February 10, 2016

In Burundi, seeing the writing in the hillsides means working with farmers

Sara Delaney, Episcopal Relief & Development Leonidas Niyongabo, Province of the Anglican Church of Burundi Community Development Program

In Burundi, a large community of farmers represents a pool of knowledge that is constantly growing.

Research institutions explore different approaches to tapping into this knowledge base and linking their work with observational data from farmers. Farmers in Burundi have a high stake in the viability of seasonal harvests, as they depend on the harvest to provide for and to feed their families. They work the land from year to year, carefully monitoring the results. These farmers hold a mental history of agricultural production in their communities – they know what has been tried before, where, and how well it worked or if it didn’t work.  

They also know their environment – what the soil is like, what types of plants grow well within the local context, and what their main challenges are. Additionally, they know where their farm fits into a broader landscape. When theoretical approaches for erosion-control are shared with them, they can add that to their own observations of how their hillsides are faring, and decide how to combine the knowledge to best place a trench, or a row of trees.

Farmer in his Cassava Field

Farmers are important partners in generating research on soil types, crop varieties, and production strategies in a landscape. Featured here is a farmer in his cassava field.

Creating knowledge chains by building leadership in the community

This culminates into a massive knowledge base that is constantly growing. To most efficiently work with such a large number of farmers, the Anglican Church of Burundi’s Community Development office (PEAB in French) has cultivated a smaller network of farmer animateurs (facilitators).  Animateurs are volunteers who are knowledge leaders in their communities.

PEAB is a knowledge-rich institution that works at the community level to connect farmers with available resources that offer support and information. The peer-leaders are supported by PEAB in that they participate in workshops and discussions with PEAB each year. The animateurs are prepared to facilitate training sessions with farmer groups, to follow-up with farmers to troubleshoot, to collect data on results from farmers, and to share this back to PEAB staff.

Because animateurs are farmers from the community, they understand the local environmental and cultural profile, and can communicate field-level realities either to PEAB staff, or their co-farmers. They are also familiar with traditions in the area, and can highlight where there may be resistance to change. In this way, animateurs end up serving as a key liaison between farmers and PEAB, and a mover of sustainable practices in the landscape.

How PEAB enables a two-way road of communication between the Institution and farmers

Through decades of working with the community, PEAB is able to see and understand the broader systems that farmers are working with, including both agro-ecological and socio-cultural systems. PEAB logs how these systems evolve over time and where they, as a development agency, can best support positive change within these systems. Additionally, PEAB works with other research institutions, such as the Institute of Agricultural Research of Burundi (ISABU).

Animateurs [serve] as a key liaison between farmers and PEAB, and a mover of sustainable practices in the landscape.

A good example of this feedback loop is the documentation of crop varieties in a country-specific context. PEAB stores data on crop varieties and farming techniques to see what is most appropriate for distinct parts of the country, which tree varieties are proving to be best for reforestation or agroforestry, and what methods farmers can use for harvesting, drying, and connecting to markets. This allows them to communicate appropriate information and ideas that is relevant to each sub-regional office and animateurs with whom PEAB works.

Looking back and to the future of integrated landscape management in Burundi

Engaging directly with farmers has brought a variety of benefits. One of the most important returns is an increase in the speed at which a new product or idea can get from the research center or laboratory to the farmer’s field, which improves farmer access and increases resiliency. Linking the researchers more directly with the farmers — and their knowledge — also enables scientists to learn what is actually working, what needs to be modified, and to take note from mistakes of the past. This historical knowledge is fed into the next round of experimentation.

PEAB staff feel that this is just a start, and that the sharing could, and should, be taken further. For example, the staff of ISABU or IITA do not yet spend any significant amount of time conducting visits to the farms where their their products or techniques are being trialled. From PEAB’s perspective, if their research partners built this practice into their routine, it could only stand to benefit the quality of research by generating stronger feedback.

Animateur addressing a group

Animateurs, as farmers from the community, are valuable liaisons between researchers and farmers in Burundi.

An organization like PEAB, however, serves a critical role in a broader network of farmers and research institutions; PEAB is an intermediary institution. They not only play a role in the co-creation of knowledge, but they facilitate knowledge transfer between researchers and farmers, and combine or adapt the knowledge in new ways.

PEAB also serves as a facilitator of multi-stakeholder partnerships. They are able to bring the parties together to set an overall agenda, which leads to the finding of common priorities and challenges between the different groups and creates motivation for all the parties to work together. Through this dialogue, PEAB tries to play a brainstorming and vision setting role by looking around, and ahead, for what other stakeholders can be included, and what to be focusing on in future years.

Keys to success: local, long-term, with a national network

In some ways, PEAB is a unique institution, but many of its qualities exist in numerous organizations, and the lessons could be used by others in need of a similar bridging facilitator. PEAB is local, has a network across the country, and (most importantly) will continue to do their work for long into the future. These factors make it possible to establish processes for the type of continuous co-learning that is particularly needed for agro-ecological approaches.

The type of relationships that are evolving here may also be easier in a smaller country like Burundi. But if people are willing to start the conversation, and work to overcome potential differences in priorities or styles, this sort of collaborative learning process could be achieved anywhere. It is done by finding areas of mutual benefit and complementary skills or resources. When this happens, everyone wins — especially the farmers.

Read More

A Big Network in a Small Country – cooperation between Research, Church and Farmers in BurundiLast week, Sara and Leonidas spoke about the various connections PEAB has made, and how they leverage these partnerships to catalyze positive changes in Burundian landscapes.

The photographs featured here were provided by Sara Delaney.

Sara Delaney is a Senior Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development. Her organization works closely with Burundian farmers via the Anglican Church of Burundi’s Community Development office (PEAB in French) in Burundi.

Leonidas Niyongabo is a Program Coordinator of the Province of the Anglican Church of Burundi Community Development Program.

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