These guidelines are a synthesis of lessons for good practice from six case studies of grass-roots support for on-farm conservation in Eastern and Southern Africa.
This document first defines good practice, then lists ten key aspects of good practice, giving specific suggestions about how to handle each aspect, based on the lessons from the case study projects. Click here for further information on the field work and analytical methods used in this project.
What is “good practice”?
Good practice refers to what projects must provide, call down or ensure in order to support the sustainable maintenance and use of agricultural biodiversity.
One of the main lessons from the case studies is the need for an integrated approach, providing a range of incentives, and organisational development, as well as technical advice.
Providing what farmers want
Successful projects support on-farm conservation by providing services that farmers want. From the farmer scoring exercises in each case study, it is clear that above all else farmers value:
- Market channels (providing inputs, selling produce, obtaining services). Relying on traditional channels on their own is not sufficient.
- Additional knowledge on production techniques (eg Integrated Pest Management, organic production, quality production). Traditional techniques are not enough on their own, and may have been a factor in traditional farmers varieties falling into disuse (as was the case, for example, with durum wheat in the Ethiopian case study area, where traditional techniques were inadequate for combating rust)
- New crops to respond to new market opportunities, changing climatic conditions (especially shorter growing seasons), or to provide better nutrition and livelihoods
- Traditional varieties are valued for specific attributes: cheaper, more reliable access to seed and planting material (particularly relevant where there has been significant retrenchment of government service delivery); restoration of cultural heritage where traditional varieties have been lost in the past for whatever reason (conflict, drought, research and extension campaigns promoting modern varieties).
There has to be an incentive for farmers to maintain and use agricultural biodiversity on-farm: the case studies found economic or market incentives were of most interest to farmers, whereas only a few get involved in on-farm conservation out of interest or as a hobby.
The incentives used in the case studies were: providing market channels, increasing yields, reducing costs, and prizes. We found different incentives have very different effects. Prizes encourage a few specialists, not wider uptake. The chance to sell seed, for example to community seed banks, was good for individual farmers (providing cash income) and good for the community as whole (increasing the local availability of seed). Projects need to be careful not to provide conflicting incentives. For example, one case study project ran a farmer-based seed multiplication scheme for modern varieties for a local seed company at the same time as holding seed fairs intended to promote the maintenance and use of traditional varieties: most farmers focussed on the income opportunities from the multiplication scheme, knowing that only a few of their neighbours would be successful in winning prizes at the seed fair.
In the farming systems studied, traditional production techniques are no longer enough, due to ecosystem changes (season length, new pests and diseases) and/or changes in production systems (especially increasing intensity of production) and livelihood needs (cash income for school fees, etc).
The starting point should be validation and building on existing farmer knowledge, but such an exercise may well reveal areas where it is relevant to introduce appropriate new techniques. In the case study projects, these included integrated pest management, organic production, quality-assured production. Fitting with existing culture is an advantage. For example, part of the success of the project in Ethiopia arose because it was introducing organic production techniques for durum wheat, a crop which has great religious significance.
Working with farmers – general principles
Establishing effective working relationships with farmers was a critical factor in determining the success of the different case study projects. Although this should be obvious, not all projects devoted sufficient time and resources to getting this right from the start. Key points include:
- Putting front-line staff in the project area on a long-term basis
- Dealing with potential problems of exclusion of key stakeholders by working with existing socio-cultural roles (for example, don’t expect women to attend distant training courses if it is culturally unacceptable for women to stay away from home overnight)
- Using project approaches that create an opportunity for farmers to meet together (to share information on prices, diseases, production techniques, etc), in contrast to for example Training & Visit type systems that use individual contact.
Working with farmers – using group approaches
Using group approaches was highly valued in the farmer scoring exercise for the reasons outlined above. In any case, few projects have the resources to work through individual contact. Whether the project works through existing groups (e.g. set up by previous projects or the state agricultural extension service), or new groups, does not appear to affect success (although using existing groups may be cheaper for the project), so long as:
- group interests coincide with project objectives
- projects spend time and resources on:
-group formation if necessary
- institutional capacity building
- had a project champion with a clear vision and capacity to make the project work, including the ability to mobilise stakeholders at all levels
- devoted time and resources to identifying and involving all relevant stakeholders, to ensure
- political will from government
- service delivery from relevant government or private sector institutions, where they exist (e.g. extension, quality standards)
- matching of interests with industry (because where the produce is of interest to processors or exporters, they may support the project by paying premium prices, providing transport or technical advice)
- keep funding chains short (for example, the Kenyan project has disbursement officers stationed at District level)
- have autonomous, reliable, locally based resource managers. This can be difficult within government structures (unless there has been really effective decentralisation) which are by their nature bureaucratic – suited to regulation/control but less suited to service delivery.
Total resource requirements, including those not fully costed within project structures or provided in kind by other institutions, are relatively high and include:
- Sufficient local staff
- A committed project champion operating at national level
- Service delivery by project or partner institutions (extension, quality control, etc)
- Transport for inputs and outputs
Some of the case study projects charged membership fees, levies, or consultancy fees to other agencies using project services, to reduce net costs. The extent that this is possible depends on the level and reliability of farmers’ benefits from the project, and the level of demand for project services (a full economic appraisal of the project is needed to ascertain this accurately).
Our field work revealed that most of the case studies are located in areas of fertile soils. We did not measure how much this influenced project success, but we assume it is beneficial rather than harmful. Added to this, most of the case studies use IPM and/or organic approaches, which contribute to sustaining the soil.
Most of the case studies are in areas with poor roads infrastructure (although not necessarily geographically remote). On the one hand, this increased farmers’ interest in the project, as a means of getting on-the-spot access to inputs, outputs and advice. On the other hand, it increased project costs.
The ultimate goal of projects supporting on-farm conservation must surely be to contribute to the development or strengthening of systems for the maintenance and use of agricultural biodiversity on-farm which will be sustainable over the longer term. The experience of the case study projects suggests there are five key requirements for sustainability:
- The system must be popular with farmers – in most situations, this involves some form of economic incentive
- The system must be market-based (uses prices) not project-based (using prizes)
- The market on which the system is based must be reliable, not transient or greatly variable
- Over the long term, any regular funding required for conservation activities must come from channels that are permanent and accessible (eg marketing agreements with industry, membership fees/levies rather than donor funding)
- Over the long term, economic integration (roads, transport, market chains for inputs and outputs) must become the responsibility of permanent institutions not the project. In the case study projects, it is debatable whether this is feasible in the current economic climate.