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Schools without walls, improving livelihoods of smallholder farmers

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Sujeeka Chandani from Pambadeniyain Doluwa in the Kandy district is an active member of the Sithamu Ranliya Female Farmer Organization which was established in 2017 and registered with the Department of Agrarian Development. The journey of this female farmer organization has not been an easy one. Its members, like the majority of smallholder farmers in the Central Province, are affected by land degradation resulting in low productivity and low incomes.

“Many women in our village and surrounding villages engage in home-gardening and tea smallholding to earn an additional income to support our families but we struggled to maintain our cultivations. We were frustrated and were ready to give up,” says Sujeeka.

A change in mindset and practices came when the women joined the farmer field schools conducted through the Rehabilitation of Degraded Agricultural Lands Project (RDALP). The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture. The project planted a single idea amongst the women and over a thousand other farmers in the Central Province–“protect the soil and water.”

This idea is propagated through farmer field schools. Commonly known as ‘schools without walls’ farmer field schools are based on people-centered learning, building on the skills, best practices and local knowledge of farmers. It is also a space to try out new ideas, techniques and technologies conducive to local ecosystems and socio-economic settings.

Around 100 farmer field schools are conducted in the Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts to educate and encourage home garden owners, vegetable farmers, seed potato farmers and tea smallholders to adopt practices that are aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of resources (soil, water and biodiversity), and the restoration of degraded natural resources and their ecosystem functions.

The classroom is the field of a fellow farmer. Around 20 – 30 farmers gather at the field for interactive, hands-on learning sessions facilitated by Extension Officers either from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Agrarian Development or the Tea Small Holding Development Authority. The extension officer’s role is that of a facilitator who supports farmers to learn from each other.

Sujeeka along with other members of the Sithamu Ranliya Female Farmer Organization who attended the field school on home gardening were educated on family nutrition, planning of home gardens, soil and water management, crop nutrient management, integrated pest management and improving the economic gains of their gardens.

In partnership with a private company, the women were also supported to convert their gardens into economic home-gardens with the introduction of high-value crops such as vanilla. In addition to attending farmer field schools for home gardens, the group of women is also involved in field schools for tea smallholding and are now spearheading tea cultivation in the area.

Sujeeka observed a turnaround in her tea cultivation. “I have started applying practices that I learnt at the farmer field school like intercropping fruit trees, and soil and water conservation. I used to harvest around 10 to 15 kilos of tea leaves a month but now the yield has increased to 70 to 75 kilos.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded and in-person meetings were no longer a safe option, the farmer field schools too went virtual. Learning and knowledge sharing sessions were conducted via Zoom while approximately 90WhatsApp groups have been created with the participation of farmers and extension officers.

Taking pictures of the different stages of their crops and sharing it on the WhatsApp group have become common practice. “I gain a lot of knowledge through the WhatsApp groups. I share pictures of my field with other members in the group and there is an exchange of ideas, advice and important information. When other farmers compliment my work, it motivates me to do better,” notes Sujeeka.

The WhatsApp groups are proving to be a useful platform for farmers to sell surplus produce or find buyers. These virtual groups are also useful for extension officers to monitor the fields under their purview, share information with farmers and receive updates on any pest or diseases identified by farmers in the field.

Give a woman an idea and she will light up a whole community. The Sithamu Ranliya Farmer Organization which started with only 10 members in 2017 has now grown to 40 members. The organization provides an enabling environment for its members, financially supporting them whenever needed. The women have set upa low-interest loan system where a member could borrow money in an emergency, either for agricultural purposes or for personal commitments like purchasing books for their children or paying tuition fees. The society engages in community and welfare services as well.

These women farmers in Pambadeniya have become conduits of change, as many surrounding villages have observed the agronomic practices adopted by them and are replicating it. The women are generous in sharing the lessons learnt thereby working together to engage in better production practices for a better natural environment and a better life for their families and the community at large.

The farmer field school model established by FAO is being implemented by the Department of Agriculture for paddy cultivation and the Saubhagya Home Garden Programme while the model is also to be used for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification in the country. Empowering more farmers with knowledge and skills to make informed decisions to improve agricultural production and bolster livelihoods while conserving nature.

NOTE: In commemoration of World Food Day, these stories of rural communities who are playing a role in helping to improve local agri-food systems towards better production, better nutrition, better environment and a better life for all, are compiled in collaboration with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

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