In Conversation: Building Trust, Expanding Awareness, and Reimagining Farmers’ Roles with FRNs in East Africa

Dr. Angela Mkindi and Professor Steven Belmain recently sat down for a fascinating conversation about their work with the CCRP’s farmer research network (FRN) initiative. The excerpts below have been edited for length and clarity.

On the Progression of Botanical Projects and Traditional Use in East Africa

SB: I think there has been an evolution in what we’ve been doing. When we first started out, one of the big challenges was that there wasn’t really a lot of good evidence on whether these botanical pesticides actually work. A lot of the work that had been done—and there are lots of publications about botanical pesticides—is laboratory-based or field station-based, not a real situation where farmers are using them and all the messiness of how farmers use them in different ways. So at first, we were very much trying to provide that kind of basic evidence that, yes indeed these botanicals work, and then really trying to optimize and standardize the way they can be used.

I think that early phase set us up to do much more participatory work with farmers. Now we are very much focused on farmer research networks and helping to enable farmers to do their own experimentation, their own research on these botanicals and the issues that are important to them.

AM: In Tanzania, using botanical pesticides has been a practice since a very long time ago. They are connected to traditions. I myself grew up in a place where we would use Tagetes minuta where there were problems with ants. But it is interesting that even though it has been a traditional practice, now with this project, with interaction, farmers are more focused into understanding this use of botanicals and how best to calibrate, to measure, to monitor and analyze their effectiveness. We find that it brings more impact rather than just knowing, because they have been known since a long time ago.

What has really been of interest, especially to me, is that aggregate understanding from local village perspectives, and working together to understand together how things that we have been knowing since a long time ago can really be of importance when they are being used in a more rigorous way, as opposed to just being seen as available and useful information.

On Redefining the Role of Farmers in Research

AM: In the tradition of research itself, the beneficiaries are used to the fact that when researchers come to your community they will tell you what they want to do, they tell you the problems they have seen, and you have to listen to what they say because they are the experts. Afterwards, the correct information leaves with the researchers and most of them don’t come back. This has been a notion that a number of farmers and a number of communities have in their head.

So when we come with our participatory modality, our FRN, people think ‘wow, this is good because they also let us speak, and we come to terms and agreements and we start working together’. With more time, we’re finding that people are getting interested and giving opinions, and when they are giving their opinions, they’re being heard, being respected and getting motivated.

A challenge to overcome is to make traditional research into collaborative research—there is some reluctance from farmers to our way of collaboration because of the transition from how people used to do research.

SB: I think it’s been a great opportunity for us as scientists to expand and be guided by the farmers to do research that’s very relevant to their needs and priorities—things that we could do excellent science on.

On Building Trust Between Scientists and Farmers

SB: I think when we first started out, there were these issues of trust and the farmers thought we were just going to be like any other group of scientists, but then once we had one year’s worth of data from our work together, I think the way that we engaged with them, going over the results of that research and then planning forward, was really quite different from what they may have experienced in the past.

AM: We see this as a very good evolvement and it brings more insights as we go on and even helped to shape our botanicals project as we go further. It’s very rare for a project to be shaped with insights from both sides, from farmers and from researchers. And this I think is positive because it is no longer being one-sided now, it is collaborative and it is being taken so seriously by both sides and therefore it brings more insights about the needs of both sides.

On Expanding Awareness of the Benefits of Botanicals

SB: When we started out working on botanicals, we were very much focused on trying to kill the pests and increase yield, but what we found along the way was that it also allowed us to engage with farmers to raise their awareness about the environment, and that you can control your pest, maintain your yield, but at the same time you’re not harming the environment.

And I think that really connected with the farmers and then they started to realize that actually using these botanicals is much better for their health. This is something we of course assumed, but the farmers themselves have really experienced that firsthand.

On Strengthening Community

AM: The need for communication is increasing. We are now seeing a number of farmers who are willing to educate others, we are seeing a number of people wanting to come into their groups because they saw what is happening in the field.

SB: I think the botanical research has helped bring farmers together as a community. Regardless of the science, we’re having regular meetings and the farmers are having regular meetings with each other and I think they really enjoy that. Very often, farmers are out on their own and this gives them an opportunity to come together and chat about things that aren’t related to the project at all. There’s this sort of empowering and strengthening of communities that goes alongside the research, and I think that’s another good reason why this is continuing and a lot of other farmers are now trying to get on board and participate with us as well because they see that it’s actually fun, that they’re learning something and hopefully improving their livelihoods and taking care of the environment, and it’s also a social event as well.

On Future Projects

SB: There’s been a strengthening of environmental awareness in general among the farmers. They’re understanding how a lot of crop production issues like pest problems may be caused by soil deficiencies, for example. So I think we’re getting to the point where we might be able to motivate farmers to do more about improving the soil, which is something that I think gets neglected often. Even though the soil should be very good around the Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania, we’re finding it’s not; there’s a lot of deficiencies because farmers haven’t been putting organic matter back into the soils, and it’s a lot of work to do that. And I think this is one of the challenges when you have very depleted soils, people start to think ‘well what can we do, it’s such an insurmountable task’—but little by little I think farmers understand there are things that we can start doing, or changing practices. I think that’ll be one of the focuses we want to think about moving forward.



Resource Type:

Learning / story

Community of Practice:

Farmer research network (FRN)