Science - April 23, 2009

DEVELOPMENT AID VIA THE PRINTING PRESS

A guide to breeding oyster mushrooms in Swahili. A guide for goat farmers in French, English or Portuguese. For 27 years, volunteers at Agromisa have been producing such booklets, which are ‘world famous – except in the Netherlands'. And they hope to go on a long time, though they could use some young blood now.

A staff member at Agromisa's regional office in Nigeria binds Agrodoks: practical booklets about agriculture.
‘A therapeutic activity for people who don’t want to sit around twiddling their thumbs.’ That’s what the Wageningen-based development organization Agromisa is for Johan Koeslag. He took early retirement in 2004 when there was a reorganization at Van Hall Larenstein. He thought it would be a pity just to shelve his years of experience in developing countries, so he went to work at Agromisa, producing Agrodoks – practical booklets on small-scale sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

Together with two former colleagues, Koeslag rewrote a booklet about dairy cattle husbandry, and is now working on one about small-scale goat production. ‘It’s just nice to do’, he says. ‘We have an editorial meeting once a week – and then we can also chat a bit about early retirement.’

Pensioner Bram van Nieuwenhuijzen, for many years on the management of PTC agricultural college in Horst, also combines Agromisa with work as a retired expert in the Netherlands’ PUM programme. He helped write two Agrodoks about mushrooms. ‘We received questions about mushrooms at Agromisa, that was what started us off.’ The writing is more time-consuming than the Wageningen alumnus expected. ‘You have to get the Dutch farming system out of your head and think over the basic principles again so as to explain them in simple terms. And since the farming conditions for small farmers in the tropics are so varied, you can’t give blueprints.’

The booklets are very well-received, Van Nieuwenhuijzen discovered last year during a visit to Ghana. And in Tanzania, they have now been translated into Swahili, on request.

Rik Hoevers, who has his own consultancy company in the field of agriculture and environment, wrote an Agrodok last year about non-chemical crop protection. ‘We worked on it for a year and a half. It is more work than a scientific publication, because you have to translate new scientific insights into practical terms. You need quite a lot of experience for this.’
Hoevers gained this experience in development projects and at the FAO, the UN food and agriculture organization. ‘Ten years ago, when I came back from working abroad, I wanted to do something with my experience.’ He now combines his advisory bureau with writing Agrodoks. Not a bad combination, as the voluntary work sometimes leads to some paid work.

A QUESTION ABOUT SNAILS
The Agrodoks that Koeslag, Van Nieuwenhuijzen and Hoevers write end up in at least 79 countries: former European colonies, or ACP states. This is because of the collaboration between Agromisa and the Centre Technique Agricole (CTA), the Wageningen-based EU organization for knowledge transfer to the ACP countries. This year will see the fiftieth Agrodok; they are all published in English, French and Portuguese. In recent years, on average about 35 thousand copies a year have been printed; this year Agromisa expects to print eighty thousand.

In between writing the Agrodoks, the volunteers also answer about two hundred questions a year from farmers. This week there was a letter from an entrepreneur in Cyprus who wants to breed snails for export. Agromisa will send him the booklet about small-scale snail-breeding in Africa, produced by the volunteers last year. In another letter, a Kenyan grower of oranges and mangoes describes a disease affecting his crops, in the hope that Agromisa will know the cause of it. And a peanut farmer from Niger wants to know what sort of fertilizer he should use. Frequently asked questions sometimes lead to new booklets – the booklets that Hoevers says have made Agromisa world famous – except in the Netherlands. ‘Agromisa’s publications play an important role. They make practical agricultural knowledge available for extension services and NGO workers in developing countries, who can in turn transmit this knowledge to small farmers. With research and academic education alone, such as Wageningen UR offers, you don’t achieve this.’

Outside the Netherlands it is often assumed that Agromisa and Wageningen UR are connected, Hoevers says – although in fact the link between the university and the volunteer organization has been steadily diluted since the nineteen nineties. ‘It used to be easier to knock at the doors of chair groups, the former IAC and the vocational colleges when we had questions or wanted to organize something’, says Roy Keijzer, Agromisa management team member. ‘Through the increasing professionalization, which means that hours worked have to be booked under projects, voluntary participation has gone down.’

Keijzer would like to restore the links with the university and with students: ‘We need young people with new ideas.’ But students nowadays have less time for voluntary work. Nevertheless, Keijzer sees opportunities. ‘We get regular requests from students who would like to do internships. We usually say no, because it takes up too much of our time and there is too little supervision from the institute. But we would like to develop this more, certainly if funding is made available.’ / Albert Sikkema

HELPING MISSIONARIES
Most of the 65 volunteers who work for Agromisa are grey-haired. But that wasn’t always the case. This development organization was started in 1934 by the St. Francis Catholic student association, in order to help missionaries who had questions about agriculture.
In the nineteen eighties, the aim was broadened: making agricultural knowledge available to farmers and agricultural extension workers in developing countries. But the organization was still run by students. Louise Fresco spent many hours there during her student years.
Ten years ago, Agromisa set about professionalizing and acquiring more projects, thereby growing to ten part-time staff. After about six years, this ambition foundered when the Minister of development cooperation withdrew the organization’s subsidy. The board stepped down and a team of four paid staff and a handful of faithful volunteers took over the reigns. Agromisa’s office is on Duivendaal, in a Wageningen UR building.

Re:act