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Weathering the Drought – An Interview with Andy Farrow

It never rains but it pours, even during a drought. At least that’s what Andy Farrow must have thought when his project’s drought-tolerant bean seeds didn’t thrive due to insufficient rain. And yes, drought-tolerant bean seeds are designed to withstand droughts; but there are droughts and there are droughts. And the drought that hit many parts of Kenya last year saw rainfall levels trickle to about a quarter of those expected.

As the project coordinator of the AGCommons Nodes of Growth project, Andy waited for the much-needed rains to come. But when they finally arrived, it was a case of too little, too late for some regions.

During a recent interview with the ICT-KM Program, Andy, a spatial analyst with CIAT, talked openly about the setbacks the recently-concluded project encountered, as well as the positive impact it has had in Kenya.

How did this project come about?

The objective of the Nodes of Growth project was to improve legume seed networks in Kenya by providing information on the location of existing seed outlets and recommendations for new outlets. The project came about from two directions. The demand came from the Tropical Legumes II (TLII) project, which seeks to increase the productivity of six commonly grown grain legume crops in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Working with the TLII project, CIAT uses maps and models to see where drought tolerant bean varieties can be best introduced or promoted. As for the methodology aspect, we were involved in something similar in Malawi. However, in that case, we were more interested in access to fertilizer and trying to find out if were any gaps in the population who were not being covered.

How was the project implemented?

Like the other AGCommons QuickWin projects, the Nodes of Growth project was fairly short, but there were essentially four phases. The first phase involved getting the data and the team together; the second phase focused on the mapping and providing recommendations on locations for seed outlets; the third phase involved disseminating this information to the farmers; and the fourth phase looked at the feasibility of mobile phones to disseminate information.

How did you gather the data in Phase I?

We have different models that looked into the accessibility of a particular place, the location of roads, and the population that we were targeting.

How did you recruit your team?

The people who did the mapping comprised staff from FIPS-Africa – a not-for-profit company that’s interested in promoting general inputs, such as fertilizer and seeds – and private bean companies that are interested in finding out where they can sell their beans. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) was also involved. All of these groups are also partners in the TLII project; people who work on seeds systems in general and seed systems for beans in Kenya in particular. So they were targeting more than just the general distribution and production of seeds. KARI is responsible for coordinating lots of smaller local partners, so any information that helps them to better organize and better coordinate these partnerships is always seen as an incentive. However, none of the partners had been involved in mapping before.

Who provided the training?

CIAT taught them how to use the GPSs. We visited them in the field and got them accustomed to collecting information. The project has four GPS units, but the partners had their own units that were essentially managed by KARI. Staff would take them on routine trips to the field. Partners are very keen to acquire a GPS out of their own funds as well, because they see the value from the project.

Who produced the maps?

During Phase II, the information collected was sent to CIAT-Africa for processing. We then produced the maps showing the various seed outlets. Then we looked at the different locations, and the population we wanted to reach, and decided where we would need to establish new outlets to meet the farmers’ demand for seeds.

However, the drought between February and May affected those areas we were targeting, which meant there was very little bean seed being produced. This impacted our ability to get the information to the farmers. In that respect, the project was unable to deliver as planned. It was very disappointing. We even had very simple dissemination tools ready: laminated flyers that showed the small packets of seeds being sold on one side and a map on the other.

On the bright side, though, there is now a demand for that sort of information. In effect, we have created a demand. Other institutions now want to know how they can produce the same kind of information.  So that’s fairly consistent with our sustainability plan as well.

What did you do when you realized there would be no seeds available?

There were two areas, in Eastern and Central Kenya, stricken by the drought. When we knew there would be no seed available in those locations, we decided to redirect our efforts to other regions in Kenya. We focused on those areas where seeds were being produced.

Would the information gathered in the drought-stricken areas still be applicable next season?

The suppliers recognize the value of the information and are keen to do this in Kenya. The TLII project, which covers sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and works with different legumes, not just beans, is keen to apply the results to other crops and other areas.

How sustainable are the results of the project?

The idea of sustainability is based on building that capacity within those institutions. As I said before, we’ve created a demand.  KARI now has all of the tools it needs to carry this into the future. We’re still involved with KARI via the TLII project, so we still have a relationship with them, not with regard to mapping, but on the follow-up and helping if they have technical problems.

What about scaling up?

The scaling up is happening institutionally, which is why we are hoping to get KARI more involved, because they have a pivotal role in Kenya coordinating different local groups that either want access to this information or are closer to the farmers who need this information. We are interested in showing the usefulness to different partners at different levels in different countries. And the scaling out involves finding different projects where this could be used.  ICRISAT and IITA (who are also partners in TLII) are interested to include this type of mapping in their activities.  It’s applicable to any crop, really.

How do you feel you have benefitted from the project?

The project produced an impact pathway that showed how fairly abstract information can really benefit farmers. I personally have a better understanding of what we need in order to get that benefit. In most cases, it obviously comes down to the quality of the partnerships and the transparency that we have in those partnerships. If you want to have impact that works, you need to know where you’re going, and you need to know how to get there.