To address highly diverse and variable smallholder farming conditions, as well as to deal with the growing challenges of climate change, all farmers need to be creative and innovative in finding solutions to newly emerging problems and grasping new opportunities. Farmer Innovation fairs are a way to recognize and encourage such creativity and innovativeness among men and women farmers, young and old.
Prolinnova, an NGO-initiated international multistakeholder network to promote local innovation processes in ecologically oriented agriculture and natural resource management, has organized such fairs at local level in different countries but also at national and international level. For example, a national farmer innovation fair was held in Nepal in 2009 and a regional fair for Eastern Africa was held in Kenya in 2013. A West African Farmer Innovation Fair is now being planned, to be held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2015.
Farmers as researchers
As was obvious at the East African Farmer Innovation Fair (EAFIF) in 2013, farmers are proud to be able to show formal agricultural researchers and development workers that smallholder farmers are also researchers. Michael Makuthu, a Kenyan innovator who showcased a technology to control aflatoxins in grain storage, even called himself a “freelance scientist”. Bell Okello, former chair of Prolinnova–Kenya , which co-organized the EAFIF, is a strong believer that farmers and formal researchers should work together in agricultural research and development (ARD): “Farmer fields are the real research laboratories that matter and stretch technologies from formal research institutions further, better and in a more adaptable way”. Generally, researchers are expected to generate technologies to be passed on by extension agents to farmers. However, this type of approach often does not produce technologies suitable to the highly varied conditions of smallholder farmers. It does not foster farmers’ creativity and it does not encourage their own initiatives to develop and adapt technologies.
Let us give you a peek into the “real research laboratory” of Rahab Kithumbi, an innovative farmer and 53-year-old mother of four from Kahuruko village, Ng’arua Division of Laikipia West district in Kenya. In her village, Rahab is is commonly known as ‘Mama Turkey’, because of her success in rearing chickens and turkeys together. Rahab was one of the 15 farmer innovators selected from Kenya to participate in EAFIF.
How did her research start? During a farmer-to-farmer exchange visit through the ALIN (Arid Lands Information Network) Ng’arua Focal Group, she observed that one of her fellow villagers had a few turkeys in his home but was not maximizing their potential. He would, for example, cook and eat all the eggs as opposed to letting them hatch and multiply. She also noticed that the turkeys were not well housed and hence easily contracted diseases and died.
Soon after, Rahab bought two young turkeys, a female and a male, to join her backyard chickens. She was amazed at how well the two species got along with each other. Over three years, she experimented and made observations in managing this species mix, focusing on brooding, hatching and tending of the young chicks. She found that raising turkeys and local chickens together increased her chicken egg hatching rate from 70 to nearly 100% because the female turkey brooded the eggs. She said, “I experimented by giving my turkey 20 chicken eggs to brood and, to my surprise, after 3 weeks of brooding, all the 20 chicks hatched successfully!” Her turkeys also provide security to the chicks once hatched. “Birds of prey like eagles and hawks, dogs, snakes and even wild animals are often scared of turkeys,” she said. In return for the brooding and protection of the chicks, chickens raise turkey chicks.
The turkeys are, however, not only useful for chicken rearing; they also provide a source of food for her family. In her 9-member household, one mature turkey can provide meat for four days. Rahab also observed that, unlike chickens, the droppings of turkeys accumulate very fast. A turkey produces about four times more manure than chickens, and this can be used to enhance soil fertility, grow vegetables and to generate energy in the form of biogas.
Rahab says that turkeys have become a source of wealth for her. Their young ones (poults) are already booked by neighbors who want to start their own mama turkey projects. Rahab has produced and sold over 1700 turkeys over the last three years in different parts of Kenya including Isiolo, Mombasa, Nairobi, Siaya, Kyuso and Muranga. She uses the income from the sales to pay school fees for her children and to diversify her farm activities. Ultimately, her dream is to obtain funds to scale up her enterprise to become the first ever mixed turkey and chicken hatchery.
Promoting social learning
Farmer innovation fairs such as the one where Rahab exhibited her poultry innovation not only give recognition to farmers as researchers in their own right but also promote social learning. Farmer innovators from a country or region who thus come together in one place for several days have a rare opportunity to get to know each other as well as formal researchers and development workers, to share their experiences and to learn from each other in an open forum. “I’ve learned a lot from other farmers. Most important, this event has brought me closer to partners who can help me improve and share my innovation,” said beehive innovator Jack Olwendo from Kisumu, Kenya, at the end of the EAFIF event.
Some of the Kenyan farmer innovations were documented in 13 videos that showed how the innovation works and served as a basis for discussion with visitors to the fair, to promote thinking about the role of farmers in ARD. Similarly, for the upcoming West African Farmer Innovation Fair, the Centre for Technical and Rural Cooperation (CTA) sponsored a video contest to document farmer innovations that tackle the effects of climate change. The videos will be screened at the fair and should likewise generate a fruitful debate.
At the West African fair, 50 farmer innovators from eight countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Niger, South Benin, Togo and Cameroon) will meet and exhibit their work, share experiences and interact with staff from formal research institutions as well as policymakers and the general public. The fair aims to boost the farmer innovators’ self-esteem and confidence and give them public recognition as important actors in ARD. After all, we cannot forget that farmers have been the primary agricultural researchers since centuries.