Image Credit: ©FAO/Ami Vitale

FAO’s Global Farmer Field School Platform: Successes, updates and what’s more in agroecological services

Learning in times of change

Producing enough healthy food for everyone in a sustainable way is made more challenging by a set of global and interconnected phenomena that include climate change, loss of biodiversity and increased market volatility. Depending on where farmers are, the impacts of climate change vary, as do their specific needs and obstacles in adapting to it.

More than ever, knowing which behaviours and systems are best adapted to local conditions is crucial. Generally, in modern agricultural systems, extension services oversee ‘farmers’ knowledge’. In many instances, this means following a linear approach to knowledge (often referred to as ‘technology transfer’) where research finds out what the ‘best’ practices are and passes them onto extension services that then repackage the knowledge for farmers to adopt.

Yet, over time, this approach has shown its limits for various reasons such as:

  • People learn by doing! Passive learning, e.g., being shown what to do, rarely leads to changes in attitude and behaviour.
  • Farmers have rich, locally situated knowledge. Their understanding of crops, animals and trees, climate trends, indicators of change and experience of what works and does not work in their area is often hard to match.
  • Areas where indigenous communities live host 80% of world biodiversity. They have a profound understanding of how these natural systems work and how human communities can use them in a regenerative way.
  • What can be considered a ‘best practice’ is extremely context-dependent. Environmental and socio-economic conditions vary greatly even in small physical areas.

These limitations underscore the importance of building locally-adapted knowledge systems with farmers at the centre.

FAO’s role in the RFS Regional Hub

Component 2.2 of the RFS Regional Hub project focuses on rural advisory services for integrated natural resource management; that is, how to support farmers’ knowledge in making the best decisions in resource management. This component is coordinated by the Global Farmer Field School (FFS) Platform team within the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

FAO’s mandate as a United Nations specialized agency includes supporting how food is produced and enhancing food security, placing a strong emphasis on strengthening rural knowledge.

Across the organization, approaches to strengthen sustainable agricultural capacity have flourished. In the 1980s, FAO developed FFS as its flagship approach to facilitate farmers’ innovation and collective empowerment. FAO also supports farmers in building their business skills (i.e. through Farmer Business Schools), forest organizations in strengthening their organizational capacities (like the Forest and Farm Facility), and rural communities to build on their diversity to solve collective challenges (e.g. Dimitra Listener clubs). FAO has also inspired and collaborated with organizations across the development spectrum to put together their own capacity development approaches, such as the Diversity Field Fora development by Bioversity International, based on FFS.

Through its global partners’ network (that includes organizations such as IFAD, CGIAR centres, NGOs such as CARE and Oxfam Novib, and farmers’ organizations), the Global FFS Platform provides a space for sharing experiences, resources and approaches while working together to support farmers’ knowledge, learning and innovation. The platform includes a website with thematic sections describing adaptations of FFS to specific systems and contexts, key resources and experts’ rosters. Practitioners from over 137 countries are connected through a global discussion group as well as a jointly-managed Facebook group.

Within the RFS programme, FAO’s role consists of supporting the use of participatory advisory approaches, such as FFS, globally and within RFS country projects. It focuses on creating networks of practitioners, producing reference material, providing training and building field capacity, and supporting the institutionalization of these approaches at national, regional and global levels.

Through the RFS, the global FFS platform was able to step up its ability to support the implementation of good quality FFS programmes globally and within RFS country projects. Over the past 3 years, the platform furthered its networks and platforms to reach more practitioners, projects and partners. They carried out multiple online training events on themes from integrating nutrition to agro-pastoral field schools. During the COVID pandemic, they produced a guide to implementing FFS in times of COVID-19. This year, they launched a guide to bringing climate change adaptation into FFS at the COP26, and produced two online self-paced courses introducing Farmer Field schools and the basics of their implementation in the field. They are also collaborating with RFS country projects in Burundi, Uganda and Tanzania in setting up their FFS activities and connecting them to the wide network of FFS actors active across RFS countries.

What to expect in the coming months

2022 and 2023 will be pivotal in connecting research and work carried out in previous years. Some partnerships will deepen, for instance with CARE international, which include collaboration on monitoring and evaluation of farmer knowledge programmes and mainstreaming of gender transformative approaches. This will link to the publication of a toolkit on the monitoring, evaluation and learning of FFS programmes developed with Wageningen University.

FAO is also preparing to share the results from a study with CIRAD on how FFS supported the agroecological transformation of farmers in Togo and Burkina Faso. An additional study of the rich local knowledge held by communities in Senegal and its relevance to climate change adaptation will come out later this year. Moreover, they are preparing a review of the advisory approaches used to support farmers in transitioning to agroecological approaches, and the results of a stocktaking of how FFS and community-based forestry join hands to build rural people’s capacity to integrate trees into their systems. In the second half of 2022, these collaborations will result in the development of farmer education and experimentation modules on forestry, agroecology, soil health and water management. The modules will be piloted by interested programmes (get in touch with Suzanne Phillips [FAO] if interested!).

As digital technologies become more pervasive, FAO will share and pilot a guide on reaping the benefits of digital technologies for farmers’ e-powerment. Jointly developed with 5+ partners, the guide provides tips and examples of how simple digital technologies can be used to facilitate local rural knowledge and innovation. This guide will cascade into a series of training events for interested programmes.

Finally, FAO plans to organize an RFS wide event linking the practice and policy aspects of rural advisory services. The event will focus on positive experiences of integrating participatory advisory services across RFS country projects and globally, to influence governments, producer organizations and key stakeholders in their way of supporting farmers’ learning and innovation. They hope to engage with countries in sharing their experiences at this event, but also in developing exit strategies linked to farmers’ knowledge and innovation.

The role of FAO is to support the implementation of these aspects within country projects and they are looking forward to supporting implementation in this direction in the coming months!

If you would like to learn more about specific activities or about how the FAO Hub component for RFS could support your activities, do not hesitate to contact Suzanne Phillips (FAO).

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