Applied agricultural science in West Africa

In the final year of our PhDs at the John Innes Centre, Jack Dumenil and I were presented with an opportunity to take our scientific expertise out of the lab and into the field.

The trip revealed a huge disconnect between the willingness of people to grow food, and their ability to do so.

Planting Promise, a Sierra Leone based charity who fund education with agriculture, recruited us to increase the productivity of their farms, the profits from which are key part of their education funding structure. To achieve this we designed and implemented experimental field trials based on the agro-ecological farming principles that were central to my PhD. These field trials were designed to test the impact of growing improved rice varieties, locally favoured landraces, and varietal mixtures (in which several varieties are grown together at the same time). The trials also tested the efficacy of a simple nutrient-retaining soil amendment made from zeolitic tuff, a mineral formed when volcanic ash flows enter alkaline bodies of water.

Their trial sites
The trial site

As such, on the first of June this year Jack and I boarded a flight to Freetown, Sierra Leone blissfully unaware of the 34įC heat, the almost 100% humidity, and of the city-wide power blackout that would greet us and render any semblance of air-con useless. After a fast and furious introduction to this vibrant city, we travelled out to the farms in the central provinces of Sierra Leone and began conducting the trials. The implementation of these trials was not plain sailing, with localised flooding destroying much of the available land, and the impending wet season threatening to worsen the situation. Far from the efficient organisation and logistics of conducting farm trials at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, the tribulations of conducting trials on remote farms in West Africa became apparent when attempting to organize transport of materials from Freetown to the farms and when trying to relay information and instructions to farm workers with little grasp of English and no experience of scientific practices.

Despite these issues we arrived safely, we set up the trials and we produced a report on our work, which included detailed information for future trial management. When our work was completed we left Sierra Leone with a rather embarrassing set of farmerís tan-lines and a pretty amazing set of memories.

During our stay it became apparent that the implementation of simple agronomic practices could dramatically increase farm yields and farm profits. Once the rice harvest has been completed in November, we plan to extend these trials to include cover-cropping and intercropping strategies to run for several consecutive years.

Henry and Jack alongside local field workers
Henry and Jack alongside local field workers

As well as being a fascinating experience, the trip revealed a huge disconnect between the willingness of people to grow food, and their ability to do so. At independence Sierra Leone had a thriving agricultural sector, however most of this was lost to the 11 year-long bloody civil war. What remains is an abundance of fertile farmland, a hungry population and a farming sector limited by very basic agricultural practices. It seemed to us that providing advice to those in need of it was a simple and efficient way to bridge the gap between farm and food, and we are keen to encourage others to do the same.

To find out more about Planting Promise, see http://www.plantingpromise.com.

by Henry Creissen, John Innes Centre, September 2013.

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