Empowering drought affected communities

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday April 19th, 2016

 Food security is about having access to sufficient and nutritious food at all times in order to live a healthy and active life in society. During challenging times like prolonged drought periods, vulnerable communities require support to maintain food security. One way to address food security during difficult situations is to empower rural communities with skills and knowledge on improved farming practices.

The dissemination of improved agricultural practices and technologies to smallholder subsistence farmers continues to be a challenge for a country like PNG with divided rugged and mountainous regions. 

Accessing vital information is important so that communities can practice the recommended drought coping technologies and innovations to improve or better their livelihoods.

However, compounded with increased food prices, the challenge to access sufficient and nutritious food is eminent. People often resort to coping strategies that have long term consequences, some of them are irreversible. Malnutrition therefore emerges imposing a challenge on existing health services, posing risks to the majority of PNG’s population that depends partly or entirely on agriculture for their livelihoods. 

Regardless, many struggle to continuously grow enough food to feed their families and at most times do not earn enough to buy enough food when needed. 

Farmer trainings, farmer field-days, agricultural innovation shows, farm visits, and on-farm demonstrations are popular techniques used by extension agencies, NGO’s, and research institutions to disseminate information and practices of improved farming technologies. 

The generation of suitable farming technologies is an on-going challenge in light of prevailing issues such as climate change, social and cultural implications, as well as gender and other community based cross-cutting issues.  

A group of communities in the Tambul area of Western Highlands benefitted from a climate change adaptation project funded by the European Union. This five-year research and development initiative was implemented by NARI’s Highlands Regional Centre (Tambul) which involved on-farm demonstrations of improved farming practices with crop and livestock smallholder model farmers in Alkena and Kiripia areas. 

Smallholder farmers in Alkena and Kiripia make up 15 per cent of PNG’s population that inhabit the high altitude areas below 2000 meters above sea level. 

The project was titled Generation and adaptation of improved agricultural technologies to mitigate climate change – imposed risk to food production within vulnerable smallholder farming communities in Western Pacific countries. Similar activities were carried out in five other PNG locations based on soil and climatic factors. 

The activities were also replicated by collaborating partners in parts of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. 

With the challenges and opportunities imposed by climate change, high altitude areas are becoming more prone to frost, drought and excessive soil moisture conditions. 

These are major threats to food security in such areas with realistic challenges to the cultivation of the staple crop (sweet potato). Sweet potato is grown for both human and livestock consumption, playing a central role in high altitude semi-subsistence farming systems.

Improved agricultural technologies developed by NARI and its partners were introduced as interventions into high altitude farming systems to improve their resilience.

These interventions were based on increased production through diversification of livestock species and crop varieties.

They were prioritised through community consultations and were tied in with planned project activities for farmers to test and observe the significance of diversifying their agricultural enterprises in a bid to mitigate threats imposed by climate change and improving farm viability and household nutrition at the village level. 

In poultry production, feed accounts for 60-70 per cent of production costs mainly because of imported ingredients used in diet formulation and the associated costs incurred by freight coupled with the depreciating value of the PNG Kina. Thus raising chicken using commercial stock feed has become very expensive.

Raising meat birds and producing eggs by feeding chickens with blended concentrates and sweet potato diets has proven to have reduced input costs between 25-30 per cent and 7-8 per cent respectively.

These cheaper alternatives were introduced via on-farm demonstration trials. Poultry farmers were given the opportunity to observe their birds’ performances on different feeding and management technologies on their farms. 

Through these demonstration trials, farmers became more aware of the practical implications of these technologies on their livelihoods and were able to make informed decisions on what works for them and whether there is need for further improvement.

Recently concluded trials showed favourable results with farmers observing more or less similar performances from chickens on the blended and commercial diets. 

The advantage of these technologies is that they utilise locally available root and tuber crops. It is cheaper and boosts farm incomes. 

With pig feeding, the sweet potato silage technology for feeding growing-pigs was used as an intervention through on-farm demonstration trials.

Model pig farmers were trained on improved pig nutrition (including sweet potato silage) and husbandry and comparative on-farm trials were initiated for different pig feeding methods. 

Growth rates were observed on the performance of pig fed with local diets as opposed to sweet potato silage. 

Local diets composed mostly of cooked sweet potato meshed with fish meal or stock feed (chicken and pig) as well as other kitchen and garden waste. Sweet potato silage was mixed with the NARI broiler concentrate and fed to pigs. 

Internal parasite monitoring was also done to monitor parasite loads on pigs fed with different diets. 

The advantage of sweet potato silage for this project is that it preserves high quality feed for pigs during periods of climatic distress. Furthermore, it reduces some drudgery on womenfolk who are tasked with the daily chores of providing supplementary feed to pigs and eliminates the use of firewood. 

The project has exceeded its targets in reaching over 100 households in the two areas.

Other project outputs and locations underwent similar methods of information dissemination for adaptation and generation of improved agricultural technologies. 

With equal participation from researchers, extension agents and farmers, further development, generation and adaptation of improved agricultural technologies can be a viable technique in agriculture research for development.