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Sharing knowledge - tell us a story

Barley farmers discuss crop traits during a conference field trip (ICARDA)
Barley farmers discuss crop traits during a conference field trip

"My story with farming began when I was a child," says Mahmoud Shlash, whose village lies near the ancient city of Aleppo in northern Syria. "At that time, the rainfall was high unlike the rainfall this season. I watched my father when he collected spikes (barley seedheads) from here and there and brought them home. I asked him, 'Why are you collecting the spikes and nothing else?' Now I realise that he was doing the same as ICARDA is currently doing with the farmers."

Selecting plants with high productivity and resistance to local threats like disease, drought or frost, would find its place in many farmers' stories, ancient or modern. It is also at the heart of participatory plant breeding, where researchers and farmers work together to select desirable crop traits and test plants under a range of management systems. But how can farmers' knowledge, whether from recent plant trials or their wider experience, be used to improve the research or plant breeding process? The Knowledge Sharing in Research (KSinR) project, of the CGIAR's Information Communication Technology and Knowledge Management (ICT-KM) Program, is examining the value of storytelling, as a way of helping farmers to share this kind of information, both with fellow farmers and with scientists.

The two year project, started in 2007, aims to improve the impact of CGIAR's work by investigating how to integrate knowledge-sharing into different stages of the research process. In May 2008, more than 50 farmers from Syria, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea met with researchers at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria for a four-day International Farmers' Conference. But instead of the standard conference format, the farmers were asked to share their experiences of farming and plant breeding through storytelling.

A farmer shares his story during the conference (ICARDA)
A farmer shares his story during the conference

Are you sitting comfortably?

Stories are a common tool used by farmers to enrich discussions and get their message across. According to two of the conference organisers, Alessandra Galie and Bernhard Hack, the storytelling format was flexible enough to accommodate whatever issues the participants wanted to discuss, while also being less formal than conventional presentations. Participants found them easy to understand, with farmers from Syria commenting that the stories were "better than speeches, because they felt more like real life."

Ruqeia, a young Syrian farmer who attended the conference, explained that she had taken on the farming duties in her family following the death of her father, and since then had been trying to improve her crop yields in many different ways. On arriving at the conference, she felt scared and shy at first, being with new people in a new place. Talking to other farmers, however, she became more comfortable and when she told her story, she found that the other participants were impressed by her knowledge and encouraged her to continue in agriculture. Ruqeia believed she had learned a lot, particularly from the other Syrian farmers, about planting, fertiliser use, harvesting and storing seeds, and would use this new knowledge in her fields during the next year. Such farmer-to-farmer extension was, according to scientist and participant Maatougui Mohammad, a key benefit of the conference, of particular value to farmers from countries whose formal extension services are weak or non-existent.

In addition to the storytelling, the conference participants visited ICARDA facilities and farmers' fields and showcased their seeds and products at a food fair. Dr Stefania Grando, one of ICARDA's principal barley breeders and the KSinR Pilot Project leader, thought the conference had succeeded in collecting and consolidating farmers' knowledge, which, she believed, would help scientists in better targeting their research to address farmers' needs.

Spreading the word

Network mapping at farmers' conference (ICARDA)
Network mapping at farmers' conference

The Farmers' Conference is one of six strategies now being explored under the KSinR project. Other approaches being piloted include the use of radio programmes, training videos, and databases to communicate research findings. The farmers' stories will now be featured on a website to document the conference, in the form of audio files and written transcripts, translated into all the languages spoken by the participants. The site will also contain video clips of the storytelling, which can be sent by mobile phone.

Sami Jaber, a farmer from Al Sweida in Syria, began his story with a saying: "If you don't plant it, you don't experience it." The organisers are hopeful that retelling the stories, whether in person, online or by phone will help to spread the knowledge that comes from experience, for the benefit of other farmers and the crop breeders who work on their behalf.

With contributions from: Nadia Manning-Thomas, IWMI

Date published: September 2008


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