by Tony Speare, LWF Burundi
(Photo credit – Tony Speare, LWF Burundi)
LWF Burundi, in collaboration with FAO, recently established Farmer Field Schools (FFS) in all nine villages where it works in eastern Burundi. In a country where severe overpopulation decimates arable farmland and constantly threatens food security, the forward-thinking approach of FFS is a welcome one.
The primary objective of FFS is to encourage innovation and experimentation by groups of rural farmers. The hope is that farmers will discover which agricultural practices are most productive and most sustainable. After determining the best practices in the “classroom” context of FFS, farmers return to private farms and implement them. The private plots of these farmers then serve as examples to neighbors and other community members. The eventual impact of the FFS intervention is thus widespread.
LWF Burundi FFS groups each consist of roughly 30 individuals. These 30 individuals are further divided into sub-groups so that FFS activities can be distributed evenly. Splitting up activities also ensures that these activities do not interfere with group members’ private livelihoods. On the test plots that they have set up, FFS farmers conduct a wide range of comparison experiments. The first round of experimentation involves empirically determining the comparative yields of different crop varieties and the effects of different types of fertilizer. In one FFS, for example, participants planted three different test plots of beans. On the first plot they mixed European chemical fertilizer with local fertilizer (cow manure). On the second plot they only used local fertilizer, and on the third plot – the control plot – they didn’t use any fertilizer at all. The results of this experiment will be documented at the end of this growing season.
To help the Farmer Field Schools get started, LWF set up a bank account of $600 for each one. LWF community facilitators and technicians currently oversee the use of these funds, which are meant to be used by FFS members to purchase crops for experimentation and invest in their collective agricultural enterprise. The management of the funds will soon be turned over to FFS members themselves.
One of the biggest challenges that confronts LWF Burundi is smoothly and effectively transitioning from an emergency context to one of long-term, sustainable development. The establishment of Farmer Field Schools represents a way forward for LWF Burundi and one means by which to accomplish the needed transition to sustainable development activities. In the past, LWF Burundi activities involved a lot of material distributions and emergency relief. At the time, these activities were necessary to provide food security and replenish livestock supplies in the wake of the civil war (1993-2005).
With FFS, LWF Burundi has implemented an agricultural intervention in which community members have a high degree of ownership. Instead of passively receiving material inputs, beneficiaries are empowered: they conduct and oversee their own agricultural experiments, they decide which practices they want to implement, and they grow and learn in the process. Moreover, the positive impact of their experiments spreads through the community, because their practices serve as examples to others.
The reception of FFS has been so positive, in fact, that LWF Burundi is considering implementing the closely related Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS) model within its new Youth Rights and Livelihoods (YRL) project. JFFLS are designed for young people. Compared to FFS, JFFLS provide a more holistic approach by incorporating life skills education into the agricultural curriculum. In addition to mastering sustainable agricultural skills, young people improve their confidence, acquire sensitivity to gender equality issues, receive psychosocial support, and develop as complete individuals.
The JFFLS approach is particularly suited to Burundi. Because conflict was so recent, suspicions and resentments persist in a lot of communities. Additionally, because of the overpopulation problem, many young people are facing the prospect of trying to establish livelihoods without access to land or a household of their own. The agricultural component of JFFLS would provide young Burundians with the skills they need to get more out of the land while also protecting it and ensuring the longevity of agricultural enterprises. The life skills component of JFFLS would help to increase understanding between genders and ethnic groups while also helping youth to adopt a cooperative and progressive approach to life and their livelihoods.
One of LWF’s agronomists was recently selected as one of only two Burundian candidates to participate in an extensive eight-week training program on JFFLS. If LWF Burundi can acquire the necessary funding, it is ideally positioned to carry out its new YRL project. This new project would contribute to providing lasting peace and robust progress and development for LWF communities – and JFFLS would be at the heart of it.