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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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Hybrid maize and chemical fertilizer fail to end poverty August 23rd, 2020 by

In 2005, Jeffery Sachs, macroeconomist at Columbia University, started the Millennium Villages Project. At 14 sites across Africa, the project intended to end poverty, to pull people above a daily income of $1.25 a day, by investing in health, education and agriculture. Sachs started the first, five-year phase of the project with almost $120 million in donations from a handful of wealthy folks.

As told in Nina Munk’s 2013 book, The Idealist, Sachs was intensely optimistic and sincere. The funding would allow him to try a model to end poverty; he hoped that after some initial success, governments and international agencies would follow with larger investments to end poverty worldwide.

The villages were actually big communities, with an average of about 6,000 residents. In each one, the project was led by an educated, local person who shared Sach’s vision.

Journalist Nina Munk followed Sachs for six years, and also visiting the villages on her own. Munk noticed that money was flowing into the villages, especially as measured by the number of people who built homes with metal roofs, instead of thatch. But Munk and some of the people she interviewed for the book wondered if this relative prosperity would last after the project ended. I wondered too, so I looked for a more recent evaluation of the project, and found one by Sachs himself, and his colleagues, published in 2018, based on surveys in 2015 at the end of the second and last five-year phase of the Millennium Villages Project.

The researchers saw some progress towards the UN’s Millennium goals, especially for malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal health.

But the study found that the project had made no impact on poverty.

It is a stunning admission, and I admire the team’s honesty. Income in the Millennium Villages had increased a bit, but over the same decade most African economies had slowly improved. By the end of the project, the families in the Millennium Villages were no better off than households in the surrounding communities.

Paradoxically, the study found that the project had had a positive influence on agriculture, defined narrowly as the use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer, which Sachs and his team had encouraged, subsidized and distributed to the local people.

The use of hybrid maize seed and chemical fertilizer may explain why the project did not end poverty. Expensive seed and fertilizer make farmers dependent on buying these inputs every year. If the rains fail one year, farmers may lose their maize, but if they bought seed and chemical inputs, they may also go into debt for the seed and fertilizer. So, what Sachs’s team thought of as a positive influence may have in fact undermined the potential of agriculture to contribute to poverty reduction.

Agriculture is also too complicated to reduce to simplistic solutions like seed and chemicals. Maize is a major crop in parts of Africa, but not everywhere. As Munk describes for the village of Ruhiira, in southwest Uganda, although farmers did plant the maize seed, and harvest it, they were unfamiliar with the crop. The locals didn’t like to eat maize, had nowhere to store it, and were not connected to grain buyers, making the grain difficult to sell.

Although Sachs was naĂŻve and reductionist about agricultural development, I suspect that he was right about the need for governments and bilateral agencies to make massive investments in health, education and electricity. Governments are now spending trillions of dollars to mitigate the pandemic lockdown.

But for agriculture to help end poverty, mere investment is not enough. How the money is invested also matters. As explained in the report Money Flows, investments in agroecology are needed to build more resilient domestic food systems that could reduce risks, and poverty.

Further reading

Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & IPES-Food 2020 Money Flows: What Is Holding Back Investment in Agroecological Research for Africa? Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development & International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

Mitchell, Shira, Andrew Gelman, Rebecca Ross, Joyce Chen, Sehrish Bari, Uyen Kim Huynh, Matthew W Harris, Sonia Ehrlich Sachs, Elizabeth A Stuart, Avi Feller, Susanna Makela, Alan M Zaslavsky, Lucy McClellan, Seth Ohemeng-Dapaah, Patricia Namakula, Cheryl A Palm, and Jeffrey D Sachs 2018 The Millennium Villages Project: A retrospective, observational, endline evaluation. Lancet Global Health 6: e500–13.

Munk, Nina 2013 The Idealist: Jeffery Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. New York: Anchor Books. 260 pp.

A video is worth 1000 words August 9th, 2020 by

A farmer learning video often does have the proverbial thousand words, but can technical information be shared through images alone? A recent study set out to see how much rice farmers in southern Benin would learn from a video if they couldn’t understand the words.

PhD candidate LaurĂ©ano Bede and colleagues created an experiment using a video about urea fertilizer. Over-use of this nitrogen fertilizer wastes farmers’ money, pollutes waterways, and contributes to greenhouse gases. The video shows how to cut urea use by two-thirds, by making large, “super-granules” of fertilizer and pressing them into the wet soil, where the rice plant can absorb it, instead of scattering the urea all over the surface.

In the study, six groups of farmers watched the super-granule video. In three villages, they watched the video in their own language, Adja. One of the villages saw the video once, another watched it twice, and another saw it three times. In comparison, another set of three villages also watched the video once, twice, or three times, but they had the disadvantage of seeing it in a language they didn’t understand: English.

As expected, villagers who only saw the video once learned more if they understood the soundtrack. But the difference narrowed after several screenings. Farmers who saw the video three times, without understanding the words, learned more than farmers who saw a single screening in their native Adja language. The more people watch a video, the more they learn, especially as community members discuss it among themselves, and share their observations, even if the language is foreign.

In this particular case, the super-granule video was expertly filmed to convey information to reduce the use of chemical fertilizer. Sloppy videos may not get their point across as well. A ten-minute video has about a thousand words. If the content and images are well-chosen, the video may be able to carry its messages, even without the words.

Related blogs

Deeper nitrogen, more rice, a cooler planet

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Further reading

LaurĂ©ano Bede, Florent Okry & Simplice D. Vodouhe 2020 Video mediated rural learning: effects of images and languages on farmers’ learning in Benin Republic. Development in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2020.1788508

Watch the video Watch or download Urea deep placement in Adja, English or one of 29 other languages.

Pay and learn July 19th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación Extensionists often give information away for free, but selling it may get you a more tuned-in audience. This is the conclusion of researcher Gérard Zoundji and colleagues in a recent paper published in Experimental Agriculture.

Zoundji compared three groups of people in West Africa who had received DVDs with farmer learning videos. One video collection covered topics related to vegetable production and another showed how to manage the parasitic weed striga. The videos could be shown in multiple local languages, or in English or French.

When NGOs in Benin gave the DVDs to organized farmers, they tended to watch the videos, and they experimented with planting styles and other ideas shown in the videos. But some farmers who got DVDs for free did not show the videos to friends and neighbors, complaining that they needed fuel for their generators, or other support.

Audience appreciation improved when DVDs were shared by NGOs that were committed to the topic and the communities. In Mali, organizations that had taught striga management realized the importance of the weed, and arranged screenings of the videos in villages. Professional staff from the NGOs were on hand to answer people’s questions after the show. The NGOs left copies of the DVD with local people who usually self-organized to watch the videos again later, to study the content. Farmers experimented keenly with the ideas they had learned, such as planting legumes between rows of cereal crops, to control striga naturally.

But the big payoff came when farmers bought the DVDs cold, off-the-shelf in shops. Most only paid a dollar or two for the DVDs on vegetable production, but buying the information gave it value. All of these paying customers watched the videos and most of them showed the videos at home to friends and neighbors. They found the agricultural ideas useful; some bought drip irrigation equipment they had seen on screen. Others learned to manage nematodes (microscopic worms) without chemical pesticides.

Farmers who bought the DVDs also experimented with the digital technology used to show the videos. Nearly 15% bought DVD players to watch the videos. Some loaned the DVDs to their children at university, who copied the DVDs from the disk, converted them to a phone-friendly format (3gp) and then loaded the videos onto the mobile devices of friends and colleagues.

Selling information draws a self-selected audience: interested people who will take the content seriously. Expert extensionists who appreciate the videos can also demonstrate their value by organizing video shows that respectfully engage with the communities and their leaders. But when DVDs are simply given away, even though they contain cinematic-quality videos on crucial topics, farmers may watch the videos and value them, or not. People who pay for information see its importance.

Further reading

Zoundji, GĂ©rard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. VodouhĂȘ, Jeffery W. Bentley, and Loes Witteveen 2020 Commercial Channels vs Free Distribution and Screening of Learning Videos: A Case Study from Benin and Mali. Experimental Agriculture. DOI: 10.1017/S0014479720000149.  

Related blog stories

Private screenings

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Sorghum and millets on the rise

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The 11 fighting striga videos

And the 9 vegetable videos:

Managing vegetable nematodes

Making a chilli seedbed

Insect nets in seedbeds

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Making chilli powder

Drip irrigation for tomato

Reviving soils with mucuna

Managing soil fertility

PAGAR Y APRENDER

por Jeff Bentley, 19 de julio del 2020

Los extensionistas a menudo dan informaciĂłn gratis, pero se puede conseguir un pĂșblico mĂĄs atento si cobra. Esta es la conclusiĂłn del investigador GĂ©rard Zoundji y sus colegas en un reciente artĂ­culo publicado en Experimental Agriculture.

Zoundji comparó tres grupos de personas en África occidental que habían recibido un DVD con videos de aprendizaje para agricultores. Había una colección de videos sobre la producción de hortalizas y otra del manejo de la estriga, una maleza parasítica. Los videos podían mostrarse en varios idiomas locales, o en inglés o francés.

Cuando las ONGs de BenĂ­n entregaron los DVDs a los agricultores organizados, tendĂ­an a ver los videos y experimentar con los estilos de siembra y otras ideas que se apreciaban en los videos. Pero algunos agricultores que recibieron los DVDs gratis no mostraron los videos a amigos y vecinos, quejĂĄndose de que necesitaban combustible para sus generadores, u otro tipo de apoyo.

La apreciaciĂłn del pĂșblico mejorĂł cuando los DVD fueron compartidos por ONGs comprometidas con el tema y las comunidades. En MalĂ­, las organizaciones que habĂ­an enseñado el manejo de la estriga se dieron cuenta de la importancia de la maleza y organizaron proyecciones de los videos en las aldeas. El personal profesional de las ONGs estaba disponible para responder a las preguntas de la gente despuĂ©s de la proyecciĂłn. Las ONGs dejaron copias del DVD con los habitantes locales, que por lo general se organizaron por su cuenta para volver a ver los videos mĂĄs tarde, para estudiar el contenido. Los agricultores experimentaron intensamente con las ideas que habĂ­an aprendido, como sembrar leguminosas entre los surcos de cereales, para controlar la estriga de forma natural.

Pero la gran recompensa era cuando los agricultores compraron los DVDs por su cuenta, en las tiendas. La mayorĂ­a sĂłlo pagĂł un dĂłlar o dos por los DVDs sobre las hortalizas, pero el comprar la informaciĂłn le dio valor. Todos los clientes que pagaron vieron los videos y la mayorĂ­a los mostraron en casa a amigos y vecinos. Les servĂ­an las ideas agrĂ­colas; algunos compraron equipos de riego por goteo que habĂ­an visto en la pantalla. Otros aprendieron a manejar nematodos (gusanos microscĂłpicos) sin plaguicidas quĂ­micos.

Los agricultores que compraron los DVDs también experimentaron con la tecnología digital que se usa para mostrar los videos. Casi el 15% compró lectores de DVD para ver los videos. Algunos prestaron los DVD a sus hijos en la universidad, quienes copiaron los videos del disco, los convirtieron a un formato apto para teléfonos (3gp) y luego cargaron los videos en los dispositivos móviles de amigos y colegas.

La venta de informaciĂłn atrae a un pĂșblico auto seleccionado: personas interesadas que se tomarĂĄn el contenido en serio. Los extensionistas expertos que aprecian los videos tambiĂ©n demuestran su valor organizando programas de video de forma respetuosa con las comunidades y sus lĂ­deres. Pero cuando los DVDs se regalan asĂ­ no mĂĄs, aunque contengan videos de calidad cinematogrĂĄfica sobre temas cruciales, los agricultores pueden ver los videos y valorarlos, o no. Las personas que pagan por la informaciĂłn aprecian su importancia.

Lectura adicional

Zoundji, GĂ©rard C., Florent Okry, Simplice D. VodouhĂȘ, Jeffery W. Bentley, and Loes Witteveen 2020 Commercial Channels vs Free Distribution and Screening of Learning Videos: A Case Study from Benin and Mali. Experimental Agriculture. DOI: 10.1017/S0014479720000149.  

Historias de blog sobre temas relacionados

Private screenings

Call anytime

Sorghum and millets on the rise

Vea los videos

Los 11 videos: fighting striga

De los cuales algunos estån en español:

La micro dosis

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

Animales, ĂĄrboles y cultivos

Y los 9 videos sobre hortalizas:

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas                

Redes contra insectos en almĂĄcigo

Riego por goteo para el tomate

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

Manejo de la fertilidad del suelo

Making a chilli seedbed

Transplanting chillies

Drying and storing chillies

Our African ancestors July 5th, 2020 by

Ancient humans migrated out of Africa three times. The first “Out of Africa” as archaeologist Peter Bellwood explains in First Migrants, was about 2 million years ago, long before our own species, Homo sapiens, had emerged. But one of our ancestors, Homo erectus and other, related species entered Southwest Asia from East Africa, and settled in most of tropical and temperate Eurasia. They walked completely upright, made stone tools and hunted and gathered for a living. They had small brains, just 500 to 900 cc, half the size of ours (about 1500 cc). H. erectus also lacked the imagination which inspires humans today. Homo erectus never invented boats to reach the islands and it’s not clear if they could make clothing to keep warm.  

Out of Africa 2 occurred around a million years ago. A second human species migrated from Africa, Homo heidelbergensis, which eventually evolved into the famous Neanderthals of Europe (Homo neanderthalensis). Another branch of Homo heidelbergensis stayed in Africa, where they eventually evolved into Homo sapiens

Out of Africa 3 was sometime between 200,000 and 130,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens, fully modern humans, left Eastern and Southern Africa to conquer the Earth. It was a humble start, with just a few people. Estimates vary, but there may only have been as few as 10,000 breeding adults on the whole planet.

By this time, modern humans almost certainly spoke fully expressive languages: they could no doubt argue, bend the truth, and describe their dreams. We don’t know the words they used to give flight to their thoughts, since their languages are lost in time. Long before people had started to till the earth, from 130,000 to 50,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers had replaced the Neanderthals, with just a bit of genetic mixing in Eurasia. Humans on most continents derive some two to four percent of their genes from Neanderthals. Modern Africans are largely free of Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens settled all of Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Periodic ice ages with lower sea levels created land bridges to Britain, Japan, and many of the islands of Southeast Asia. These modern humans had the imagination to invent boats, and they crossed a stretch of 70 km of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia.

Before 16,000 years ago people had mastered cold weather survival, almost certainly sewing sophisticated clothing from animal hides, using bone needles that have been found in archaeological sites. By then, some had reached the Eurasian Arctic and crossed the wide Beringia Land Bridge into Alaska. By 11,000 years ago, people were already hunting guanacos in southern South America. People had either walked down the South American coast or taken boats.

Boats were also crucial for reaching the islands of Melanesia, as far east as the Solomon Islands.

So, before humanity ever started to farm, our ancestors had reached almost every inhabitable spot on Earth, with the exception of the Eastern Pacific, which came much later. By 10,000 years ago, modern humans had migrated vast distances from Africa, settling all the continents, from the tropics to the Arctic, except for Antarctica.

By 10,000 years ago our ancestors could paint great art, carve ivory figurines, and invent tailored clothing. Their art included naturalistic representations of animals, but also dots, lines, half-circles and other abstract symbols, suggesting that they also had complex language. When their imagination got the better of their sense of caution, our ancestors would also walk or sail over the horizon.

There were only slight genetic differences between populations. In colder latitudes, where people wore fur suits most of the time, they struggled to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun. Evolution selected for lighter skin, to help folks get their vitamins. Other than that, white skin doesn’t mean much more than the ability to get a sunburn.

From prehistory we learn that Africa was the cradle of humanity. The early modern humans were creative, thoughtful and widespread yet still relied on hunting and gathering for food and other essentials. Next week I will discuss the second half of First Migrants, which covers early agriculture and the movements of the first farmers.

Further reading

I’ve taken most of this material, especially the outline of prehistoric migrations from:

Bellwood, Peter 2013 First Migrants: Ancient Migration in Global Perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

I’ve also been inspired by some recent books that document how most of humankind’s genetic differences are literally skin deep, while our common humanity goes all the way to our core.

Mukherjee, Siddhartha 2016 The Gene: An Intimate History. Penguin Books: Haryana, India.

Zimmer, Carl 2018 She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity. New York: Dutton. 656 pp.

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