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The rules and the players March 12th, 2014 by

Four groups of trainees went out to validate their fact sheets with farmers. No matter who you write for, one has to understand the audience and learn to listen. Most of our trainees were young people working with radio or TV, and had little knowledge on farming. While Jeff joined the group that wrote a fact sheet on feeding dairy cows, I joined the pigeon pea group. We drove to Kaisi village, about 20 minutes from Kasungu, where the workshop took place. Farmers in northern Malawi grow maize as a staple crop and tobacco for cash. A few days earlier, coming from Lilongwe, it struck us how all the farms were growing so much maize. Farmers only recently began growing pigeon pea, so I wondered how much experience do farmers need to have with a crop before they can form useful insights.  It turns out that farmers learn a lot, fast, but they still have major gaps in their knowledge.

Agriculturist Grace Tione translated her fact sheet into Chichewa, the national language, and read it out loud to Mercy Chipoka, a member of NASFAM (the national farmers’ association of Malawi) that had given her seed and advice. Mercy had grown pigeon peas for just two years on half an acre. She had learned that, unlike maize, this new crop did not need as much mineral fertiliser, which was expensive and hard to get. But until the fact sheet was read to her, she had no idea that pigeon pea captured nitrogen from the air and stored this in the soil. Extensionists tell farmers what to do, but often fail to explain the “why”. Mercy seemed happy with this new piece of information.

Grace also learned a few things from Mercy. While pigeon pea was promoted as a monocrop to improve soil fertility, Mercy intercropped the pigeon pea with her maize. Farmers who eat maize every day are not willing to sacrifice their small piece of land to a new crop, but they will find a way to combine the two. And while Mercy did exactly this, she discovered the pigeon pea suppresses weeds. It helped her to saved not only money, but also labour. When experimenting with a new crop, farmers turn it around and look at it from many different angles, not just from the point of view of soil fertility improvement.

Half an hour later, Grace showed her fact sheet to Shephard Bokosi, a young farmer from the same village. Shephard understood English and slowly read the fact sheet. He had grown pigeon pea for four years on his one acre field. He suggested adding some new information to the fact sheet. The abundant leaves of the pigeon pea fall to the ground and decompose, so the following crop benefits from the improved soil. Pigeon pea can stay in the field for three years and give a harvest each year. It requires little labour.

The main section of the fact sheet talked about how to plant pigeon pea as a monocrop, on ridges 75 cm apart. In Malawi tobacco is widely grown on ridges that are one meter apart. When rotating with another crop, it is just too much work to plough the field, level it, and then make new ridges at a different distance. So when Shephard harvests his tobacco and plants maize and pigeon pea in the same field, he leaves in the ridges. He used black and red stones to show us how he plants both crops. On one side of the ridge he plants maize, one seed per hill, 25 cm apart, the way Sasakawa Global 2000 had taught him. At the other side of the ridge he plants pigeon pea at 60 cm distance, the way NASFAM told him. Although both organisations train people on how to grow a monocrop, Shephard, like many other farmers, has taken parts of the advice and made these work under his conditions. He needs to get the most from his land and two crops yield more than one.

After Shephard rode away on his bicycle, Joseph Msaya, the local NASFAM field officer, arrived. Slightly excited, I explained to him the fascinating things we had just learned. Extensionists don’t always like to have their recommendations critiqued, and predictably, Joseph rejected the idea: “This will not work. By the time you harvest the maize, the pigeon pea has flowers and pods. When you cut off the maize stalks this will damage the pigeon pea.” It came down as a cold shower. I insisted we had to ask Shephard for more information. Fortunately he had been chatting with a nearby farmer, so we presented him the problem. “I no longer cut my maize stalks, but just harvest the cobs to avoid damaging the pigeon pea,” Shephard replied simply. It was another great eye-opener. While extensionists may explain the broad rules of the game, it is the farmers who really play it, and know the strategies.

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