With the government civil services Financially Stalled resulting in very limited financial means to provide the intended and desired agriculture support services to smallholder communities, and with civil servants’ managerial skills, by financial necessity, being diverted to pursue Informal Income opportunities, how do farmers remain dynamic and obtain necessary new information and materials to assure their survival? The default is the informal information and distribution system. This is the system of friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, traders and other people who move in and out of smallholder communities and interact with other agriculture communities both smallholder and large farms alike. The effectiveness of the informal communication system is noted by a farmer survey conducted in India on farmers’ source of knowledge of pesticides which showed no information coming from university or extension personnel as illustrated in the figure. Instead, it came from friends, neighbors, visitors, shop attendants as well as the mass media of newspaper and radio commercials. When officials in the extension program or at universities were interviewed they were not up-to-date on the chemicals available and often recommended chemicals no longer available.
Shop attendants actually are a questionable source of information as they have a highly vested interest as they are trying to generate business. Also, shop attendants are often simply hired clerks instead of owners and may have only a limited background or knowledge of the materials they are selling. This would be of particular concern with pesticides and the potential health and environmental hazards they represent. Likewise, adds in papers and on the radio are vested in generating sales of their specific products.
However, friends and neighbors like to share information during casual home visits or around community gathering places such as bars and teahouses, or other social gathering such as weddings, rites of passage, etc. where casual conversation turns to “shop talk”. This should be a fairly reliable and relevant source of information that will stimulate some innovative farmers to experiment a little. In smallholder communities it only takes one person to putter around with new ideas to maintain a high level of dynamics, and in most communities their will be at least one innovator who will be closely watched by his neighbor while commuting to their fields. The information conveyed in such informal channels will also quickly sort out that which over extends the operational resource base and can not be effectively utilized, as most formal extension programs emphasis, leaving only the most relevant information.
Also, there are always visitors coming and going to and from communities. This would include relatives who have moved away and returned for a visit, or conversely those who have gone to visit relatives and returned. It would also include migratory laborers or service providers who come and go with the peak needs for work, contract tillage and transport, and those community members who have taken a contract labor assignment for a couple years and returned with enough capital to start a small village based businesses. Such business would include service providers contributing to the Symbiotic Associations within the villages such as tractor operators, mill operators, or shop keeper providing inputs and buying produce, or a recreation provider such as a bar and tea house owner with TV and satellite dish or VCR shop, or even a generator operator who charge all those old truck batteries that power lights and boom-boxes, and provide access to the broadcast media including both radio and television as shown in the photo from Uganda at the top and photos to the right from Tanzania. Regardless, there can be substantial opportunities even in highly remote communities for interaction with people from outside the immediate community and exchange information.
The effectiveness of the informal communication system can easily be seen by the donor community as well as government research and extension programs overlooking the mechanization of paddy production in Asia. Thus, the retirement of the water buffalo in favor of the power tiller and continuing to the contract access of small combines has been done exclusively via the informal information, distribution and finance system, mostly by the private power tiller dealers. The demand for mechanization and access to mechanization in Africa is slowly advancing in the same manner, mostly under the development community’s radar screen. How smallholder farmers were able to finance these major capital purchases would make and interesting study.
The informal information & distribution system can equally move and maintain genetic material between communities, particularly for self pollinated crops like rice and wheat that do not rapidly lose genetic purity as happens with open pollinated crops such as maize and sunflowers. In the Philippines, IR 1561 can still be identified and produced in many communities. This is a sister line to IR 36, that was released by IRRI and the Government of the Philippines as well as distributed through IRRI’s genetic sharing program to the extent that at one time IR 36 was the most widely cultivated variety of any crop. It was appreciated for its early maturity and drought tolerance. Back in the late 1970s, before it was rejected for release in favor of the sister line that became IR 36, IR 1561 was used in several on-farm demonstration trials. The farmers liked it, retained some seed, and even though it was never released or included in any foundation or certified seed program, it has informally persisted for 30 years.
Another example is “Zambia rice variety” that is a widely grown variety in Southern Tanzania including the Madibira irrigation scheme where it was introduced and encouraged by the project staff because it was reasonably high yielding and slightly aromatic. However, its origin is not known. The government of Zambia does recognize it as a variety or at least has never released a variety under that name. Most likely it was an improved variety released in Zambia under another name. Someone from Tanzania liked it, leaked it across the border, quietly renamed it Zambia, and it moved on its own from there. This also happened in Nigeria were farmers were growing a variety they identified as Cameroon. Someone had made a farmers’ study visit to the neighboring country and returned with a handful of seed. Similarly, in Afghanistan the most commonly grown wheat variety in mountainous Panshir province north of Kabul is Mexi-Pak. According to CIMMYT, this was a variety personally developed by Nobel Prize Laureate Norman Borloug in 1964 as part of the Ford-Rockefeller Project as it was evolving into CIMMYT. It was concurrently released in Mexico and Pakistan. It then quietly crossed the border into Afghanistan and became widely accepted and maintained even without any official approval or any formal seed multiplication or certified seed production. It has persisted for some 40 years.
Utilizing the Informal Information System: In working with smallholder communities, it is important to recognize the existence of the informal information and distribution system, and tap into it as needed to distribute brochures or other printed information, and perhaps even allow for local multiplication and distribution of improved varieties of self pollinated crops. With most of the Variety Improvement effort deferred to collaboration with the IARC’s that make up the CGIAR system, and seed multiplication, certification and distribution stalled in the government financial restriction, there may be no other alternative.
In reality, it is not necessary to undergo the enormous logistical task of providing certified seed to rice and wheat farmers each year. In Colorado, only between 25% and 30% of the wheat land is planted to certified seed. The balance is planted with retained seed. Transferring that to smallholder communities, it is only necessary to introduce relatively small quantities of seed for new varieties. Have confidence that if the farmers like it, the seed will be retained and multiplied and distributed in the community, rather than sold or consumed. Even in periods of food shortages smallholders will protect seed of new varieties that they feel have substantial potential. They may barter some of the seed for less desired variety for consumption to assure it persists. This happened to IRRI when it first introduced the early maturing IR 28 and IR 30 as part of their cropping system program in Iloilo, Phippines. Virtually all the initial harvest was quickly sold to other farmers as seed for the second crop, with very limited amounts being sold for grain or consumed. However, new material will have to meet all the conditions the farmers are interested in and not just the donor anticipated needs. If not, the material will simple be sold and the variety quietly disappear. The example is wheat in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where wheat straw is the major summer fodder and as much, if not more, valued then the grain. Thus, it is possible for donors to promote a wheat grain production program with expectation of the straw being mostly a waste product to farmers who are interested in summer fodder crop of straw with the grain as a by-product. Since high grain yields for wheat are associated with short stature varieties that have minimal straw production, improved varieties can be a difficult introduction, when farmers place equal or greater importance on the straw. It should also be noted that with self pollinated crops there is little or no genetic deterioration with retained seed and thus no significant yield loss as noted by the yield comparison between farmers retained seed and project produced seed in Madibira as shown in the table. It might take an extra growing season for a good variety, fully appreciated by the farmers, to blanket an area, but it considerable less expensive than trying to continually move certified seed into an area.
For broader extension of information it might be best to rely more on mass print or broadcast media including both radio and TV. It is recognized that while most smallholders will own a small battery operated radio fully equipped with oversized batteries externally taped on outside, most also will have considerable access to TV even in remote areas. Local bar and tea house owners can attract substantial extra business with a generator and satellite dish and some individuals will own TV powered by recharged used car and truck batteries. It is always interesting to speculate how many smallholders, even in remote areas of developing countries, are able to view the World Cup matches every four years. This TV access could easily be tapped for agriculture extension messages. The big question might be when would be the best time to broadcast extensions TV programs or how best to distribute VCRs or DVDs with the material.
In reality, few developing country governments can afford more then a mass media extension program. As much as they might desire it, and request donors to provide financial and training support, there really are not enough funds to fully staff an extension program trying to maintain a traceable administrative link to each smallholder producer as envisioned in the Training and Visit Extension (T&V) program. Instead most village extension technicians simply migrate with the different donor funded projects where they receive supplemental income from the project. This may be good for the project but lacks any post funding continuity and sustainability. Donors designing projects and consultant facilitating the implantation should be careful not to encourage governments to overextend their commitment beyond what can be sustained with revenue funds.