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Of fertilizers and immigration February 7th, 2021 by

Chemical or mineral fertilizers have long been touted by agro-industry and by governments as a necessity to feed the growing world population. Sixty years after the start of the Green Revolution, the damage caused to farmland, surface water and groundwater, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods has forced policy-makers in India and in the European Union to curb the over-use of fertilizers and encourage more environmentally-friendly ways of farming. But fertilizers have also affected immigration in various ways.

Immigration can be triggered by political suppression or economic hardship, often aggravated by climate change. But rural folks across the globe are also under increased pressure due to the rising costs of agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and animal feed. While recently some European farmers have decided to migrate to other countries, the high rate of suicides among farmers in both Europe and India is shocking. Despite these alarming events, the promotion of fertilizers in Africa goes on. As with the dumping of obsolete pesticides banned in Europe because of their high toxicity, the agro-industry has also turned to Africa to further increase their profits from selling fertilizers.

One of the problems is that for far too long researchers have been focusing on yields instead of on farmers’ profits and building healthy soils that can sustain farming in the long run. At a recent virtual conference organized by the European Commission, researchers from the Swiss Research Institute on Organic Agriculture (FiBL) presented results from a 12-year study looking at various cropping systems in tropical countries. Soil organic carbon was on average 20-50% higher in organic farms compared to conventional farms. While the yields of organic systems can match or outperform conventional systems, proper use of N-fixing legumes, organic manure and good agricultural practices is key to improve productivity.

Fertilizer promotion by governments or development projects have mostly benefited local elites and better-off farmers thereby adding to social inequality. Modern cereal varieties have been bred for responsiveness to chemical fertilizer. At the beginning of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice, maize and wheat farmers who opted for the full package (modern high-yielding crop varieties, fertilizer and pesticides) initially were able to boost their yield. But while the increased production led to lower market prices, they also became increasingly indebted to moneylenders and banks.

International researchers have now turned their attention to roots and tubers. The poor person’s crop, cassava, could yield up to 50 tons per hectare, about four to five times the current average yield, if chemical fertilizers were used. Again, it will be mainly the larger farmers who stand to benefit as they capture the market. Smallholders stand to lose and, along with their children, turn to seek other livelihood options.

Cities in Africa are bursting and offer few economic opportunities, so it is of little wonder that people seek greener horizons. Regional migration is a common strategy to survive. According to the latest report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM 2020 report, page 318), land degradation, land tenure insecurity and lack of rainfall are major drivers of environment-induced migration for people from West and North Africa. The European narrative framing migration as primarily ‚Äúeconomic‚ÄĚ often overlooks key factors, such as climate and environmental drivers of migration.

But environmental damage does not only happen where chemical or mineral fertilizers are used. It also happens where fertilizers are produced, but this remains often hidden.

The site of secondary mining of Phosphate rock in Nauru, 2007. Photo: Lorrie Graham

Nauru, a Pacific island, was a good place to live when it gained independence from Australia in 1968. However, in just three decades of surface-mining, the island was stripped of its soil, to get at the rock phosphate (for fertilizer). Now there is no place to grow crops. Ironically, Nauru’s entire population has become dependent on imported fast food from Australia. More than 70 percent of Nauruans are obese, and the country struggles to reinstall backyard gardening and encourage young people to eat plants. The mining of fertilizer and bad governance turned the smallest and once richest republic in the world into the most environmentally ravaged nation on earth: Nauru had little choice but to accept Australia’s offer to host ousted asylum seekers, often immigrants from Indonesia, in return for money.

While some people and donors are still convinced that a Green Revolution industrial model of agriculture is the way forward for Africa, one should pause and look at the consequences of mining and using chemical (mineral) fertilizer. If we want to keep people on their land, we have to support healthy food systems that nurture the soil and keep it healthy and productive.

Further reading

Bhullar, G.S., Bautze, D., Adamtey, N., Armengot, L., Cicek, H., Goldmann, E., Riar, A., R√ľegg, J., Schneider, M. and Huber, B. (2021) What is the contribution of organic agriculture to sustainable development? A synthesis of twelve years (2007-2019) of the ‚Äúlong-term farming systems comparisons in the tropics (SysCom)‚ÄĚ. Frick, Switzerland: Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

LoFaso, Julia (2014) Destroyed by Fertilizer, A Tiny Island Tries to Replant. Modern Farmer. https://modernfarmer.com/2014/03/tiny-island-destroyed-fertilizer-tries-replant/

International Organization for Migration (2020). Migration in West and North Africa and across the Mediterranean. International Organization for Migration, Geneva.

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A convincing gesture January 31st, 2021 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

In last week’s blog (We think with our hands), I wrote that people use gestures intentionally to convey meaning, while many other hand movements are unconscious. Moving our hands helps us to grasp the right words. But human speech is also much more than words and hand gestures.

Tone and volume of voice (screaming, whispering), facial expression, head movements (like nodding) and body language (slouching vs standing ramrod straight) all help to reinforce meaning and to convey emotion. We also make humming and clicking noises, which are sounds, but not speech. This non-verbal communication is convincing because it’s natural. We can spot the difference; a phony smile is made with the lips only, while you use your whole face for a sincere one.

At Agro-Insight, when we make videos with farmers, we never tell them what to say. We ask them questions, and film their answers, which we transcribe and translate into other languages. For example, if the farmer is speaking Arabic, we will use her voice in the Arabic version of the video, but we will dub over her voice for the English, French and other versions.

In these learning videos, the farmers’ non-verbal communication is typical of unscripted, sincere speech. For example, in a video filmed in India, farmer Maran explained that he had a problem with the neighbors’ turtles coming into his fish pond to eat their feed. As he said that, he moved his hands as if to suggest movement from one place to another. After hiring professional turtle catchers to remove the unwanted guests, everything was fine, an idea he reinforced by patting both hands downwards in a comforting gesture. The film crew didn’t tell him to do that. Unless you watch the Tamil version of the video, you will hear a voice artist dubbing Mr. Maran’s words, but you can still tell that his gestures go with his narrative.

In the final cut of the video, we usually leave in some of farmers‚Äô original voice, before starting the voiceover. This lets the audience hear some of the emotion. For instance, in our video on feeding dairy goats, Teresia Muthumbi explains that when she gives her goats banana stems with sweetpotato vines and a little grass, ‚ÄúThey give a lot of milk.‚ÄĚ She is speaking from experience: you can hear the sound of authority in her voice, even if you don‚Äôt understand Swahili.

In one video from Togo, farmer Filo Kodo tells how the maize harvest had increased a lot after rotating the corn with velvet bean (mucuna). One neighbor even asked her what magic she had used. ‚ÄúI told him it was with mucuna magic,‚ÄĚ she said, and you can see the smile in her eyes as well as on her lips.

I‚Äôve written before how smallholders in Malawi called people on the farmer learning videos their ‚Äúfriends‚ÄĚ, even though they had never met (Friends you can trust). Farmers in Uganda referred to their ‚Äúbrothers and sisters‚ÄĚ in West Africa, who they had only seen on the videos.

When people speak from the heart, their tone, gestures, expressions and body language convey conviction, even if the words themselves are translated into another language, and spoken by another person. Non-verbal communication adds a richness, a sincerity that is hard to fake. This is one reason why realistic farmer-to-farmer training videos are a far richer experience than fully animated videos.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs ‚Äď Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Watch the videos mentioned in this blog

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Dairy goat feeding

Reviving soils with mucuna


Por Jeff Bentley, 31 de enero del 2021

En el blog de la semana pasada (Pensamos con las manos), escribí que las personas usan los gestos a propósito para transmitir un significado, mientras que muchos otros movimientos de las manos son inconscientes. Mover las manos nos ayuda a captar las palabras que buscamos. Pero la comunicación humana es también mucho más que palabras y gestos con las manos.

El tono y el volumen de la voz (gritos, susurros), la expresión facial, los movimientos de la cabeza (como para asentir) y el lenguaje corporal (ponerse cómodo o mantenerse erguido) ayudan a reforzar el significado y a transmitir emociones. También emitimos zumbidos y chasquidos, que son sonidos, pero no son palabras. Esta comunicación no verbal es convincente porque es natural. Podemos notar la diferencia; una sonrisa falsa se hace sólo con los labios, mientras una sincera es con toda la cara.

En Agro-Insight, cuando hacemos videos con agricultores, nunca les decimos lo que tienen que decir. Les hacemos preguntas y filmamos sus respuestas, que transcribimos y traducimos a otros idiomas. Por ejemplo, si la agricultora habla en árabe, usamos su voz de ella en la versión árabe del video, pero la doblamos para las versiones en inglés, francés y otras.

En estos videos de aprendizaje, la comunicaci√≥n no verbal de los agricultores es la t√≠pica del habla sincera y sin guion. Por ejemplo, en un video grabado en la India, el agricultor Maran explic√≥ que ten√≠a un problema con las tortugas de los vecinos que entraban en su estanque de peces para comer su alimento. Mientras lo dec√≠a, mov√≠a las manos como si quisiera sugerir un movimiento de un lugar a otro. Despu√©s de contratar a cazadores profesionales para eliminaran a las tortugas, todo estaba bien, idea que reforz√≥ dando palmaditas con ambas manos hacia abajo en un gesto de satisfacci√≥n. El equipo de filmaci√≥n no le dijo que hiciera eso. A menos que se vea la versi√≥n en tamil del video, se oir√° a un locutor doblando las palabras del Sr. Maran, pero aun as√≠ se nota que sus gestos realmente acompa√Īan su narraci√≥n.

En la edici√≥n final del v√≠deo, solemos dejar algo de la voz original de la gente, antes de empezar el doblaje. Esto permite al p√ļblico escuchar parte de la emoci√≥n. Por ejemplo, en nuestro video sobre la alimentaci√≥n de las cabras lecheras, Teresia Muthumbi explica que cuando da a sus cabras tallos de pl√°tano con hojas de camote y un poco de pasto, “Dan mucha leche”. Habla por experiencia: se puede o√≠r el sonido de la autoridad en su voz, aunque no se entienda el suajili.

En un video de Togo, la agricultora Filo Kodo cuenta c√≥mo la cosecha de ma√≠z ha aumentado mucho despu√©s de rotar el ma√≠z con el frijol terciopelo (mucuna). Un vecino incluso le pregunt√≥ qu√© magia hab√≠a usado. “Le dije que era con la magia de la mucuna”, dijo, y se puede ver la sonrisa en sus ojos adem√°s de en sus labios.

Ya he escrito antes c√≥mo los campesinos de Malawi llamaban “amigos” a las personas que aparec√≠an en los v√≠deos de aprendizaje, aunque no se conocieran (Amigos confiables). Los agricultores de Uganda se refer√≠an a sus “hermanos y hermanas” de √Āfrica Occidental, a los que s√≥lo hab√≠an visto en los videos.

Cuando la gente habla con el coraz√≥n, su tono, sus gestos, sus expresiones y su lenguaje corporal transmiten convicci√≥n, aunque las palabras mismas est√©n traducidas a otro idioma y sean pronunciadas por otra persona. La comunicaci√≥n no verbal a√Īade una riqueza, una sinceridad que es dif√≠cil de fingir. Esta es una de las razones por las que los videos realistas de agricultor-a-agricultor son una experiencia mucho m√°s rica que los videos de pura animaci√≥n.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, y Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs ‚Äď Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Vea los videos mencionados en este blog

Estanque vivero para criar alevines

Alimentando a cabras lecheras

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

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 ‚ÄúM‚ÄĚ for mobile, and ‚Äúpesa,‚ÄĚ 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 na√Įve 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‚Äď13.

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 Laur√©ano Bede and colleagues created an experiment using a video about urea fertilizer. Over-use of this nitrogen fertilizer wastes farmers‚Äô money, pollutes waterways, and contributes to greenhouse gases. The video shows how to cut urea use by two-thirds, by making large, ‚Äúsuper-granules‚ÄĚ 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

Take a stab

Further reading

Lauréano 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.

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