By William Settle, FAO
West African farmers have succeeded in increasing farm yields and profitability, while reducing the use of toxic pesticides, thanks to a community-driven training scheme run by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Around 150,000 smallholder farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal are participating in the West African Regional Integrated Production and Pest Management (IPPM) Programme. Working in small groups, called Farmer Field Schools, smallholders are developing and adopting good agricultural practices.
The Field Schools are essentially community laboratories in which farmers build new skills and knowledge through discovery-based learning and hands-on field experiments. The training approach - whose motto is“the field is our book” - has been used in around 90 countries across the world, including in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
To increase agricultural production without degrading the fragile savannah environments of West Africa, the IPPM project helps farmers explore improved management practices for soil, seeds, water, planting and weeding.
They also try natural alternatives to chemical pesticides and conserve habitats for beneficial insects. Marketing and food safety issues are other key elements of the training programme.
Trends in West African agriculture over the past decades have seen increased use of highly toxic pesticides on higher-value, frequently irrigated crops. Generally, there is low recognition of the negative impacts of such pesticides on the production, economy and health of communities and the environment.
At the same time, farmers lack critical knowledge of effective, low-toxicity alternatives. Chemical fertilisers are most often used without attention to the critical need for organic residues to be returned to the soil.
Better understanding of the mechanisms of how things work can greatly improve farmers’ decision-making skills, FAO believes. The IPPM programme has proven that simple, farmer-led experiments in the field help give smallholders the confidence to try new techniques, boosting production levels in a more environmentally friendly way.
Typically, a group of around 25 farmers coordinated by a facilitator prepares two training plots in their village – one to be cultivated with local conventional farming methods and the other for exploring and testing potential new practices suitable to the crop and location. This allows farmers to observe and compare results.
Additional topics are addressed over the course of the season, based on local needs and interests. The season-long training session follows a curriculum in synch with the crops’ growth stages.
More than 2,000 trainers from local government, farmer cooperatives and civil society organisations have been trained to support farmers in developing sustainable farming methods appropriate for their context.
GROWING MORE WITH LESS
In Mali, a survey conducted in 65 villages of cotton farmers who were trained in 2007-08 showed a 94 percent reduction in the quantity of chemical pesticides used, and a 400 percent increase in the use of organic materials like compost and manure, which can reverse declines in soil fertility.
In Burkina Faso, IPPM helped increase cotton yields by between 14 and 70 percent. More than 30,000 cotton farmers have been trained in the project countries.
In Northern Benin, 700 rice farmers in one irrigated polder area tripled their yields and cut mineral fertiliser use by two-thirds after Field School training. This may be an exceptionally successful case, but each country has its “big win” areas where productivity responds extremely well to relatively simple efforts at farmer education.
In addition to large declines in synthetic pesticide use, FAO regards increased application of organic substances, such as compost and rice straw, as one of the most striking results of the programme.
Data from Senegalese farmers in the country’s major vegetable production zone show 90 percent reductions in the amount of chemical pesticides used one to two years after training. Many of the farmers also shifted towards using botanical and biological pesticides - 80 percent of participants were using them two years after training compared with only 3 percent before.
COUNTRIES SHARE KNOWLEDGE
Key to the programme’s efficiency and sustainability is FAO’s ability to work with governments in the region to facilitate movement of trained personnel into neighbouring countries so they can lay the foundations for new initiatives.
This “south-south” collaboration reinforces the skills of trainers and the overall quality of the programme. And by developing a regional Farmer Field School network, it forges important personal, technical and political links among countries.
The regional IPPM project in Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, funded throughout by the Netherlands, expanded in 2009 to include Guinea, Mauritania and Niger, with financing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the U.N. Environment Programme. The European Union and Spain have also provided important additional support.
If resources became available, as many as half a million farmers could be trained in West Africa in the next five years at an estimated cost of around $40 million.