Thursday, 25 September 2014

The JAFs are in town

This week the JAFs are in town. Short for John Allwright Fellows, JAFs are postgraduate (PhD and Masters) scholars supported by ACIAR’s John Allwright Fellowship scheme, which aims to enhance research capacity in ACIAR’s partner-country institutions.
Every year around September the new awardees gather in Canberra to meet each other and ACIAR staff, and to take part in a workshop on communicating research.

Nascimento Nhantumbo (Mozambique) and Khamtan Phonetip (Lao PDR)
This year there are five women and 17 men from 12 different countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Mozambique, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The research topics are diverse. For example, Ms Risa Antari (Indonesia) is studying the effect of nutrition on bone growth in cattle at the University of Queensland. Mr Muneer Rehman (Pakistan) is investigating plant hormones to control citrus colouring at Curtin University. While Mr Khamtan Phonetip (Laos) is at the University of Melbourne to research the best way to dry plantation eucalypt wood using a solar kiln.

Ritika Chowdary (India) and Muneer Rehman (Pakistan)
They’ve had a jam-packed week so far. Day 1 was spent at ACIAR house, where they spent most of the day in the main conference room, meeting the research program managers and learning about ACIAR’s communications and impact assessment programs.

They also received insights and learnt of some of the challenges associated with completing a JAF from Muhammad Sohail Mazhar from Pakistan. Sohail is in his fourth and final year of his JAF-sponsored PhD on avocado bruising at the University of Queensland.

Ratih Damayanti and Dwiko Budi Permadi (Indonesia)
The next 3 days are spent offsite at a scientific writing workshop, run by Drs Margaret Cargill and Kate Cadman from the University of Adelaide. This is an intensive course where the students learn how to write scientific papers and deliver engaging presentations about their work.
Finally, on Day 5, the students will reward ACIAR staff with the presentations they have been preparing during the week.

JAF Week 2014 participants with ACIAR CEO Nick Austin.

But it’s not all work. There is plenty of time to play as well. Last night the students and ACIAR staff enjoyed a noisy and delicious dinner in Kingston. And after the presentations on Friday the students will be taken on a tour of Canberra. Then it’s back ‘home’ – to their Australian tertiary institutions – to get stuck into their studies.

By Georgina Hickey, ACIAR

More information:                                                                                                    

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Building on a decade long partnership — Afghanistan government agencies lead wheat trials

Improved wheat varieties are contributing to Afghanistan’s food security and economic growth.  Australia has been a major supporter of wheat varietal improvement, working in partnership with Afghanistan government agencies for well over a decade.

This program of improving wheat yields is implemented through an ACIAR brokered partnership between ARIA (the research institute of the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock - MAIL) and CIMMYT (the CGIAR centre dedicated to wheat and maize improvement, ACIAR project CIM/2011/026). 

Wheat is the staple commodity in Afghanistan – in excess of 20 million rural people (or about 7 million households) depend directly on the crop. On average about 1.17 million ha of irrigated wheat is grown each year, while up to 1.38 million ha is planted and not irrigated,or rainfed, depending on the season. Rainfed systems are the most challenging to improve because of the associated risk and their very low productivity.

Afghanistan’s wheat yields face significant challenges – low yields from both irrigated and rainfed crops have been further challenged by susceptibility to disease. Of concern are the common strains of yellow rust and the looming regional threat from the aggressive UG99 strain of stem rust.

A ten year partnership ARIA/MAIL, CIMMYT & ACIAR

Research progress has been slow but solid, broadening the range and quality of the wheat varieties available for field trials.  On a recent visit to Afghanistan, it was very impressive to visit the Darulaman Research Station, as a guest of ARIA Director General Mr Obaidi and of CIMMYT.   The MAIL/ARIA team took the lead in describing all of the work undertaken – it was clear that they have full ownership of the wheat trials. 

The MAIL/ARIA team led by Director General Obaidi (second on left) at Darulaman Research Station in Kabul

In 2013, Australian sponsored research resulted in the release of 7 improved wheat varieties. The wheat lines released included irrigated varieties with the potential to produce over 6t/ha, and rainfed varieties with the potential to produce 3.8t/ha.

These yields are about 10% better than any current variety and are more than double the current average yields of 2-3t/ha for irrigated wheat and 1-1.5t/ha for non irrigated wheat.

Assisting adoption of new varieties

The MAIL/ARIA program is managing trials in 10 locations representing 4 major agro-climatic zones of Afghanistan. To accelerate adoption of the new varieties, the project has established 4 technical support hubs where the varieties and appropriate wheat growing methods are tested on farmer’s fields and demonstrated to farmers.

Rainfed wheat production in Char Kent, Balkh Province

Adoption of new varieties is, however, very slow. It is constrained by factors such as – seed availability and quality, timeliness of distribution, cost of seed, and localised agro-climatic requirements.

ACIAR estimates that adoption could reach up to 20% of the planted area in the medium to long term. If this occurs then up to 1.5 million households will benefit.

David Swete Kelly undertakes Monitoring and Evaluation on behalf of DFAT for the Afghanistan Research for Development Program

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Voicing the needs of women farmers

“Women farmers are vital, in the poverty-ridden Eastern Gangetic Plains of South Asia”, says Dr Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, of the ANU.

ACIAR, with DFAT, funded a report by Dr Lahiri-Dutt highlighting the ‘feminisation of agriculture’ and the challenges facing women-headed farming households, in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. This is one of the poorest parts of the world – marked by male out-migration and deteriorating livelihoods.

Social and economic factors, and the need for off-farm income, have seen men increasingly move away from rural areas, to the point where up to 70% of South Asia’s agricultural work is done by women.

Dukhni Safi runs a farm of less than a tenth of a hectare in the Madhubani district of Bihar, India.
The farm is now so small it can only provide 4–5 months of the food required yearly for the household.

Women have emerged as the key producers, performing a wide range of tasks related to planning, cropping, managing, processing and marketing, in and around the agricultural fields.

The resulting women-headed farming households are often poor with small landholdings. These families and their livelihoods are further constrained by the lower levels of education and training afforded to women, and the discrimination to which they are subjected when accessing agricultural technologies.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report is based on a detailed survey of the serious constraints being faced by women living in this extremely poor setting. She knows this region and its challenges for women farmers intimately. Dukhni Safi and Sajjan Devi are farming women whose voices can be heard in two short but insightful case studies featured in the report.
Dr Lahiri-Dutt canvasses the opinion of these women – of their perception of obstacles and constraints, and of possible local solutions.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt recommends a series of strategies, that are gender sensitive, to improve education for women-headed farming households – for example, introducing women to more productive agricultural methods and extension services.

The burden of work on women is exemplified by the case of 30-year-old Sajjan Devi, a widow, pictured here with two of her three young children.
She also sees knowledge sharing among peers, and in group situations, as a necessity. Dr Lahiri-Dutt suggests that these informal and safe peer groups could evolve into cooperatives, aimed at securing training and improving access to money, resources and equipment.

In the Eastern Gangetic Plains region gender roles have significantly shifted in the past 50 years. Feminisation holds implications for agricultural productivity, food security and gender equity issues. It’s of interest as much for agricultural scientists as it is for development agencies.

Ultimately, Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report adds substantially to the field of agricultural knowledge by incorporating the voices of women. It will assist agricultural scientists and development agencies alike, in ensuring their programs and project activities are in tune with the actual needs expressed by women.
To reiterate, and as Dr Lahiri-Dutt says, the need to empower these women in their farming households is vital.

By Mr David Skinner (ACIAR Program Support Officer) and Dr  John Dixon (ACIAR Principal Adviser)

More information and further reading

ACIAR publication TR083 - Experiencing and coping with change: women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains

Dancing with the River: People and Life on the Chars of South Asia by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Gopa Samanta (Yale University Press, 2013)



Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Helping women revive natural dye-making traditions

Some of the naturally dyed yarns produced by the village women.
In Indonesia, hand-woven and dyed textiles play an important role in the spiritual, social and economic aspects of life. These textiles are worn in ceremonies, traded, bartered and given as wedding gifts. They are made by women, with the traditions passed down through generations. Increasingly these textiles are produced using synthetic dyes. However, new research is encouraging women to revive their natural dye-making traditions, and increase their incomes in the process.
An ACIAR-funded project in eastern Indonesia is supporting the development of integrated agroforestry and non-timber forest product systems. The project partners include government researchers and non-government organisations, including a Bali-based fair-trade organisation—Threads of Life—that uses culture and conservation to alleviate poverty in rural Indonesia.

William Ingram, founder of Threads of Life, discussing dying with Halena Kase at Bosen.
Threads of Life works directly with over 1,000 women in more than 35 cooperative groups on islands from Kalimantan to Timor. The proceeds from sales of the textiles help weavers establish cooperatives, manage their resources sustainably, train younger generations, and keep their traditions alive while alleviating poverty. Threads of Life staff also teach the members of the cooperatives simple business skills, as well as how to manage and protect the plants used in dye making.

Under the ACIAR project, with the support of Threads of Life and the project researchers, women in the village of Bosen, East Nusa Tenggara, are reviving their ancient traditions of making natural dyes for use in weaving to enhance their livelihoods. Since the project started a year ago, the local researchers introduced the Threads of Life staff to the potential opportunities around the Bosen village study site. Women in this village were practising weaving but they had made the transition to using synthetic dyes. Only the older women in the village could remember which local plants had been used to make dyes and what the traditional practices were.

Margarita Liukae reducing indigo dye.
When we visited Bosen during the project’s annual workshop in August 2014, the local women were making a purple dye from the plant Indigofera—a plant that’s been traded around the world for centuries. Interestingly the genus Indigofera is widely distributed with local species occurring in Indonesia and Australia. However, the most commonly planted species in Indonesia is Indigofera tinctoria, which originated in India and was brought to Indonesia in the 19th Century. 

The plants, which are nitrogen fixing, are grown in the village gardens and the leaves are then used to make the indigo dye. Following soaking and partial fermentation, lime is added to reduce the indigo and make it more colour fast.

Halena Kase using the indigo to dye threads for weaving.
By reviving and adopting the traditional dye-making processes, and then using these dyes in their textile weaving, the women of Bosen are receiving up to four times as much for the textiles as they did when they used synthetic dyes. The project staff are supporting these activities and researching how the natural dyes can be made more uniform and colour fast.

By Tony Bartlett, ACIAR’s Forestry research program manager

More information
ACIAR project FST/2012/039 – Development of timber and non-timber forest products’ production and market strategies for improvement of smallholders’ livelihoods in Indonesia, led by World Agroforestry Centre

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

PAC to Perth

On landing in Perth one sentiment was common amongst our group: are we really still in the same country? Flying 4–5 hours in most of our group’s home countries would involve passing over at least more than one country.

We were in Perth as part of ACIAR’s annual meeting of the Policy Advisory Council (PAC), a group made up of representatives from the developing countries ACIAR works with.  The meeting consists of 2 days in Canberra , followed by a short field trip somewhere in Australia to meet with key research partners, policymakers, farmers and agribusinesses. This year I had the pleasure of organising the meeting and the field trip to Western Australia.

the Hon. Julie Bishop and members of ACIAR's PAC and Commission

After a busy 2 days in Canberra, meeting with ACIAR’s Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Foreign Minister, the Hon. Julie Bishop, we had landed safely in Perth and were looking forward to the 3-day tour ahead. 

Day 1 – Perth

University of Western Australia
PAC members with UWA researchers and chickpeas
First up was the University of  Western Australia (UWA) with researchers from the UWA Institute of Agriculture. It was a beautiful sunny day and the historic campus was showing off its best side. The group discussed common global issues for universities including research priorities, funding and how to attract students to agriculture. It was clear that everyone was passionate about agriculture and determined to engage future generations for development and sustainability of the industry.

After a busy start to the week, Dr Bo (Vietnam) was intrigued by the Centre for Sleep Science but especially interested in the Chickpea experiments. The research into water use efficiency and salinity tolerance was of particular interest to our South Asian colleagues. 

CSIRO – Floreat
We spent the afternoon with the CSIRO team at their Floreat facility. Our group was taken through the soil science basics in a demonstration of how CSIRO engages with farmers through training and field days.

Dr Bo demonstrated his soil science background by taking and examining a soil core from the CSIRO lawn

We were also shown a sheep nutrition study into the effect of diet on methane production and productivity, a new saltbush variety, and productivity testing of new lupin accessions recently collected from the Fertile Crescent region. 

Day 2 – Bunbury

Department of Agriculture and Food

Day 2 was a bus tour with Western Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA). We visited a seed potato farm, a dairy farm and a vegetable packaging facility. The group gained a lot from interacting with the farmers and learning about the industry from their perspective. 

Wearing biosecure and fashionable plastic shoe covers to inspect the seed potato crop

At the DAFWA office we learned about the wine industry (even tasting a couple of new varieties) and a fledgling jujube (Chinese red date) industry. Some PAC members wondered why they weren’t exporting jujube to Australia at those prices!

Day 3 – Perth

Crawford Fund
We started the final day with a breakfast hosted by the Western Australian committee of the Crawford Fund. PAC members were very interested in the potential collaboration and training opportunities for their researchers back home.

Ruth Oniang'o (Kenya) and Leah Buendia (Philippines) show off their fluoro vests
Australian Grains Centre and Murdoch University
Next we headed off on the bus for a tour of the impressive Australian Grains Centre at the CBH bulk grain storage and handling facility, and a visit to Murdoch University

In an example of projects delivering benefits to both Australia and our developing-partner countries, we were shown an experiment focused on improving legume productivity through development of the rhizobia (nitrogen-fixing bacteria). Legume species collected from South Africa were being tested for their potential in improving Western Australian grazing systems. Ruth Oniang’o (Kenya) was particularly impressed with the African focus of the Murdoch team and was interested in further engagement with the researchers. 

Kings Park and Botanic Garden

Mr Xaypladeth from Laos taking a selfie with Perth in the background
We finished the day with a visit to Kings Park and Botanic Garden, and were fortunate enough to be guided by our enthusiastic, former botanist, bus driver Laurie. After a couple of quick snaps overlooking Perth and at the end of a very busy week, there was still some time for exploring the city and shopping! The tradition of gift-giving remains strong amongst our Councillors and they welcomed the opportunity to buy some Australian souvenirs to present to colleagues back home.  

It was a very productive, interesting, funny and exhausting week. Everyone seemed to have confidence in my calm exterior and trusted I had everything in control. Underneath though I was extremely relieved each day as we arrived and departed on time, didn’t get lost and, most importantly, didn’t lose anyone along the way.


Rebecca McBride, Communications Officer