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Innovating with roots, tubers and bananas January 16th, 2022 by

A new book edited by Graham Thiele and colleagues of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) highlights research over the past decade on a remarkable group of crops that are grown from vegetative seed (such as cuttings and roots). Crops include potato, sweetpotato, cassava, yam and bananas, all of which were domesticated in the tropics and are a big part of the daily diet in many developing countries. Continued research on these crops is important to keep family farmers competitive, and to keep producing food locally in tropical countries.

One chapter of the book describes how cassava is becoming an ever more important crop in West Africa, both for food and for manufacturing (flour, starch and alcohol), yet this has led to a new problem. Cottage processors and food manufacturers are creating mounds of peels, rotting in the open air. Nigerian researcher Iheanacho Okike and colleagues describe their innovation to turn garbage to gold by converting peels into livestock feed. Various feed makers are now making cassava peels into meal, as a substitute for imported maize.

The potato currently enjoys high demand across Africa, where it can be grown at higher altitudes. But a bottleneck has been getting access to disease-free seed, especially of new varieties that farmers want. A chapter by Elmar Schulte-Geldermann and colleagues discuss techniques that can be used by national agricultural programs or local companies to produce lots of seed quickly, using aeroponics and rooted apical cuttings (two methods for growing potato plants from cuttings in nurseries). This seed is distributed to seed producers, who rear and sell seed for farmers.

Margaret McEwan and colleagues describe Triple S (storage in sand and sprouting), a way for smallholders to conserve sweetpotato seed roots during the dry season in nothing more complicated than sand pits lined with mud bricks.

Agricultural researchers have been urged for years to work more closely with farmers, but often with limited guidance about how to do so. This book fills some of that gap. Vivian Polar and other gender experts have a chapter on methods that plant breeders can use to ensure that new crop varieties meet the needs of women and men.

Jorge Andrade-Piedra and colleagues discuss methods for studying seed systems, usually managed entirely by farmers, with little outside influence. These practical study methods would be beneficial to any development organization or project interested in understanding local seed systems before engaging with them.

These and other chapters feature the agronomy and social innovations of yams, sweetpotatoes, cassava, potatoes and bananas. Few books compile the results of agricultural research over ten years, by such a large group of scientists. The results show the value of publicly-funded research to benefit smallholder farmers in the tropics.

Further reading  

Thiele, Graham, Michael Friedmann, Hugo Campos, Vivian Polar and Jeffery W Bentley (Eds.) 2022. Root, Tuber and Banana Food System Innovations Root, Tuber and Banana Food System Innovations: Value Creation for Inclusive Outcomes. Springer, Cham.

The book will be out soon, and can be pre-ordered online from various book-dealers.

Youth don’t hate agriculture June 20th, 2021 by

Rural youth are moving to the cities by the busload. Yet counter to the prevailing stereotype, many young people like village life and would be happy to go into farming, if it paid. This is one of the insights from a study of youth aspirations in East Africa that unfolds in three excellent country studies written by teams of social scientists, each working in their own country. Each study followed a parallel method, with dozens of interviews with individuals and groups in the local languages, making findings easy to compare across borders.

In Ethiopia many young people grow small plots of vegetables for sale, and would be glad to produce grains, legumes, eggs or dairy. Youth are often attracted to enterprises based on high-value produce that can be grown on the small plots of land that young people have.

Young people are also eager to get into post-harvest processing, transportation and marketing of farm produce, but they lack the contacts or the knowhow to get started. Ethiopian youth have little money to invest in farm businesses, so they often migrate to Saudi Arabia where well-paid manual work is available (or at least it was, before the pandemic).

In northern Uganda, researchers found that many youths wanted to get an education and a good job, but unwanted pregnancies and early marriage forced many to drop out of secondary school. If dreams of moving to the city and becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher don’t work out, then agriculture is the fallback option for many young people. But, as in Ethiopia, young Ugandan farmers would like their work to pay more.

In Tanzania, many youths have been able to finish secondary school and some attend university. Even there, young people go to the city to escape poverty, not to get away from the village. Many youths are even returning, like one young man who quit his job as a shop assistant in town to go home and buy a plot of land to grow vegetables. Using the business skills he learned in town, he was also able to sell fish, and eventually invested in a successful, five acre (two hectare) cashew farm.

These three insightful studies from East Africa lament that extension services often ignore youth. But the studies also suggest to me that some of the brightest youth will still manage to find their way into agriculture. Every urban migrant becomes a new consumer, who has to buy food. As tropical cities mushroom, demand will grow for farm produce.

If youth want to stay in farming, they should be able to do so, but they will need investment capital, and training in topics like pest management and ways to make their produce more appealing for urban consumers. Improved infrastructure will not only make country life more attractive, but more productive. Better mobile phone connectivity will link smallholders with buyers and suppliers. Roads will help bring food to the cities. A constant electric supply will allow food to be processed, labeled and packaged in the countryside. New information services, including online videos, can also help give information that young farmers need to produce high-value produce.

Further reading

These three studies were all sponsored by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). You can find them here.

Boonabaana, Brenda, Peace Musiimenta, Margaret Najjingo Mangheni, and Jasper Bakeiha Ankunda 2020. Youth Realities, Aspirations, Transitions to Adulthood and Opportunity Structures in Uganda’s Dryland Areas. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Endris, Getachew Shambel, and Jemal Yousuf Hassan 2020. Youth realities, aspirations, transitions to adulthood and opportunity structures in the drylands of Ethiopia. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Mwaseba, Dismas L., Athman K. Ahmad and Kenneth M. Mapund 2020. Youth Realities, Aspirations and Transitions to Adulthood in Dryland Agriculture in Tanzania. Report submitted to ICRISAT.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos  

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

The next generation of farmers

Some videos of interest

Access Agriculture hosts videos to share information about profitable, ecologically-sound agriculture. Farmers of all ages can download videos on their smartphones in English and many other languages, for example:

For Ethiopia, check out these videos in Amharic, Oromo, Afar, and Arabic, Oromo,

For Tanzania, 122 videos in Swahili (Kiswahili), and others in Dholuo, and Tumbuka

For Uganda, Ateso, Kalenjin, Kiswahili, Luganda, Lugbara, Luo (Uganda), Runyakitara

To find videos in a language of your country, click here.

A Greener Revolution in Africa May 2nd, 2021 by

After settling in the USA in the 1990s, Isaac Zama would visit his native Cameroon almost every year, until war broke out in late 2016, and it became too dangerous to go home. About that same time a new satellite TV company, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation (SCBC), was formed to broadcast news and information in English. (Cameroon was formed from a French colony and part of a British one in 1961).

In 2018, Isaac approached SCBC to start a TV program on agriculture to help Southern Cameroonians who could no longer work as a result of the war, and the thousands of refugees who sought refuge in Nigeria. The broadcasters readily agreed. With his PhD in agriculture and rural development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his roots in a Cameroonian village, Isaac was well placed to find content that farmers back home would appreciate. “I did some research on the Internet, and I found Access Agriculture,” said Isaac. “I liked it so much that I watched every single video.”

Isaac soon started a TV program, Amba Farmers’ Voice, which began to air every Sunday at 4 PM, Cameroon time. It is rebroadcast several times a week to give more people a chance to watch the program. With frequent power cuts many are not able to tune in on Sundays.

The program is broadcast live from Isaac’s studio in Virginia. He starts with a basic introduction in West African Pidgin. “If I’m going to show a video on rabbits, I start by explaining what a is rabbit,” Isaac explains. “And that we can learn from farmers in Kenya how to build a rabbit house, and to care for these animals.” After playing an Access Agriculture video on the topic (in English), Isaac comments on it in Pidgin, for the older, rural viewers who may not speak English. His remarks are carefully scripted, and based on background reading and research.

The show lasts an hour or more and allows Isaac to play several videos. Amba Farmers’ Voice has its own Facebook and YouTube pages. While his program is on the air, Isaac checks out the Facebook page to get an idea of how many people are watching. A popular topic like caring for rabbits may have 1,000 viewers just on Facebook. But most people watch the satellite broadcast. SCBC estimates that two to three million people watch Amba Farmers’ Voice in Cameroon, but many others also watch it in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and even in some Francophone countries, like Benin and Gabon.

Some farmers reciprocate, sending Isaac pictures and videos that they have shot themselves, showing off their own experiments, adapting the ideas from the videos to conditions in Cameroon. Isaac heard from one group of “mothers in the village” who showed how they were using urine to fertilize their corn, after watching an Access Agriculture video from Uganda.

People in refugee camps watched the video on sack mounds, showing how to grow vegetables in a large, soil-filled bag. But gunny sacks were scarce in the refugee camp, so people improvised, filling plastic bags with earth and growing tomatoes in them, so they could grow some food within the confines of the camp.

Isaac mentioned that people were installing drip irrigation after seeing the video from Benin about it.

“That can be expensive,” I said. “People have to buy materials.”

“Not really,” Isaac answered. Gardeners take used drink bottles from garbage dumps, fill them with water, poke holes in the cap, and leave them to drip slowly on their plants.

After seeing the video from Benin on feeding giant African snails (for high-quality meat), one young man in the Southern Cameroons got used tires and stacked one on top of the other to make the snail pen. It’s an innovation he came up with after watching the Access Agriculture video. He puts two tires in a stack, puts the snails in the bottom, and feeds them banana peels and other fruit and vegetable waste. Isaac tells his audience “We don’t need to buy anything. Just open your eyes and adapt. See what you can find to use.”

Solar dryers were another topic that people adapted from the videos. To save money, they made the dryers from bamboo, instead of wood, and shared one between several families. As a further adaptation, people are drying grass in the solar dryer. Access Agriculture has four videos on using solar dryers to preserve high value produce like pineapples, mangoes and chillies, but none show grass drying. Isaac explains that you sprinkle a little salt on the grass as you dry it. Then, in the dry season you put the grass in water and it turns fresh again. Now he is encouraging youth to form groups so they can dry grass to store, to sell to farmers when forage is scarce.

I was delighted to see so many local experiments, just from people who watch videos on television, with no extension support.

All of this interaction, between Isaac Zama and his compatriots, the teaching, feedback and organisation, is all happening on TV and online. He hasn’t been to Cameroon since he started his program.  Isaac’s interaction with his audience amazes me. It’s a testimony to his talent, but also to the improved connectivity in rural Africa.

“People think that Africans don’t have cell phones,” Isaac says, “but 30% of the older farmers in villages have android phones. Their adult children, living in cities or abroad, buy phones for their parents so they can stay in touch and so they can see each other on WhatsApp.” Isaac adds that what farmers need now is an app so they can watch agricultural videos cheaper.

Dr. Isaac Zama wants to encourage other stations to broadcast farmer learning videos: “Those videos from Access Agriculture will revolutionize agriculture in Africa in two or three years, if our national leaders would just broadcast them on TV. The farmers would do it themselves, just from the information they can see on the videos.” Isaac is willing to collaborate with other TV stations across the world, to share his experience or to broadcast Amba Farmers Voice, but particularly with broadcasters in Africa who are interested in agricultural development

Related Agro-Insight blogs

To drip or not to drip

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Cell phones for smallholders

A connecting business

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana

Watch the Access Agriculture videos mentioned in this story

How to build a rabbit house

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Drip irrigation for tomato

Feeding snails

Solar drying pineapples, Making mango crisps, Solar drying of kale leaves and Solar drying of chillies

 

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

Videos to teach kids good attitudes March 7th, 2021 by

Kenyan schools recently moved away from memorizing facts, and towards learning skills, knowledge and attitudes. This “competency based curriculum (CBC)” includes new topics like ICT, and agriculture. Lawrence Njagi, the CEO of Mountain Top Educational Publishers, explained that the challenge was finding a way to integrate both subjects. He eventually decided that the best way was with videos from Access Agriculture.

In 2020, Mountain Top published a new textbook for fourth and fifth graders, to build students’ confidence step-by-step. The text book lists URLs for almost 20 videos on Access Agriculture, on gardening, legumes, pumpkins, small animals, innovative gardening, and mulching. Teachers help students to pick a video topic, type in the URL and watch it.

“They can watch the videos in either English or Kiswahili”, Lawrence explains. “It was great, because they could hear the voices of African people on the videos.”

Ninety percent of the schools in Kenya are on the national electric grid, and 70% of those have access to Wi-Fi, including some schools in poor and remote areas. Watching the videos was “an equalizing factor for those who could download,” Lawrence says.

The students watch a video on, for example, making a vegetable seedbed. The textbook comes with a teachers’ guide that explains how to lead the children in a project. The teacher organises them in groups and the kids make a seedbed and plant  kale in the school garden. The children also watch videos on how to make compost. Then they make the compost and fertilise their vegetables. The project lasts a whole term. The kids eat some of the vegetables, and on Parents’ Day, the proud students show their produce to the adults, who are allowed to buy some, teaching the students another valuable lesson: farms can make money.

This is important, because the Kenyan government is now encouraging young people to stay in the countryside. There are no more jobs in the cities. Young Kenyans have to employ themselves, and feed others while ensuring that Kenya is a food sovereign nation.

Kenya’s schools were closed for the Covid pandemic, but they opened in October and November of 2020. During the closure, some schools and students tried to continue their studies with textbooks, educational TV and radio, and the internet. Some continued to watch Access Agriculture videos during the lockdown.

It is too soon to judge how well the learning videos have helped teach the next generation of farmers to have a good attitude about farming, but the stakes are high: Kenya has 1.2 million pupils in each of the grades 4 and 5, in 25,000 schools. When they sit for their exams in July of 2021, Mountain Top and the educators will measure the results of the videos. But Lawrence is optimistic. “We are equipping the children to produce food for themselves, and to sell.”

Watch the videos

Making a chilli seedbed

Composting to beat striga

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Videos in Swahili

Access Agriculture has 130 videos in the Kiswahili language. Check them out here.

Videos in other languages of Kenya

Access Agriculture has videos in some of the other languages of Kenya as well: Ateso, Dholuo, Kalenjin, Kiembu, Kikuyu, Luhya, and Samburu.

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