Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Seeing is believing: lessons from Africa

CC BY Aidan Jones
There are many remarkable success stories resulting from our work, but we don't always get to hear them. Do we need to? Not entirely, but it's reassuring to know that our efforts are paying off. What does matter is that these stories are shared with other people to whom the interventions can make a life-changing difference.

'Seeing is believing' is a saying coined hundreds of years ago implying that only physical or concrete evidence is convincing. Biblical connotations aside, it is a concept that is the backbone of many extension and uptake strategies and the subject of many varied (and some interesting) academic articles, particularly in the science communication field.

I've somewhat simplified the concept here. What the description above does not adequately cover is that a major (but certainly not the only) factor affecting credibility of a message is the information source. What does this mean? It means that if you're trying to convince people to change their practices (take risks, move out of their comfort zone, perhaps spend more, do things 'differently'), you have to be convincing.

CC BY Floeschie
You can be the smoothest talker, the most knowledgeable subject-matter expert, the humblest of educators, the most pragmatic enabler, the most empathetic facilitator, but you may never be convincing. In this case, the age-old breakup excuse ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ may not be a mere platitude. It may just be a fact that you’re going to need to work with. If you can’t do it, get someone involved who can!

In a very simplistic scenario, imagine you're a farmer from Malawi’s central region. A group of scientists and representatives from government agencies and not-for-profit organisations travel to your village and try to convince you and other villagers that you may benefit from trialling different agricultural practices on your land. You’re told that while it may take a bit of getting used to and you’ll get initial assistance, these trial practices will likely lead to bigger yields and reduced effort down the track. You’ve heard about other farmers trying new methods. Your priority is to ensure your family has enough food to survive and you know that what you’re doing now gives you what you need. The potential returns are appealing, but this is an experiment and it’s a risk. You have doubts and it sounds a bit too good to be true. Will you take it on?

Now imagine if that entourage included some real farmers from a neighbouring village who are also involved in the trials. You’re able to talk to these farmers, who may have had the same initial concerns as you. They can talk freely of their experience with the project. Their input has been so valuable to the scientists that often the experiments are tweaked to adapt to the local situation. What more, these farmers have brought a tablet device and you are watching videos of their crops prior to harvest. You haven’t had the opportunity to see what neighbouring villages are doing before. Now you’re able to see, first hand, the differences in yield between the trial plots and the ‘usual practice’ crops. While these people are not from your village, you’ve now got a real opportunity to find out what’s involved and to make a more informed decision.

Below I abridge an article that appeared in a recent newsletter for our SIMLESA project. SIMLESA stands for Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Legume based Cropping Systems for Food Security in Eastern and Southern Africa and the program is transforming the lives of some of the farmers involved in the trials. More than just data or statistics, it’s the stories of the individuals involved in the program that convince.
Seeing is believing: Farmers from Salima impressed with CA in Nkotakota, Malawi

On 27th April 2012, a group of 30 farmers, research committee members, community leaders and extension officers from Salima District visited farmers practising Conservation Agriculture (CA) in Nkotakota District.
The objective of the visit was to enable the visiting farmers to share and learn from the relatively more experienced farmers in Nkotakota who have been implementing CA over the last six years.
Farmers assess conservation agriculture techniques in Malawi
Image courtesy of CIMMYT

Mr Nelson Mataya has been practising CA for six years. His trial plot had three main treatments: conventional ridge and furrow system; conservation agriculture maize pure stand; and conservation agriculture maize-cowpea intercropped.

The visitors were impressed with Mataya’s CA plots that had good residue cover, good weed control, reduced weed incidence and lower termite damage unlike the conventional plots that were suffering heavy weed infestation and termite damage. Mataya told the visitors that with zero tillage and moderate herbicide application, he did not have to engage in the labour intensive, time consuming and costly ploughing and weeding.

Mrs Belita Mareko, a widow also in her 6th year of practising CA, moved the visiting farmers with how she had found dignity in practising CA. She told the visitors that CA is ‘umasiye umatha’ meaning that practicing CA reduces the burden of being a widow.

In spite of being sick for a long time, she still managed to grow and get good harvests from CA plots as she avoided the burden of ploughing and weeding. She happily told her fellow farmers that without CA she was nobody. She has built an iron sheet roofed house and sent her children to school using earnings from CA. She is food secure as she still had maize from last year’s harvest. She plans to practice CA on all her fields.

During the discussions, the hosts noted various challenges in CA and how they had solved them. Freerange livestock and burning of residues by mice hunters can present challenges to residue management. This can be overcome by sensitising the community about the value of residues and finding alternatives. Community leadership can also help to control livestock in CA plots through enforcing local by-laws and control of fire breaks.

Factors behind the successful CA up scaling were:
  • training farmers to look at farming as a business;
  • involvement of traditional leaders in CA programs;
  • and exchange visits within the community helped to improve farmer-to-farmer training.
Note that this content is an abridged version of the article appearing in the SIMLESA project update newsletter, courtesy of CIMMYT. The full article can be viewed here (see page 13).

Alex and a SIMLESA farmer in Malawi
June 2011
In the article, the farmers participating in the information exchange program were fortunate enough to visit the neighbouring village. But as the scenario above demonstrates, basic advances in technology mean that there are more opportunities to do this kind of ‘farmer-to-farmer’ ‘seeing-is-believing’ work.

While we may not always have the opportunity to hear, first-hand, about how our work is helping to improve the lives of smallholder farmers around the world, it’s not such a big thing—providing these stories touch the ears, eyes and hearts of the people that really matter.

Alexandra Bagnara, ACIAR Science Communicator


  1. Fantastic work ACIAR. As a every day Joe it's grea to see yur work doing so much good for people who can't just pop into woolies on the way home. I know as a construction worker I am more likley to listen to a work mate rather then a goverment offical. By having local farmers interacting with "officals" I reckon the farmers are going to listen more because of results others have had. A friend showed me this site to prove to me the government does more with the tax dollars then policy and hire cars. I have not commented before but this article touched me. Imagine what you guys could do for other regions with more cash.

    Keep up the great work ACIAR, I am a proud aussie

  2. great article!

    really refreshing to read something so positive in 'normal people' speak!

    while its great to read the scientific reports - I personally don't find it anywhere near as encouraging nor engaging.

    More articles like this please! ACIAR does excellent work that is not given the publicity and appreciation it deserves.

  3. Always heartening to see my tax dollars going towards such worthy causes. Keep up the wonderful work.

  4. Sharing stories and experience are so important, trusted sources!! Nice to see technology playing a part too.

    Great post!!

  5. This beautifully explains & convinces us about the thing called as adaptation- no matter its farming technique or any general part of life. Thanks ACIAR for bringing this up!

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