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A sustainable alternative for rural Burundi
Burundi, where 90% of the population live from agriculture, is currently facing a severe food crisis. Many factors contribute to this situation, including extremely high population growth and the fragmentation of farm lands, which goes hand in hand with soil degradation and a steady decline in agricultural productivity. This situation has serious consequences: over 60% of the population suffer from chronic malnutrition. There are few opportunities to earn income in rural areas, which only exacerbates the problems faced by the most vulnerable populations.
One of the strategies implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock to tackle this situation concerns the improvement of farming practices, while taking the environment and the experiences of the men and women farmers into account. Thus, since 2008 it has adopted the Farmer Field School (FFS) approach – sometimes called ‘school without walls’ – so as to enable transfer and ownership of agricultural innovations. This participatory training method, which was developed by FAO in the late 1980s, makes it possible for men and women farmers to learn, discuss and test agricultural strategies with a view to improving their food security and their livelihoods.
In Burundi, FAO is providing support for the implementation of this approach, with a special focus on efforts to build the agricultural and nutritional skills of vulnerable populations. FAO also encourages men and women smallholders to share good practices that could help them increase their agricultural production. The Farmer Field School approach has evolved in recent years and has expanded to include aspects relating to nutrition, HIV/AIDS and gender, primarily through Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS) and Farmer Field and Life Schools (FFLS) in difficult or urgent health situations.
What makes the FFLS truly unique is the fact that participants ‘learn by doing’ and that the subject matter goes beyond agriculture to cover diverse aspects of community life, such as reproductive health, legal issues, women’s empowerment, and so on. The JFFLS also tackle the issue of youth unemployment, which is a very serious problem in Burundi. They mainly target girls and boys that are school drop-outs, orphans or affected by HIV. They use an innovative methodology that encourages young people to participate fully in agricultural life. They also offer cultural activities, such as song and dance, so the young people can feel reassured by this process that safeguards their traditions and culture.
“The farmer field schools inspired us to resume our agricultural activities after a long period of displacement,” says Adidja Niyuhure, a member of Muzubirimya farmer field and life school in Rumonge. “We started out with tomatoes, but now we also grow cassava and other vegetables in our gardens. We managed to buy some laying hens and FAO gave us some goats. We spread the animals’ manure on our fields, which has really boosted production. We would like to learn more about nutrition too, especially about how we can provide better nutrition for our children.”
FAO also uses this approach to assist the social cohesion and long-term integration of returnees. Adidja is a returnee belonging to a group of 60 beneficiaries who were trained by FAO as FFS facilitators. The 60 new facilitators will support the establishment of FFS in the “integrated rural villages” in southern Burundi. These villages host refugees and people who were displaced by war and who have returned to the country but have nowhere to go. Through this training, more than 18 FFS will have been set up by the end of 2011, giving over 630 returnees the opportunity to exchange good farming practices.
Over the first quarter of 2012, FAO will support the establishment of 138 farmer field schools, of which 24 will be FFLS and 8 JFFLS. Each of these FFS will have 25 to 35 members, bringing the total membership of FFS set up by FAO in Burundi, through various projects, to around 4,120 people. The sustainability of the FFS system is encouraged by the networking of existing FFS and by the creation of new ones by men and women farmers who already participated in an FAO-supported FFS.
The chief advantage of farmer field schools is that they are participatory. Local knowledge and techniques are used to ensure collaborative and sustainable learning, with the beneficiaries themselves finding solutions to their problems. The socio-political skills, of women in particular, are strengthened alongside their farming and nutritional capacities and knowledge. The FFS have a significant multiplier effect since their activities are often imitated by other villagers, thus exponentially increasing the positive effects of this original approach. For their part, the JFFLS are a powerful tool for empowering smallholders, both men and women, and an essential means of support for these farmers to set up groups, cooperatives and organizations.
The focus now is on the consolidation and networking of the existing farmer field schools, which have served as an excellent basis for running multiple innovative and participatory initiatives.