Resilience: A boost to knowledge and income

Scaling up farmer field school programmes in Burundi and Malawi has improved household income, climate resilience and environmental protection. A novel teaching approach is providing farmers with new skills in crop cultivation, fish farming and livestock rearing to develop productive, nutritional systems.

Farming households are doubling their income after adopting intensified agricultural practices learned during farmer field schools in Malawi © C. Mkoka

In Mwaro province, central Burundi, over 1,100 farming households have nearly doubled their income after adopting intensified agricultural practices learned in 40 farmer field schools (FFS) supported by FAO. Working on farms averaging 0.5 ha, the households are engaged in high value pig and fish farming, soil-less mushroom cultivation, and horticulture, in addition to growing improved varieties of staple crops such as cassava, kidney beans, maize, and sweet potato. “Previously, agricultural production was generally low due to lack of manure, poor seed quality, and insufficient supervision,” says FAO technical officer Evelyne Nduwimana. “As a result, information collected from the administration and health services reported a high rate of malnutrition, both chronic and severe.” Other crops have been introduced to promote nutritional diversity, including beet, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, onion, potato, soybean, tomato, and more productive types of climbing bean. “Soil-less cultivation of edible mushrooms was introduced because of their high productivity and high nutritional value,” says Nduwimana. “Kidney bean is being gradually substituted by climbing beans because of their greater productivity per unit area,” she adds. 

Through the FFS, households have also learned to construct and manage anti-erosion ditches and to practise agroforestry with trees such as grevillea and calliandra. As a result, over 100 ha of watershed are now being protected and rehabilitated by farmers in the province. 

In August 2016, the first students from Tilimbe FFS in Phalombe district, Malawi, graduated having conducted a range of farming experiments as part of their studies. The farmer students have been attending classes once a week and are responsible for maintaining a demonstration garden, comprising crops such as beans, carrots, Irish potatoes, onions, peas, sweet potatoes, and more. The students were also expected to cultivate a garden at their home, and have been encouraged to undertake a number of fact-finding experiments. These have included making variations in plant spacing, watering volume and frequency, and using different combinations of organic fertilisers. 

Student Bamusi Khomoni says the FFS teaching programme has helped to improve his farming methods. “I have learnt that the old method of planting crops like maize, groundnut and pumpkin in one hole did not work,” he says. “In the Malawi setting it is like raising five children and then feeding them using only one bowl of food. What this means is that they will compete for food and not grow well. If they were each given one bowl, they would obviously grow well as they would not be competing for food.” 

The work has come as part of efforts to scale up FFS and boost farmer knowledge in order to build resilience in the face of climate change. It is being led by two NGOs – the Catholic Development Commission and the Adventist Relief Agency – working in partnership with FAO, and following FAO’s gender and age-friendly Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools methodology, now established in over 20 countries. In Phalombe, the schools have been running for 18 months and have received a positive response from students. The approaches and techniques being promoted through the school, say the students, are very different from those learned from their parents, and also much more effective. 

James Karuga & Charles Mkoka

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.