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Salt blocks and mental blocks March 16th, 2014 by

Extensionists often feel that they are failing when they are really doing just fine. We saw that again this week in Malawi when an extensionist took me and two video-makers to meet some of the farmers he works with. He organizes them to raise dairy cows and to share calves with each other.

Six women and 16 men filed into a school in the village of Suza. The classroom walls were decorated with handmade charts, including a vegetation-zone map of Africa, and two neat cut-away drawings of the female reproductive system (front and side views).

After formal introductions, video-maker McLean Mafubza, with his boyish charm and smiling eyes, soon had the audience relaxed and answering his simple questions about how they feed their cows. This sort of feedback is crucial when making a learning video. The video-makers need to know how farmers are really using new ideas in order to recommend them to others.

Our guide, the local extensionist, was a mature man with a severe bearing. After listening for a while he rose to his feet and gave a passionate speech and then sat back down at the school child’s desk and hid his face in his arms, as though he had collapsed from emotional exhaustion. This exaggerated reaction more or less ruined the friendly meeting. After that people were less willing to talk and tried harder to say things the extensionist wanted to hear. One by one they stood up and repeated recipes for making dairy cow concentrated feed, with store-bought materials like “milk booster” and “dairy mash.” Meals like that could get expensive. Later, in the car, the extensionist simply said “They’re doing OK, but they lack a business model.”

The extentionist’s outburst had been about the three types of block you can buy for your cow to lick: salt blocks, urea blocks and mineral blocks. So these struggling African farmers were not buying enough mineral blocks to suit the extensionist who (like people in projects the world over) had invested too much “face” in pushing the project technology. But he should have been happy. It was clear that at some level people really were adapting the extensionist’s ideas. For example, they said they added salt to dry corn stalks, so the cows would enjoy them, and eat more.

The farmers were also making their own observations. When they cut fresh grass and brought it home for the cows, the farmers spread the grass out in the sun for a couple of hours, to let any little critters crawl out of it. They said it helped the grass get rid of “small white poisonous frogs”.

The locals were also making innovations in transportation. A farmer named Arnold Phiri was getting ready to leave on his bicycle, with a 20 liter milk can strapped to the back rack. The top-heavy can was firmly fastened with strips of car inner tubes. Mr. Phiri said he pedaled to Kasungu town, 20 kilometers away, every day to sell his milk.

Tending black-and-white dairy cows in a village in Malawi is difficult. Feed and clean water are in scarce supply at least part of every year, and money for medicines and supplies is always hard to come by. People have to adapt the concepts of dairy if they are going to make a profit on it.

Yet for some strange reason, extensionists think that farmers have to do exactly what they have been told, like schoolchildren. (The feeling is no doubt subliminally exaggerated when speaking in a real school for children). The first lesson for extensionists is to expect farmers to challenge, change and adapt the ideas they learn from outsiders. It’s a good thing, not a problem.

For further reading on extensionist attitudes see:

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W., Dacko, R.M., Yattara, K. and Acheampong, G.K. 2011. Attitude counts: engaging with rice farmers in West Africa. Development in Practice 21(6):806-821. Read article ›

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