FAO, EU join forces to fund field schools for farmers

22 September 2016


23 August 2016

A €5.5 million project, co-funded by the European Union and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, is helping farming communities in Malawi cope with crop failures and other impacts of climate change affecting their livelihoods.

Farmer Field Schools (FFS) have emerged as an excellent complementary and reinforcing approach to traditional agricultural advisory services helping especially small-hold farmers become more resilient to climate change. Farmers learn how to analyse the problems they face and make appropriate decisions on how to adapt their practices according to local data and contexts.

The project is organised in partnership with Total Land Care (TLC), Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (CADECOM) and the Malawi Government, which regards FFS as an extension to its community outreach approach. Community resilience practices are being taught in four districts: Zomba, Neno, Phalombe and Blantyre.

The Neno programme, first launched on 27 October 2015, is also part a Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA) action which is jointly implemented by FAO, Natural Resource Institute, and Human Dynamics. More recently, a three-week capacity-building course was organised to help Community Based Facilitators (CBF) working with District Agricultural Extension Officers in the respective Extension Planning Areas to implement the FFS, according to James Okoth, a FAO resilience programme officer.

The training – from 7-27 August 2016 – focused on equipping CBFs with skills to better communicate FFS methodologies  to farmers, thus helping local communities address food, nutrition and income security in a sustainable and dignified manner. Emphasis was placed on climate-smart agricultural practices, nutrition-sensitive agriculture, farming as a business, and village savings and loan (VSL) schemes as core components of the harmonised community outreach.

Complex problem, holistic understanding, local solutions

Communities and villages vary greatly and their susceptibility and vulnerability to climate change differs accordingly, which makes the task of building resilience far too complex for a single, central approach. It calls for holistic and transformative approaches to farmer education, which empower vulnerable communities to manage and use natural resources in a sustainable way and encourage diversification. 

The FFS approach builds on local knowledge, understanding of the local agro-ecosystem and takes into account existing capacities. The schools typically comprise 20-30 farmers or active resource users – drawn from within the same small catchment area – who meet on a regular basis to address the “why” and “how” of a given situation.

The tailored learning and skills development under FFS is informed by a comprehensive participatory action planning process, which involves a diagnosis of the problems (cause-effect relationships) coupled with an assessment of existing capacities to tease out the relevant needs.

Charity Kalinga, an Agricultural Extension Development Officer in Neno, who participated in the FFS training for the first time, said: “Most of the time, as agricultural extension workers, we don’t tell farmers in detail about the basic science of agricultural technologies. But with this FFS approach, we will now help them understand what and why they are implementing certain activities in the fields.”

Mathews Mwale, a TLC Field Coordinator in Blantyre, echoed this view, saying that the FFS approach can assist farmers more with how to do things on their own, to better understand the technologies to be adopted and up-scaled.

Amos Bandawe, project officer for EAM in Neno agreed: “Through the FFS, farmers will be able to identify problems and solve them on their own … they will be able to achieve food, nutrition and income security.”

Evidence in Phalombe

In the Phalombe district, some small landholders who have been practicing the FFS approach for two years say that it has boosted their household agricultural production and increased technology adaptation and adoption amid changing climatic patterns.

Christopher Masanjala, father of four from Chibisa village in Traditional Authority Jenala, confirmed this result: “Through these schools, we are now able to learn and practice different technologies by observation and doing. For example, now we know which crop varieties are ideal for this area and what methods to use to harvest more.”

Maize production, for example, is higher because the village started using the Sasakawa method of planting (one seed per planting station) advised by FFS. “We are also diversifying through sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, rice, vegetables and livestock,” he added.

The FFS approach has the potential to boost food production and reduce poverty among rural small-holdings in the country, noted villager Gerald Mulawa. “This school is a full package; we are learning in groups [and] practicing the same in our individual fields and, so far, the results are good,” he explained, citing improvements in maize, soya beans and livestock production.

The combined effect of all this is that most farm families in the district are becoming economically independent and better able to access enough nutritious food to sustain them through to the next crop harvest.

More information
Mike Chipalasa, Communications Officer: Mike.chipalasa@fao.org

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