Brian Martalus is the Feed the Future Coordinator at USAID Zambia. He is responsible for overseeing all Feed the Future bilateral projects portfolio including value chain projects, policy projects, nutrition and resilience projects, as well as research and development projects like the SIMLEZA-Africa RISING project which has been implementing conservation agriculture technologies for the past 2 years in the Eastern Province of Zambia.
In this interview which was done on the sidelines of the 2015 Annual Review and Planning Meeting for Africa RISING East and Southern Africa project, he shares his thoughts on the progress made by Africa RISING and what the project team should dedicate their energies to in the possible second phase of the project.
Is this the first time you are taking part in an Africa RISING meeting?
Actually I have been involved in Africa RISING meetings before. I can’t remember whether it was an annual review and planning meeting or something else. That was two years ago – May 2013 in Malawi.
One of the themes and issues always focused on during such review and planning meetings by Africa RISING is integration of the ongoing research work. As a two time participant in Africa RISING project meetings, do you feel this is finally coming through?
I think so. I got the impression that the project team was looking at the whole system in terms of what could a farmer do with his land…..he could farm, he could graze, grow fodder for his livestock, use the manure from those animals to help improve the fertility of the soil, rotate crops and he can also have different crops mixed in the same farm. So yes, it is coming through. The scientists are quite focused on how to use the limited land that the farmer has more effectively.
What are your thoughts regarding the 2015 review and planning meeting so far?
Compared to last time, I remember, Africa RISING scientists were more focused on pure research and I was wondering then how the technologies will be disseminated to farmers. But I see this time; the focus has shifted beyond purely research into looking for pathways of dissemination, even if in some cases Africa RISING will not do it by itself. I also find it quite exciting that the project is now taking a look at cost-benefit analysis of the different technologies and whether they make sense socio-economically. So I love the fact that the project is now going in this direction as it moves towards a possible second phase.
One of the main discussion points during this year’s review and planning meeting has been the expected focus areas in the second phase of the project. Having listened to the discussions and to an extent participated in them, what would you would probably advise the project team to think more critically about going into the second phase of the project?
I think they’ve just started to deal with this economic analysis and you get the sense from the data presented so far that they are now starting to package these technologies for the smallholder farming communities where the project is working. To their credit, the team is now thinking about how can these technologies be used? Does it make economic sense for farmers? etc. I think that is a huge thing. Sure it is nice to do all this research and increase productivity or come up with ways of increasing productivity, but if it doesn’t make economic sense for the farmer then the technology could end up being confined to the demo plots only. So let’s say you have come up with a new seed or a new cropping system or a new way to apply fertilizer, whatever the case may be. It has to be completely viable and it has to be introduced through a network of mostly private sector actors able to actually sell and distribute these products and new technologies. I think without that, it’s just a pie in the sky and you could give it to a farmer or subsidize it to a farmer, but then what? If he can’t acquire the inputs or the technologies locally at a commercial price that makes sense for him and the supplier then you’ll just be running in place. That is my opinion.
How would you then describe this project being different from the others that fall under your portfolio?
I think the fact that Africa RISING is trying to come up with new technologies and rigorously testing and comparing different cropping systems, that’s a significant difference from the other. Our value chain projects are working with the private sector to get inputs and sell inputs, but they are not developing and researching, and rigorously testing these new technologies and then seeing what’s better. That is from a technical agronomic standpoint. I think that research is important in ensuring that we bring technologies that have been tested to farmers. The use of farm typologies is also a unique approach I have seen with Africa RISING. I would personally love to hear more about the typology work being led by Jeroen Groot from Wageningen University. These typologies make it interesting to know which kind of different types of farmers there are within the intervention communities because in reality farmers are not a homogeneous, monolithic group. In a community you will find risk averse farmers, those that aren’t even really farmers but are just rural dwellers or those that are just working the land, but they are not really looking to expand or improve and other farmers who are very progressive and are willing to take risks and so on. This kind of information makes targeting technologies during dissemination easier.
Are there any plans for future collaborations with USAID Zambia and Africa RISING?
Yes, I think we are in discussions now with Jerry Glover on how USAID Zambia can possibly get involved with Africa RISING. Our current research and development program is ending on 30 September so we are having negotiations now about how the next phase of research and development program in Zambia will look like and I think Africa RISING is going to play a role in that.