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Funder reviews progress on ASHC phase 1

Christian Witt writes:

As a grants officer within the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all grants are important, but the Africa Soil Health Consortium grant was also personal.

This grant was personal because for many years I was a soil research scientist working in the field. I knew that there were blocks in the research extension continuum and I felt that this grant could address them.

I know that a scientific training is about writing up findings in journals. Journals lock up knowledge in two ways – first they are often not open to people who need to read them because of fees. Secondly, journals are written for other scientists, not to support last mile delivery or to support farmers. The convention of journals also means that tacit knowledge collected by the researchers is often not reported. I am not blaming the scientists – they do valuable work – but too often they don’t have crucial support to ensure that their labours make a difference to food security or farmer incomes. Agricultural scientists, through their training, have little understanding of how knowledge travels outside of research circles.

I faced this frustration myself and as I developed research I tried to move my practice to look at things that can make a difference on the ground. Generally, however, there is no infrastructure or incentives in place for this to happen at scale.

My journey as a scientist in South East Asia made me realise that there is a wealth of ideas and innovations come from researchers partnering with farmers on the ground. Knowing the problems that farmers are facing in the field is also a great place to start to start to plan information campaigns. If you ask farmers where they get information from, the most popular answer will be other farmers.

In the Africa Soil Health Consortium we pulled together a group of people committed to the ideas of integrated soil fertility management (ISFM). Put simply this is an approach that combines the benefits of improved seed, appropriate fertilizer use and the addition of organic matter plus agronomic practices that best fit for farmers in a given locality. This is the approach that the Foundation believes can help address the long-term decline in soil health that much of Africa is experiencing.

This group of experts, which became the technical advisory group for the project, helped to ensure that ideas on ISFM were cross-pollinated across nations and crops. They worked with the team at CABI to set out a set of principles in the ISFM handbook. Then the CABI team picked up and developed inclusive participatory approaches to make crop specific ISFM material that would work in a specific location and context. Their write-shop process challenged scientists to create material that talked to farmers and ensured that extensionists and farmers groups gave appropriate feedback to refine the materials. Central to this was a focus on the practical actions the farmers needed to take, rather than a narrative redefining their problems. This process also helped tap into that tacit knowledge that never made it into the journals.

The ISFM library on the ASHC website now has several hundred examples of what farmers-friendly materials can look like. The challenge now is to make sure that this information is supporting adoption and adaption of ISFM to meet the needs of millions of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. This is why I am delighted that the Foundation has been able to invest in a second phase which is using a campaign style approach to reach and influence farming practices in smallholder farming families.

The first phase was more difficult than it seemed on paper. At the planning stage it seemed easy. ASHC would help scientist share what they knew and everyone would be a winner. But, it took a very long time for ASHC to build trust. There was a real fear that this was some attempt to steal data or claim credit for other peoples work. But slowly and patiently the team built trust of key individuals and agencies.

Phase 2 will see CABI facilitating more knowledge being developed into usable information. This will see a great focus on getting information out to farming families in a range of formats.

ASHC has worked as a catalyst for change. What is actually a very small team of dedicated people in ASHC is starting to find like-minded people who want to make change happen. In phase 2 there are already signs that the ASHC team is using the Foundation grant to leverage funds from other investors and this is great to see.

What this team has done is appreciated by the scientific and extension communities they have worked with. This is because they are meeting an important need. I am pleased that the team is sharing their lessons in an open and candid way on World Soil Day.

I would like to thank everyone who contributed to project over the past four years. Without the support of farmers, extension, the private sector, academics and the research community – these lessons would never have been learned.