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Information plus …

23 May 2016 Information plus … the journey towards sustainable change in legume technologies

George Oduor from CABI explains: The goal of any long-term development project is to create sustainable changes in awareness, attitude and ultimately behavior. In phase 1 of the Africa Soil Health Consortium (ASHC) projects delivering soil fertility messages were offered facilitation and consultancy advice to develop their messages especially to to farmers. The ASHC team helped to develop print-ready materials that the organizations agreed to reproduce and distribute.

Many institutions took up the offer of development support, but there was a frustration that too often our partners did not meet their side of the deal and actually get the materials out into the field. Whilst this is disappointing, we hope that the training received will create a sustainable change in the way that research institutions package technical information in more appropriate, farmer-friendly ways. A legacy of a web-based ISFM materials library containing over 300 resources was also developed.

In the second phase of the ASHC project, CABI and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation corrected the structural flaw in the approach used in the first phase by ensuring stronger and more sustainable delivery.

The core focus on integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) remained, an approach that assumes that farmers will find the best solutions for their farms. This is a combination of selected improved seeds/varieties, application of organic matter and fertilizers, the use of legumes in rotation and the adoption of good agricultural practices. But the ways of working have changed significantly.

ASHC is now charged with forming, and working within, partnerships to ensure that soil fertility messages are disseminated, at scale, to smallholder farming families. In short:

  • The new approach is based on a series of campaigns sharing the same technical information in different media
  • The messages in the different media are nuance so that they meet the information needs of different members of the small-scale farming households

We are looking for evidence of what combinations of media, and in which circumstances, result in changes in attitudes and behaviours in small-scale farming families. FWe are also interested in the impact that diffusing agricultural information through different family members will have on how decisions are made. Put simply will young people and women in farming families be empowered by accessing good quality farming information.

We wanted to pilot the campaign approach in late 2015. Our first approach was to N2Africa which suggested working together on a pilot campaign promoting common bean technologies to small-scale farmers in Northern Tanzania.

Farm Radio International came on board to recruit a suitable radio station. Shujaaz (Well Told Story) worked with us to develop two story lines in their comic and social media platform, showing how a young farmer and an agro-dealer were working with improved legume technologies. Our research partners were IITA and I-logix (a Nairobi-based firm). I-logix were asked to undertake a major telephone research pilot exercise with over 3,000 farmers.

This research was to identify how farmers felt about different legume technologies, especially those relating to market-ready inputs (improved seed varieties and fertilizer). At every stage of the campaign planning the Selian Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) and Wageningen University gave technical support.

There is a real danger in development communications in that some believe that information is the silver bullet and that better communications will lead to a permanent change in farming practice in Africa. This is not true and as development communications professions we need to assert that information is essential but not sufficient to bring about sustainable change.

The reasons farmers do apply new technologies vary but farmer are rational so they need to have access to both input and output markets to make it viable to invest.

The 2015 pilot was designed to help the partners understand the intricacies of running a campaign. What became clear through the early findings of the I-logix research was that there are significant numbers of farmer who are able to apply improved legume technologies, but they are frustrated by inadequate supply chains for key inputs. And whilst overall there were indications of strong demand for inputs amongst some farmer, their geographically dispersal made it hard to served them as a market. So, further work is needed to convert this latent demand into a sustainable input supply system.

During the pilot project in Tanzania the extent of the problems with the legume technology inputs became clearer. Results of the farmers survey showed very strong farmer preference for improved seed varieties that are still not registered for use in Tanzania. Whilst an informal, unregulated economy is operating at scale to provide farmers with their preferred varieties of seed, projects like ours cannot be seen to be endorsing circumventing the national systems. So, we cannot provide good agronomic advice to support the preferred varieties. During the life of the project we anticipate that pressure from the farmers will result in their preferred varieties being formally registered.

We found that stocks of registered improved seeds are in short supply. By the end of the season, as bean grain stocks reduce, the market price for seed is very close to the price of grain. This tempts many seed growers to sell seed stocks into the grain markets, exacerbating the shortfall in improved seed stocks for the following season.

We discovered that, to build sustainable markets, bean seed dealers wanted to advocate planting new bean seed every year. In reality seed can be saved for several seasons. Annual seed replenishment from even a fraction of bean growers would soon wipe out the inadequate seed stocks. So the Legume Alliance is suggesting production of new seed every 3 seasons. However the logistical challenges of providing bean seed at scale are significant. The Legume Alliance now includes the Agricultural Seed Agency, which is working to bulk up more seed. In addition the African Fertilizer Agri-business Partnership (AFAP) will pursue the policy issues associated with matching common bean seed supply and demand.

The nitrogen fixing rhizobia strains were only registered in Tanzania in 2015 with approval for a limited number of legumes. Common bean may well be added to the list, as effective strains of rhizobia are isolated and marketed.

Commercially produced Rhizobia inoculants are a highly cost-effective legume technology. However it has a limited shelf life (realistically 6-12 months depending on the brand, packaging and storage conditions) and requires special handling on the part of the input supply chain and the farmers themselves. So, there is a lot of work required in building demand and putting in place effective supply chain that are fully informed to work with this new input. There is also work to be undertaken to fully share the benefits – not just on the seasons legume crop, but in terms of realistic claims that can be made about the nitrogen left behind for subsequent crops. This level of economic data helps farmers evaluate the benefit:cost of the different approaches they can consider as their best bet ISFM mix.

In theory fertilizer for use on legumes should be available – these P-fertilizers are designed to kick start the legume into producing nitrogen. However culturally beans are seen as a crop that needs no fertilizer and so the economics of fertilizer use in beans needs to be clearly spelt out. So input dealers appear to be reluctant to hold stocks of specialist fertilizers. Once again the Alliance is looking how it can build both demand and supply chains with the support of point of sale material and training in the agro-dealerships and mass extension.

There are real opportunities within the supply chains for improved legume technologies for information to better integrated. This could include packaging and point of sale material designs that help farmers to correctly apply inputs. This could include simple steps like tape measure printed to help in spacing of seeds at planting and fertilizer application. Or providing clear guidance in each input package on how improved seed + organic matter/ fertilizer + good agricultural practices can really boost crop production and replenish the soil.

Over the next 4 years the partners in the Legume Alliance will continue to review the obstacles to small-scale farming families adopting improved legume technologies. We will be piloting different approaches and including new partners to help us overcome barriers.

The lessons emerging from these scale-up campaigns will be packaged and shared widely. So we have made a considerable investment in monitoring, learning and evaluation to know what is happening. This will mean we can advise others on how, and when, to create fully integrated campaigns and what works where.

We look forward to sharing our findings here in the future.

ASHC is in the process of setting up further partnerships in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.

This blog was commissioned by N2Africa for its May Podcast.