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The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

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The vanishing factsheet July 21st, 2019 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Villagers the world over are buying smart phones, getting on line and eagerly using and sharing information electronically. It might seem like print is going out of fashion, but paper can still be an important medium.

I recently took part in an information fair for farmers in the village of Carrillo, Cotopaxi, in highland Ecuador. Along with colleagues, I was visiting the NGO EkoRural, which has worked for years with the farmers in this land of perpetual springtime.

Such visits can turn into a performance, where the farmers put on shows for their guests. It’s always interesting, but it can be hard to tell how much of the information came from the farmers and how much was prompted by their well-meaning extensionists. This time, EkoRural turned the idea around. We visitors were given a small space to show posters and demonstrations to the local farmers, who would rotate through our stands in eight groups of 25 people.

I set up shop in a village schoolroom. I used my 15-minute time slot to show each group a farmer-to-farmer video from Bolivia. The time limit was too short to discuss the videos with my audience. So I wrote a factsheet, telling them how to log onto www.accessagriculture.org, and download more videos for free.

At least some people read the factsheets carefully and my idea seemed to be working. But I didn’t realize how much my audience wanted the factsheets until I ran out of them. I had underestimated the turnout for the event. As I handed out the last copy of the fact sheet, I turned to apologize to one farmer who still had her hand out. She gave me a piercing look of total disappointment.

Then another man stepped in. “Don’t you have your original left? I can get it photocopied,” he said helpfully.

Problem solved, or so I thought. I gave him the original I brought from Bolivia and waited for my new friend to return with the photocopies. I never saw him or the factsheet again. At least he got the information he wanted. Even in this digital age, print is still popular. It also has some advantages: it is cheap, permanent and always available to read, as my vanishing new friend will surely agree.

Watch the videos

Living windbreaks to protect the soil

Recording the weather

Forecasting the weather with an app

Further reading

Access Agriculture publishes a fact sheet for each of its videos. The fact sheets have been popular with video viewers. In a recent on-line survey, 31% of respondents said they downloaded them.

See also:

Bentley, Jeffery W. and Eric Boa 2013 The snowman outline: fact sheets by extensionists for farmers. Development in Practice.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to EkoRural for organizing our trip to Carrillo, generously supported by the McKnight Foundation.

LA HOJA VOLANTE DESAPARECIDA

La gente rural de todo el mundo está comprando teléfonos inteligentes, conectándose al Internet y usando y compartiendo información electrónicamente. Puede parecer que los impresos están pasando de moda, pero el papel todavía sirve.

Hace poco participé en un día de campo para compartir con agricultores en la comunidad de Carrillo, Cotopaxi, en los Altos Andes de Ecuador. Junto con mis colegas, visitaba la ONG EkoRural, que ha trabajado durante años con los agricultores en esta tierra de la eterna primavera.

Estas visitas pueden convertirse en todo un show, donde los agricultores presentan espectáculos para sus invitados. Siempre es interesante, pero puede ser difícil saber cuánta información proviene de los agricultores y cuánta es motivada por sus bien intencionados extensionistas. Esta vez, EkoRural dio un giro a la idea. A los visitantes se nos dio un pequeño espacio para mostrar carteles y demostraciones a los agricultores locales, quienes rotaban por nuestros stands en ocho grupos de 25 personas.

Me instalé en una escuela del pueblo. Usé mis 15 minutos para mostrar a cada grupo un video de agricultor-a-agricultor de Bolivia. El límite de tiempo no me dejaba discutir los videos con mi audiencia. Así que escribí una hoja volante, explicándoles cómo entrar en www.accessagriculture.org, y descargar más videos gratis.

Varias personas leyeron las hojas volantes cuidadosamente y mi idea parecĂ­a funcionar. Pero cuando mis hojas volantes se acababan mi di cuenta que la gente las querĂ­a de verdad. Yo habĂ­a subestimado la participaciĂłn en el evento. Mientras repartĂ­a el Ăşltimo ejemplar de las hojas volantes, di la vuelta para disculparme con una campesina que todavĂ­a extendĂ­a su mano. Me mirĂł con una mirada penetrante de total decepciĂłn.

Entonces otro hombre intervino. “ÂżNo tienes tu copia original? Puedo fotocopiarla”, dijo amablemente.

Problema resuelto, o eso creía. Le di el original que traje de Bolivia y esperé a que mi nuevo amigo volviera con las fotocopias. Nunca lo volví a ver ni a él ni a la hoja volante. Al menos él obtuvo la información que quería. Incluso en esta era digital, el material impreso sigue siendo popular. Tiene algunas ventajas: es barato, permanente y siempre disponible para leer, como seguramente estará de acuerdo mi nuevo amigo que se hizo humo.

Ver los videos

Barreras vivas para proteger el suelo

Hacer un registro del clima

Pronosticar el clima con una aplicaciĂłn

Lectura adicional

Access Agriculture publica una hoja volante para cada uno de sus vĂ­deos. Las hojas volantes han sido muy populares entre los espectadores de vĂ­deo. En una reciente encuesta en lĂ­nea, el 31% de los encuestados dijeron que los habĂ­an descargado.

Bentley, Jeffery W. and Eric Boa 2013 The snowman outline: fact sheets by extensionists for farmers. Development in Practice.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a EkoRural por organizar nuestro viaje a Carrillo, generosamente apoyado por la FundaciĂłn McKnight.

Planting a wrong image July 7th, 2019 by

A picture says more than a thousand words. And pictures stick better in the mind. On a recent visit to the organic farm shop Eikelenhof, run by our friends Johan and Vera, I was reminded how easy it is for wrong images to become received knowledge.

Vera was talking to Peter, a plastic artist from the neighbourhood and one of the regular customers at the farm shop. The past few days we had had quite some severe storms and Peter was telling how the gusty winds had taken their toll with broken branches and uprooted trees as a result. Uprooted trees and heavy soil erosion are some of the few occasions when people get to see a glimpse of how the roots of mature trees look like. When they continued discussing about tree roots, both said that the roots are a mirror of the tree canopy. At that stage I intervened and started explaining how this image survived for centuries, but that this was absolutely wrong. Vera and Peter are both clever successful people, but like many of us, it is hard for them to shake off an image that has been impressed in their minds.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin was making history with his research on how species had evolved over millions of years. The scientific revolution and the age of exploration ignited a growing interest in exotic plants and the economic potential they might have, leading to the boom of botanical gardens across Europe. These events also triggered a general interest in nature overall, and especially in England this passion for gardens has lived on until today.

When a 19th century graphic artist diverted from the botanical drawing style, which was based on accurate observations, he drew from imagination a stylistic tree with the roots being as a mirror of the canopy. He had no idea how it would impact on future generations. Helped by the technical breakthrough of offset printing and emerging media houses, this image made its way across Europe and firmy established in the minds of ordinary folks. Until today, hundreds of variations continue to be developed and spread, further feeding this misperception.

But my friends at the farm shop in Belgium are not the only people who accept the received wisdom that a tree’s roots mirror its branches. Even Thai farmers have taken the idea on board. When visiting a mango project in Thailand some 20 years ago, I recall visiting orchards where farmers had dug a trench just below the edge of the tree canopy to irrigate and put some organic fertilizer. It was explained to me that this was the zone where all the feeder roots of the trees could be found. Until today, tree roots are poorly studied, partly because they are hard to observe.

Fortunately, many of the 19th century illustrators painted accurate pictures of the natural world, which led to a greater understanding of natural history. Whether we illustrate with water colors or with video, it is important to get the picture right.

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Singing to the cows May 19th, 2019 by

I recently showed a Kenyan video about hand milking to a group of women dairy farmers in Bolivia. They laughed when Peter Ndung’u Macharia, a farmer who appears in the video, said that he sometimes sang to his cows.

I wondered why the Bolivian women laughed. People laugh for many reasons. They may find humor when they see the familiar in an unexpected context, or they can laugh at a strange idea. So, later I asked the extensionist, who was also watching the video: “Do dairy farmers here sing to their cows?”

“I wished they would sing to their cows. They argue in front of their cows, husband and wife yelling at each other, or at their kids. Sometimes they hit the cow, or they milk with all that anger inside of them, making the cow nervous.”

Access Agriculture videos are meant to be a learning experience, and serious, but it may add interest if the audience finds some unintended humor. The extensionist said that the video was excellent, and that he hoped that people here would adopt a softer touch, such as singing, instead of just corralling a cow and jerking on her unwashed teats.

After all, music is used fairly widely to calm cows – from classical concertos to Simon and Garfunkel (look up “music to soothe dairy cows”). Cows are living beings and making them comfortable during milking can only help to produce quality milk. And never argue in front of them.

Watch the video

Hand milking of dairy cows

Show farmers and real innovators February 17th, 2019 by

Fellow anthropologist Glenn Stone has written a charming story about the “show farmer,” one who uses a technology proposed by a project, and is always ready to give visitors a glowing account of it. Stone once visited a show farmer who was growing organic cotton with help from a project in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years later, Stone’s student, Andrew Flachs, visited the same farmer, but by then the project had ended and the farmer had given up on organic cotton. As Stone says, “It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.”

Stone’s story rings true. I’ve seen many show farmers over the years.

I recall one such farmer in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, years ago, that I visited for a project evaluation. He had a small barn, built with wood, cement and other hardware donated by a well-funded project. At the time I doubted if rural people would make these livestock shelters on their own, because the materials were expensive and had to be trucked in from town. The farmer clearly liked his barn, and was happy to spend time answering my questions. Perhaps he saw my visit as part of his payment for getting a valuable structure.

The same NGO that built the barn in Chuquisaca was also encouraging people to establish group gardens with imported vegetable seed. The project encouraged the villagers to plant lettuce and carrots, ostensibly because local people were eating no vegetables. The solutions offered to the farmers transferred the model of a backyard garden from suburban USA to the sandstone canyons of Chuquisaca. But, unnoticed by the project, the farm families had been growing nutritious vegetables all along. They had patches of chilli and they grew squash between their rows of maize. Both of these vegetables were stored and available during the off-season.

As a benefit of living in Bolivia, and working on a lot of projects, I have been able to go back to this part of Chuquisaca several times. As I have returned to the area over the years, I have always been curious about the vegetables and looked to see if they caught on.  Once I saw a single row of cabbage as a dividing line in a field planted half in maize and half in potatoes, but this never caught on. I also saw a family growing a few lettuce plants in the moist soil near their outdoor water faucet. For some years a few families kept their sheep and goats inside the chicken-wire fences the NGOs built had built around the old gardens, but the backyard vegetable garden died out and the Chuquisaqueños continued to grow chilli and squash.

But some innovations do keep going even after the outsiders leave.

For example, in the 2000s, researchers at ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Mali created simple techniques for controlling Striga, the parasitic weed. Over several years, ICRISAT taught ideas like crop rotation and organic fertilizer in farmer field schools from Mali to Tanzania. In 2010 they invited Paul Van Mele and Agro-Insight to make videos with some of the farmer field school graduates. These were not show farmers; they hadn’t just copied what they learned at the FFS, but had adapted the ideas to suit their own conditions. Years after learning about these innovations, farmers were still using them.

Later, ICRISAT and others showed the Striga videos to thousands of farmers. In 2013 and 2014 I visited farmers who had not participated in the farmer field schools, but had seen the videos. They were still experimenting with control methods, years after watching the videos. They did this on their own, without project support, for example inventing new ways to intercrop legumes and cereals. Women who had seen the videos banded together in groups to pull Striga weeds for other farmers, for a fee.

Show farmers give time and labor to a project, and often loan a bit of land. In return, the show farmer usually receives some goods, such as a bit of seed, but they also get a chance to learn new ideas, which is a motivation for some farmers. And sometimes these new ideas do mature enough to become practical solutions to real problems, especially when the farmers engage with competent agricultural scientists. Even so, it may take years of research and adaptation to make the innovations affordable, practical and functional. Such ideas are too good for a show; they can be made into a 15-minute video of the real.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, Sidi Touré, Tom van Mourik, Samuel Guindo and Gérard Zoundji 2017 “Seeds of the devil weed: Local Knowledge and Learning from Videos in Mali,” pp 75-85. In Paul Sillitoe (Ed.) Indigenous Knowledge: Enhancing its Contribution to Natural Resources Management. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 227 pp.

Stone, Glenn, 2014, Theme park farming in Japan

Zoundji, Gérard C., Simplice D. Vodouhê, Florent Okry, Jeffery W. Bentley & Rigobert C. Tossou 2017 “Beyond Striga Management: Learning Videos Enhanced Farmers’ Knowledge on Climate-Smart Agriculture in Mali.” Sustainable Agriculture Research 7(1): 80-92. https://www.accessagriculture.org/publications

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Videos Striga videos: https://www.accessagriculture.org/search/striga/all/

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