Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Notes from the field #5: Farmers of the Future: Sowing the Seeds of Africa's Green Revolution

Half our time in Niger was devoted to the Farmers of the Future program. The program teaches modern agricultural practice to primary school children. Over the course of 6 days we held work sessions with our partners, visited 3 pilot schools and met with key officials in the National Ministry of Education and with local leaders to build top-down support for the program.

There's so much to say about Farmers of the Future we'll cover it in 3 separate posts. The first will be devoted to refreshing your memory about how the program began and its primary goals. A second post will update you on progress with the pilot test. And the third will cover the amazing support we're getting at the local and national level.

Farmers of the Future is the brainchild of Dov Pasternak, noted Israeli agricultural scientist and UNESCO World Chair in Desertification. Now in his early 70's, Dov spent the first 30 years of his career at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Together with several colleagues he developed drip irrigation, the technology that enabled the Israeli desert to bloom, and introduced it to many regions of the world. (An interesting side note: Dov literally wrote the book on the use of salt water for irrigation.)

In 2001, Dov moved to Niger to become lead scientist at ICRISAT's research facility. He spent the next 10 years working with thousands of West African farmers to use agriculture as a path out of extreme poverty. As Dov explains: "Subsistence farming and environmental degradation are major causes of poverty in Africa. A subsistence farmer grows rain-fed crops and consumes almost all that he harvests. As a result he earns little income, keeping him and his family in perpetual poverty. In addition, clearing trees and overgrazing the land leads to soil erosion, loss of soil fertility and reduced crop yields. It's a vicious cycle."

Most Africans are "smallholder farmers," typically with fields of 1-5 acres. The best way to generate income from such small plots is to use intensive farming practices. You start with irrigation so the land can produce several crops a year, not just one. Then you focus on growing high value crops like vegetables and fruits and raising small animals like goats and sheep to use for milk or meat.

Of course it's one thing to describe the change. It's quite another to get people to actually do it. Dov found adults are very set in their ways, practicing farming the same way for generations. He became convinced that the only way to create major change was to reach the next generation, to show young people the great potential in agriculture. And the concept of Farmers of the Future was born.

The program being piloted in Niger teaches primary school children modern concepts and techniques of agriculture. But more than concepts and techniques, the goal is to change the mindset that "farming is just for poor people." It isn't true. Farming can be a good source of income. It can significantly increase the quantities and nutritional value of locally available food. And when practiced properly it can reduce, halt and reverse environmental degradation.

That's why we believe Farmers of the Future will help sow the seeds of Africa's Green Revolution. We hope to excite young people about the possibilities that farming offers and, through them, to influence their parents as well. We'll share details about the pilot program in our next post.

Stay tuned.

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