ICRISAT scientist Tom Van Mourik, "Doctor Striga"
“Farmers used to grow dryland crops mostly to feed their families. Nowadays, they also grow crops as an income.”
Tom is what someone could call “a pillar of the ICRISAT-HOPE project in West Africa”. He started working in 2004 as an agronomist initially with a focus on two main crops: pearl millet and sorghum, the staple crops in the semi-arid parts of the region. But the topic he is passionate about is integrated striga and soil fertility management. In the villages, Tom is well-known by the farmers who lovingly call him: “Sege doctoro” or “Doctor Striga”!
A personal mission against striga
When Tom first met farmers in the region, something deeply touched him. A lot of hard work was wasted: Farmers lost their yields due to striga, a parasite penetrating the roots of pearl millet or sorghum. As a scientist, he knew he could change that. The battle against striga and poor soils became his mission.
Working for the ICRISAT-HOPE project, he found the opportunity to fulfill it: Tom works with other researchers, technicians, extension agents and farmers to develop practices to help them control the striga plant, and at the same time improve soil fertility for a better yield. With colleagues of the project, they started in the north of Mali and in Nigeria on pearl millet and on sorghum. The project is now expanding to southern Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
During the last 3 years, Tom and colleagues developed good practices with farmers to achieve food security. One of theses practices in the Mopti areas of Mali was to use small doses of fertilizer as microdose: “We combined the small doses of this fertilizer with good quality of organic fertilizer; we trained farmers how to produce compost. We also use improved varieties of pearl millet and we intercrop them with cowpeas. As a crop, cowpea fertilizes the soil and produces high value fodder, which can be sold on the market. With this practice of intercropping pearl millet and cowpeas, we have been able to help farmers in getting a good soil cover where striga cannot develop very well “.
Making farming more profitable
Tom realizes farmers first of all need to feed their families, but they also need some cash. Therefore, he tries to find ways for farmers to produce food for their own consumption, as well as a crop such as cowpea and groundnut which can be sold in the market. This way, farmers get more profit from the agricultural value chain.
While working on the agronomic aspects of controlling striga, and improving soil fertility and yield, he developed a simplified economic analysis for the farmers: they can now calculate their investment versus their profit, when using a given practice. Farmers are then able to choose the best agricultural practices. So, even though the practice of integrating striga and soil fertility and management is more demanding in terms of cash investment, the economic analysis found it to be more profitable to farmers when compared to their own practice.
“Because you go from pure pearl millet and sorghum crops to an intercrop, you don’t only harvest the grains of the cereal but you also get grains of the intercrop of the cowpea or the groundnut. While doing the economic analysis we found that the fodder of the cowpea or groundnut has a lot more potential than cereal grain. The profits are higher. So, if you want to sell your harvested product in the market, it is smarter to practice cereal-cowpea or cereal-groundnut intercropping, rather than only trying to increase the yield of your cereal crop”.
Daily life with Tom
Within the project, Tom is dedicated to collaborating with farmer organizations, national research institutes and NGOs: “We try to work with a wide range of partners. Once we develop and test a technology that works, we should hand it over to them. They are the ones who disseminate the technologies on a large scale. We want to make sure as many farmers as possible benefit from our research. After all, the knowledge and technologies we develop are only of use, if the farmers adopt them…”
For Tom, every workday is unique because he travels a lot in the region. “That is where the real action takes place: working with the farmers and partners in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. I spend roughtly 50% of my time in the field.”
Tom says the most interesting part of being an ICRISAT- HOPE project scientist is making a difference in farmer’s lives “November to January is my favourite time of the year: around and after the harvests. When all trials have been harvested, we go out to the different farmer field schools to do an economic analysis of the trials with the farmers themselves.
This is the moment when the farmers get truly convinced they can earn money from their hard work. “Farmers used to grow dryland crops only to feed their families. Nowadays, they also grow crops to generate an income. It is encouraging to see farmers discuss about adopting new practices and improved varieties. They really think about the strategic marketing of their products, and of getting a higher profit. That gives me hope for farmers in the semi-arid tropics, and makes me a happy man,” Tom concludes with a smile.