Striking a 'COARD' in Uganda
For the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) in Uganda, agricultural research remains a priority, and yet, in common with many developing countries, new technologies are often not being adopted by farmers. In too many projects, scientists continue to have preconceived ideas of the problems facing farmers and how they should be solved. However, in recent years, an increasing number of projects have become "client-oriented". This means that not only is research done in response to farmers' needs but that the farmers are involved in the process of validating the results. But how is this being put into practice at the Serere Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute (SAARI) of NARO near Soroti?
Driving along the highway to Soroti from Mbale, small villages can be seen in scattered clearings away from the road. Most consist of half a dozen round huts with thatched roofs. A more substantial brick building with a corrugated roof may be seen although, more often than not, the brick buildings remain half-built and unfinished. A few goats browse on the vegetation around the houses, a cow or two may be seen tethered and chickens scratch around in the dust. Unlike the patchwork of large monocropped fields bordered by hedges or ditches in the UK, the fields in which these subsistence farmers work are not always obvious. The land they own may be no more than half a hectare with cassava or maize, sweet potatoes and some millet. A few trees may grow around the house from which fruit is collected and laid in piles at the roadside to be collected for sale at the nearest market by passing lorries.
The farms in this region were once very productive but years of insurgency during the 1980s resulted in a loss of livestock through cattle raiding and a general deterioration of the farming systems as inputs became unavailable. Consequently, the area is now one of the poorest in the country and over the last few decades, research has had little impact particularly as the local research station, SAARI, was in need of repair and capacity building.
Although NARO has begun in the last few years to become more client-oriented, it is with assistance from DFID that the Client-Oriented Agricultural Research and Dissemination Project has become possible at SAARI. Known as the COARD project, it supports not only demand-driven research but also investigates methods for improving technology dissemination in the Teso and Lango farming systems of north-eastern Uganda through the establishment of two competitive Agricultural Technology Funds (ATFs). These funds are governed by a local committee of scientists, local government extensionists, non-governmental organizations, farmer and private sector representatives and are made available for participatory on-farm research and for dissemination activities, such as the initial multiplication of improved technologies (seed, cuttings, improved livestock, tools and machinery).
Five projects to date have been awarded contracts through the ATFs and funds have been released and activities started. These include a project working with a women's group for improvement of indigenous chickens; research on soil fertility enhancing technologies across the Teso and Lango farming systems and the development of extension material for improvements in cowpea storage. Although the research is lead by a particular organization, all involve collaboration with at least two or three partner organizations and all must involve farmers throughout the process of the project. A second call for proposals was made in March 2001 and funding for further projects is currently being considered.
Training for researchers and project partners is provided by a team based at SAARI, the Client-Oriented Agricultural Support Unit (CORSU), which manages the ATFs and provides technical assistance to the projects. The training is specifically geared towards the elements that make up client-oriented research such as stakeholder and gender analysis, teamwork and participatory evaluation of technologies. For example, really understanding who has a role in producing new groundnut varieties or trying to understand the role of women in developing and using new technologies.
It has been realized that communication systems are underdeveloped in the region, particularly in the availability and access of agricultural information. Most organizations working directly with farmers, such as NGOs, community based organizations and farmer groups have no strategy to disseminate new technologies or other agricultural information. So as well as promoting partnerships and providing training, the communication strategy is another important aspect of the COARD project which is currently being developed. NARO is utilizing some experiences gained on the COARD project in its move to enhance the client-orientation of agricultural research and to improve access to new technologies through establishing a network of agricultural research and development centres (ARDCs) across Uganda. But whatever the overall outcome of the project across Uganda, it has already been observed that the COARD project is hitting the right note, bringing organizations together to work to improve the provision of agricultural services to farmers in the Teso and Lango farming systems.