Moving methodologies : learning about integrated soil fertility management in sub-Saharan Africa

T. Defoer

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    <p>Soil fertility management in sub-Saharan Africa is complex, diverse and dynamic. Farmers' investments are determined by a wide variety of factors, including bio-physical characteristics of the environment, access to resources and the institutional, and socio-economic context of farming and livelihood making. Within this context, defining soil fertility problems in general terms is not meaningful and proposing a limited number of standard interventions, aimed at the 'average' farmer is of limited value. Site specific answers are needed, taking account of the site specificity of problems. Moreover, to increase their effectiveness, improved technologies and practices are to be combined in an integrated way, which necessarily has to take place at the farm level.</p><p>It is an almost impossible task for research and development organisations to develop technologies that fit the diverse and often rapidly changing conditions. Therefore, farmers have to be closely involved in developing, adapting and fine-tuning improvements. As farms in sub-Saharan Africa are highly complex and diverse, involving numerous connections and interactions between elements within the farm and outside the farm, there is a lot of practical knowledge involved in successful management of soil fertility. Therefore, involving farmers in developing improvements has to be based on this practical knowledge with the objective of improving it. To make this happen, farmers have to be involved in practical learning processes, which are to become the driving force of agricultural development.</p><p>The Resource Guide (Managing soil fertility in the tropics: Volume 1 of the thesis) relates to the question how to intervene in relation to soil fertility issues. The core of the Resource Guide is the participatory learning and action research (PLAR) approach for integrated soil fertility management (ISFM), which provides hands-on experience for field practitioners, facilitating learning processes and change within farming communities. PLAR for ISFM presented in Volume 1, is the result of exploratory methodology development, implemented in 3 sites: southern Mali, western Kenya and Marakwet, Kenya. Volume 2 of the thesis (Moving methodologies; this book) deals with the analysis of this methodology development process and provides an assessment of the impact of the methodology.</p><h3>Key elements of PLAR for ISFM</h3><ul><li>PLAR is a farmer learning process, facilitated by change agents; the facilitators.</li><li>Soil is an entry point, while the focus is self-discovery and experiential learning by farmers in collaboration with facilitators. PLAR emphasises individual and communicative learning.</li><li>The PLAR process rests on a robust organisational structure composed of 4 phases, characterised by procedures, steps and methodological tools. After the initial diagnosis (Phase 1), the process proceeds with a cycle of planning (Phase 2), implementation/experimentation (Phase 3) and evaluation (Phase 4). The cycle is repeated on a seasonal/yearly basis and forms the heart of a long-term engagement between farmers and facilitators.</li><li>PLAR follows a community approach, with the village as unity, characterised by a certain leadership and social cohesion.</li><li>PLAR addresses diversity of the land use system, management strategies, community organisations and kinship structure.</li><li>PLAR directly involves representative 'test' farmers who form a farmer committee, which acts as an intermediate between the facilitators and the rest of the community.</li><li>PLAR builds on feedback of findings, obtained by the test farmers, to groups of farmers and at community level.</li><li>PLAR tools emphasis visualisation.</li><li>Farm mapping is a major individual farmer learning tool. Resource flow mapping consists of farmers making a simplified picture of their farm system and resource flow pattern. The picture allows farmers to analyse strong and weak points in management. With the resource flow map as a basis, a planning map is made, which can be compared to a farmer's diary. The map of implemented activities represents a picture of the farmer's achievements, compared to what had been planned and allows to keep track of changes and make better informed decisions in view of improving soil fertility management.</li><li>Individual farmer learning in PLAR also takes place through farmer experimentation, which aims at helping farmers to find out about the potential of alternative techniques and practices, adapt these to the prevailing circumstances and possibly integrate them into the farming systems they are managing.</li><li>Communicative learning takes place when farmers exchange viewpoints and share insights during group sessions, such as territory mapping, management diversity analysis, farmers' workshops, exchange visits, etc. Feedback from individual learning takes place when test farmers present and discuss their farm maps during plenary sessions. During training sessions farmers are stimulated to find themselves answers to their questions. Based on their own experiences, farmers develop the objectives and hypotheses of new techniques they want to try out and make proposals for their designs and monitoring of experiments. Communicative learning further takes place when committee farmers train non-committee farmers and when the committee organises field days for neighbouring villages.</li></ul><h3>Facilitating farmer learning</h3><ul><li>Using standardised interview forms in stead of checklists with open questions, to facilitate farm map making by farmers, allows farmers to better compare outcomes between (groups of) farmers and assess changes over time. Moreover, the field team can construct time-series of data and follow the evolution of farmers' management practices over time, by transferring the data from the maps onto recording forms to be put into computer data bases using the software programme ResourceKIT. Experience shows that the outcomes of this quantitative analysis can improve both the field team's and farmers' perceptions on and knowledge of the farming situations. For the field team, this enables to better target advice. When quantitative information in the form of nutrient flows and balances is brought up during planning and evaluation meetings, farmers are inspired to experiment nutrient saving management practices.</li><li>When extension services take the lead in PLAR, standardised interview forms prove to be too complicated, with too many detailed questions, and without direct relevance to farmer learning. Instead, topic lists give the facilitator a framework to step-wise use the tools, while providing the necessary flexibility to respond to farmers' priorities. Obviously, there are consequences involved, as it may become more difficult to compare maps by different farmers and constructing time-series of data will most probably no longer be possible.</li><li>The balance between leading and facilitating the process is fragile and dynamic. In the beginning, especially when researchers are co-ordinating the process, the field team members emphasise 'own learning', while farmer learning receives less attention. In the course of the process, farmers are stimulated to take more and more the lead. With the extension services being in charge, 'researcher learning' becomes secondary and farmer learning the central objective. However, experience makes clear that it takes time to 'understand' each other and negotiate within a climate of confidence. It also takes time for the field team to assume its role of stimulating and motivating farmers in looking for answers themselves. Equally for farmers it takes time to become confident that soil fertility management can be improved through better management of the locally available resources and that they can find answers themselves to their questions.</li><li>It is important to take farmers' local knowledge and experiences as point of departure when introducing new options and closely involve farmers in the identification of possible solutions. As a result, farmers take the full responsibility of their plan of action, which is to a large extend a combination of farmers' interest, based on their local knowledge and practices, and new insights provided by the field team. As the possible solutions are presented as options to be tried out under the existing conditions, the field team closely involves farmers in the design of the experiments and assists them in selecting indicators of success, but also in better observing, recording information and drawing conclusions from the experiments.</li><li>Through the methodology development process, increasing attention was given to formalise group learning and to motivate farmers to take ownership. However, farmer committees prove to be operational only when field teams assist. Although the farmers are interested to learn from each other, lack of confidence, misunderstanding, poor managerial skills and lack of a clear purpose hinder them to meet regularly as a committee. Seemingly, learning from each other, is not a sufficiently strong motivation for a committee to sustain its operation. However, with the assistance of the field team in formulating a clear curriculum of farmer learning and organising meetings, farmers become more and more convinced that colleagues are a valuable source of knowledge. Farmers are stimulated to meet individually, visiting each other's plots and learning from each other's experiences. That farmers can learn from such experiences is shown in the western Kenya case, where farmers have formed themselves a group, largely composed of committee members. Apart from soil fertility aspects, they have a concrete objective in mind as they aim at developing an irrigation scheme. This example makes clear that it takes time for farmers to gain confidence in learning from each other, form a committee and formulate objectives and an agenda for action themselves.</li><li>The institutional setting has its influence on how PLAR is set-up and evolves. In the southern Mali case, the field team was composed of researchers who were part of a larger FSR team. Being part of a well-functioning project organisation supported by external technical and financial aid with necessary logistical arrangements and operational funds, the poor involvement of the extension service and thematic research did not hinder the implementation of the methodology research programme. However, the virtual absence of the extension service now limits the possibility of PLAR becoming a practical extension methodology. In the western Kenya case, the regional research centre officially co-ordinated PLAR. With the lack of flexibility in programming and budgeting, and poor logistical arrangements, the field team was not in the position to effectively respond to demands from the field. At the same time, the donor was not willing to acknowledge the need of providing incentives as a compensation for the underpayment of the field team members. Moreover, the management of the regional research centre proved to be reluctant to the idea of research methodology and experimenting with new approaches of farmer learning and participatory action research. In the Marakwet case, the field team was co-ordinated by the extension service, in which researchers contributed on demand. This framework proved to favour a more development oriented PLAR as experimentation became definitely in hands of the farmers and the curriculum for farmer learning was developed.</li></ul><h3>Outcomes of PLAR</h3><ul><li>Soon after setting up PLAR, test farmers start experimenting with alternative soil fertility management practices. Subsequently, improvements also relate to other farming aspects such as livestock management and crop varieties. These experiments vary according to farm classes as a function of differences in constraints and resource endowment. In southern Mali, the improvements are noticeable in terms of improved crop residue recycling; farmers are burning less crop residues and use them instead as feed and source of organic fertiliser production.</li><li>Test farmers know and try out more new techniques of farming compared to farmers who are not involved in the programme. PLAR is also effective in spreading knowledge on a farmer-to-farmer basis, as farmers who have been in contact with test farmers are also more knowledgeable and experimentation-minded than their colleagues who were not. Both directly and indirectly involved farmers show more capacity to modify newly learned techniques, and adapt to and integrate them into their farming systems.</li><li>In the southern Mali case, as a result of five years of participatory action research, partial nutrient balances of the crop production system have become substantially less negative. The improvements are mainly due to the increase in organic fertiliser use from both animal and household sources and a decrease in open access grazing of crop residues.</li><li>Using the change in darkness of the soil as farmers' major indicator for the change in soil fertility, 95% of the farmers declare that the colour of the soils of their land has become darker, indicating the improvement of the soil fertility status.</li><li>Results of a farm reclassification exercise, five years after the participatory action research has started, indicate that three quarters of the farmers, who had been initially classified as 'poor' soil fertility managers, had moved to the class of 'average' or 'good' soil fertility managers.</li></ul><h3>Extending PLAR</h3><p>Two years after starting the methodology research in a village in western Kenya, PLAR is now being extended to neighbouring villages, which form the administrative sub-location. The field extension worker together with members of the farmer committee assisted in implementing PLAR in the neighbouring villages, setting up farmer committees and developing action plans. The initial PLAR village is now viewed by the neighbouring villages as a rural knowledge centre. Recently, a sub-location committee is being formed, composed of representatives of the farmer committees. While extension is taking place from the initial PLAR villages to surrounding villages of the sub-location, the 'up-scaling model' is now being expanded to 7 other Districts/Divisions in western Kenya. There are several implications and issues that relate to expanding PLAR.</p><h4>Farmer and farmer committees</h4><p>As a result of the continuous decrease of the ratio of extension staff to farmers due to structural adjustments and reduced donor funding for extension services, PLAR will have to increasingly draw on farmer-to-farmer learning. Experiences show that it takes time for farmers to see the benefits of group learning and to gain sufficient confidence in each other to build a committee. Forming functional committees might therefore need more time and patience during the first years of PLAR, With less involvement of field teams, farmers will gain more control over PLAR and in the meantime they might use alternative criteria to form a farmer committee built on trust, friendship and kinship. This may imply that less endowed farmers, who are in more urgent need for support, are excluded from the committees. Moreover, external input supply might become a major objective, thereby neglecting better managing the locally available resources. In the scaling-up model, use is made of the farmer committees of initial PLAR villages (rural knowledge centres) and farmers are taking up the task of facilitators. As farmers spend time and knowledge, the question of remunerating farmer-facilitators crops up.</p><h4>Facilitation teams</h4><p>As facilitation of farmer learning is not a common task of most of the existing extension services, there will be time needed for extension staff to become professional facilitators. Through on-the-job training while implementing PLAR in small field teams, a core group of trainers can be formed to train extension staff of other divisions and districts and other people involved in extension and development services interested in PLAR. To ensure quality when expanding PLAR, additional training will be required in facilitating self- discovery, farmer experimentation, learning in adulthood, non-formal education and farmer-to-farmer learning.</p><p>While action plans will increasingly deal with broader livelihood making, facilitators will require access to a wide variety of sources of knowledge and 'services' that may be of interest for the farmers. As facilitators will not be in the position to deliver all advice themselves, they will have to constitute a 'bridge' between the demand and potential supply of services, including knowledge. With the farmer committee and sub-location committees being formed, facilitators will also have to stimulate interaction between farmer committees and assist in the functioning of the so-called farmer platforms.</p><p>Researchers are an important source of knowledge and innovation during the first years of PLAR. Researchers can also perform nutrient flow analysis based on farm mapping, with a limited number of farmers. This research has shown that feedback of results of nutrient flow analysis is useful within the PLAR process. With the establishment of the farmer platforms, researchers involved in PLAR can also form a bridge between farmers' demands and on- station research. When PLAR proceeds, researchers may also become involved in assessing the impact of the PLAR approach and compare it to other strategies for farmer learning and extension.</p><h4>Institutions adopting PLAR</h4><p>To make PLAR work, there is a need of decentralised management, built on flexibility and trust. This is likely to require a change in the attitudes and behaviour of all staff members. Involving higher-ups at crucial stages of the PLAR process and demonstrating the need for flexibility and decentralised management must contribute to such changes in attitude and behaviour.</p><p>To effectively facilitate farmer learning, the extension organisation has to become a 'learning' organisation itself, in which critical evaluation and analysis of the strong and weak elements of the programme are central. Mistakes, recognition of one's limitations and poor effectiveness of processes and methods then become learning elements for the organisation. Professional careers and incentives should be built on staff members' performances as facilitators and their capacity to improve on methods and overall functioning of the programme.</p><p>Creating a stimulating atmosphere of organisational learning will, however, take time. For this reason, PLAR should not be scaled-up in a hasty way, as this would not allow the organisation to learn from its experience and gain confidence in using PLAR. As PLAR is a learning process for all stakeholders involved, it requires critical review and adaptation of its approach, procedures and tools as a function of differences and changes in conditions.</p>
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • Smaling, Eric, Promotor
    Award date20 Dec 2000
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058083197
    Publication statusPublished - 2000


    • soil fertility
    • management
    • farming systems
    • extension
    • participation
    • mali
    • kenya
    • africa south of sahara
    • agricultural extension

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