Farmers teaching farmers

Miep Lenoir

After researchers in Burkina Faso identified the best crop varieties for the Sissili region, a local organization, FEPPASI, introduced ICTs to inform farmers and explain new growing techniques. As a result, production is up to nine times greater than before.

When FEPPASI, the Federation of Farmer Organisations of Sissili, started its activities in 1998, the organization wanted to find out which crop varieties and production techniques were most suitable for the specific soil and climate conditions of Sissili province, in south-central Burkina Faso. Until then, farmers depended on knowledge and techniques passed on orally from generation to generation, without having access to new developments and innovations in the sector, and without having the opportunity to experiment.

Assistance from government extension workers was not suited to the specific conditions of the area, and their information was often outdated. In order to provide farmers with more relevant information, FEPPASI started a research programme in collaboration with the Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute (INERA) to test different varieties of crops, fertilization techniques and seed multiplication techniques.

In one research project, for example, FEPPASI tested 25 different varieties of corn, of which seven proved particularly suitable to the soil and climatic conditions of the province. They started to promote these seven varieties to farmers and teach them accompanying production techniques.

Since 2005, FEPPASI has been testing the potential of ICTs to train farmers and to help professionalize their businesses. In that time, the organization has managed to gradually integrate ICTs into its day-to-day working processes. They regularly use multimedia tools, such as digital photo and video cameras, to document the tests of crops varieties in the field and to create training materials.

Spreading local practices

FEPPASI initially trained a group of 20 farmers as advisors, who could then go on to train and advise other farmers in their respective districts. Since the advisors are farmers from the same area, the trust and acceptance levels are very high compared to an advisor from the capital city. This group of advisors were subsequently trained in basic ICT skills and how to use these to create training materials.

‘Previously, people fell asleep during our training sessions,’ says Korotimi Barry, a former evaluation officer at FEPPASI. ‘With the digital camera, we can show images of the development in the agricultural test fields. In our meetings with producers, these images allow us to make visual comparisons. We beam the images and discuss the causes of the successes and failures of the different fields. We also make videos of the farming techniques and show them during the training sessions.’

Barry adds that it was difficult to convince farmers about crop varieties simply by telling them that their neighbours in the other village produced more per hectare. Now, with images, people can visualize the improvements. The images make it possible to overcome the limited understanding of certain topics, a significant problem given the high illiteracy rate among the population (about 80% of producers in this region cannot read or write). For trainer Mahamadou Korogho, the use of digital content has become essential in his work. ‘During training sessions, I don’t feel at ease anymore without a computer,’ he says. ‘When I can show pictures of exemplary productions, the participants applaud.’

In four years, FEPPASI’s advisors have trained about 2,500 farmers in innovative production, food processing methods, marketing skills, the production of organic fertilizers, and techniques for the sustainable management of natural resources, using videos, photos and digital presentations. For example, one photo stream explains the step-by-step process of turning yams into flour.

According to FEPPASI, the use of these support materials has considerably reduced the length of workshops and enhanced their impact. There are many success stories to tell. Monitoring and evaluation data reveal that the farmers who received training have been able to double and even triple their yields.

In anonymous questionnaires collected in 2006, 2007 and 2008, farmers expressed the numerous ways in which they had benefited. ‘I have found contacts online to sell almonds and shea,’ said one. ‘I manage the production techniques to produce yellow and white corn,’ said another. One farmer, who now processes yams into flour, couscous and cake, has increased his income by adopting better business practices: ‘The products are better presented through the use of labels and I sell more.’ An impact study carried out by INERA revealed that, on average, agricultural production had increased from 0.5 tonnes per hectare in 2003 to 4.5 tonnes in 2007.

Sissili farmers have also used the internet to develop techniques to select and improve seeds from the best of their crop varieties. For example, producer Moumouni Niébié searched online and found an organization in Benin that specializes in production methods for yams. Niébié contacted them and learned how to produce yam seeds from fragmenting yam roots. To further improve the quality of seeds used by its members, FEPPASI took pictures of several crop varieties and selected the best. Niébé’s corn field was among the fields selected. He said ‘FEPPASI selected a number of producers who applied the new production techniques well, and guided them to produce improved seeds, so the other farmers have access to good quality seeds as well.’

FEPPASI’s group of farmer advisors act as intermediaries between the farmer communities and INERA. When disease affects a certain crop, for example, the advisor takes a picture of the plant and sends it by email to the research institute. When similar pictures come from different villages, the institute knows there is an outbreak and can take measures to limit the damage.

Management

The FEPPASI headquarters in Leo, the capital of Sissili province, and the two district offices in Boura and Bieha (at about 50 west and 30 kilometres east of Leo respectively) are connected to the internet. The three locations function as information centres where members can use the computers.

In the first two years of the project, FEPPASI trained about 150 farmers in basic computer and multimedia skills. However, these courses created expectations regarding equipment and connectivity that FEPPASI was not able to meet at that time, as it had a weak and unstable dial-up internet connection and only two computers per centre.

In 2009, the dial-up internet connection was replaced by a VSAT connection in Leo and Boura. As this connection is expensive, FEPPASI looked to recover the costs by sharing the connection with several other organizations nearby for a fee. This has turned FEPPASI into an internet provider, with positive connectivity results, but at the same time runs the risk of moving the organization away from its core objectives.

FEPPASI also expanded the telecentre in its headquarters, making seven computers available for members. ‘Our connection in Leo is now often better than in Ouagadougou,’ says Joseph Dagano, president of FEPPASI. According to Dagano, a farmer who is a member of their organization is less likely to be misinformed or taken advantage of.

‘With the telecentre in Boura, the district farmer organization is now a member of an online exchange and news group, putting them in touch with other farmer organizations and federations in the country, and with external partners. When necessary,’ he adds, ‘a farmer in remote Sissili can contact his colleague in other areas to get correct information on cereals and other products in only a few minutes.’

Also, the FEPPASI website and newsletter ‘Sissili Vala Kori’ (Sissili farmers’ voice) have increased the profile of the organization and led to a greater number of contacts within Burkina Faso and beyond.

While FEPPASI initially wanted to create information centres where farmers can access relevant content directly, a different model has evolved. The telecentres, for example, are used by a minority of literate farmers to find market opportunities and communicate with buyers and sellers on national and international levels. Illiterate members – the majority – benefit from the centres indirectly through training courses.

The group of farmer trainers use the centres to create and store specific audiovisual content adapted to the local conditions and based on local research. At the moment, however, there is no central storage system for all the training materials produced. Trainers are reluctant to share their own materials with colleagues or online. FEPPASI will need to develop an institutional policy on knowledge management that encourages, as well as guides, trainers and extension workers to process and share their content.

Although the farmers are now growing the new crop varieties, their increased production does not automatically lead to increased incomes. For that, FEPPASI also uses ICTs to improve marketing and sales. In the last few years, they have assisted farmers to collect data on their production, their costs, and revenues.

Having worked with ICTs for four years, the next step is to create a database that can aggregate the data collected in that time to make projections and calculations of crops and productivity throughout the province. Based on these data, FEPPASI will be able to access credit for its members through gathering and selling their products in larger quantities.

Leadership

There are several lessons that can be drawn from FEPPASI’s work in the past four years. Joseph Dagano understood the importance of ICTs long before many others in the sector. When they started to work with ICTs in 2005, farmers, as well as donors, did not immediately see the advantages. An old anecdote that is often repeated in the organization concerns a donor who once said: ‘Farmers need food, not computers!’ Dagano knew where he wanted his organization to go, and initial resistance did not stop him.

FEPPASI was able to integrate ICTs at its own pace, gradually exploring the possibilities and learning how to exploit them for maximum advantage. The project objectives set at the beginning evolved over time as increased confidence gave way to new ambitions. This would not have been possible from the start; the organization needed time to incorporate the technology, build skills, and discover how ICT tools can best suit their interests.

Networking with local ICT training partners and other organizations has also been crucial for FEPPASI, enabling them to get technical advice, and share challenges and ideas. For example, they recently started organizing nightly events in villages to provide more information on their work, using a beamer and a generator, a concept taken from network partner Sahel Solidarité.

Agricultural advisors from government agencies in the capital city did not know the specific conditions of the area. FEPPASI decided to invest in its own research and ICT training, and create its own training materials. The organization’s advisors look the same as the farmers, speak the same language, with the same accent, and tell their own stories. Farmers are more inclined to adopt new production techniques from someone they feel is like them. Through improved research and training courses facilitated by fellow farmers, Sissili producers are improving the quality of their seeds and growing new crop varieties that best suit their province’s climatic and soil conditions.

These lessons show that the successes the farmers of Sissili have enjoyed through FEPPASI’s work were not purely a result of technology. It was about having a clear vision of what the organization wanted to accomplish and how ICTs could facilitate this, taking into account the importance of local trainers, locally developed content, local support, and the freedom to gradually change objectives according to new insights.

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Miep Lenoir is a knowledge sharing officer at the International Institute for Communication and Development ( www.iicd.org )

Federation of Farmer Organisations of Sissili
FEPPASI provides information and training to develop the skills of farmers, promote technological innovations in agricultural production, and assist farmers in the marketing of agricultural products.
www.feppasi.org

Environmental and Agricultural Research Institute
INERA specializes in the development, implementation and coordination of environmental and agricultural research in Burkina Faso.
www.inera.bf

International Institute for Communication and Development
IICD is an international organization specializing in enabling people in developing countries to make use of ICTs to improve their livelihoods and their quality of life. IICD works in the sectors of agriculture, health, education, governance and citizen participation.
www.iicd.org

26 November 2009

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)