SATrends Issue 34                                                                                                                  September 2003

1. Desert Margins – Smooth as Silk

The Desert Margins Program (DMP) is a nine-country, multi-partner consortium fighting desertification in Africa. It is funded by the Global Environment Facility and focuses on improving natural resource management, conserving biodiversity, and alleviating poverty in the driest, most fragile environments in Africa.

Earlier this month, partners in South Africa finalized the research framework for the DMP. They identified research sites, and ensured that all collaborators were sufficiently prepared to move ahead with the implementation, which will begin with the rains in October. The result will provide a model for similar work in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

The South African partners include the University of Potchefstroom, North West Province Department of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa. CSIRO, Australia, is providing technical support for specific project components.

Benchmark sites have been identified in various areas. These range from heavily degraded sites in smallholder farming areas (generally, communally owned grazing land), to the relatively undisturbed Molopo Nature Reserve. Other sites are located at commercial cattle ranches where resource use is heavy but controlled, with high-quality land management. Rainfall, soil, and vegetation data from each of these sites – combined with historical data from government agencies and other sources – will help identify research priorities, and develop a baseline against which to measure future changes in land quality or resource use.

Left, growing crops on what would otherwise become a desert

An innovative component of the research, led by CSIRO, is to explore the use of vertebrate and invertebrate bio-indicators. Data on species composition and food resource availability for key “indicator” species (ants, birds, possibly others) will be collected and studied, to better understand how the information can be used to predict or measure the health of an ecosystem.

The project also aims to identify potential income earning opportunities. One interesting possibility is the acacia silk moth. This creature can be reared in a laboratory because it is relatively sedentary and has specific food preferences. It is also the ultimate “cash crop”, producing highly valuable silk that can increase the incomes of a poor smallholder community several-fold. The trade already exists in the DMP target areas in South Africa. What's more, it appears that the moth lives off the mopane tree, which is common in many parts of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe – which means huge opportunities for scaling up.

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2. Farmer Participatory Research in West Africa

Smallholder farmers in the West African Sahel struggle with a range of problems – frequent drought, poor soil, lack of cash and labor, limited access to new technologies and extension services, lack of credit, poor infrastructure and undeveloped markets. Given that no single institution can become a panacea for all these problems, the answer is a partnership approach with various organizations pooling skills and resources to reach a common goal.

In 1999, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) funded a project titled Farmer-participatory testing of technologies to increase sorghum and millet production in the Sahel. The project was implemented by ICRISAT and the national agricultural research systems (NARS) of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Nigeria in collaboration with the regional sorghum and millet networks (ROCARS and ROCAFREMI) various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The goal was to reduce hunger and poverty by testing and promoting new agricultural technologies through farmer participatory approaches.

The governance of the partnership is open, transparent and inclusive. Activities in each country are led by a national coordinator, and at each research site managed jointly by farmers, researchers and extension staff.

So far the partnership has demonstrated success in several ways:Over 700 farmers in 100 villages in 3 countries covered in on-farm testing

  • 15 millet and 17 sorghum varieties tested and selected by farmers
  • Nearly 300 tons of seed produced to cover 180,000 ha
  • Over 400 farmers and 100 technicians trained in seed production
  • Seed producer associations, community-based seed systems and private seed growers emerging
  • Through project local entrepreneurship, private seed companies such as SONICOSEM (Société Nigerienne de conditionnement et de vente de semence) emerging
  • 46 villages in 3 countries and 3 agroclimatic zones characterized for better interventions
  • Several varieties with good malting capacity identified
  • In Kolokani, Mali, farmer associations created three eco-friendly IPM technologies
  • Through the partnership, institutions from 5 countries worked together, providing training opportunities and guidance to strengthen R&D capacity in the region
  • The partnership model facilitates scaling up to target more beneficiaries and encourages spillover benefits into non-project areas
  • Farmer involvement ensures that appropriate technologies are developed and quickly promoted through community-based action plans.

During the last steering committee meeting donor representatives cited this project as a good example of successful partnership, describing the investment as “money wisely spent”.

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3. Savoring Business Savvy

ICRISAT's move from business as usual to an approach that promotes an evolving research for development is clearly demonstrated by the project Promoting Growth in Malawi's Groundnut and Pigeonpea Trade through Technology and Market Improvement, which constitutes a new and innovative model to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

This USAID-funded initiative is aimed at providing support to the National Smallholder Farmer Association of Malawi (NASFAM) in the areas of crop production and marketing. It has resulted in substantial benefits for groundnut and pigeonpea producers. The model developed by the project team reconciles supply-and-demand interventions through five key action areas:

  1. Identification of high-value market opportunities
  2. Identification of grades and standards required by final markets, as well as the development of quality management systems
  3. Development and dissemination of market-specific natural resource and crop management strategies
  4. Structuring of sustainable (ie, private sector-driven) seed supply systems
  5. Engineering of partnerships between smallholder organizations, NGOs and private sector agents

This model has been born from three fundamental premises.

First, adoption decisions are a function of both incentives and capacity. Previous efforts focused on capacity development through the generation and dissemination of agricultural technologies. However, technology adoption and improvements in the livelihoods have been uneven because of a lack of profitable marketing opportunities for surplus production.

Second, the development of improved crop varieties has focused on development and release of new varieties with improved tolerance for major diseases and pests. However, little attention has been paid directly to the traits that would appeal to final consumers.

Third, in the international markets, food safety and quality standards have become more stringent. For example, the reduction of maximum allowable levels of aflatoxin is expected to result in losses of $670 million in groundnut exports from African countries.

Right: In Malawi, as in many Sub-Saharan countries, groundnuts are a “women's crop”. This intervention puts money in their pockets via market mechanisms.

Recent achievements

  1. Identification of high-value markets for groundnuts in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Republic of South Africa
  2. Identification of groundnut varieties suitable for different market options
  3. Assistance (to NASFAM) in the identification and selection of buyers, negotiation of concrete deals and logistics arrangements.
  4. Capacity building of NASFAM's staff in crop management systems, and systems of grades and standards

In just eight months of implementation, this initiative has allowed NASFAM to sell quality groundnuts to South Africa and the United Kingdom at prices 100% higher than those achieved during the previous season (ie, $750/ton vs $350/ton).

The success of the model introduced by the project has prompted the interest of the UK's Department for International Development, USAID, and the NGO consortium in charge of the development and implementation of the Development Assistance Plan for Malawi, with whom the project team is currently negotiating potential themes of collaboration.

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4. Change in the Trend

SATrends has been coming to you every month for almost three years (Issue No 1 was published in December 2000) and we are now considering some significant changes to the publication.

We have included a “Readers Survey” in the last two issues of SATrends to cull your thoughts and ideas that will go towards improving the publication. If you feel strongly about changing an aspect of SATrends, please go to either our July or August issues and fill in the survey by 30 September. Survey results are being analyzed, and you will be informed of any decisions in our next issue.

Our francophone readers will be happy to know that ICRISAT now has a French information officer named Michel Maruca based in ICRISAT-Niamey. So, beginning with the next issue of SATrends, expect to see at least one article in French.

And by the way, the persons responsible for contributing, compiling, and writing articles for SATrends (besides the contact scientists whose names are mentioned after every article) are Eric McGaw, Lydia Flynn, and Gopi Warrier, based in ICRISAT-Patancheru, and Ajay Varadachary, based in ICRISAT-Bulawayo. Lydia Flynn is also the editor of SATrends.

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