In Conversation: Building Trust, Expanding Awareness, and Reimagining Farmers’ Roles with FRNs in East Africa
Angela Mkindi, PhD, and Steven Belmain, PhD, recently sat down to talk 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
Steve Belmain: There’s been an evolution in what we’ve been doing. When we first started out, one of the big challenges was that there wasn’t 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- 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 trying to provide that kind of basic evidence that, yes, these botanicals work, and then trying to optimize and standardize the way they can be used.
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.
Angela Mkindi: In Tanzania, using botanical pesticides has been longtime practice. They’re connected to traditions. Where I grew up, we would use Tagetes minuta for ant problems. Even though it’s been traditional practice, now, with this project, with interaction, farmers are focusing more on understanding the use of botanicals and how best to calibrate, measure, monitor, and analyze their effectiveness. [Such engagement] has more impact than just knowing, because botanicals’ usage has been known a long time.
What’s really been of interest is the aggregate understanding from local village perspectives and working together to understand how things we’ve known a long time can be of real importance when 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, its beneficiaries are used to researchers coming to your community, telling you what they want to do and the problems they have seen, and you having to listen to what they say because they’re the experts. Afterwards, the information leaves with the researchers, most of whom don’t come back. A number of farmers and communities have this notion in their heads.
So when we come with our participatory modality, our FRN, people think “Wow, this is good because they let us speak and we come to terms and agreements and work together.” Over time, people get interested and give opinions. When they are giving their opinions, they’re being heard and respected and getting motivated. Making traditional research into collaborative research is a challenge. Farmers are reluctant to our way of collaboration because of how people used to do research.
SB: It’s been a great opportunity for us as scientists to expand and be guided by the farmers to do research that’s relevant to their needs and priorities—things that we could do excellent science on.
On Building Trust Between Scientists and Farmers
SB: There were some trust issues when we first started out: The farmers thought we were going to be like any other group of scientists. Then, once we had a year’s worth of data from our work together, the way that we engaged with them, going over the results of that research and planning forward, that was really quite different from what they may have experienced in the past.
AM: We see this as a very good evolvement. It helps shape our botanicals project as we go further. It’s rare for a project to be shaped with insights from both farmers and researchers. It’s no longer one-sided now; it’s collaborative and being taken seriously by both sides. It brings more insights about both sides’ needs.
On Expanding Awareness of the Benefits of Botanicals
SB: When we started our work on botanicals, we were very much focused on trying to kill pests and increase yield. What we found along the way was that it also allowed us to raise farmers’ awareness about the environment: They can control their pests, maintain their yields, and, at the same time, not harm the environment. That really connected with them, and they started to realize that actually using these botanicals is better for their health. This is something we of course assumed, but the farmers experienced it firsthand.
On Strengthening Community
AM: The need for communication is increasing. We now see a number of farmers who are willing to educate others. People are wanting to come into their groups because they saw what is happening in the field.
SB: The botanicals research has helped bring farmers together as a community. Regardless of the science, we have regular meetings and the farmers have regular meetings with each other, and I think they really enjoy that. Very often, farmers are out on their own. This gives them an opportunity to come together and chat about things unrelated to the project. There’s this sort of empowering and strengthening of communities that goes alongside the research. That’s another reason why this is continuing and a lot of other farmers are trying to get on board and participate: They see that it’s actually fun. They’re learning something and hopefully improving their livelihoods and taking care of the environment, plus it’s 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. We’re getting to the point where we might be able to motivate them to do more about improving the soil, which is something that often gets neglected. Even though the soil should be very good around the Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania, it’s not; there are a lot of deficiencies because farmers haven’t been putting organic matter back into the soils because it’s a lot of work. This is one of the challenges when you have very depleted soils: People start to think “Well, what can we do? It’s an insurmountable task”—but, little by little, farmers understand that there are things they can start doing or practices they can change. That’ll be one of the focuses we want to think about moving forward.