New technology and agriculture: A sluggish uptake

By Ntaryike Divine Jr in Douala and Gemma Ware

Posted on Friday, 20 September 2013 15:19

At the start of this year’s rains, Prudencia Ngerbu planted corn, beans and Irish potatoes on a hillside farm she inherited from her mother five years ago in Taku, a village in northwestern Cameroon.

Armed with a hoe and a cutlass, she has been weeding the farm, roughly half the size of a football field, three times weekly over the past three months. “It is a lot of work having to till the farm regularly, but yields have not been good over the past few years and I am very careful,” she said.

We want to reach 100,000 users by the end of this year

“It is even harder considering that fertilisers are so expensive, not to mention pesticides,” she added.

Smallholder farmers are conservative, and getting them to adopt new methods and technologies takes time and effort.

Since 2011, Cameroon’s government has been promoting a campaign dubbed ‘second-generation’ (2G) agriculture, aimed at encouraging farmers to abandon rudimentary methods and embrace mechanisation, new irrigation techniques and subsidised fertilisers and pesticides.

Smallholders account for 97% of Cameroon’s farmers, growing 95% of food crops consumed in the country.

This year alone, the government has disbursed some 894m CFA francs ($1.8m) to the Institut de Recherche Agricole pour le Développement (IRAD) to grow 5.5m improved banana plants, as well as 15tn of improved maize seed to be distributed to small-holder farmers nationwide.

High-yield varieties

IRAD is also rehabilitating abandoned seed-development farms, while a tractor assembly plant, the fruit of cooperation with the Indian government, is operational in Ebolowa in the south.

Earlier this year, IRAD also announced it had begun producing three high- yield and pest-resistant cassava varieties, developed with support from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

“They yield between 19-35tn per hectare, compared to 8tn per hectare for the traditional type,” explained agronomist Samuel Nanga.

IRAD is also distributing improved bean varieties that yield up to three times more than traditional ones.

In the country’s hinterland, however, farmers say they are unaware of these developments.

“You are informing me. I have not heard anything about all these developments. The agriculture extension workers hardly come here any- more. We have been abandoned,” Ngerbu complained.

Across Africa, companies, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are stepping up efforts to market new technologies – from mobile phone apps to new seeds and soil treatments.

One such innovation is M-Farm, a text-message-based service for smallholders launched in Kenya in June 2012. It currently has 7,000 users, and its database is growing 40% each month.

“We want to reach 100,000 users by the end of this year,” says M-Farm co-founder Susan Oguya. The majority of users access crop pricing information, but some 2,000 members have joined together to sell their produce.

Last year, they sold 100tn of horticultural produce using a network of 16 agents who help to aggregate the produce and assure its quality.

Marketing is done by word of mouth and through recommendations from local NGOs working in agricultural communities.

Yet Nick Moon, co-founder of KickStart, a Nairobi-based NGO focused on introducing new tools for small-holders, says though it is valuable for farmers to know the price of tomatoes or information on when to treat a cow when it is sick, without physical products and access to markets such information will not get them very far.

“We are dealing after all with earth, soil and seeds,” he said, adding that information technology innovations add further value for those farmers already in tune with market opportunities.

In East Africa, there is a growing cohort of these farmers who are choosing to switch from subsistence to commercial agriculture and are making decisions about adapting new technologies and inputs in order to improve what they sell.

However, move deeper into the rural areas and the bulk of farmers are highly risk-averse. Their behaviour is characterised by “risk minimisation rather than profit maximisation”, says Moon.

Reaching out to these farmers is a big challenge for companies and extension workers. To be successful, they need an intensive demonstration programme and sustainable supply chains.

Agricultural engineer and chair of Cameroon’s Association Citoyenne de Défense d’Intérêts Collectifs, Bernard Njonga says it is useless to go about the country preaching 2G agriculture when the people most in need of the improved planting material cannot get it.

“The government says it has subsidised fertilisers and herbicides, but less than a quarter of rural farms use fertilisers. The research results should be taken down to the farmers,” he urged.

Rural risk

“Cameroon has no crop-loss insurance schemes. So say, for instance, that the new technology fails – who reimburses the poor farmer? The government needs to ensure that the farmers not only get the improved seeds and other techniques for free, but must provide trainers to teach the farmers how to go about using them. If they see success, they get encouraged,” Njonga advised.

The more educated farmers close to major urban areas are gradually adopting new technologies.

“I have a booming market for my pawpaws thanks to IRAD. Though smaller, they are sweeter and the market is steadily growing ever since I began planting the improved variety five years ago,” said Lucas Ndi, a farmer in Njombe, in Littoral Region. ●

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