Based on reporting by Beth Medvecky and Daniel Nyambok as well as deep dive M&E work and interviews with project leaders.
FRN–NGO operates in Kenya’s lake zone, one of the most densely settled parts of the country and a region where poverty, natural resource degradation, and food insecurity levels are high. Challenges include scarce land and water resources, declining soil productivity, high pest and disease incidences, changing climatic conditions, and limited access to resources for women, who are the main drivers of agricultural production. People are highly dependent on farming for their livelihoods, and rains are becoming less predictable and crop failures more frequent.
The FRN–NGO project is led by Agriculture Improvement Support Services (AgrRISS) NGO in collaboration with five other NGOs based in the Western Kenya region:
- Community Action for Rural Development (CARD) based in Migori County
- Community Rehabilitation & Environmental Protection (CREP) Program based in Kisumu County
- Diocese of Homa Bay Agriculture and Environment Program (AEP) based in Homabay County
- AVENE Community Development Organization based in Vihiga County
- Rural Energy and Food Security Organization (REFSO) based in Busia County
Each NGO brings specific knowledge and experience from a different area as well as longstanding connections to farmers. NGO partners act as the interface between the farmer groups and research partners, facilitating linkages that support participatory processes. Key research partners involved in providing technical support and technologies to be tested include: Rongo University Sorghum Breeding Program (provided sorghum varieties for testing) and Kenya Seed Company (provided nine new varieties that are still being multiplied for later testing).
Over the past few years, the project has undertaken several experiments related to issues identified by farmers as priorities. In the first year, trials were conducted on various post-harvest pest management options, including solarization, sun drying, and ash treatments. Carried out the second and third years were trials of sorghum varieties that would grow well under changing climatic conditions and in different local contexts. These included varieties developed at Rongo University, two varieties from Kenya seeds, and some commercial and some farmer varieties. In year three, striga management options were tested, some of which could also improve soil fertility (uprooting, intercropping with desmodium or with legumes, adding manure/compost). In this, the project’s fourth year, bean trials of consumer-preferred varieties are being conducted to identify performance in different contexts.
Farmer groups generally have between ten and 20 members. Some of these groups already existed. Most include both men and women, with some all-female groups. They hold regular meetings to discuss progress and, in some cases, work the plots together. Each experiment involved between 300 and 1,000 farmers, which generated large quantities of data. This has resulted in a certain amount of complexity in managing the data and understanding the many contextual factors that could influence results. A data manager has been hired for support with this aspect.
What This Project Is Helping Us Learn About FRNs
Each FRN project provides opportunities for learning on specific aspects of what it means to build and manage a farmer research network.
FRNs can indeed generate OxC (but it takes a lot of work!): Because FRN–NGO has a large network of farmers across many different agroecological zones, it has helped test the potential of the FRN concept to reveal important patterns and insights; that is, a variety of options for different contexts. This complexity, however, has also shown the importance of putting in place robust, well-designed data management processes and of supporting farmers, field staff, NGO partners, and researchers with these processes. Having a number of trials being done simultaneously, with two growing seasons, makes the process very labor-intensive. Understanding how to best support the work, as well as recognizing the limits on what can be done, are part of the learning process.
Scaling happens through social networks: Another aspect we are learning about is the concept of embedded scaling. In this project, scaling is happening “naturally” within the community when certain varieties are clear winners; rather, it is happening “socially” as farmers share seed from a variety that performed well with their social network, thus scaling out that variety and contributing to seed and food security.
Keep it simple: Like some other FRN projects, we are learning that simple comparisons that are not too labor-intensive seem to work best with farmers. They are able to see how a technology performs under their own conditions relative to what they already know or are doing. In this way, learning by doing, learning under local conditions, and starting with simple experiments seem to be the most engaging and relevant approaches to take.
Farming is embedded in culture: Having FRN groups in different zones doing the same trial can also reveal cultural issues that can influence the work, such as norms around who can plant where, when, on what land, with whom, and more. Creative and culturally sensitive approaches to deal with such obstacles can be developed with community members.
Network diversity is important: In a project like this one, with multiple research and NGO partners, it is important to recognize the differing priorities each partner has and to work with their strengths in order to learn to work together effectively.