Thursday, August 21, 2014

Listening to farmers’ voices and observing farmers’ fields

The six Africa-wide Rice Task Forces (Rice Breeding, Agronomy, Processing and Value Addition Task, Mechanization, Policy and Gender) are a major component of the rice research-for-development strategy for the continent elaborated by AfricaRice.

The Africa-wide Rice Agronomy Task Force pools the resources of rice agronomists across the continent, with overall coordination provided by AfricaRice. The overarching aim of the Task Force is to improve rice production and productivity through the introduction, testing and dissemination of baskets of ‘good agronomic practices’ (GAP baskets).

Of all the Rice Task Forces, the Agronomy Task Force is the most closely linked with the rice sector development hubs. “Through this task force mechanism, we test innovations and monitor adoption in the rice sector development hubs that are located in broad geographical areas in many countries,” explains AfricaRice agronomist Kazuki Saito. The task force activities have expanded to 20 countries in 2013/14.

 “The first research task,” explains Saito, “is to conduct diagnostic and yield-gap surveys in each hub.”A diagnostic survey involves interviews with individual farmers or other actors such as input suppliers and extension workers, and group discussion to understand farmers’ current practices, knowledge, and the challenges and constraints they face. A yield-gap survey involves interviewing farmers, a series of field observations from sowing to harvesting, soil and plant sampling, and yield measurements.

These two surveys enable us to determine the gaps between on-farm yields obtained by farmers and potential yields, which can be determined by crop simulation models, and their causes.” Causes of yield gaps in farmers’ fields vary among rice production systems and agro-ecological zones. But, typical causes include sub-optimal crop management, yield-limiting (e.g. poor soils) and yield-reducing (e.g. pests) factors, socioeconomic constraints (e.g. finance, labor shortage), and institutional/political arrangements (e.g. land availability, rice and fertilizer prices). Smart-phones and computer tablets are used to enter data and allow for immediate analysis and interpretation by AfricaRice and national partners.

“The results from the surveys enable AfricaRice and its national partners to identify the opportunities available to introduce technologies to close the yield gaps,” says Saito. Three challenges across major rice-growing environments were frequently reported by national partners— weed infestation, lack of availability of purified seeds of new, improved varieties, and lack of mechanization. Other challenges identified were: sub-optimal crop and nutrient management, including timing of interventions in irrigated systems; suboptimal land preparation and water management in rainfed lowlands; and drought and soil problems in uplands.

Apart from the surveys, multi-stakeholder platform (MSP) will be another entry point for identifying technologies suitable for local conditions.