Thursday, March 22, 2012

Work smart not hard - Boosting productivity of small-holder farmers through smarter farming practices

A man and his wife who are small-holder farmers, display their harvest of cassava and banana, two important staples in Sub-Sahara Africa. 

They have small farms, big families and few animals. They grow different types of crops to spread their risks and lack resources to invest in inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides to boost their production. They are at the mercy of the weather; when it rains their harvest is abundant, when it fails, their granaries are empty and they sometimes require food aid.

These are the small-holder farmers in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda that Dr. Piet Van Asten, a system's agronomist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is trying to work with to ensure they get the most out of what they have. However, they represent a majority of small-holder farmers in Africa.
He works for the Consortium for improving agriculture based livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) which brings together many partners to improve the livelihoods of small-holder farmers. IITA is one of the founding partners.

Too many challenges, where does one start? According to Van Asten, the starting point to improve the productivity of their farming systems is to understand their constraints and to try and identify the one or two issues that if tackled can have great positive impact. He says using tools such as yield gap analysis which looks at the actual productivity of the small holders farmers against the maximum yield they can get in the same circumstances, they have been able to make some headway.

Poor old soils

Dr Piet Van Asten, IITA systems agronomist. 
Van Asten says, focusing primarily on banana, they have established that poor soils are one of the most important constraints to the crop's production by the small-holder farmers in the three countries. Most soils, he said, were old, from old parent rocks and had very little nutrients left.

It therefore follows logically that supporting the farmers to use inputs such as fertilizer was one of the best-bet technologies to increase their production. However, Van Asten cautions, this must be applied based on the actual soil deficiency and include factors such as distance from the farms to market and banana prices.

"Investing in fertilizer does not always lead to profits for the farmers. They can only get value for their money if they live near markets or infrastructure is good and they are able to fetch good prices for their banana. They must also know which nutrients their soils are lacking and which are important for the crops they are growing. They should not follow blanket recommendations as is always the case," he said.

For example he said, they established that potassium, which plays a big role in banana production, was lacking in most soils in the three countries. Yet, the addition of the mineral led to great gains in banana production. Furthermore, Van Asten said, the banana plants that received adequate potassium fared better in times of drought.

He says the impact of adding nutrients to the soils was visible even at the farm level where bananas growing near the homesteads were healthier than those further down.

"This is because the soil closer to the homestead benefited from kitchen wastes as women tend not to walk far to throw away the rubbish. For example, ashes from the fire add calcium to the soils, "he said. "Food wastes add organic matter."
Banana growing near a homestead where the soil is often more fertile from kitchen waste 

Which crops give the highest returns?

Most African farmers practice mixed farming. The question therefore arises, with the little limited resources at their disposal, which crop would give them the highest return from fertilizer application and how do they make these decisions?

Van Asten says according to a scooping study they carried out in the three countries, they were surprised to discover that farmers would get the highest return from coffee, cassava and banana and not maize and beans which they gave preference.

"Coffee, banana and even cassava in the long run proved to be better value for money invested in fertilizer in terms of replenishing nutrient extracted in the soils and returns per dollar invested. However, farmers only see the immediate gains in maize and beans.

"Farmers still have to make the decision carefully because for example, once they start fertilizing their coffee it would be best if they can continue. If they stop, the coffee can't maintain its canopy and yields and will show some die-back. This fuels farmers' belief that fertilizer is bad and spoils soils," he said.

Coffee and banana - super mix

Coffee and banana intercrop. 
Other practices that were found to increase yield include inter-cropping banana and coffee. Piet says the farmers got more out of their land by growing the two crops together than having either of them alone. These findings he said are slowing leading to a change of hearts among policy makers who have for a long time preached mono-cropping of coffee in Rwanda and Burundi. This is because coffee is an import foreign exchange earner and they did not want anything to affect its production.

He said their research was not inventing anything new. Rather it was based on finding out what the best farmers were doing to get their good yields and helping the others to adopt them.

"Some of the best banana farmers get as much as 40 tons per hectare. We try to understand what they are doing and why, and then promote it to wider farmers in the community and even further," he said.

However, he says they don't always agree with the farmers views. For example, most farmers judge the productivity of their banana by the size of the bunches.

"To us, this is not the best indicator. We instead look at productivity per hectare. A farmer may have smaller bunches but more plants therefore his overall productivity is higher than the one with huge bunches but fewer plants. We therefore have been working with them to plant as many bananas as their land can accommodate based on its soil fertility, rainfall, among others" he said.

Piet says under CIALCA they have mapped most of the soils in the three countries and developed fertilizer usage recommendations that are region specific. They have also developed and are disseminating the rich information gathered on various ways that small-holder farmers can increase banana production. The crop is among their most important food and cash crop in the three countries but its productivity is very low.

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