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You are what you eat: Why inclusivity in agricultural extension programs is important

 

Written by: Francesca Earp

There is an excited energy in the town hall in Harpang Village in Luang Prabang this morning. The air in the hall is hot and dry and the room is filled with clouds of dust as children run around, kicking up their feet. It’s a village affair; every generation invited to join. There’re female farmers breast-feeding as they learn whilst male farmers bounce young children on their knee. A female farmer stands up to make a point to the group, handing her three-month child to a male farmer next to her as she stands. She is confident in her opinions and comfortable enough to share them despite her previous exclusion from such conversations. It’s a snapshot of village life; its busy, it’s loud and it’s inclusive.

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Team member Mr Bouakeo running the disease session of the farmer training program

This initiative is part of the Mekong Livestock Research teams inclusive farmer-training workshop. Inviting male and female farmers, and more often than not their children, to join us for farmer training sessions. Working to make extension activities a community event. The sessions focus on disease control, animal nutrition, livestock breeding and general husbandry.

The movement began with a two day ‘train the trainer’ session where we worked in partnership with the Laos Buffalo Dairy to run training workshop sessions where our trainers revised content, practiced new teaching techniques and discussed strategies for community involvement.

We have already completed the training in Luang Prabang and Xayabouli province visiting twenty villages over ten days. In total we have trained 194 female farmers and 232 male farmers. In Nanonghoung Village in Xayabouli province we had an astonishing 49 female farmers attending the session. The team has since begun training in Xieng Khoung province.

The use of large image based flipcharts has proved to be a successful tool for smallholder farmer training. In particular the use of images and diagrams in the disease section has allowed farmers to recognize and identify what diseases they have previously seen on their farms. This has meant that the training sessions have become a group discussion about the lessons learnt from past disease outbreaks and their control.

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Team members Mr Bouakeo and Mr Kong with the training flipcharts

So the question remains ‘why is it so important that training sessions focus on inclusivity?’ The answer is simple; it matters because she matters. Historically, women are the financial decision makers for their families, controlling income and family assets. A deep seeded patriarchal view of ‘agricultural input’ means that this is often considered as ‘less valuable input’. These persistent masculine stereotypes result in a male dominant food industry where the contributions and involvement of the female farmer fails to be considered. In recent years international NGOs and aid organizations have identified gender inequality within the agricultural sector as one of the most pervasive threats to food security and development. Acknowledging that the proper engagement of female farmers in food insecure areas could result in enhanced nutrition, socio-economic wellness and poverty reduction.

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Female farmers with their children at the training session

Previously when we have suggested the inclusion of female farmers in training programs we have been advised that she would be too busy and would not be interested in attending. In order to overcome this we ensured that the female farmer knew that both her and her children were invited to the session. By allowing her to bring her children she is able to attend the session and watch her children at the same time, something she was previously unable to do. During the session a stream of female farmers would flow in, often after they had noticed other female farmers attending and speaking.

In addition to promoting female farmer attendance the inclusion of children has its own benefit. Our recent Focus Group Discussion sessions indicated the child often plays an important role in livestock rearing with a majority of them assisting in large ruminant care. However, despite this involvement they are rarely included in farmer training activities. By inviting them to join they are also able to listen and learn from the sessions.

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Team members Mr Khamphut and Franny with some of the children joining the farmer training session in Luang Prabang

Smallholder farming involves the whole family. The farm is just as much a way of life as it is a form of livelihood. By creating sessions where everyone feels comfortable and relaxed we are transitioning farmer training from the ‘classroom’ to everyday life. Making livestock health conversations a regularity and improving farmer adoption of disease mitigation techniques.

A gender balanced and inclusive agricultural system will in turn help to create a gender equitable world far beyond the farms fence. Food production and extension programs that promote equality will create equality, because after all you are what you eat.


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