Soil Productivity Improvement Programme through Farmer Field Schools

The Soil Fertility Initiative (SFI) process, launched over the last years through a multi-partner process in some 20 countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, clearly illustrated the need for addressing soil productivity decline in Eastern and Southern Africa from an integrated perspective in order to address declining productivity as well as and structural and biological degradation of the soil. To address these interrelated issues, changes are required to the wide array of land management practices that are adopted by farmers to optimise productivity and income as well as resource use in the short and long term.

Reversing the downward spiral of productivity decline requires maintaining an optimal micro-environment for the growth of annual and perennial crops and pastures, for example, through appropriate crop mixes and agro-silvo-pastoral systems, effective nutrient cycling over space and time and soil and water conservation measures. While research institutions have developed a range of technologies to solve local production problems, agricultural productivity has continued to decline in most of today’s smallholder farming systems. Many of the developed technologies have not been effectively disseminated to farmers and remain largely unknown except in localised sites while others have not been tested on-farm to allow farmer adaptation to local conditions. Moreover, this trend is exacerbated by inappropriate management practices and increasing pressures on resources, especially demographic and economic pressures. The requirement for improved dissemination of knowledge to farmers was clearly identified during the diagnosis conducted under the SFI process. 
It is increasingly being recognised that solving farming systems’ constraints requires a participatory approach for working with farmers to help them diagnose and prioritise their problems and identify/test solutions to overcome them. There is much evidence of the benefits of empowering farmers’ groups and communities through participatory technology development and farmer innovation. Such processes facilitate the complete process of farmer diagnosis, prioritisation of problems, identification and testing of solutions and finally development of improved techniques that are adapted to the different farm situations (socio-economic and biophysical assets, and aspirations). Farmer field school approaches have been very successful for promoting integrated pest management (IPM) through enhancing farmers’ understanding of the ecological principles behind the safe and effective management of harmful pests and diseases. It provides a great entry point for enhancing the understanding of the ecological principles of better soil-water-crop management.

This situation analysis led to the development of an FAO normative strategy and programme which built on field activities for Piloting Farmer Field Schools on Soil / Land Productivity Improvement for Smallholder Agriculture in Eastern and Southern Africa (FFS-SPI).

Development Objective:

To further strengthen and equip rain-fed smallholder farming communities, farmers and service providers (extensionists, facilitators, NGO's, etc.) with better rain-fed land and soil fertility management skills and decision-making capacity to overcome soil productivity limitations, and to enhance sustainable and economically viable land management practices, through the use of Farmer Field Schools. This contributes to the goals of improved food and livelihood security among smallholder farmers and the transformation from unsustainable agricultural practices to sustainable management practices with consequent wider environmental and economic benefits.


Pilot activities  initiated in the field with various partners on the ground through Letters of agreement (LOAs) in Uganda and Tanzania (AGLL; end December 2001), a TCP project in Uganda on improving land management including conservation agriculture approaches (AGLL/AGSE; August 2002) and through a TCP project in Zimbabwe (SAFR; January 2002). These were building on outputs of the SFI process, including identification of specific problems, constraints and opportunities for soil productivity improvement and inventories/reviews of local research, expert and extension knowledge.

Activities in pilot countries included:

  • Development of implementation strategies and work plans for piloting identified proven technologies and practices for soil productivity improvement in selected districts;
  • Conduct inception planning workshops with programme partners to agree on strategy, work plan and implementation responsibilities;
  • Organisation of workshops for the development of FFS curriculum on soil productivity improvement for the dominant farming systems / agro-ecological zones in the East African Region;
  • Continuous development of a) a FFS curriculum and b) TOT course, on soil productivity improvement for the dominant farming systems / agro-ecological zones in the selected participating districts;
  • Training of Trainers courses on FFS/SPI for facilitators/extensionists of agricultural government bodies and partner NGOs;
  • Piloting of extension-led Farmer Field Schools on soil productivity improvement and preparation of farmer-led field schools;
  • The assessment, monitoring and adaptation of training modules (techniques and approaches) on improved soil productivity based on trainer - farmer interactions and in-situ learning processes;
  • Compilation of training methods and materials in the form of a loose-leaf handbook on FFS for soil productivity improvement in Southern and Eastern Africa, targeted to facilitators and building on relevant materials, such a the AGL-FFS manual and other references, with a view to the expansion of such farmer-driven learning approaches within the pilot countries and region; and,
  • A sub-regional workshop in 2003 with participants from the various FAO supported projects/programmes and key partners, with a view to exchange experiences and lessons learnt, review and revise the draft handbook and obtain donor interest in supporting a large scale follow up regional Programme for wider replication of the experiences.


  • Materials on techniques and approaches, presented in a regional loose-leaf handbook with supporting training modules, on how to use the Farmer Field School approach to achieve improved (soil) productivity of smallholder farms in different agro-ecological zones and farming systems; and,
  • Trained facilitators, extensionists and techniians capable of supporting the establishment and implementation of FFS for improving soil/land productivity, including linkages to policy /decision makers for overcoming specific constraints that may arise.
  • Outcomes for the direct beneficiaries included:
  • Enhanced understanding among farmers, extensionists and district officers of land degradation and the principles behind restoring soil functions and maintaining land productivity and of the range of opportunities for intervention; and,
  • Improved farmers capacity, with the support of technical specialists and researchers, to experiment and develop appropriate land (soil-water-crop) management systems and techniques that are socially acceptable and economically viable.

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