Wednesday, 27 September 2017

ACIAR supporting women farmers in Aceh

“ACIAR support is like a yeast,” says Ibu Nazariah.  “It’s a catalyst for the development of women farmers in Aceh.”

The representative from the Balai Pengkajian Teknologi Pertanian (BPTP, “Centre for Agricultural Technology Assessment”) was speaking at a network development showcase for those women farmers held in Bireuën, Aceh, in September. 

Group picture of KWT forum

Just as yeast makes bread rise, so ACIAR, working with its partner BPTP, has improved farmers’ lives in this impoverished, largely rural region of Indonesia.

Since 2009, they have helped women form Kelompok Wanita Tani, KWTs for short (lit. “Group of Women Farmers”).  These groups support the women to grow vegetables and other crops for income, and work closely with extension staff to provide capacity building activities such as farming, training, and women in agriculture forums.

Members of KWT Jeumpa Putih posing with their green soybean

Aceh has rebuilt its infrastructure after the devastating tsunami of 2004 that killed 130,000 people, but rural poverty, poor soil fertility, and lack of water make it difficult to improve agriculture.  Many villagers face food shortages, and a Melbourne University health study found that 25% of children were malnourished.

ACIAR began working in the region with male farmers in 2007.  Since then, agricultural yields have significantly increased, and zero till, skip row, and biochar technologies have helped to rehabilitate soils.  By growing and selling soybeans and corn, farmers have been able to purchase material for fences, and cattle whose manure fertilizes the crops.

Demonstration in making organic fertilizer.
Members of 32 KWTs from four regencies – Aceh Besar, West Aceh, Pidie, and Bireuën – attended the showcase, set up as part of ACIAR project SMCN/2012/103, which develops integrated soil, water and crop management practices for increasing the cost-effective production of crops in rotation, using farmer participatory trials.

“This event is really important because it is a meeting point for farmers,” said Dr. Malem McLeod, the Australian project leader.  “The 32 KWTs run independently without communicating with each other.  This is a good chance for them to learn, exchange information, and build networks.”

Dr. McLeod discussing project with extension staff.

The participants visited the Blang Badeh site, Bireuën, to see and share their knowledge of farming practices.  The Bireuën KWT, Kasih Ibu, farms have the most members and the biggest site of any that attended from the four regencies.  The KWT was formed by Mr. M. Nur Abdullah, who saw that large tracts of land owned by the local government were unused, and could be used to grow vegetables.

By encouraging women to grow vegetables in their gardens or in the surrounding unused land, Mr Abdullah hoped they would be given a purpose that wouldhelp them to rebuild their community and recover from the grief of losing their loved ones in the tsunami.  Now, more than ten years after the project began, women farmers can provide food for both their family and their neighbours, and sell produce in markets.  From growing vegetables, a farmer can generate an extra 50,000 ($3.74 US) to 70,000 ($5.23 US) rupiah a day.

Mrs. Nazariah noticed that the KWTs had improved the women’s confidence.  “They were really shy, but now farmers are able to speak in the forum and discussions.  And of course, women are now skilled in farming, whereas they used not to know about growing vegetables or making organic fertilizer.  They are very active and enthusiastic, which is really good.”

Ibu Nazariah - Project Co-ordinator

Ibu Ismayani, head of the KWT Jeumpa Putih in Beuradeun, Aceh Besar, agrees.  Working with other women farmers in the field is precious to her.  She doesn’t just get extra income, but she bonds with other women, and gains confidence, knowledge – and free stress therapy.

“We move our bodies,” she says; “we’re not just sitting down all day, but we plough, we plant, we clean the grass. Farming is a beneficial work out!”

Ibu Ismayani, head of KWT Jeumpa Putih, with celery
The ACIAR project ends next year, but the KWTs are negotiating with local government (including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Food Sustainability) to support their groups after funding ends.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Improving the lives of Cambodian farmers

The team weeding the time of sowing trial, during the inception meeting field visit.  (Photo: Sochea Mao.)

ACIAR researchers got their hands dirty when they visited trial farm plots as part of the inception meeting for a new project helping poor, marginalised, and female Cambodian farmers to adopt new agricultural technologies and best practices.

Project ASEM/2013/003, which runs from April 2017 to December 2020, aims to increase farmers’ incomes, limit soil degradation and erosion caused by cassava production, and help farms adopt more environmentally sustainable production methods.

The four-year project focuses on Cambodia’s North-west, a region that’s in the middle of a cassava boom and possible bust.

Cassava is cheap and easy to grow, and was once profitable – but both yield and profitability are in decline.  Farming practices degrade soils, increase erosion, and have resulted in monoculture and the spread of diseases and pests such as witches’ broom and mealybug. 

Few farmers have adopted cassava-oriented technologies or best management practices.  This inhibits more sustainable production, which in turn inhibits efforts to aid smallholder farmers in North-west Cambodia, particularly poor, marginalised, and female-headed households.  New agricultural practices are needed.

The project will test an approach to changing farmers’ behaviour that could alter partnerships between these farmers with the researchers, non-government organisation workers, donors, and government representatives who try to improve their lives.

Planting cassava.  (Photo: Phan Sophanara.)
We held our project inception meeting on 4th and 5th August 2017 in the western province of Pailin. The workshop participants included Dr. Jayne Curnow and Dulce Simmanivong from ACIAR, Iean Russell from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, representatives from the NGO Partners for Rural Development, and researchers from the University of Melbourne and the Prek Leap National School of Agriculture.

As part of the meeting, the participants visited one of our demonstration sites in Kampong Touk village, Samlout district, Battambang province. We thought all participants should experience the type of work that we conduct as part of our field research programme, so we made sure everyone got their hands dirty.

We spent the morning in the field where Phan Sophanara, the local research agronomist on this project and Chief of Agronomy for the Pailin Provincial Department of Agriculture, walked us through four experiments trialling cassava time of sowing, planting method, plant population, and intercropping with legume.  These four trials are being conducted at each of the demonstration sites: the Kampong Touk site, and Soun Ampouv Kert village, Pailin district, Pailin province.

Planting cassava on a conventional hill horizontal.  (Photo: Phan Sophanara.)

Everyone was interested in seeing the research trials. Mr. Yem Yorn, Kampong Touk Commune Chief and the site’s landowner, warmly welcomed everyone working in agricultural development to work in his commune. He is keen for new technologies to help farmers improve their crop production and livelihoods.

Dr. Jayne Curnow, ACIAR’s Research Program Manager for Agricultural Systems Management, helped the team to weed our trial plot. This trial aims to determine if it is more feasible and less risky to grow crops at other times than in February to April, when farmers in North-west Cambodia normally plant their crops.

ACIAR's Dr. Jayne Curnow.  (Photo: Sochea Mao.)

Dr. Steph Montgomery, the project’s field research leader, showed the participants how to use the minidisk infiltrometer – and Dr. Brian Cook, Project Leader, had a close encounter with our beautiful Samlout soil while using it to record infiltration.

The researchers may have gotten dirty – but this project could hit pay dirt for Cambodia’s poor farmers.

Gender multi-tasking: Talking the talk and walking the walk

The internet is awash with statistics about the contribution of women and men to agriculture, the relative empowerment of different genders, and how bridging gaps of access to and control over pertinent resources will drastically improve development outcomes for all. But what do all these words and numbers mean? How can they be applied to agricultural research for development in low to middle income countries where smallholders dominate the agricultural sector?
In May this year, ACIAR turned 35. Looking back through the years, research funded by ACIAR has significantly improved agricultural practices and livelihoods in both Australia and our partner countries. But for many years the research has been largely gender-blind, limiting the potential of both participants and impacts. An increasing focus on gendered social relations within ACIAR and its commissioned research projects is a crucial step on the path to gender equity in the processes and outcomes of investments.  
One action on this path was to bring leading lights from Australia and New Zealand together at a workshop held at ACIAR, 30-31st May 2017. This group comprised academics, NGO partners, DFAT, and private consultants who are operationalising the latest thinking and gender theories relevant to international agricultural research for development.  
Gender experts from ACIAR workshop, May 31st 2017: Prof Barbara Pamphilon, Miriam McCormack, Joanne Choe, Assc. Prof Yvonne Underhill-Sem, Dr Jayne Curnow, Dr Lauren Rickards, Siwan Lovett, Dr Evan Christen, Dr Jane Dyson, Prof Margaret Alston, Prof Sharon Bell, Dr Ann-Maree Nobelius, Prof Andrew Campbell, Sally Moyle, Dr Meryl Williams, Assc. Prof Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, and Dr Brian Cook. Photo credit: ACIAR.
Participants enthusiastically discussed the current and emerging research on:
  • integrating gender in agricultural research for development,
  • the gender questions not on the agenda, and
  • the future focus for gender theory and practice in agricultural research for development.

Reporting back from group discussions: Miriam McCormack, Dr Ann-Maree Nobelius, and Dr Meryl Williams. Photo credit: ACIAR.
It quickly became clear that the first step for ACIAR (or any institution, for that matter) becoming a research leader in gendered social relations was to recognise and address our own unconscious bias and potential stumbling blocks.
As this blog is being posted, Professor Sharon Bell is finalising the ACIAR Gender Strategy and Policy that will be implemented across the agency. By critically examining our own position and developing a strategy and policy to deliver a more equitable program both internally and externally, we will be better placed to pursue the agency’s core business.
To assist our partners, ACIAR’s inaugural Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Jo Caffrey (University of Canberra), is finalising guidelines for researchers on how to incorporate a gender focus into ACIAR research proposals to achieve gender equity.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Re-defining Innovation Platforms for the Eastern Gangetic Plains

Researchers and practitioners from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Laos and Australia gathered in Bangladesh last week to discuss their experiences with Innovation Platforms (IPs) and re-define their operations for the South Asian context. IPs are multi-stakeholder groups that allow people to come together to solve challenges within their farming systems.

Participants in the Innovation Platform synthesis workshop in Rangpur, Bangladesh.

The workshop reviewed and evaluated IPs that have run as part of the Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Intensification (SRFSI) project in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. With this information and experiences from Africa and Southeast Asia, the group identified options to make initiatives more effective.

The group shared a wealth of experience in implementing IPs locally, and also benefited from participants with longer experience with the process in Africa, and the different operating conditions in Laos. These inputs provided an excellent overview of how work has been synthesised and aligned across many countries in Africa.

As part of the workshop, the group met members of an active Innovation Platform in Mohonpur Village, in Dinajpur district, Rangpur. This IP was formed in 2015, and supplies machinery services and good quality seed for Conservation Agriculture-based Sustainable Intensification (CASI) techniques. They have also set up an Agricultural Information Centre which serves around 2,000 farming households.

Mr Dinesh Chandro, Chairman of the Mohonpur IP, describes the group’s experiences to Dr KK Das from Bihar Agricultural University.

The group’s chairman fervently described the benefits they have experienced. Since they became a co-ordinated entity, local government has provided additional services. Participation in the IP also strengthened links between government departments and the private sector.  Both these sectors are now responding to increased demand, by ensuring timely supply of seed and chemicals.

CASI practices have reduced costs of production while maintaining yields. The group also plans to use the IP process to improve alternative income streams such as producing poultry, fish, vegetables, and handicrafts.

Work under the SRFSI project shows that in South Asia, building on existing groups like Farmer’s Clubs can make IPs more effective in a shorter time. For relevance, they should include, employ and empower women and youths in local communities. Groups that work with a business approach are more likely to be sustainable. Such groups can increase their bargaining power, take advantage of government subsidies, and help local government agencies reach more farmers with relevant information. Using up-to-date communication methods provides tailored services to more farmers, including banking, market information and farm management advice. These options can make future work in the region more effective.

The workshop, which CSIRO organized and ACIAR supported through the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio, aimed to synthesise information to generate a set of products redefined for local conditions, and to share information to other groups in South Asia wanting to use the IP approach (handbook, short videos, on-line resources).

For more information, please contact Dr Peter Brown (


Where does gender fit in the agriculture-water nexus?

Regional experts from research and development met in New Delhi last week to explore links between agriculture, water and gender. These themes are not often considered in a connected way.

“While there are many studies on various aspects on water, gender and agriculture, these are not consolidated, and most are conducted at small scales,” said Dr Fay Rola-Rubzen of Curtin University.

“There does not seem to be a synthesis, which makes it difficult to translate findings for policy makers. There is a need for a systematic review of existing studies to see whether the same findings apply at wider scales, to better inform policy design.”

The meeting was an excellent opportunity to understand the ways in which gender is perceived in the Eastern Gangetic Plains, how this changes with time and place, and the pathways by which complex gender relations have emerged.

The experts, for example, identified the impacts of male out-migration from agricultural areas and discussed it as a major challenge in the region. The responses to this are not universal across the region.

In some places, this results in high levels of ‘feminisation’ of agriculture – where females become responsible for farm household decision making and operations, often without the same access to experience, information and finance. In other areas like West Bengal, women are opting out of agriculture altogether. Gender inclusion and empowerment will differ between locations, and there is no “one size fits all” approach.

These understandings will contribute to the out-scaling efforts undertaken within the Australian government-funded Sustainable and Resilient Farming Systems Intensification project that CIMMYT manages under the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio (SDIP).

The workshop laid the foundation for a platform that would support work on the three interconnected themes of agriculture, water and gender - an important beginning to promote synergy. It will also develop a common language between development practitioners and academicians, especially to reach policy makers.

The platform will take the form of a website, which SaciWATERs, a policy research organization based in Hyderabad, India, will manage and host. This website will host relevant work, connect to other relevant groups, and communicate stories through blogs, photo stories, case studies, etc. More importantly, it will build a pool of easily accessible experts and resources on the themes.

Participants included representatives from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the International Rice Research Institute. The meeting was co-facilitated by SaciWATERs and supported by ACIAR through SDIP.

For more information, please contact Dr Kuhu Chatterjee (

ACIAR CEO Andrew Campbell with participants at a workshop on agriculture, gender and water in New Delhi, September 8th 2017.

Monday, 11 September 2017

ACIAR plans to extend successful African leafy vegetables project

Participants in ACIAR's workshop on Africa Leafy Vegetables in Kisumu, Kenya.
ACIAR plans to spread a successful new food procurement and school feeding model trialled in Kenya to other regions of Africa.

The trial project (HORT/2014/100) helped Kenyan smallholder farmers sell nutrient-rich but underused African leafy vegetables to schools.  Thanks to the project, schoolchildren are healthier and better educated, and smallholder farmers – many of them women – are earning more money and know how to market their produce.

ACIAR has earmarked $2.5 million over 3 or 4 years for rolling out the model to other parts of Kenya and to neighbouring Tanzania, with Uganda possibly to follow.

“This is a really exciting research project,” said ACIAR’s Annie Sanderson, who attended a three-day workshop in Kisumu, western Kenya, that discussed how to spread the success to other countries (GP/2017/007).

“These alternative vegetable crops present an opportunity to enrich diets, and diversify and improve smallholder livelihoods.”

A crop of traditional leafy vegetables at the Kisumu agricultural college

The project team from HORT/2014/100 presented their findings, challenges and learnings to stakeholders from other areas of Kenya and from Tanzania, including county and national level ministries, universities, schools, NGOs and CG centres.

The workshop discussed the outcomes of the pilot, and how other stakeholders could expand the trial to other areas and other crops.  The workshop will propose a larger project to ACIAR’s Global Program branch, suggesting how the pilot could be scaled up to other regions.

It will be fascinating and rewarding to see where this project could end up in a few year's time.

By Nick Fuller

The Ripestuff - safer mangoes in the Philippines

In the Philippines they ripen mangoes in baskets at the markets with calcium carbide, which is not a safe chemical. It is unhealthy for the workers, and can even be flammable. 

Mangoes ripen artificially at Bankerohan Market, Davao City

Our project researchers at University of Queensland have developed a new product in Australia which generates ethylene for ripening in a safer way. The lab results look good, so the project has been extended to further test this promising work on a safer way to ripen mangoes!

‘We now know that this safer method works in the lab. Extending this project will give us time to make sure it works in the mango baskets at the fruit markets of the southern Philippines,’ says ACIAR Horticulture expert Dr Richard Markham.

To ripen fruit now, retailers pack green fruit in newspaper-lined bamboo baskets for three days. Calcium carbide is wrapped in newspaper and placed in the center of the basket. Fruit and wrapped calcium carbide are tightly tied with plastic twine. The top is covered with newspaper pieces used to line the container. The temperature of fruit pulp during the ripening of mango could reach up to 350C.
Workers stay close to the mangoes - and the chemicals

When in contact with moisture from the fruit, calcium carbide generates acetylene and heat which accelerate the ripening process. Acetylene mimics the action of ethylene in ripening fruit.

Calcium carbide is readily available and cheap. It is widely used as an artificial ripening agent of ‘Carabao’ mango in the local market. It emits unpleasant odor. Calcium carbide is banned in many countries, as this cheap ripening agent poses health risks as it contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus.  Stall holders remain with their ripening fruit waiting for the markets to open. 
ACIAR project members examine ripe mangoes
ACIAR set up this project to test safer alternatives, for the market sellers and the buyers. So far the results look very good - it will be exciting to see what the next phase of this project will bring to the fruit markets in the Philippines.

From Leizel B. Secretaria, and ACIAR  

The Project:
Improved postharvest management of fruit and vegetables in the southern Philippines