BY DAVID LANE
JANUARY 16, 2015
In the middle of a sun-drenched field in central Mozambique, Otilia Vasco, a farmer from Choridzo village, pointed to an easel illustrating demonstration plots the villagers were sowing under the guidance of a facilitator from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and explained excitedly how these test plots would help them choose the best farming practices for their area. The project is part of an FAO-supported Farmer Field School (FFS),a rural extension program focused on strengthening the capacity of farmers to analyse their production, identify their main constraints, and test possible solutions.
I met with the members of the FFS as part of a five-day trip to Mozambique to view U.S. and UN programs that enhance food security in the country. The project they described was one of many small, but promising, efforts to improve the productivity and incomes of local farmers. FAO supports 1900 FFS in Mozambique. Each FFS group includes about 25 farmers who meet regularly to discuss the farming challenges they face and explore ways to enhance their farming methods. An FAO-funded facilitator shares cutting-edge research to enhance production and adapt to climate change and helps guide the farmers through their learning process. By combining their farming experience, newly acquired knowledge, and hands-on experimentation, farmers identify and adopt the most suitable practices for their farming systems.
The FFS approach has proven successful in other countries and can have far reaching effects in Mozambique. Despite recent strong economic growth, Mozambique ranks near the bottom of the UNDP 2014 Human Development Index, with high levels of poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. The farmers I met hope to change that by improving their farming methods and earning capacity. One member commented that he’s more willing to try new practices because the FFS experience taught him how to identify which practices work best. Many FFS classes have also joined together to form farming associations that enable them to negotiate better prices on both farming inputs and produce. And as farmers adopt practices that help to mitigate climate change, the global benefits of FFS accumulate.
The school’s impact extends beyond the actual members, as the ”students” form agricultural extension teams to share the approach with fellow farmers. Team members present the results of their work at Community Fairs and help other farmers explore their own questions. Some members even become private sector agents who educate and assist neighbouring farmers for a small fee.
Though FFSs are new to these farmers, extension programs have helped transform agriculture world-wide. In the United States, more than 100 colleges and universities have federally supported agricultural extension programs, designed to help farmers benefit from agricultural research and adopt more efficient and sustainable farming approaches. The education provided is one reason that one U.S. farmer can support the food needs of almost 140 people compared to feeding only 15.5 in 1950.
Similar advances in productivity could transform Mozambique’s economy and the living conditions of its people. Agriculture employs 80 percent of its labor force and contributes more than a quarter of its GDP. But government funded extension workers are few and overstretched, able to reach only about eight percent of the nation’s farmers. Local farmers can be a powerful multiplier of that capacity. With the tools and knowledge gained through the FFS, combined with their understanding of local conditions, they are capable agents for helping their neighbors enhance production, adapt to climate change, and contribute to climate change mitigation.
Otilia and her colleagues are proud of their progress toward more productive and resilient farming, and are excited to share that knowledge. As they do so, they will be helping their friends, family and neighbors to move beyond subsistence farming and achieve a better future for themselves and Mozambique.
David Lane served as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies from 2012 – 2016