundred different colors of twine and by the position of the knots.

Conquered nobles were forced to send their sons to live in the capital city, Cusco, where the boys took a four-year course on Inka myth and history, and on the official language (Quechua). Two years of their education were devoted to a study of the khipu.

The khipu was accurate enough to record the census data of a whole province, the soldiers of an army, or tax obligations. Knot-masters also used the khipus to help memorize and recite myths and narratives.

The Spanish conquistadores understood that khipus stored data accurately, and had them dictated and transcribed as sources of Inka history. Khipus were even allowed as evidence in colonial courts, where the litigants would argue over the ownership of land or titles, or sue for reimbursement for foodstuffs supplied to Spanish soldiers, as recorded in the knotted strings.

Knowledge of how to make a khipu died out a generation after the conquest, but Harvard anthropologist, Gary Urton, a specialist in the khipus, argues that they were not an adding machine (as some thought), nor were they true writing. They were however, a superb mnemonic device, perfectly accurate for recording exact numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Moderately simple khipus could be interpreted on their own, without memorizing the content. The Inka organized a network of runners radiating out from Cusco across the realm. Each messenger (chaski) would run for about 20 km, before relaying his information to the next courier. A team could cover as much as 240 km a day, but perhaps 150 chaskis were needed to run from Quito to Cusco, some 2900 km. To avoid garbling their message entirely, each chaski handed the next one a khipu, which travelled independently of its maker, and must have been capable of bearing meaning alone.

I wonder what would have happened if the khipus had evolved for a much longer time? Given a few more centuries, would they have evolved into a full writing system to record human language, not with marks on a flat surface, but in three dimensions? It would have been a truly unique writing system, unlike any other the world has used.

Further reading

Urton´s study of the khipus is discussed at length in:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. New York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Photo credit

Khipu on display at the Museo Larco, in Lima. Photo by Claus Ableiter.

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Por Jeff Bentley, 27 de septiembre del 2020

La escritura estuvo vinculada a la agricultura desde los tiempos de los primeros escribas, cuando los contadores sumerios hacían marcas en forma de cuña en tablillas de arcilla húmeda para llevar la cuenta del comercio de granos y ganado. Estos números y símbolos se usaron por primera vez alrededor del 5.000 a.C. como un simple sistema de anotación para contar ovejas y cántaros de aceite de oliva, que con el tiempo evolucionó hasta convertirse en escritura verdadera por lo menos para el 3.500 a.C., como lo demuestran los himnos y mitos registrados. Los sistemas de escritura originales eran pocos: sólo los chinos y los mesoamericanos inventaron la escritura independientemente de los sumerios.

Todos los sistemas de escritura usan una superficie plana, y hasta que las fábricas hacían papel barato en el siglo XIX, el material para escribir era una limitación. La arcilla era voluminosa. La piedra era dura. El papiro era caro. Los pergaminos de pieles de animales eran tan valiosos que los viejos a menudo se raspaban para escribir algo nuevo; el texto antiguo era a menudo todavía visible y se llamaba palimpsesto. Los monjes budistas de Sri Lanka se tomaban la molestia de escribir escrituras en hojas de palma, cuidadosamente dispuestas en libros, mientras que raros manuscritos sánscritos sobreviven en corteza de abedul.

En las alturas de los Andes, el estado Inca usaba su propio sistema de registro de datos, basado en un medio completamente diferente: el hilo anudado, una tĂ©cnica que habĂ­a estado evolucionando desde por lo menos la Ă©poca del Imperio Wari (450-1000 d.C.), mucho antes del Inka (1400-1533). El imperio multilingĂĽe del Inca llegĂł desde Ecuador hasta Chile, con millones de sĂşbditos. Las comunidades conquistadas pagaban impuestos al imperio, en forma de textiles, maĂ­z y chuño guardados en almacenes (qollqa) y como un turno de trabajo de un año cada siete años (mit’a).

Para tabular todas estas obligaciones, el imperio usaba el khipu, nudos en una cuerda. El entendido en la materia, el khipu kamayoq, o maestro de nudos, comenzó con un largo cordón central, con cuerdas secundarias y terciarias que se abrían en abanico como las ramas de un árbol. Cada cuerda contaba una historia. El significado se distinguía por el tipo de fibra (algodón vs pelo de llama), si se retorcía a la izquierda o a la derecha, por el tipo de nudo, por cien colores diferentes de hilo y por la posición de los nudos.

Los nobles conquistados eran obligados a enviar a sus hijos a vivir en la ciudad capital, Cusco, donde los muchachos tomaban un curso de cuatro años sobre el mito y la historia del Inca, y sobre el idioma oficial (el quechua). Dos años de su educación se dedicaron al estudio del khipu.

El khipu era lo suficientemente preciso como para registrar los datos del censo de toda una provincia, los soldados de un ejército, o los impuestos. Los maestros de nudos también usaban los khipus para ayudar a memorizar y recitar mitos e historias.

Los conquistadores españoles entendieron que los khipus guardaban datos con precisión, y los hicieron dictar para transcribirlos como fuentes de la historia de los incas. Los khipus fueron incluso permitidos como evidencia en las cortes coloniales, donde los litigantes discutían quién era el dueño de tal terreno o título, o demandaban el reembolso de los alimentos suministrados a los soldados españoles, según lo registrado en las cuerdas anudadas.

El conocimiento de cómo hacer un khipu se extinguió una generación después de la conquista, pero el antropólogo de Harvard, Gary Urton, especialista en los khipus, argumenta que no eran una máquina de sumar (como algunos pensaban), ni tampoco eran redacción. Sin embargo, eran un magnífico dispositivo mnemotécnico, perfectamente preciso para registrar números exactos en los cientos de miles.

Los khipus moderadamente simples podían ser interpretados por sí mismos, sin memorizar el contenido. Los Incas organizaron una red de corredores que irradiaban desde Cusco a través del reino. Cada mensajero (chaski) correría durante unos 20 km, antes de transmitir su información al siguiente mensajero. Un equipo podía cubrir hasta 240 km al día, pero tal vez se necesitaban 150 chaskis para correr de Quito a Cusco, unos 2900 km. Para evitar tergiversar su mensaje por completo, cada chaski entregó al siguiente un khipu, que viajó solito, sin su creador, y debe haber sido capaz de llevar el significado por sí solo.

Me pregunto qué habría pasado si los khipus hubieran evolucionado durante mucho más tiempo. Dados unos pocos siglos más ¿habría evolucionado hacia un sistema de escritura completo para registrar el lenguaje humano, no con marcas en una superficie plana, sino en tres dimensiones? Habría sido un sistema de escritura verdaderamente único, como ningún otro que el mundo haya usado.

Para leer más

El estudio de Urton de los khipus está ampliamente descrito en:

D’Altroy, Terence N. 2015. The Incas. Nueva York: Wiley Blackwell. 547 pp.

Crédito de la foto

Khipu exhibido en el Museo Larco, en Lima. Foto por Claus Ableiter.

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Stored crops of the Inka

Feeding the ancient Andean state

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Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

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