Farmer field schools are emerging as the cheapest and quickest way of disseminating information to farmers with studies indicating an increase in yields, and improved farming techniques by more farmers through these schools.
Farmer field schools (FFSs) are a popular education and extension approach worldwide, now in place in at least 78 countries. Started in Indonesia in 1989, FFSs have expanded through many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Kenya alone is the site of more than 5,000 such schools with over 50,000 farmer graduates. Such schools use experiential learning and a group approach to facilitate farmers in making decisions, solving problems, and learning new techniques.
On a Wednesday morning, Josphine Mutindi, a smallholder farmer in Mbondoni village of Mbeere South in Embu County is busy sorting tomatoes in sizes as required by the market despite her physical disability – thanks to the new village based education that has empowered her.
The entire Mbeere area is dry!. But 25 smallholder farmers from the area, living with different forms of disability have turned part of it into a green haven, harvesting tons of horticultural produce despite the tough climatic conditions.
“Our success is a result of a knowledge exchange programme, which has really transformed our lives,” says Mutindi, a member of Mbondoni Disabled Farmers Field School. The group is just one of several others in these areas that has formed similar groups, and are already producing enough to feed their families and generate income.
Mutindi said that by exchanging knowledge with other dry-land farmers through weekly forums, many people have been able to develop resilience to the prevailing climatic conditions, which she says has changed drastically from what it was some 20 years ago.
“I grew up in this area. And when I was still a teenager, my parents could predict a particular week when it was going to rain. And with that, we could even plant in advance before it rained,” she says. But today, she says that dry seasons have become longer than usual, and whenever it rains, it floods the entire area unlike what happened before.
It was due to such unpredictable variations of climatic conditions that ActionAid International Kenya with support from Australian Aid (AusAid) implemented the concept of Farmer Field Schools to enable farmers to share indigenous knowledge of dry-land farming and crop management.
“For this concept to work, we first identify groups of people with a common interest who are willing to get together on a regular basis to study the ‘how and why’ of a particular topic,” says Philip Kilonzo, the livelihoods technical adviser with ActionAid Kenya International.
During such meetings, topics covered can vary considerably from pest management, organic farming, animal husbandry, and plant and soil health, to income generating activities such as agri-business among others. However, Says Kilonzo, the FFSs are usually adapted to field studies, where specific hands-on management skills and conceptual understanding (based on non-formal adult education principles) is required. as well introduced a similar concept to school going children especially in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid land areas. “Since agriculture is no longer and examinable subject in our primary schools, we have introduced Junior Farmer Field Schools (JFFSs) through school based clubs as part of extra-curriculum activities,” said the livelihoods technical adviser.
Kamunyagia Primary School is one of ten institutions in Mbeere South region where teachers help pupils to gather some agricultural skills alongside their usual lessons.
Pupils in this school have formed a membership club for junior farmers. Despite the scorching drought in the area, the club’s one hectare of land donated to them by the school is full of succulent green crops including more than 300 mango trees, 200 pawpaw trees, cassava plants and 30 vegetables patches, one for each member of the club.
“This is not part of their normal curriculum. We are only equipping them with survival skills since agriculture is not an examinable subject,” said Newton Gitonga, the club’s patron and a science teacher at the school.
Kilonzo further explains that the field schools are not a replacement for formal education, or meant to take children out of schools, and is not a way to promote subsistence agriculture as the only livelihood option for the children. “It is meant to encourage and support livelihood diversification for better food security for a sustainable future,” he said.
During these lessons, the students are taught about poultry husbandry, rabbit keeping, simple techniques of soil moisture conservation as an important component of dry-land farming, horticultural practices, pests and plant disease management among other lessons depending on the interests.
“All our club members have replicated these lessons in their homes. I have a kitchen garden at home, where I use different techniques that I have learnt from school to grow vegetables, fruit trees and other crops,” said Purity Njigi, a class seven pupil at the school.
“The main aim of the farmer schools, both for pupils and adults, is to enable individuals to learn from each other, in order to improve food productivity and develop resilience to the changing climatic conditions,” said Kilonzo.
According to FAO the farmer field school learning technique has shown massive success by increasing food productivity in several countries in the world particularly in Asia.
The 25 members Mbondoni Disabled Farmers Field School who largely depended on food aid some two years ago have become net producers of tomatoes, beans and vegetables sold to a number of towns including Embu, Makema, and sometimes Nairobi.
“From a half an acre of land, I earn not less than Sh40,000 per harvesting season which comes once in three months,” said Mutindi. She now comfortably pays school fees for her two sons in secondary schools.