Farmer field schools at the service of sustainable rice

Farmer field schools at the service of sustainable rice

in News
This news is part of the following focus area:

Alongside Rwanda and Burundi, bordering Congo, we find the plain of the Ruzizi River which flows into Lake Tanganyika. The agricultural potential of this long stretch of land is enormous. Rikolto has been encouraging agricultural investments and rice marketing in the region since 2011, supporting rice farmers and cooperatives to improve their farming practices, amongst other actions. The pathway to sustainable rice in Congo’s Great Lakes region continues in this region thanks to the PICAGL programme, funded by the World Bank and facilitated by Rikolto.

PICAGL is a three-year programme of the Congolese government funded by the World Bank. The “Great Lakes Integrated Agriculture Development Project for Africa” seeks to ensure an efficient and sustainable rice value chain, create inclusive economic opportunities, and support food sovereignty in the communities living in the South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces.

A school with no walls

Raising awareness has not been easy - farmers were plugged into their usual agricultural practices and wary of the new approaches designed to increase their agricultural productivity.”
Dieudonné Kabemba Éric Agronomist based in Kamangu/Rugo

Agricultural research programmes that focus primarily on generating new technologies would be meaningless without an efficient and broad extension service that disseminates new findings and tools to farmers. The farmer field school, FFS, is the extension methodology chosen by Rikolto. It’s based on a 'learning by doing' approach enabling farmers to appropriate new instruments.

Try to put yourself in their shoes. An experienced farmer who has been growing rice for decades has to put his trust in someone new to him and to his community. This is the reason why Rikolto chose this specific methodology. A farmer field school consists of a group of 25 farmers who work on a shared field throughout a whole growing season, but it’s also a space to exchange experiences and knowledge, seek solutions and take decisions together.

It’s an opportunity for farmers to learn by doing, since they are involved in experiment, discussion and decision-making processes. To be specific, they:

  • identify, analyse and interpret the issues experienced in their field.
  • take decisions based on the analysis of experiments conducted by themselves.
  • evaluate the results to guide future decision-making, especially on the adoption or non-adoption of specific techniques.

Since May 2019, 330 Farmer Field Schools have been set up in the provinces of South Kivu and Tanganyika. The objective was to improve rice productivity, reduce production costs and improve rice quality and sustainability through the dissemination and implementation of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM). The fields of each FFS were subdivided into plots where three different farming techniques were applied (the SRI, ISFM and farmers' normal practices). For each FFS a management committee, including the treasury, was elected to facilitate the coordination, encourage the assumption of responsibilities, and increase members’ ownership.

Good farming practices

ISFM, combining organic and mineral fertilisers: this consists of a suite of soil fertility management practices to ensure the agronomic effectiveness of the applied nutrients and increase crop yields. Specific quantities of inorganic fertilisers, organic inputs and improved germplasm are applied based on a first soil analysis. It’s a recommended technique for low-fertility soils.

SRI, an agroecological production approach: first applied in Madagascar, the intensive rice system is an approach to rice production based on the rational management of plants, soil, water and nutrients to avoid being overly dependent on inorganic fertilisers. By cultivating over a soil rich in organic matter and well aerated, by favouring a rapid and healthy seeding establishment and by reducing competition among plants, this technique ensures the achievement of the maximum production potential of the plant with low inputs (little seed, water and fertiliser).

The FFS is not only an extension method but also a framework for strengthening the social and economic dynamics of farmers’ communities. In Sebele, the cooperative COAGRDF was born from a group of FFS with common objectives. Farmers receive support and encouragement from Rikolto to develop associations and cooperatives that ensure the collective production and management of the harvest as well as joint purchasing and sales arrangements.

Working together for a whole growing season has strengthened farmers’ sense of solidarity. They band together when it comes to constructing new irrigation canals or dams as well as managing conflicts and providing assistance to sick members of the community.

Arsène Nyangezi Agronomist based in Sebele

And last but not least, the environmental dimension of the FFS. Only limited doses of fertilisers are permitted, and specific attention is paid to the application of organic matter instead of mineral fertiliers and to the use of biopesticides in place of chemicals. The farmers started collecting crop residues in non-flooded areas to ensure aerobic decomposition, a more environmentally friendly process that avoids the loss of micro-organisms in the soil due to the common practice of burning residues.

Challenges come with rapid development

I felt extremely joyful when the harvest time came. The quantity harvested left no doubt, and a lot of farmers asked for more information, willing to adopt the new practices

Dieudonné Kabemba Éric Agronomist based in Kamangu-Rugo

The application of the new practices soon proved to be successful. Yields obtained through the application of SRI and ISFM were considerably higher than the yields of the plots cultivated using farmers' normal practices, as you can see in the graphs below.

In the Fizi region, the SRI gave the best results and was also the most adopted method. In fact, the low demand for seeds characteristic of this practice drew farmers’ attention. The average amount of seeds used was 120 kilos per ha compared to an average of just 10 kilos for SRI! But what is the other side of the coin?

To cope with shortages of organic matter in the region, the use of mineral fertilisers in combination with organic fertilisers was adopted. However, if the balance between these inputs is not correctly calculated and respected, the unavoidable consequence is the rapid depletion of soil fertility and consequently a gradual yield decline. In the Ruzizi plain, where the fields were subject to depletion due to continuing exploitation and lack of crop rotation, the application of ISFM in place of SRI was recommended.

Two other big challenges highlighted by the agronomists working for Rikolto are the general wait-and-see attitude of the farmers and inadequate irrigation facilities that undermine their commitment.

In the past, farmers have benefited from emergency and charitable projects with little attention paid to encouraging co-creation and ownership and developing a shared accountability framework. Most of them struggle to adapt new sustainable practices. The agronomist Dieudonné Kabemba Éric told us that only one farmer has proven to be flexible enough to adopt the SRI in his FFS during the first year of the project. He harvested 8.3t/ha and became a vivid testimony of the quality of the process.

Unfortunately, droughts and the lack of a good irrigation system are major obstables to reach the optimal water management required by SRI. There is no water management in the lowlands (Fizi plain), and where it does exist, it is not maintained (Ruzizi plain). Musobwa Mahombi, a farmer resident in Luvungi (South-Kivu), doesn’t hide his disappointment.

"I planted an area of 4 hectares because I was really impressed by the results we had during the FFS. Unfortunately, the dream of a great adventure had to face up to reality. I had to spend extra money to rent a motor pump to bring irrigation to my fields, and when the motor pomp broke down, it was a disaster.”

The hydro-agricultural development of the region is part of the PICAGL programme, but its implementation was delayed due to the waiver of the service provider. As highlighted also by Rikolto at the beginning of the project, good synchronisation between the creation of marches and the technical support to rice farmers is essential.

Despite the challenges, the programme is showing good results and is on the right path. What about Musobwa? “I will not give up, because I’ve been growing rice for 25 years, just like my father!” he says.