In Nadion, a village 175 kilometers from Ouagadougou in Sissili, Burkina Faso, the Nignan family is in a race against the clock. There are only three days left until August and they have not even finished planting their corn crop. Blame it on the sudden drought that shortened the planting season and left the Nignans and other familiess scrambling to make up for lost time. Usually the maize is in the ground by June.
Despite these worries, Abdul Aziz Nignan remains optimistic. The variety of corn seed that he chose to plant, known as “wari,” matures up to 70 days earlier than the average maize variety. He’s been testing different varieties in his fields for four years. The “wari” variety performed the best, which is why he chose it for his fields this year.
Abdul is at the head of a new wave of agricultural innovation that, although backed by scientific research, is tested in the field by the ones who are actually going to be using it. The aim is to enable producers to determine for themselves the agricultural practices that suit them the best, and to apply them consistently.
“You see this section of corn here?” asks Abdul gesturing to a swath of green not far away. “I use it to test soil fertilization methods. On the first portion I put two cartloads of earth and clay and a bag of fertilizer. On the second, I used a mixture of fertilizers, phosphate and compost. The third was fed with two cartloads of manure and a bag of fertilizer. On the last part I put only the fertilizer. ” Abdul is a farmer, but he’s talking like a scientist.
Other farmers in Sissli are following Abdul’s lead and running similar tests on fertility and improved varieties of sesame and corn. They are guided by a very active professional organization in the region, the Fédération zwe Nian (“hunger is over” in the local Nuni language).
Mahamado Korogo, agriculturalist and advisor to Fédération zwe Nian explains why the approach is more successful than many past initiatives. “Farmers tend to distrust new, unknown technical innovations. They will often wait to see if others have success with it before beginning to use it themselves. Making the farmers the testers allows them to see with their own eyes whether or not a new technology works, meaning they won’t need any convincing when it comes time for technology transfer.”
Various demonstration trials have been implemented through a fruitful collaboration between the Fédération Nian zwe and the National Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA). Their methods are the logical continuation of the Participatory Development (TPD) or Participatory Research approach adopted by researchers around the years 1999-2000 that allows participants to be actively involved in the research process, from the development of technologies to their adoption.
For Dr. Bruno Sanou, director of INERA, involving farmers in the research process prevents researchers from becoming disconnected to the real concerns of farmers. “It used to be the case that most of our findings would end up being kept in our desk drawers,” Sanou admits. “But since we have started to come out of our laboratories and work directly with the producers, almost all of the techniques we have developed have been adopted.”
Moussa Dagano, President of Fédération Nian zwe, has noticed similar degrees of success and points out that collaboration between researchers and farmers has increased the productivity of corn, sesame and cowpea in the region.
Farmers–with the aid of better-structured farmers’ organizations–have even started taking the research right back to the scientists, asking for support and advice where needed and pointing out information gaps that should be addressed. This process, says Fada N’Gourma of the Regional Union of Professional Youth Organizations (UROPAJE), is the definition of demand-driven research. N’Gourma uses the example of when she approached scientists at the Kamboinsé, Burkina Faso research station, asking them to help UROPAJE members find efficient phytosanitary treatments for cowpea.
Following N’Gourma’s request, Julius Zongo, president of the research station, and his fellow scientists made tests on treatment and post-harvest management of cowpea. “Our research suggested the use of neem leaves to treat cowpea crops,” explains Zongo. “We compared this research to indigenous knowledge, which suggests the use of cow urine and Balanites leaves instead. Contrary to what we expected, we found the indigenous treatment worked better than the neem treatment.”
Thanks to the demands of farmers, scientists in this case were confronted with the necessity to investigate a suject that might never have come up otherwise. It’s now up to farmers to keep scientists informed as to what they really need to know, so that similar targeted research initiatives can continue to take place.
Blogpost by Ily Sombé Sylvain Abraham, a social reporter for AASW6.