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Chapter 7

Building Knowledge Through Information Gathering and Sharing


Farmers acquire new knowledge and technologies from a variety of sources, but not all farmers have equal access to nor are they equally active in seeking new information, discussing problems or sharing experiences. This chapter sheds more light on differences in knowledge acquisition and sharing between the two sample groups of farmers, based on questions in the socio-economic survey on farmers' access to information about tree species, tree management methods and new cropping and livestock rearing practices. Questions are divided in three categories: active seeking of new species and ideas during travel, passive acquisition of new species and ideas from visitors to the farm (researchers, extensionists, friends, etc), and cooperation with development projects or the agricultural extension service for on-farm testing of new practices.

Active searches for new information: travel to other places

This chapter also looks at farmers' informal communications networks, how they share experiences with new technologies and methods, and the accessibility of extension or specialists. Chapter III referred to demographic and socio-economic characteristics of tree experts and comparison farmers and to differences in their resources. This section looks at the knowledge flow among those involved in an agricultural knowledge system and helps explain why tree experts are called "experts."

In spite of poor transportation, people do travel in search of work, to visit relatives or to attend ceremonies (marriages, funerals, baptisms, etc.). Eighty-nine percent of the tree experts had travelled compared to 54 percent of the comparison farmers. While travel destinations are varied, the data showed that the majority of comparison farmers (60.5 percent) travelled only short distances, either to other districts within their municipality or to neighbouring municipalities.11 Only in Simbi had the comparison farmers who had travelled ventured as far as other prefectures or other countries. In the tree expert group, not only had a larger percentage of consultants travelled, they had travelled much further. More than half had travelled to other prefectures and onethird had travelled to other countries, or to the city (meaning Butare or Kigali).

Travel does not automatically lead to knowledge, but travel offers the opportunity to increase experiences, to obtain new crop varieties and tree species and to observe new tree management methods. Of the 38 comparison farmers who had travelled, only six (15.8 percent) had brought back seeds or seedlings of new tree species.12 All six had planted their new seeds or seedlings to determine their suitability under their own farm's conditions. A much higher percentage of tree experts (48.7 percent) had brought back and planted new species.

When asked if they had observed new methods of managing trees (pruning, coppicing, planting, fertilizing), the answer from both groups was a resounding "No." This could be because farmers are not interested in different tree management methods or these methods were not significantly different from what they were already doing.13 Farmers do not have a fixed set of management practices for each species, but use a range of practices according to their circumstances, objectives, needs and desires. Tree management also varies with the location of the species on the farm. For example, cypress located on the home compound will be managed intensively to form a dense hedge, those planted as a windbreak along the fields may be managed for stakes while those planted in a woodlot are managed for timber.

Passive acquisition of new ideas from farm visitors

Farmers rarely receive visitors to discuss agricultural problems in general and agroforestry practices in particular. Only six comparison farmers (8.6 percent) had received visitors who brought them seeds of new tree species, while three persons (4.3 percent) indicated that visitors had shown them new tree management practices. In the tree expert group, the situation was similar. Of the tree experts, 15.9 percent (all of them living in Kibingo) had received visitors who brought them tree seeds or seedlings, while three persons (6.8 percent) had received visitors who described new tree management methods (two in Kibingo and one in Maraba). The higher number of farm visits in Kibingo can be ascribed to the presence of two agroforestry projects (Projet Agropastoral de Nyabisindu and the Projet Agricole de Karama) in Karama. All but one comparison farmer and all tree experts had tried the new tree species. The reaction to the new management practices was more favourable than those that people observed during their travels, with two out of three persons in each group trying them.

In the comparison group, visitors were predominantly local (parents, municipal agricultural officer, municipal counsellor or burgomaster). One person mentioned a visit by an ISAR researcher with whom she was collaborating for an on-farm trial. As extension workers had poor training and few improved technologies to offer farmers, the influx of new ideas and information was all but non-existent. In the expert group, the visitors who provided tree seeds were predominantly outsiders (ISAR researchers and agronomists of the PAP and PAK projects). Only one person mentioned that the visitor who brought seeds was the municipal agricultural officer. The municipal agricultural officer was the only visitor mentioned who showed farmers new tree management methods. It appears, therefore, that the collaboration with ISAR and the agroforestry projects in Kibingo is limited to the provision of tree seeds or seedlings and that farmers are not given advice on their maintenance and management. The low number of farm visits reported (particularly by extension workers), even in the tree expert group, is testimony to the low level of activity of the agricultural extension services, even those supported by development projects as was the case in Karama. Even when extensionists and researchers did visit farms in Karama, it was often only to visit project participants. The vast majority of farmers in the community were ignored.

Sharing information and experiences about new technologies and farm problems

Sharing experiences with new tree species and management methods: More than 80 percent of the comparison farmers said they never discussed their experiences with new tree species or management methods with others, compared to only half of the tree experts. The remainder of the farmers discussed their experiences from time to time. The percentage who shared their experiences with new technologies was lowest in Kibingo in both groups in spite of the two rural development projects and the government extension agents working in the area. This is an indication that technology dissemination through pilot farmers may not be the most appropriate operation, since they appear to keep their new information mostly to themselves.

As in the case of farm visitors, comparison farmers share their knowledge and experiences in their immediate surroundings. Of the comparison farmers who discussed their experiences with others, neighbours, friends and family were the most frequently mentioned (63.6 percent), followed by municipal agricultural officers (36.4 percent). Only one consultant had discussed experiences with ISAR researchers. In the tree expert group, experiences were most frequently shared with municipal agricultural officers (63.6 percent), followed by neighbours and friends (40.9 percent).

Seeking solutions to farm problems: Almost one-third of comparison farmers and two-thirds of tree experts said they discussed farm problems with others in order to get advice or seek solutions. Almost all consultants mentioned discussing farm problems with others, namely the municipal agricultural officer (60.9 percent of comparison farmers and 71.4 percent of tree experts), followed by "other" (34.8 percent and 64.3 percent respectively). "Other" in most cases referred to the veterinary assistant. Since comparison farmers have fewer animals, it is logical that they have less need for consultations with this person than tree experts. Consultants also discussed farm problems with neighbours and friends, ISAR researchers and project agronomists.

Consultants in Maraba and Simbi appeared to be much more active in discussing problems and experiences than their counterparts in Kibingo, in spite of the development assistance provided to farmers in Karama. This could be due to the fact that these projects worked with a few pilot farmers to the exclusion and neglect of the general farm population, creating a small, select group of elite farmers on whom resources and efforts were concentrated. Most farmers, therefore, felt by-passed and were of the opinion that agricultural services were neither targeted at nor accessible to them. This situation was made worse by the fact that pilot farmers received improved seeds, fertilizer, tools, training and advice free of charge, something not available to noncooperating farmers. The absence of projects in Maraba and Simbi made farmers operate on a more equal basis and more open and willing to sharing ideas and experiences. The market on the border between Maraba and Simbi also contributed to the greater openness of farmers in both Maraba and Simbi by providing an opportunity to meet other farmers, the local extension workers, local and distant functionaries, and traders (buyers of coffee, fruits, surplus crops and animals and sellers of farm inputs and consumer goods).

Relationships with research, extension and development agencies: access to and on-farm testing of new technologies

For a more concrete look at farmer-consultants' contacts with research, extension, development projects, etc., we asked farmer-consultants if they had cooperated with agricultural extension or project personnel to test new cropping practices, improved crop seeds, new tree species, new tree management methods, fertilizers, lime or terracing. In the comparison group, a higher percentage of farmers in Maraba and Simbi indicated that they had done so than farmers in Kibingo (see Table 11). In the tree expert group, a higher percentage of consultants in Maraba and Simbi cooperated with the extension service to test new cropping methods, improved seeds, fertilizers and lime. For the other technologies, new tree species, new tree management methods and terracing, the percentage of farmers in Kibingo was greater, which is not surprising as they were the main technologies being promoted by both PAP and PAK. Particularly noticeable is the high percentage of tree experts in Maraba and Simbi who cooperated to test fertilizers (90.9 percent), improved seeds (72.2 percent) and new cropping practices (72.7 percent and 63.6 percent in Maraba and Simbi respectively). Of all the technologies mentioned, the lowest percentage was found in new tree management methods in both groups of consultants, confirming earlier observations of low interests in such methods.

Overall, tree experts had more access to new technologies than the comparison farmers. However, this may be due to the fact that they were more actively seeking new ideas and technologies. Again, the situation in Maraba and Simbi appeared to be more egalitarian than in Kibingo. A higher percentage of comparison farmers in Maraba and Simbi had tested one or more of the technologies than in Kibingo. In general, though, access to these new technologies was gained only if farmers (be they tree experts or not) actively sought them by going to the extension offices to ask for them. As was discussed earlier, waiting for extension workers, ISAR researchers or project agronomists to visit was an exercise in futility.


SOURCE: den Biggelaar 1994

11 Since more than one destination could be mentioned, percentages may add to more than 100 percent.


12 "New" does not necessarily mean that the species is exotic to the area. It refers to being new to the respondent's farm, where it previously was not found. Thus a new species could be either an exotic or an indigenous species.


13 During the focus group meetings, they did admit that Rwandan farmers are imitators, and that "seeing is believing." In general, they admitted that they do copy practices from their friends and neighbours, but when asked directly about it, they would either deny that they did so or said that they could not remember where they saw or learned a certain practice.

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