Improving agriculture in developing countries is the dream of many college environmental majors. In films and newspapers we get glimpses of villagers struggling to pull a living out of the impoverished land while supporting an ever-growing family. We want very badly to help get the poor out of their situation and see that basic human rights are provided to the point where kids can get a reasonable amount of schooling, gender equity begins to take hold, and people aren’t hungry.
But it’s tough, at least in my village. Many years of well-meaning aid in the past have given peasants an idea that there is no way to improve their lives without money and resources coming in from foreign donors. Hands shoot out when handouts come in that might feed people today but leave them tomorrow in the same place they were yesterday. The same might happen when information is given in a technical training: people are well cared for and well fed during the classes, but after the training they continue supporting the status-quo.
Right now I am reading the book Two Ears of Corn by Robert Bunch, the president of World Neighbors. In this compendium of decades worth of learning experiences in the field of agricultural development, he gives guiding principles for determining what technology should be proposed for a given area, how to go about teaching it, and eventually how to remove the assisting organization from the picture entirely so that the project is carried on my villagers. This book should be essential reading for the aforementioned environmental majors. Paternalism, or providing services or money to people who have the potential to provide it for themselves, is one of the first subjects discussed. When aid organizations do this it gives people the mindset that nothing will improve if money doesn’t majestically fall out of the sky into their hands. The next time they want to push a project forward they will first look for that aid and, if the organization has moved on, simply abandon that course of action.
Africa is scattered with rusting tractors, empty warehouses, and experimental fields overgrown with weeds. These are the physical manifestations of a flawed approach to teaching new agriculture techniques. They are symbols of this giving mentality, this idea that I know what these people need so I will give it to them and then leave with that warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach and not look back while the equipment breaks down and the farmers I spent time teaching go back to planting only corn and manioc, their soil dying under their feet.
In the States I rarely got asked for money. Here it happens every day, with kids and adults, who tell me that I have to give them 200 francs to buy beans while the bean lady who I thought was my good friend listens passively to see if I really will give that money out. When it comes to doing financed projects in village, people have the idea that I will do all the application and planning, oversee the project, and then the benefits will come back to them.
I want to give the money. I don’t want people to be hungry like this when I am fed, when I am not doing back breaking work every day. But this is not the way to go. This is not going to help vastly improve the lives of lots of people in the long term. So what will? Agriculture is the central activity of the majority of people in Togo, and real improvements in agriculture take place when farmers teach them to other farmers. And how does one get this process started?
Clearly defining the problem is the first step. The agricultural improvement needs to directly confront felt needs: people need to know that there is a problem and want to carry out a solution aiming to fix it. Also, it is impossible for an organization to come in already knowing what a village needs, do an activity like teach condom use and how to prevent HIV/AIDS, and then expect the people to use that knowledge after the aid moves on. Simply telling villagers to change their habits, like was tried with hand washing in the recent polio vaccination campaign I helped out with, will change nothing. If the problem is poor soil quality and a volunteer charges into a mass of huts telling people that agroforestry is definitely the solution and then leaves before the first growing season is even over, the project will bottom out. Similar attempts by aid organizations often involve a lot of work and actually harm development in a small village: the next time a volunteer attempts to introduce a new agriculture technique the people will have less faith because it didn’t work the first time.
So know the problem, and know the people, before even starting. That takes months. MONTHS. When Roland Bunch talks about agricultural improvement, the programs are on the span of 5-10 years, difficult for me to fathom when I will be a Peace Corps volunteer for 2 years which sometimes feels like a very long time.
The next step is to introduce the correct agricultural technology. This needs to:
• Fit in to what the villagers are doing already: The new technology needs to fit into the agricultural calendar. If it requires that people work a lot when they are already super busy busting their butts in the field, it won’t fly.
• Be simple: if a technology is too complex, it will be impossible for villagers to teach it to other villagers. If it takes too long to teach villagers will lose interest, and if it involves complex materials not already in the community then the project will not be sustainable.
• Farmers must be able to experiment with the technology on a small scale before applying it to their whole field. The farm is their livelihood, and villagers are not able to take chances with a work that their lives and bellies depend on.
• Have early, significant benefits. If there are not results that show up within one season then villagers will lose faith and enthusiasm. They will go back to what they were doing before.
The list goes on. With my recent garden training, I tried to organize for villagers to come and learn many new techniques for planting crops that don’t exist chez moi. I wanted to get people to stop their daily activities, sacrifice their time so I could bombard them with technical information, then leave them to put it into practice. The training took me several months to organize and in hindsight seems like a massive failure. But I learned some of the most important lessons that I wish someone had told me before I started.
First of all, don’t try to introduce a lot of new crops at one time to a community. Work with crops that already exist. Gardens require constant maintenance and do really well in the wet season when local grasses and herbs are already plentiful. Having vegetables right next to the house to put in the sauce and help kids get the vitamins they need makes a lot of sense, but when a woman has to pull water up a long well in the morning and evening to water her garden on top of carrying her kids, making corn paste for dinner, washing clothes… just no. My community didn’t need to be taught how to garden, and I wasted many months figuring that out.
Also, it is much better for volunteers to go to meetings that are already set up than to try and create their own. For my past trainings I have tried to get many people to converge on one place of my deciding when what I really need to do is go towards the people. Talking to people at a groupement meeting, a class at school, or speaking at mass at the church are much more effective and involve much less time than trying to organize a training. Recently I did a training on how to do a feasibility study and make liquid soap with a groupement near the college in Anfoin, and it was more effective than the garden training I spent months prepping for. Also with training, people often have to be fed and lodged, but when one person goes toward a group instead of asking the group to come to the person’s doorstep a training is much more effective.
One central idea of Bunch’s book is that it is much better to teach one thing to many people than a lot of things to one group. When I first got to Anfoin, my groupement wanted me to go through and put all of the techniques I learned during training on the table. So I taught them how to do improved cook stoves, double dig garden beds, and the benefits of agroforestry. At the moment not one of them has put any of this into practice, and if they have it is to keep me happy and not to actually improve their own lives. What I would really like to do with my service is find one technology that my community could really use, teach it to a lot of people, and have it become the HABIT of people to use it. There must be a critical mass where over a certain threshold everyone will begin to put a technology into practice and those who don’t will be considered strange.
The best thing I have found thus far to improve agriculture is a plant called Mucuna. It is a green fertilizer, kind of like a creeping vine, that fixes nitrogen in the soil and crowds out some of the especially annoying weeds. Farmers can plant it towards the end of the wet season when corn is already high enough that the mucuna won’t crawl up it. During the dry season it continues growing for a while and then dies, making weeding the field a lot easier and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. Farmers can see whether it has had an effect or not when they go to plant at the beginning of the next wet season, it is easily planted between growing corn in the middle of a pause in the agricultural cycle, farmers can experiment with it on a small scale, and it is simple and easy to teach to others. This is the best solution I have seen so far to begin addressing the dying soil in my region.
Several other organizations in my village have taught villagers how to correctly use chemical fertilizers. You make a small hole in the ground next to the corn plant, put a small amount of fertilizer in, and cover it up (NOTHING like I envisioned chemical fertilizers being when I first got here). This sounds like a great start to help villagers have faith in a program. I’m hoping I can jump on board and help them with this next step, mucuna, giving a few seeds to a lot of people to put on one portion of their land to see if it continues this process.
I’ve also been investing a lot of time recently helping my homologue get together a project dealing with agoutis (bush rats). Our goal is to create a center to train college students to raise agoutis as an AGR. We will be: (1) Building a lot of new enclosures for the animals, (2) giving trainings on how to raise the animals, (3) creating an animal bank (along with a project for the groupement) to help students begin to raise the animals, and (4) helping them to find a market to sell them when they are ready. At first I was incredibly adverse to financed projects, but this was just too cool to pass up. We are writing the application to send to the American embassy and I have found that, unlike labor in the field, I am actually very good when it comes to writing applications and planning projects. More about this to come.
Before coming to Togo, I thought learning experiences were a one-time deal: something bad happens, I get hurt and learn from it. Now they are drawn out over months and that can be hard to take. But my approach to my service is changing, for the better. Instead of running around on a hamster wheel for this period of my life, I feel like if I put some of these new ideas into practice I just might get somewhere.