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Ashes to aphids October 15th, 2017 by

Anyone interested in organic farming will eventually come across the use of ash to protect crops from pests and diseases. The internet has made it easy for people to consult, and to copy each other’s training materials. But one has to be cautious when borrowing ideas, as we recently learned during a script writing workshop in Bangladesh.

During the first day of the course, the 13 trainees from Bangladesh and Nepal laid out their key ideas to write a fact sheet and a script on a particular problem.

All of our script ideas were hot topics, that is, they are problems that occur widely across developing countries, requiring good training materials with ideas that are both feasible for smallholders and environmentally friendly.

One of the selected topics was how to manage shoot and fruit borer in eggplant, a pest for which many farmers in South Asia spray pesticides twice a week, or more. Just knowing this makes you frown when this tasty vegetable is presented to you in one of the delightful Bangladeshi dishes.

Another group worked on aphids in vegetables and suggested using ash to manage these pervasive pests. When Jeff and I asked why ash is useful, the group gave us various reasons: because it is acidic; it contains sulphur; it is a poison; the ash creates a physical barrier which prevents the aphids from sucking the sap of the plant. These all sound like plausible answers yet some are incorrect. Ash is rich in calcium, like lime, and therefore not acidic, for example.

We do know that ash makes the leaves unpalatable to insects and corrodes their waxy skin, making them vulnerable to desiccation. The FAO’s website on applied technologies (TECA) suggests controlling aphids by applying wood ash after plants are watered. If not, the sun may cause the leaves to burn. Our simple question about using ash reminded me that the scientific basis for many local innovations is poorly understood. There are too few researchers to validate each technology and limited resources often focus on high-tech solutions (e.g. plant breeding) rather than low-tech farmer innovations.

We may not always know why local innovations work, which is all the more reason to be cautious when recommending substitutions. During this workshop, for instance, I learned that not all ashes are the same. Shamiran Biswas, an extensionist with a rich experience working with farmers across the country, explained: “When one field officer told farmers to sprinkle ash on his crop, a farmer who followed this advice saw his entire bean field destroyed within half an hour. We were shocked and tried to figure out what went wrong. It seemed that the farmer had used ash from mustard leaves, which some rural women add to their cooking fires when they are short of wood. But leaf ash from mango, mustard, bamboo and other plants may also be harmful when sprinkled on crops. The only ash that is fully safe to recommend is ash from rice straw or rice bran,” Shamiran concluded. He added that “ the ash should be cold and sprinkled on the crop when the leaves are still wet from the morning dew.”

Experienced extension agents like Shamiran are experts at explaining farmers’ ideas to outsiders, as well as explaining scientific ideas to rural people.

When people give advice to farmers, or develop farmer training materials, it is easy to copy ideas from the Internet. It is easy to assume that because ash is natural that it must be harmless. In fact, tree leaves are often full of toxic chemicals, to deter herbivorous insects; it stands to reason that the ash of the leaves may also be poisonous.

A natural solution can go wrong, even one as simple as applying ash.

To develop good farmer training videos, solid interaction with farmers is crucial. And collaboration with a seasoned, open-minded extensionist helps to orient us in the right direction.

Related blogs

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

A spoonful of molasses

Further viewing

To watch videos that merge scientific knowledge with farmer knowledge, visit the Access Agriculture video-sharing platform. All videos are developed by people who value local innovations, and feature technologies that are validated by real farmers.


Shamiran Biswas works for the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh, an NGO working on food security and non-formal education.

Nourishing a fertile imagination March 5th, 2017 by

New ideas spark the imagination of smallholders, whether they have experience with the topic or not. We saw this last week in Nanegaon, a village just outside of the booming city of Pune, India, where farmers reviewed four fact sheets written by our 12 adult students.

Hunamat Pawale reads fact sheetA fact sheet is only one page, so it has to narrow in on a specific topic. The first fact sheet suggested cleaning maggots from wounds on cattle with turpentine, a common disinfectant distilled from pine resin. One man, Hanumant Pawale, read the fact sheet quickly, pronouncing the text clearly in a booming voice. When he finished, several farmers began to speak, adding ideas they wanted to include in the fact sheet. The first woman said that here they treat the cows’ wounds with kerosene, which is cheaper than turpentine, and is available at shops in the village. Her neighbors mentioned other products to treat cattle.

tweezersWe had wondered how farmers removed maggots. One of the farmers went to get a pair of tweezers to show us the tool that he used for plucking maggots from a wounded cow. Tweezers may be too sharp for such a delicate operation, but every household has a pair of tweezers, and they work if you are careful not to poke the cow’s flesh.

The farmers shared another important insight with us: it is best to avoid letting maggots grow in wounds in the first place. The villagers keep their cattle healthy by looking for wounds. Cows lick their wounds, the villagers explain, and if people see a cow licking her wound, they know that she needs some care.

The authors of the fact sheets got excited about improving their fact sheet by taking the farmers’ ideas on board.

It was a great meeting, but there was one little problem. After the first woman spoke, only men took the floor. Later I mentioned this to Pooja, one of our participants.

“The women won’t speak if the men are there,” she says matter-of-factly.

After meeting with the dairy farmers I went with two young men, Ajinkya and Pradeepta, who were writing a fact sheet on mulch: a simple layer of straw or leaves put on the soil surface to keep in moisture. We met a farmer, Mukta Naranyan Sathe, who was just setting down a pile of small, delicate legumes onto a tarp, for threshing.

Mukta Narayan Sathe reads fact sheetMukta-ji had never heard of mulch, but she was interested. After reading the fact sheet, she understood that mulch helps to conserve water. But, she told us that she did not really need to conserve water, because Nanegaon has abundant irrigation, provided by seven or eight bore-hole wells.

Even so, the fact sheet still inspired her to think creatively. She imagined that a large plant could be mulched with whole straw, but for a fragile herb, like fenugreek, the straw would have to be cut into small pieces.

We were soon joined by Mukta’s great nephew, Ganesh Dhide and a friend, Shubhan Pawale. They read the fact sheet and then all of them began to imagine ways of making mulch. They said that instead of burning the leaves off of sugarcane (a common practice which makes the cane easier to harvest), they could use them as a mulch.

They added that they now have a clear idea of mulching and that if one person tries it, and it works, the others in the village will surely adopt the new ideas as well.

The villagers could tell us practical ways to cure wounded cows but didn’t know about mulching until the fact sheet caught their imagination. Even so, they thought of two new ways to make mulch not mentioned in the fact sheet: cutting straw for fenugreek, and using sugarcane leaves. Farmers are inherently creative, and relish new ideas. We do not know if the farmers will adopt any of the ideas in the fact sheets, but before trying a technology one must first imagine doing something new. Our readers had already taken that step.

Other blog stories on writing fact sheets

Chemical attitude adjustment

The rules and the players

Learning from students

On the road to yoghurt

A hard write

Guardians of the mango

A spoonful of molasses

Turtle hunters


The first photo is by Mohan Dhuldhar. The second one is by Ajinkya Upasani.

Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

Cake for fish? Hold the coconut, please November 6th, 2016 by

cake-for-fish-1A good farmer training video inspires farmers to modify practices, for example, replacing an ingredient of a locally-made animal feed. But when changing ingredients, one has to know a lot about them, as we learned recently while teaching a video production workshop in Tamil Nadu, southern India.

Explaining the principles behind a certain technology or why something is done in a particular way helps farmers to better understand the innovation and to try it out with whatever resources they have at hand. The different examples shown in a video help to give farmers more ideas to work with.

In Tamil Nadu, one group of trainees was making a video on home-made animal feed, which only costs half as much as concentrated feed that one can buy in a shop.

cake-for-fish-2By interacting with various farmers, the trainees learned quite a few things. While shops sell specific feed for different animals, farmers make a base mix of grains, pulses and oil-cakes that they use to feed all their animals and fish. This saves the farmers time, while allowing them to still tailor the feed for each species of livestock. Depending on whether it is for cattle, goats, poultry or fish they will then add some extra ingredients, like dried fish (if the feed is for fish or poultry).

The trainees also learned that when you want to use a base mix for fish, you need to consider a few things. Farmers rear up to 6 different species of fish. Two species are surface feeders, two feed in the middle layer, and two species are bottom feeders. As you want the feed to be eaten by all fish, the mix should be milled to a course flour. When ground too fine, the feed will float and be available to the surface feeders only.

One other thing the team of trainees learned was that for fish you can use groundnut oil cake or cotton seed oil cake, but you should never use coconut oil cake (which is readily available and cheap in coastal India). Why? Well, if coconut oil cake is used in the base mix, two days after feeding the fish, an oily film will develop, blocking the pond from sunlight and oxygen and slowly killing the fish. The household can still use coconout oil cake in base feeds intended for livestock.

Clearly, oil cakes are not all the same and not all are interchangeable.

Good farmer training videos should present a range of different options and locally available resources, but they should also warn farmers of any possible risks. Videos for farmers should always say why an option will (or won’t work), as in this case: don’t feed coconut to your fish or the oil will block their sunlight and kill them!

Related video

Preparing low-cost concentrate feed

To watch the video in French, click here.

To watch the video in Tamil, click here.

To watch the video in Bangla, click here.

How to feed babies August 28th, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

While writing a video script, the author must find out what motivates people, as we were reminded recently while visiting Bolivian farmers to get their ideas on childhood malnutrition.

wawa k'irusqaAgriculture and nutrition are linked in unusual ways. A 2012 study by Cornell University nutritionist Andy Jones, and colleagues, in northern PotosĂ­, Bolivia, found that boosting farm production came at a cost. If new farming techniques increase the work load of young mothers, they may not have the time to feed their youngest children often enough. The toddlers can suffer if their mothers are working too hard and too long.

One of Jones’s colleagues in that study was an experienced and perceptive Bolivian nutritionist named Yesmina Cruz. She said that in this part of the Andes, some local beliefs were harmful for babies. For example, mothers believed that if the babies went without food when they were small, they would grow up to be able to withstand hunger when they were big. So the mothers would avoid giving the breast to their newborns for several days, until after losing the colostrum, the rich, yellowish milk that should be a baby’s first, nutritious meal. The mothers did not feed their babies often enough and would often start them too soon on supplementary foods, like soups or mush.

Younger mothers are changing how they bring up their children, but some of the old ideas persist.

Early in August, I had a chance to work with Yesmina again, as she wrote a fact sheet and a video script on mother’s milk. The first day of the course, Yesmina outlined her main suggestions: start breastfeeding on the day the baby is born, give mothers’ milk (and nothing else) for the first six months, and keep breastfeeding the baby for at least the first two years.

Last week, our blog story Learning from students told about how our course starts by writing a fact sheet and taking it to a community to read.

During the script writing course, Yesmina had the wisdom to interview men too, not just mothers. But the men were less interested in reading about breastfeeding, because they saw it as women’s business.

While writing her draft video script, Yesmina visited the village of Phinkina, near Anzaldo, Cochabamba, and met with three mothers to learn more about their experiences with breastfeeding. Their children had grown up and Yesmina wanted to test some of her ideas and see how to help new mothers.

Yesmina explained that the main sign of malnutrition was that the babies were small for their age (something a mother may not always realize, especially when malnutrition is widespread). Malnutrition in toddlers can be easily avoided by proper breastfeeding. To Yesmina’s surprise, the women didn’t think it was a problem if their children were smaller than expected in their early years. “They can eat when they are youths,” one of the women explained. (Although in fact, children never fully recover from poor development in early years).

On the other hand, the mothers were obsessed with school. They wanted their kids to do well in school and to finish it.

Yesmina realized that talking about school could be a way to get moms, and dads, interested in milk for babies, by explaining that mother’s milk helps children grow healthier minds and bodies, so they can do better in school.

By the end of the week, the script had grown from three topics to five:

  1. Eat well when you are pregnant. Here too it will be crucial to get men motivated, to encourage their wives, daughters and daughters-in-law to eat better food during pregnancy, and to help them ease up on their workload.
  2. Start breast feeding as soon as the baby is born.
  3. Only give the baby breast milk until 6 months of age.
  4. Introduce supplementary feeding at 6 months.
  5. Continue breast feeding until the baby is at least 2 years old.

Now the draft script explains that colostrum is the first food that feeds the baby’s brain and that babies who are well fed on breast milk will grow up to be children who perform better in school.

A simple task, writing some tips for breastfeeding, turns out to be more complex (but also more rewarding) when the author invites members of her target audience to read and comment on an early draft. Academics are used to sharing drafts of their papers with colleagues. When writing for a popular audience, it can be just as useful to share drafts with community members.

Further reading

Cruz Agudo, Yesmina, Andrew D. Jones, Peter R. Berti, Sergio Larrea Macías 2010 “Lactancia Materna, Alimentación Complementaria y Malnutrición Infantil en los Andes de Bolivia.” Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición 60(1):7-14. http://www.scielo.org.ve/pdf/alan/v60n1/art02.pdf

Jones, Andrew D., Yesmina Cruz Agudo, Lindsay Galway, Jeffery Bentley, & Per Pinstrup-Andersen 2012 “Heavy Agricultural Workloads and Low Crop Diversity are Strong Barriers to Improving Child Feeding Practices in the Bolivian Andes.” Social Science & Medicine 75 (9):1673-1684.http://www.jefferybentley.com/Heavy%20Agricultural%20Workloads.pdf

“Learning to eat,” a one-page summary of Jones et al. http://www.agroinsight.com/downloads/in-the-field/summary-Learning-to-eat-Extension-Methods-4.pdf

Further viewing

You can watch a video on how to make food for toddlers from ingredients found in a West African village at: http://www.accessagriculture.org/enriching-porridge

And a video on helping women recover from childbirth at:




28 de agosto del 2016

Por Jeff Bentley

La autora de un guion de video debe averiguar qué motiva a la gente, el cual volvimos a acordarnos recientemente al visitar a productores bolivianos para conocer sus ideas sobre la desnutrición infantil.

baby and mom in Yurac CanchaLa agricultura y la nutrición están vinculadas de maneras complicadas. Un estudio en el 2012 por el nutricionista de la Cornell University, Andy Jones, y colegas en el Norte de Potosí, Bolivia, encontró que un aumento en la producción agrícola tenía un costo. Si nuevas técnicas en el agro aumentan la carga de trabajo de las madres jóvenes, ellas no siempre tienen tiempo para dar de comer con suficiente frecuencia a sus niños más

pequeños. Los chiquillos pueden sufrir si sus mamás están trabajando muy duro y por mucho tiempo.

Una de las colegas de Jones en ese estudio era Yesmina Cruz, una nutricionista boliviana experimentada y sensible. Ella dice que en esta parte de los Andes, algunas creencias locales son dañinas para los bebés. Por ejemplo, las mamás creían que si a sus bebés les faltaba comida cuando eran pequeños, llegarían a poder aguantar el hambre cuando fueran grandes. Así que las mamás evitaban dar pecho a sus recién nacidos durante varios días, hasta perder el calostro, la rica y amarillenta leche que debería ser la primera, nutritiva comida del bebé. Las madres no daban de comer a menudo y muchas empezaron demasiado temprano a dar alimentos suplementarios, como las sopas o papillas.

Hoy en días las mamás jóvenes están cambiando su manera de criar a sus hijos, pero algunas de las ideas viejas persisten.

A principios de agosto, tuve la oportunidad de volver a trabajar con Yesmina, mientras ella escribía una hoja volante y un guion de video sobre la leche materna. El primer día del curso, Yesmina bosquejó sus sugerencias principales: empezar a dar pecho el día que el bebé nace, dar leche materna (solamente) durante los primeros seis meses, y seguir amamantando al bebé por lo menos durante sus primeros dos años de vida.

La semana pasada nuestro blog, Aprender de los estudiantes, contĂł como nuestro curso empieza con la redacciĂłn de una hoja volante que luego se lleva a la comunidad para leer.

Durante el curso de la redacción de guiones, Yesmina tuvo la sabiduría de entrevistar a hombres también, no solo a las madres. Pero los hombres tenían poco interés en la leche materna, la cual vieron como un asunto de las mujeres.

Mientras escribía el borrador de su guion de video, Yesmina visitó la comunidad de Phinkina, cerca de Anzaldo, Cochabamba, donde se reunió con tres madres para aprender sobre sus experiencias con la leche materna. Sus hijos ya eran grandes y Yesmina quería sondear algunas de sus ideas para ver cómo ayudar a las mamás jóvenes.

Yesmina explicó que el principal señal de la desnutrición es que los bebés son pequeños para su edad (y una madre no siembre se da cuenta de eso, sobre todo si la desnutrición es común). Es fácil evitar la desnutrición infantil con el buen uso de la leche materna. Yesmina se sorprendió que las mujeres no pensaron que era problema si sus hijos eran muy pequeños en sus primeros años. “Pueden comer cuando son jóvenes,” explicó una de las mujeres. (Aunque en realidad, los niños nunca se recuperan completamente del mal desarrollo en sus primeros años de vida).

Sin embargo, las madres estaban obsesionadas con el colegio. QuerĂ­an que sus hijos fueran buenos alumnos y que terminaran el colegio.

Yesmina se dio cuenta que el hablar del colegio podría ser una manera de que los padres se interesaran en la leche para los bebés, al explicar que la leche materna ayuda a los niños a tener mentes y cuerpos sanos, para poder ser exitosos en el colegio.

Para el fin de la semana, el guion ya no era de tres tĂłpicos sino de cinco:

  1. Comer bien cuando estás embarazada. Aquí también será crucial involucrar a los hombres, para que apoyen a sus esposas, hijas y nueras para que coman mejor durante el embarazo, y para ayudarles a reducir su carga de trabajo.
  2. Empezar a dar pecho inmediatamente que el bebé nazca.
  3. Al bebé solo darle leche materna hasta los 6 meses de edad.
  4. Empezar con la alimentaciĂłn suplementaria a partir de los 6 meses.
  5. Continuar dando pecho hasta que el bebé cumpla por lo menos 2 años.

Ahora el borrador del guion explica que el calostro es el primer alimento para el cerebro del bebé y que los bebés bien alimentados con la leche materna llegarán a ser niños exitosos en el colegio.

Una tarea sencilla, como escribir algunas sugerencias para la leche materna, resulta ser más compleja (además de más enriquecedora) cuando la autora invita a miembros de su público a leer y comentar sobre el primer borrador. Los académicos están acostumbrados a compartir borradores de sus artículos con sus colegas. Cuando uno escribe para una audiencia popular, igualmente puede ser útil compartir los borradores con algunos miembros de la comunidad.

Lectura adicional

Cruz Agudo, Yesmina, Andrew D. Jones, Peter R. Berti, Sergio Larrea Macías 2010 “Lactancia Materna, Alimentación Complementaria y Malnutrición Infantil en los Andes de Bolivia.” Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición 60(1):7-14. http://www.scielo.org.ve/pdf/alan/v60n1/art02.pdf

Jones, Andrew D., Yesmina Cruz Agudo, Lindsay Galway, Jeffery Bentley, & Per Pinstrup-Andersen 2012 “Heavy Agricultural Workloads and Low Crop Diversity are Strong Barriers to Improving Child Feeding Practices in the Bolivian Andes.” Social Science & Medicine 75 (9):1673-1684.http://www.jefferybentley.com/Heavy%20Agricultural%20Workloads.pdf

“Learning to eat,” un resumen de una página de Jones et al. http://www.agroinsight.com/downloads/in-the-field/summary-Learning-to-eat-Extension-Methods-4.pdf

Para mirar videos

Se puede ver un video sobre cómo hacer papillas para niños chiquitos usando ingredientes que se encuentran en una aldea de Africa Occidental aquí:

Y un video sobre cómo ayudar a las mujeres a recuperarse después de dar a luz aquí:


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