Let’s talk money! When African farmers analyse their own economic benefits…

Harvest Millet Groundnut

Let’s talk money! When African farmers analyse their own economic benefits…

In this article, Tom Van Mourik, an ICRISAT scientist in West Africa, describes how farmers use a new approach in the battle against Striga, a parasitic weed. This new approach is

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based on a combination of technologies, such as new ways to apply and combine different types of organic and mineral fertilizer, and intercropping sorghum or pearl millet with cowpea or groundnut at high densities.
But the ICRISAT-HOPE project takes an extra step: we also teach farmers how they can analyse the economic benefits themselves. After all, if farmers see the profit in it, they will be a lot more motivated to adopt the new techniques to grow sorghum and pearl millet…

Farmer field schools in West Africa: key to adopt new techniques

For about 5 years, ICRISAT and partners have conducted farmer field schools that aim at development of practical and affordable integrated Striga and soil fertility management (ISSFM) for farmers in Mali, Niger and Nigeria.

Early stages of the farmer field schools comprise of village meetings where men and women farmers, technicians and scientists get to know each other and exchange about the local agricultural situation, the main rain fed crops and cropping systems and the main constraints to crop production.

If Striga and soil fertility are main issues, which very often is the case, some more in-depth discussions are necessary. Focus groups then try to quantify or map the occurrence of these constraints in the village territory and possible reasons for this. Further exchanges take place in order to determine local knowledge about Striga and soil fertility and what farmers do to deal with these problems.

There now is a common understanding which forms the basis for any further activities. If farmers are interested, further planning will be done to install a farmer field school around the topic of Striga and soil fertility.

Taking the “planning” onto the “fields”

During further preparatory meetings, the participants of the farmer field schools are chosen by the village, an experimental field is identified and rules and responsibilities of the partners are determined. With the participants, a cropping calendar and protocol is developed for the dominant “Farmer Practice” for sorghum or pearl millet cultivation.

A field agent with the farmers in Mali

Field agent with farmers in Mali ranking individual component technologies according to farmer preferences

Then, after having discussed local options for Striga control and increasing soil fertility and having amended these with any relevant options from research, the group develops an ISSFM practice.


During the season “Farmer Practice” is tested against ISSFM on large plots and farmers observe the crops, Striga, their environment and other biotic constraints such as insects, weeds and diseases. They also learn more about crop development, soil fertility and fertilizers and Striga biology and control through interventions by specialists: technicians, scientists and sometimes, other farmers.

The ISSFM practice developed in Mali mainly consists of intercropping the cereal crop with a legume, application of organic and mineral fertilizers, crop management practices such as ridging or hand pulling Striga at flowering and, if available, and known a variety of the cereal crop that is resistant to Striga.

After having completed the trial, harvesting the plots and threshing and weighing of the yields we mostly find interesting results. It is obvious from the results that this approach can reduce the Striga population significantly, improve crop productivity and improve soil fertility on the long term, but an important question that farmers posed was:

Can we make money while applying this ISSFM practice?

This question is important and has become an essential part of the comparison of “Farmer Practice” to ISSFM. At the end of the season, farmers participate in calculating the costs, revenues and profits of the two practices tested during the season. The economical analysis that we do is a simplified version of what economists call a “partial budget analysis”. It consists of some simple phases that are, however, not always easy to follow for the farmers.

The first phase is to compare the yields of the “Farmer Practice” and ISSFM plots by weighing grains and by counting the number of bundles of stalks or haulms harvested.

Cost Benefit analysis

Lead farmer explains the cost & benefits in Mali

The second phase consists of listing the different activities for “Farmer Practice” and ISSFM, and to sum up labor requirement (in man days) for different operations for farmer practice and ISSFM. The additional labor time required for ISSFM (in comparison to “Farmer Practice”) will be taken into account later as a cost for the ISSFM practice.


The third phase consists of calculating the costs, revenues and profits for “Farmer Practice” and ISSFM. Costs (units of inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, multiplied by their market price at sowing, and additional labor costs of the ISSFM practice) are deducted from the revenues (units of harvests multiplied by their current market price per unit) to calculate the profit for both practices.
Once the costs, revenues and profits have been calculated a well informed comparison can be made between the two practices by the farmers and this always leads to lively discussions!

The final stage then consists of citing the advantages and disadvantages of individual component technologies used in the ISSFM practice, followed by preference ranking of these technologies.

Our trials’ lessons learnt:

Article and pictures courtesy Tom Van Mourik.