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Farmer-researcher networks and North-South partnerships to transform West African agriculture and society towards sustainability, justice and wealth

Place: Not Applicable, _NO_MAIN_REGION
Socio-economic dynamics and global markets Socio-economic dynamics and global markets
Total Budget: € 3.200.000,00 | Period: From January 2011 To December 2015


Democratic and partnership-based cooperation between elected organic farmers and national agricultural researchers from the three countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin test innovations that will and can contribute to food security and climate change adaptation. Organized within a EuropeAid-funded research for development program organized by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL), the tested results are spread through Bluetooth technology and mobile phones in order to reach at least 100’000 farmers with hardly any extra costs. The experience is a clear sign that willingness and knowledge are available in order to succeed in transforming unsustainable forms of farming and wealth creation into resilient and more just systems from local to global level.


Fibl- Research Instute for Organic Agriculture – FRICK Switzerland - Switzerland

Lead applicant

FiBL is one of the world’s leading research and information centres for organic agriculture and employs over 135 experts. The close links between different fields of research and the rapid transfer of knowledge from research to advisory work and agricultural practice are FiBL’s strengths. Outside Switzerland the Institute’s competence is also sought after, and FiBL is involved in numerous international projects – not only in research, consultancy and training but also in development cooperation.

Malian Organic Movement - Mali

Initiative partner

MOBIOM, a project initiated by the development organisation Helvetas to promote organic farming in Mali, emerged as an independent ‘movement’ made up of converted organic farmers and their field agents. MOBIOM is now a federation of 84 organic farmers’ cooperatives comprising more than 9,000 certified organic farmers. MOBIOM members produce different crops such as cotton, sesame, shea butter and hibiscus on a total of 8,189 ha. MOBIOM has adopted a growth strategy that brought organic seed cotton production from 796 mt in 2007 to 2,034 mt in 2011 (approximately 155% increase). Many farmer members of MOBIOM also own cattle. This represents not only an investment for their family but also a means to produce organic matter for soil fertilization. It also provides the animal power for pulling.

Union of village associations for the management of wildlife reserves - Benin

Initiative partner

The Union of AVIGREF is a ridge tile structure based in Tanguiéta (northern Benin) having legal recognition as an association since 2001. The NGO has 27 village associations located in the outskirts of the Biosphere Reserve Pendjari ( The mission of the U-AVIGREF is to balance the needs of the local population with conservation requirements and its vision is to make this a protected co-management model and the engine of sustainable development in the region. UAVIGREF objectives are to: (i) participate in the sustainable management of the Biosphere Reserve Pendjari (RBP) with the management of the National Park Pendjari (DPNP) and (ii) reducing the pressure of population on the reservation the implementation of income-generating activities.

National union of cotton producers of Burkina - Burkina Faso

Initiative partner

Established in 1998, the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso (UNPCB) is the supreme organ of Cotton Producers Groups (CPGs) that are intended to facilitate the supply of agricultural inputs and equipment, good credit management and increasing production. These GPC form departmental unions which are in turn grouped into provincial unions. The elected representatives of the various cotton provinces are gathered in the General Assembly to form a national union. UNPCB aims to improve productivity, of the marketing of seed cotton of its members and improving their lives. The main activity is the promotion of cotton production and all activities related thereto both upstream (and technical factors of production) and downstream (organization of the sale of seed cotton and equitable distribution among the members of loads and resources).

Institute of Rural Economy/ Regional Center for Agricultural Research - Mali

Initiative partner

IER is the leading research institution in Mali for the implementation of the national agricultural research policy. IRE”s mission is to contribute to agricultural productivity through research best suited to the needs of rural areas, conserve natural resources, increase food security and income of farmers and ensure sustainable rural development.IRE’s main activities include: technical studies technical studies in all areas of the rural sector: agriculture, livestock, forestry and fisheries resources, agricultural economics and rural systems, planning production; Rural Council through technology transfer; staff training and supervision of research, GIS.

National Agricultural Research Institute of Benin - Benin

Initiative partner

INRAB’s mission is to produce technologies for rural communities that protect natural resources and contribute to the development of science. INRAB’s main activities are focused on forestry, livestock, fisheries and climate change, policy research and analysis, education, service delivery and consultancy. Main themes explored are fertility, fertilizers, pest control, conservation and improvement of plant genetic resources (seeds), economic and financial profitability and forest research.

Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research - Burkina Faso

Initiative partner

INERA is a research institute whose mission is to develop, execute, and coordinate environmental and agricultural research programs in Burkina Faso. The work of the Institute is carried out by 4 departments that focus on 16 research programs in total. The departments include: Management of natural resources and systems of production; Vegetable productions, Livestock and Forestry.

Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation - Switzerland

Initiative partner

With the assistance of researchers, extensionists and market brokers, small scale farmers identify and test their own innovations and technologies towards improved cereal-cotton farming systems and chains to increase their incomes, enhance food security and resilience to climate change. The joint development and evaluation promises readier adoption of effective new techniques by farmers. The institutional mechanism of generating locally adapted innovations is presented. Even as developed by organic farmers from West Africa, this innovation promises solutions as well for the millions of conventional farmers. The needed transformation of agriculture and rural society towards resilience, market integration and justice has become more probable.

In the center stands the generation of a mechanism to reproduce farmer-led climate smart technologies at village level, which ultimately will improve food security. The mechanism is developed for the cotton belt in West Africa and applied with organic farmers from three countries. A key feature is the close cooperation between organized farmers responsible for the on-farm trials, and accompanying researchers, extensionists and market actors.
The institutional set-up was developed in an action-research program and is based on three core social levels (farm, village/district and nation), which are tied together through trans-disciplinary communication processes. Local and scientific knowledge is generated in innovation platforms in order to jointly produce technical and institutional solutions for hunger, rural poverty and environmental problems. This decentralized mechanism and institutional innovation can be applied for all agro-ecological regions and domestic and global value chains.

1. level: farms and fields The field and farm level is the basis for the practical testing of the innovations. Each farmer-researcher allocated an on-farm research field to implement the tests, which they selected and developed together with the researchers, over three years. All the 100 on-farm research fields are regularly inspected. At the end of the season the yields of the relevant crops are measured and recorded.
2nd level: villages and dictricts The second level is formed by the villages within reach of a 2 hours bicycle ride around a participating group of farmers. It encompasses the organic farmers of the area and involved extensionists and researchers, but also conventional farmers and village leaders. This group builds an innovation platform - also called circle of involved actors or in French 'CAC' - and meets several times per year to exchange experiences and coordinate actions.
3rd level: knowledge exchange at national level All CACs, the local innovation platforms, are organized at national level in order to align with the actions of the other two country programs and to provide consolidated results. Here, knowledge is condensed to subsequently flow back to the platform members in order to be spread. Moreover, the national level is essential to promote the idea of the main innovation, i.e. the democratic model of generating sustainable innovations through participatory research.
../file-system/small/pdf ../file-system/small/pdf Project brochure This brochure gives a short overview of the project SYPROBIO: the aim, the applied methodology and the collaborators. (in French)

The program is active the three West African countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Benin, where cotton is a major cash crop with important political and economic stakes since colonial times. The participating farmers are small-scale organic cotton producers, both men and women, competing on the global cotton market. Moreover, cotton stimulates food crops like maize and sorghum through the infrastructure and services provided by its industry. The fertility of the soils has significantly declined over the last decades, leading to stagnating yields of cotton and food crops grown under rotation.
The farmers participating in the program were selected by their cooperatives from 10 different areas, spread over the three countries. They are all part of the organic cotton value chain promoted by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation. All farms use draught animals and very modest and low-capital inputs, technology and equipment. Poverty, hunger and weak civil and state institutions are common features.

A typical cotton field in Mali The cotton industry shapes the cotton belt of West Africa since colonial times. Cotton is mostly produced by small-scale family farms. The cotton fields with an average surface of 1 to 3 ha provide a stable cash income to the households and give access to production inputs and often to basic infrastructure and training. As a globally important cash crop, cotton is contributing significantly to these countries economies, making it also a political commodity.
The semi-humid savannah naturally provides good conditions for cotton In the past climatic conditions in the region were ideal for cotton cultivation. But the non-sustainable intensification of farming, demographic pressure and the heavy deforestation of the last 80 years has led to a decline in soil fertility. Even if some measures are taken, like stone lines at field level, vertical ploughing, compost application and other, the soil is no longer providing good yields and desertification is progressing. Application of synthetic fertilizers has further aggravated the situation through acidification and compacting the tropical soils.
../file-system/small/pdf ../file-system/small/pdf The geographic context of the project The participating organic cotton farmer groups are spread out over three countries of the semi-humid savannah of West-Africa.

After four years, the initiative has proven that organic cotton production is a promising option for small farmers with less than 10 ha of arable land. The micro-economic benefit can be comparable and even competitive with conventional farms. Conventional cotton production, known as highly destructive for environmental and human health, can thus be improved or replaced with proven ecological and organic practices.
Furthermore, our initiative has shown that farmer-research networks built around concrete innovation projects can produce solutions more efficiently and effectively than the classical, researcher-driven approach. Farmers and particularly women are empowered through participatory research, facilitating the emergence of locally adapted solutions in both production and adaptation. Finally, interdisciplinary research guided by social science can master the complexity and diversity of the natural environment- society -market systems without getting lost in academic exercises.

Farmer-researcher network in action The participatory research based on farmer proposals has led to innovations and technologies, which directly respond to the needs of millions of farmers. The democratic process has increased the self-confidence of the farmers. Technical and economic, as well as social and cultural requirements are taken into account. Research priorities can be found and redefined through better communication and alignment between public and farmer interests.
Inter-and transdisciplinary work is the key The integrated way of addressing the complex realities of food security, agriculture, environment and nation and state building by the Syprobio initiative will enforce inter- and transdisciplinary research. With this approach and the resulting tangible results science has better chances to contribute to the knowledge based transformation of society and to a world free from hunger.
Particularly women are benefiting Organic farming in West Africa has many advantages for women producers. The absence of toxic pesticides prevent health injuries, the access to organic farming know-how provides an alternative to the risky credit schemes of conventional cotton and the diversity of the farms improve resilience of the households as well as food security. Finally, the importance allocated to soil fertility improvements enhances chances to better cope with climate change.

The initiative targets the small-scale organic cotton farmers in the West-African cotton belt. This group innately comprises a large share of young, female and/or poor farmers which are often situated on eroded soils. They are seldom served by public extension, marketing support and rural finance services. Organic production methods give them a possibility to grow cotton without costly external inputs, while the customary premium provides welcome additional income.
Apart from improved food security, farmers mention better farmer health and less debt thanks to low-capital solutions, as the big contributions by the research program. Finally, the gained self-confidence and the empowerment of farmer communities provide strong answers to the societal needs.
Equally, extensionists benefit from their active participation in the development of new techniques. The close collaboration with farmers, market actors and researchers improves their work and strengthens the value chains involved.

A female small-scale farmer during cotton harvest Women provide close to 70% of the food in Africa. If technology development and sectorial policies are better responding to the needs of women farmers, as proposed by the initiative, society at large and often neglected population groups, like children and the youth, will benefit and contribute to a better world.
A young small-scale farmer is preparing his field Small scale farmers with limited risk readiness and need for diversified and resilient systems are the main beneficiaries of the initiative. They constitute the main group world- wide assuring food supply for the local markets. If better organized, they can contribute to two key functions within society: feeding the world and stabilizing rural and hence national societies. When ecological practices are consistently applied, desertification and soil depletion as well biodiversity degradation can be stopped.

10 groups of farmers comprising of 10 individual farmers, acting as on-farm researchers, were guided by 20 extensionists, technicians and market brokers from farmer organizations. Together with FiBL, the lead research organization, 10-20 researchers from national research institutes accompanied the on-farm tests and conducted parallel on-station trials to confirm findings. The project office of FiBL with 5 project managers and their assistants (various specialists and administrators) coordinates the activities and assures the communication.
The main actors remain the 100 elected farmer-researchers, of which 40% are women. They are all selected due to their dependence on cotton, skills, motivation and sense for responsibility. Their farms are considered as models. They are reporting back directly to their over 2’500 colleagues in the multiple villages.

Group photo from the 3rd steering committee meeting About a quarter of the team - researchers, extensionists and farmers - meets regularly at the annual steering meeting.
Project organigram Around 180 farmers, extensionists and researchers from three West African countries and Switzerland are involved in the SYPROBIO project.

One of the main concerns proved to be effective communication. The cultural distance between actors with different frames of reference proved to be challenging. An active exchange - be it between stakeholder networks of different countries or between actors at national level - needed frequent stimulation.
In the present concluding phase of the initiative, it proved difficult to ignite innovative potential among researchers and extensionists to stray from well-known dissemination paths and to conceive new efficient and economic ways to spread and scale up technologies. Persistence and good networking helped to overcome this obstacle at least partially.
Finally, the relatively poor self-organization capacities of the farmers reduced the effectiveness of the communication and the response by the farmers, which are still heavily dependent from the outside stakeholders (industry, support organizations, input suppliers).

At meetings various languages and styles of communication are used The meetings and debates at local and national level are the backbone of the initiative, to interpret results from the field and take appropriate decisions. Language barriers as well as differences in backgrounds complicate an effective exchange. Furthermore, translation from agronomic to socio-political arguments is needed in order to institutionalize the research findings.
Effective communication with mobile phones The high costs of regular visits at the farmer fields by the researchers, often over 200 km distant, has become a challenge. This has increased awareness for modern communication technologies and lead to experiments with mobile phones and a new culture of communication. Still, communication remains the biggest challenge to overcome, as various disciplines, interests and languages are involved.

Applying the organic principles - health, ecology, fairness, care - in agricultural production proved to harmonize resource sufficiency and environmental functionality with productivity and income generation. Implementing organic cotton cultivation reduces environmental degradation by applying nature conservation techniques. By abandoning harmful chemical inputs and stimulating functional biodiversity (beneficial insects and plants in plant protection) biodiversity at landscape level increases. Organic practices support erosion control and thus combat desertification processes. Decreasing external input dependency and efficient, ecological management of the soil nutrients indirectly saves energy and resources. By building up soil organic matter the surrounding water household is improved.
Only a transformation into resilient and soil fertility enhancing systems, as demonstrated by the research program, will ensure resilient product life cycles in the West African cotton-cereal systems.

Adequate plant protection is possible without synthetic insecticides Synthetic insecticides can be replaced with biopesticides, if farmers are familiarized with the main pests and the on-farm production of biopesticides. This agro-ecological method is more complicated to institutionalise than the application of conventional synthetic pesticides. But the overall impact - the contribution to a resilient food and agriculture system - is worth the price.
Improved soil health through agroforestry The promotion of ecological and organic farming practices in Africa is focused on preserving soil fertility and environmental rehabilitation, but at the same time improving food security at household level. Agroforestry and measures going beyond the field and farm level have the potential to stop and reverse desertification.
Organic cotton villages benefit from an increased biodiversity Agriculture is the most relevant user of land. When whole production systems are designed to be resilient, efficient and just in order to balance the needs of food production, natural environment and people, then we have solved one of the biggest challenges of modern times. For time being, we are far away from this target.

The results of the innovation just started to spread and the long lasting effects need some time to become visible. However the established collaborative networks of farmers, extensionists and researchers implemented as decentralized innovation platforms under the leadership of the national agriculture research institutes have been endorsed and will serve as examples and models within and outside the participating countries.
The need for adequate research infrastructure and resources in order to cope with challenges, particularly declining soil fertility and rural poverty, is starting to influence decision makers in both politics and industry. Organic cotton production is now considered as a viable option and a sound strategy for small-scale farms. The high response from “conventional” farmers towards the innovations promoted by their “organic” colleagues participating in the program is an indication that many of the 2 million cotton farmers of West Africa can profit from the findings.

The SYPROBIO project matrix The SYPROBIO project pursues a multi-stakeholder approach. The initiative targets the four main stakeholder groups - political and economic sector, civil society/farmer community and research - on three predefined action levels (farm/district/nation) with implications for the whole subregion of the West African cotton belt.

The tested and selected innovative technologies are documented on video. The originating short films are intended to be watched and shared on mobile phones. Our approach to use mobile phone technology for both farmer-researcher communication as well as for spreading and rolling-out new technologies has found recognition and will ideally soon be picked up in other regions and contexts. With this grass-roots based approach the essence of the results will find a broad outreach within the farmer community. This will be supported by an active engagement of farmer organizations, industry and state actors from both research and extension.

For civil society a film for public screening at the national TV programs has been shot. This film will contribute to a continuous dialogue on the role of small-scale farmers within society and economy. Furthermore, efforts of national extension programs, private and farmer initiatives to set up joint programs at national level will continue.

A novel biopesticide against cotton pests A group of farmers in Mali is trying a new biopesticide based on local products. Pepper, serving as an insect repellent, is added to the customary biopesticide mixture of neem seeds and the oil of Carapa procera. The innovation is compared with the traditional mixture. Tcheba Bagayo shows us how to prepare the biopesticide and explains the conducted experiment, his results and conclusions.
How to fight striga in sorghum fields Striga is a parasitic plant that affects cereal crops, especially sorghum, a very important crop in West Africa. As striga grows well in poor soils, an effective way to fight against it, is the application of compost. A group of farmers in Mali tested this technique by comparing the infestation with striga and the yields of sorghum with and without the application of compost. Two farmers, Seydou Coulibaly and Diarra Koro Sumeila Boiré, explain the experiment they conducted on their fields and discuss the results.