For the last five years, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT) and its partners have conducted farmer field schools (FFS) that aim to develop practical and affordable methods of integrating Striga and soil fertility management (ISSFM) among farmers in Mali, Niger and Nigeria. The process of setting up these schools started with village meetings in which scientists, technicians and both male and female farmers got to know each other and discussed the local agricultural situation, main (rain-fed) crops and cropping systems. Focus groups then tried to quantify or map the occurrence of constraints in the village and possible reasons for these. Further exchanges took place to determine local knowledge about Striga and soil fertility and what farmers could do to deal with these problems. These engagements produced a common understanding which formed the basis for further activities. Where farmers were interested, further plans were made to organize a farmer field school around the topic of Striga and soil fertility.
During further preparatory meetings, FFS participants were chosen by the villagers, an experimental field was identified and rules and responsibilities of the partners were determined. With the participants, a cropping calendar and protocol were developed for the dominant farmer practice (FP). Then, after having discussed local options for Striga control and increasing soil fertility and having amended these with any relevant options from research, the groups developed an ISSFM practice.
During the season, FP was tested against ISSFM on large plots and farmers observed the crops, Striga, their environment and other biotic constraints such as insects, weeds and diseases. They also learned more about crop development, soil fertility and fertilizers and Striga biology and control through interventions by specialists (technicians, scientists and sometimes other farmers). ISSFM can include intercropping of cereals and legumes, application of organic and mineral fertilizers, crop management practices such as ridging or hand-pulling Striga at flowering stage and sometimes cultivating a variety of cereal crop that is resistant to Striga.
After completing the trial, harvesting the plots and threshing and weighing the yields, interesting results were found. It became obvious that this approach can significantly reduce the Striga population and improve crop productivity and soil fertility in the long term, but the most important question that farmers posed was: Can we make money while applying this ISSFM practice?
This question is important and has become an essential part of the comparison of FP to ISSFM. At the end of the season, farmers participated in calculating the costs, revenues and profits of the two practices tested during the season. The economic analysis is a simplified version of what economists call a ‘partial budget analysis’. It consists of some simple phases that are, however, not always easy for farmers to follow.
The first phase involves comparing the yields of grains by weighing and by counting the number of bundles of stalks or haulms from FP and ISSFM plots. The second phase consists of listing the different activities for FP and ISSFM, and summing up labour requirement (in person-days) for different operations for FP and ISSFM. The additional labour required for ISSFM (compared with FP) will be taken into account later as a cost for the ISSFM practice.
The third phase consists of calculating the costs, revenues and profits for FP and ISSFM. Costs (units of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers etc., multiplied by their market price at sowing) are deducted from the revenues (units of harvests multiplied by their current market price per unit) to calculate the profit for both practices.
Once the costs, revenues and profits have been calculated, a well informed comparison can be made between the two practices by the farmers. This always leads to lively discussions!
The final stage involves citing the advantages and disadvantages of individual component technologies used in the ISSFM practice, followed by preference ranking of these technologies.
- ISSFM requires more investment in terms of money and labour, but almost always leads to higher profits.
- The return on investment of ISSFM is often lower than that of FP, and this is a constraint for farmers to adopt the practice as tested in the FFS.
- After having done the economic analysis, farmers now have the right information and capacity to choose which technologies to adopt in their own fields based on their needs.
- A sufficient quantity and quality of organic fertilizer is hard to find, and one needs animals, equipment and labour to produce, transport and apply it.
- Mineral fertilizer requires a cash investment at a time when no money is available; therefore, credit for buying fertilizer is essential.
- Changing from a pure pearl millet or sorghum crop to an intercrop with legumes can increase profit significantly for farmers because animal feed from cowpea and groundnut haulms fetches high prices.
This approach will be used in Africa RISING as an integral part of the evaluation of trials on a range of crops and agronomic practices. In this way, the project will make sure farmers’ decisions on the use of technologies in their own fields will be based not only on information about yield (agronomy and variety characteristics), but also on information about the costs (as a function of labour, seed, fertilizers, etc.) and benefits (net benefit, rate of return to investment) of technologies and crops tested.
Written by Agathe Diame and Tom Van Mourik (ICRISAT).