Dr David Bergvinson is the Director-General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). He spoke to Kingwa Kamencu on what international research bodies can do to help farmers grow their yields.
ICRISAT has worked with farmers for several years, what would you say is your achievement?
We focus on two areas, crop improvement and farming systems. Under crop improvement, we’re interested in developing varieties of different crops to help farmers improve their productivity and livelihood opportunities.
On the farming system side, we’re looking at how crops and livestock can be combined together to ensure the farm is sustainable and the farmer gets more out if it than he ordinarily would.
Now we’re looking at working with mobile network operators and financial institutions to ensure that farmers don’t just have the methods we’re giving them, but can implement them.
What programmes do you have in Kenya?
Kenya is one of the four larger projects we have in Africa. One of the biggest ones is ‘Feed the Future’ which is in partnership with USAID and the Kenyan government.
We are working with farmers on sorghum and finger millet to identify new varieties.
These foods are more hardy and are the last ones left standing during drought, and so we focus on coming up with improved varieties for farmers to use.
The projects are in six counties namely Busia, Siaya, Tharaka Nithi, Makueni, Kitui and Elgeyo Marakwet.
Do you work directly with farmers?
We work with a wide range of partners such as NGOs. In some places, we work with farmers to get direct feedback.
We also work with the private sector, agribusiness incubators, and the government as well to ensure sustainability.
Apart from research, we serve as a broker for the private and public sectors and getting the research institutes in touch with the farmers themselves.
If a farmer in Machakos or Kakamega wants to benefit from your activities, how do they go about it?
The new technologies are opening up the way for farmers to get development assistance when they need it.
Now I get WhatsApp messages and text messages from farmers in the fields.
Of course I can’t deal with each farmer that we work with personally, but those interested can visit our Kenya office which is right next to the UN building in Gigiri.
Farmers can also inquire about our activities through the county governments or on our website.
What can farmers look forward to?
Accessing improved seeds, farming systems and markets so that they can be more productive. The future of research in sectors such as these is demand-driven innovation.
How has Information and Communication Technology helped in what you are doing for farmers?
It has helped us understand the priorities for farmers. Geographic Information Systems, for instance, helps to know what crops farmers are growing and why.
This knowledge then enables us to prioritise research. Our challenge is distilling data into information, then from this, making decisions which lead to better crops, systems and outcomes.