African farming trials create food for thought

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In the field trials, farmers plant maize in rows marked with material wrapped around sticks to indicate different conditions.
Credit: Caspar Roxburgh / university of queensland

Chopping up coloured strips of material with travel scissors was not how Caspar Roxburgh expected to introduce agricultural science to developing Africa. But as he began a field trial that would boost maize production for rural farmers in Mozambique, he knew his work had to get a little creative.

Roxburgh became inspired to study international development after travelling to South America and witnessing economic hardship. “I thought, coming from a position of privilege, I should do something to return the favour,” he recalls. But he wasn’t interested in a purely theoretical degree – he wanted the practical skills to complement it.

While pursuing a double degree in agricultural science and international development at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, he became interested in maize farming practices in Africa. As a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, he went to the Manica Province in rural Mozambique to survey maize farmers – work which would evolve into his PhD thesis.

“I find this system where they have lots of rainfall, the soils aren’t too bad, they have lots of land –and yet the productivity was among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa,” Roxburgh says. “I really wanted to know more about this.”

Roxburgh spoke to 52 farmers from three different communities. It turned out there wasn’t much consensus among farmers about the best way to grow the maize – management around plant densities, sowing dates, fertiliser use and the times of weeding varied significantly.

When Roxburgh plugged this information into predictive computer models, he discovered changing these variables could theoretically increase maize yields by up to 120% without extra costs or labour.

So with the help of local farmers, Roxburgh ran field trials in two regions. As illiteracy often made communication difficult, Roxburgh had to find creative solutions. One example included assigning the farmers to teams, each responsible for planting a different condition in rows marked with bits of coloured material wrapped around sticks. “It also made for great photos!” he recalls.

Through these trials, Roxburgh discovered that changing the weeding schedule alone increased the maize yield by 50% – with no additional labour.

Roxburgh’s work received a warm reception from the local farmers. But implementing these strategies permanently or to other parts of the region is a challenge, he says, even though the need is there. Food production in the first half of the 21st century will need to increase by up to 70%, using nearly the same amount of land, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation has calculated.

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Even simply changing the weeding schedule increased the maize yield by 50%.
Credit: Joseph Eyre/University of Queensland

“There’s no single solution to how that’s going to be achieved,” says Roxburgh. “We need more studies at the local level and it takes years to tease out options that are viable for every specific community.”

He also believes more community workers are required to implement that work with farmers.

Back in Australia, a 2014 Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture study revealed six jobs are available to every agricultural science graduate every year.

Roxburgh, once a humanities student himself, says these jobs are not all graphs and stats. “I’m not actually a particularly good scientist,” he admits. “But I can write and communicate – those are the skills that people are looking for in rural agricultural development.”

Roxburgh, who is now writing his thesis and wants to expand his agricultural horizons in Southeast Asia, says he has had enormous interest from research organisations worldwide.

“We need more people who don’t come from a traditional STEM background, but who see the potential of STEM skills to make a difference,” he says.

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