Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Sharing local knowledge helps farmers succeed

Five groups highlight how farmers can share their problems and solutions with each other and policymakers around the world.

Noor Khamis/Reuters/File
A farmer sets rice seedlings into paddy fields in Kirinyaga district, about 62 miles southeast of Kenya's capital, Nairobi. The Africa Rice Center helps farmers share solutions to problems with each other.

As Nourishing the Planet has witnessed first-hand, small-scale farmers and local communities have developed innovative ways to meet the challenges facing people across the world. But until recently, they have often lacked the ability to share their solutions, or their knowledge has been overlooked by governments and international groups.

Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five organizations that recognize the valuable contributions farmers can share with their neighbors, with policymakers, and with people across the world.

1. Africa Rice Center:

Created in 1971 by 11 African countries, the Africa Rice Center now works with 24 countries across the continent, connecting researchers, rice farmers, and rice processors.

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AfricaRice has been developing learning tools that focus on reaching as many farmers as possible, aiming to both “decentralize and democratize learning within the rice sector.” One powerful method has been farmer-to-farmer videos, which feature local experts sharing their knowledge about seed drying and preservation, rice quality, and soil management with viewers. These videos have been translated into more than 30 African languages, with great impact.

Reaching even beyond the continent, the African Rice Center has also created a set of four videos on seed management with rural women in Bangladesh, helping to further facilitate valuable knowledge exchange between rice farmers.

According Louis Béavogui, a researcher at the Institut de recherche agronomique de Guinée (IRAG) a research institute of the Guinean government, “watching the videos on seed has stimulated them [farmers] to start looking for local solutions to common problems that farmers face. It is by drawing on local knowledge that sustainable solutions can often be found at almost no cost.”

To read more about the AfricaRice Center and other agricultural knowledge sharing organizations, see “What Works: Creating Connections.”

2. Self-employed Womens Association (SEWA)

SEWA is a member-based Indian trade union that brings together approximately 1.3 million poor, self-employed women workers. These women make up approximately 93 percent of the work force in India, but are often uncounted and lack health care, access to credit, and other social security services.

Fifty-four percent of SEWA’s members are small and marginal farmers. These women meet monthly in groups across the country to discuss challenges they are facing and identify possible solutions. SEWA’s Village Resource Centers connect the farmers with agricultural supplies, including improved seeds and organic fertilizers, as well as trainings.

SEWA, for example, is introducing women farmers to agroforestry and vermin-composting (a process which uses worms to break down organic matter into rich fertilizer and compost).  “We now earn over Rs. 15,000 [$350] per season, an amount we had never dreamed of earning in a lifetime,” says Surajben Shankasbhai Rathwa, who has been a member of SEWA since 2003.

For more on SEWA and other organizations helping women farmers, see “Women farmers key to end food insecurity.”

3. Songtaab-Yalgré :

Marceline Ouedraogo founded this rural women’s association in 1990 as a way to support the women of Burkina Faso with the resources and support that they need. Originally going door-to-door to recruit members, the organization now has more than 1,000 members and works with over 3,100 women in nearly a dozen villages across Burkina Faso.

The women of Songtaab-Yalgré began by teaching each other how to read and write in their local language. After gaining this basic, but critical skill, the organization then found ways to boost members’ incomes by producing shea butter products.  Returning to traditional techniques, the women learned how to process the arechete – or shea butter nuts – into a variety of products, including shea butter creams and soaps, with the profits distributed evenly among members.

In 2006, Songtaab-Yalgré won the Equator Prize in recognition of its outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation of biodiversity. The organization now runs 11 centers for arechete collection and manages and protects 20,000 shea trees using ecological practices. By working together, the members of Songtaab-Yalgré are improving both their environments and their livelihoods.

To learn more about Songtaab-Yalgré, see “Forming Groups and Transforming Livelihoods.”

4. Ecova – Mali:

After witnessing how much more efficiently local experts trained their fellow Malians than foreigners could, two former Peace Corps Volunteers, Gregory Flatt and Cynthia Hellmann, founded Ecova-Mali in 2007 as a “grass-roots alternative to the predominant top-down approach to development.”

The organization runs a training center and testing ground 35 kilometers (22 miles) outside of Bamako, Mali’s capital, as well as provides small grants to local farmers. In 2007, for example, Ecova-Mali awarded $125 (50,000 CFA) to Fatoumata Dembele, who used this money to buy vegetables seeds for her community. After growing these new crops, she and her neighbors were able to save the valuable vegetable seeds from the plants for future harvests, eliminating the need to purchase expensive new seeds and boosting both their incomes and their crops.

To read more about Ecova-Mali, and Nourishing the Planet’s visit with it, read “Ecova-Mali: Building Home Grown Knowledge” and “Ecova-Mali: Letting the Crops Do Some of the Work.”

5. The First Annual Indigenous Terra Madre conference:

Terra Madre, a network launched by Slow Food International in 2004, focuses on protecting and promoting improved education, biodiversity, and connections between food producers and consumers. In June 2011, 200 representatives from 50 indigenous communities around the world met in Jokkmokk, Sweden, for the first-ever Indigenous Terra Madre Conference. 

The meeting, hosted by the native Arctic people known as the Sámi, and organized in partnership with Slow Food Sápmi and Slow Food International, discussed food sovereignty issues, the importance of preserving traditional knowledge for future generations, and ways to involve indigenous people and local communities in policy decisionmaking and implementation.

Small-scale farmers and indigenous people around the world shared their experiences and the solutions they had developed in response to the challenges they faced in common. As TahNibaa Naataanii, a participant in the meeting from the US-based Navajo Sheep Presidium, described, “We hear stories of the same thing that is happening in our own countries and own lands, and it gives us hope.”

At the conclusion of the meeting in June 2011, the participants issued the Jokkmokk Agreement, recognizing the importance of their collective knowledge and experience, and calling for indigenous people across the world to continue their cooperation, information sharing, and networking in order to strengthen their voices and protects their environment and ways of life.

• Jenna Banning is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

This article originally appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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