Science - May 26, 2005

‘Real tropical expertise is disappearing’

The post tray in the Agromisa office is full of airmail letters from people in developing countries wanting advice on subjects ranging from crop cultivation to animal breeding.

Agromisa’s target group consists of small-scale farmers and farmers’ representatives, many in Africa. The not-for-profit organisation supplies its target group with practical information on agriculture, animal husbandry and product marketing. The volunteers and paid staff do this by answering the questions in individual letters and by publishing Agrodoks, cheap booklets containing practical information. They also have a website that is easily accessible for slower computers. The information and expertise lies with the sixty or so volunteers, mainly employees or alumni from Wageningen University, many of whom have long-term practical experience in the tropics. In addition there are a few paid members of staff, mainly responsible for administration.

In February this year Sierk Plaat (MSc) was appointed the new director of Agromisa. He comes from Applied Plant Research (PPO), and still works there part-time. Plaat also worked for fifteen years in the tropics. He studied tropical agriculture in Deventer, got an MSc in England and worked for a company, HVA, with sugar and sisal plantations in countries such as Tanzania. After that he worked as a consultant for meat and dairy companies over the whole world.

Many of the volunteers at Agromisa also have experience in the tropics. Plaat describes them as ‘colourful people who are good at working together’. Most of the volunteers used to be students, but interest in development work among this group is declining. The volunteers are getting older; many are over fifty. ‘Real tropical expertise is disappearing from Wageningen, and that is bad,’ says Plaat. The traditional courses – tropical plant breeding and tropical soil sciences for example – no longer are taught. There is no longer anyone who knows everything about growing coffee. The focus of development-oriented research in Wageningen is now more directed towards building up capacity and is less about technical knowledge.

Nevertheless there is still a lot of know-how in Wageningen that is useful for small farmers, according to Plaat, but to exploit this requires new alliances. For example, knowledge of horticulture in the Netherlands can also be useful for farmers in Africa, but it has to be made accessible for them. Take the research of PROTA, which is making an inventory of the useful plants in Africa. PROTA publishes books, but they are too expensive for farmers and too scientific. Plaat is discussing with the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs how Agromisa can publish the research results of PROTA in small, cheap booklets.

Plaat would also like Agromisa to collaborate more with the applied research departments (PPO and PV) of Wageningen UR. PPO carries out quantitative analyses for farmers on potential crop yield and investment costs. These are useful for drawing up a business plan, also for farmers in developing countries. Plaat also intends to seek contact with Larenstein, the International Agricultural Centre (IAC) and the North-South Centre. The director also plans to approach PhD researchers from developing countries. Finally he hopes to be able to put to good use the fact that he is the secretary of AgriProFocus the new joint cooperation between Wageningen UR, the agricultural sector’s umbrella organisation LTO Nederland, business and development organisations that support producers’ organisations in developing countries. / JT