Soil Fertility: Module 5

Module 5. Promoting ISFM Among Farmers

Module Overview

Here we are at the beginning of the last, and arguably the most important, module of this course. You’ve gone through a wealth of information about ISFM and, through your work in the previous modules, developed some sound, practical, cost-effective, science-based best-bet recommendations that you think will make a difference in your situation. But recommendations that are not followed are not worth much. What can you do to see these adopted by farmers? What can you do to make a difference?

In the last remaining lessons of this course we will focus on information dissemination approaches and tools. Most of the module will concentrate on explaining IFDC’s Extension-DATE approach but will also provide links to various other sources of information and approaches.

Lesson 5.1: Making an Extension DATE

Like the Research-DATE, the Extension-DATE is a participatory learning and action approach but focused on dissemination and adaptation of successful technological recomendations developed during the Research-DATE. The Extension-DATE involves working with farmers and other soil fertility experts and consists of the same four phases as the Research-DATE – D(iagnosis), A(ction planning), T(rying things out) and E(valuation). It emphasizes supporting institutional change that reinforces linkages between farmers, bankers, input-dealers and traders. Details on each of the 4 phases follow.

Lesson 5.1.1: Diagnosis

At this stage in the process the usefulness of the recommendations you developed during the Research-DATE should have been verified for farmers at or close to your strategic site. Now, during the Extension-DATE, you need to assess their usefulness for more widely distributed farmers and their more diverse farming systems and circumstances. This is the main focus of the Diagnosis phase. Particular areas of interest during this phase include the identification of information and communication networks and key-actors that can play an active role in the dissemination of ISFM technologies identified.

Farmer organizations can often play a vital role in the process of extending ISFM strategies and also in helping to manage credit and inputs, storage and the marketing of agricultural products. Assessing the potential to build-on or to improve linkages with input-dealers, bankers, traders and public institutions involved in input and credit provisioning and output marketing is also a critical activity.

Methods that can be used in this phase typically include village-level meetings, workshops bringing together the key-actors for ISFM extension (farmers, input dealers, regional policy makers, bankers, traders, extension and development workers), guided study tours of key-actors (e.g. to study alternative credit structures, or innovative ways to exchange and/or diffuse information).

Lesson 5.1.2: Action Planning

Once the interest for new and/or alternative ISFM strategies is established, meetings with farmers and other key-actors should be organized to discuss how to start with a dissemination and adaptation process for ISFM strategies. The action planning phase deals with determining what kind of ISFM strategies will be ‘taken-up’ by the farmers and by which farmers (the whole village, a sub-group of farmers first?).

Other questions to answer include input provisioning (individually? farmers’ group?), marketing of agricultural produce and the need for credit. While inputs are usually provided free in the ‘learning plot’ exercises conducted during the Research-DATE, this is not a usual practice for the ‘adaptive trials’ that the farmers interested in ISFM will start in the Extension-DATE. If access to credit is an important constraint, a small ‘revolving fund’ can be used to stimulate a core-group of farmers to start with the adaptive trials. Management and objectives of the revolving fund should be discussed thoroughly with all the stakeholders concerned. In various ISFM projects, coordinated by IFDC, some consensus seems to have been reached about this issue. The revolving funds should serve the double purpose of giving access to the required capital for a small group of farmers to start ‘trying ISFM out’ and to learn how to manage a credit operation as a group. After an initial learning phase, the revolving fund can be used as a kind of guarantee fund, which permits rural credit banks to become engaged in providing loans to ISFM farmer groups.

Extension-DATE action planning involves farmers from neighboring and other interested villages, not just the target-farmers in the pilot-village. It focuses on starting the scaling out of ISFM strategies and involves input-dealers, bankers and traders, and in some cases even regional-level policy makers. Action plans with input-dealers, for instance, might focus on training on dealing with technical aspects (proper storage, quality), management of stocks, marketing and information provision. It might also consist of concrete activities to improve access to market-information, loans (to buy inputs in time, to construct storage places) and clients.

Lesson 5.1.3: Trying Things Out

Action plans that have been decided upon in the action planning phase should be carefully implemented and monitored by the team of ‘change agents’ and the different stakeholders. In the extension cycle, many different kind of activities are carried out. Farmers are implementing the adaptive trials. Input dealers and probably some farmer organizations are involved in providing inputs in time to the of experimenting farmers. Farmers and ‘change agents’ are involved in setting-up rural knowledge centers. Farmer group(s) are involved in the management of the revolving funds. Bankers, farmers and ‘change agents’ may be involved in a negotiating process to get loans from a formal rural bank (and for a larger group of farmers). Farmers and traders may be involved in activities to improve storage and marketing of agricultural produce.

From the above, it should be clear that ‘Change agents’ have an important role to play in the promotion and institutionalization of participatory research and extension approaches. Dissemination of information within the region, between farmers and other stakeholders, is important but this should also go beyond the region to national-level actors. This helps to create awareness and to emphasize possibilities and favorable conditions for a sustainable intensification process, and the roles any actor can play.

Lesson 5.1.4: Evaluation

The Evaluation phase aims to measure the progress being made in the extension cycle. To do this, a participatory monitoring and evaluation system should be set up, that enables the different stakeholders to analyze specific actions (were all the agreed activities executed? How many people were involved? What results?) as well as the larger ‘Action plan’ all together. Indicators should be decided upon that effectively measure the results of the different activities and that are comprehensible for a large audience. Specific analyses may be required. For instance, the functioning of a credit system may need to be judged, particularly if it is linked with input provisioning and marketing of agricultural produce.

Lesson 5.1.5: ‘DATEing’ Considerations

When thinking about promoting ISFM strategies on a larger regional or national scale, it is critically important to consider the economic cost-benefit of recommendations. Many poor farmers are unwilling to buy external inputs because they are uncertain about the supply, do not have access to affordable credit and cannot predict market prices at harvest.

Extension strategies must, therefore, not only focus on promoting practices to farmers that are techologically sound but may have to work to improve the accessibility, both geographically and financially, of ‘external’ inputs (for example, through the development of infrastructure, appropriate credit systems, training of and support to – potential – input-dealers). It may also be necessary to help in the development of market outlets for agricultural produce (for instance, through the development of agro-industrial enterprises).

It is clear that bringing all this about will require the active participation of a range of other actors – all of which will have to be encouraged to invest time and money to make ISFM a reality.

  • Farmers will have to invest in ‘external’ inputs and should (re-) allocate resources to adopt ISFM technologies. Moreover, farmer organisation is not only an important means to increase access to markets and increase their bargaining power but will also be crucial to manage natural resources at community levels.
  • Traders, transporters, and manufacturers should invest in local sale points of ‘external’ inputs, fabrication of agricultural equipment, processing of agricultural products, etc.
  • Governments should invest in public infrastructure and in education and should stimulate and facilitate private sector actors (farmers, traders etc..) to invest in the activities listed above. Proper legislation and control mechanisms and specific well-targeted sectoral investments are needed, comprising, e.g., agribusiness development and appropriate credit programmes.
  • Governments and donor institutions should invest in soil fertility recovery and improvement. This is a basic premise of the Soil Fertility Initiative (SFI), launched in 1996 during the World Food Summit in Rome. The SFI aims to increase understanding of the factors contributing to soil fertility decline and of potential solutions and to support the design and implementation of comprehensive soil management programmes.

The question of farmer organisation and empowerment is of particular importance. Significant economies of scale can be achieved when farmers come together and this leads to significant improvement in their access to marketing networks (bargaining power, credit, storage facilities, etc.) and to better access to information.

Lesson 5.2: Other Extension Approaches

While the participatory DATE approach to extension is the one favored by the authors of this course, we recognize that there are other ways to disseminate information and knowledge. Some of the more popular methods include strategic extension campaigns, farmer field schools and traditional extension methods.

Strategic extension campaigns (SECs) use mass media to convey research findings and recommendations in a simplified form in order to motivate attitude change. SECs have been shown to achieve rapid impact because they reach large numbers of farmers in an area all at once, including remote locations normally not visited by extension trainers.

The Farmer Field School approach is a field-based programme that provides learning experiences usually for groups of up to 25 farmers. Field Schools generally last for a full cropping season and meets at least 12 times for about four to five hours per meeting.

Traditional extension approaches have also been used effectively, particularly when they incorporate participatory activities.

Supplementary Reading

Additional Online ISFM Resources