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Co-learning cycles to support the design of innovative farm systems in southern Mali

Falconnier G.N., Descheemaeker K., Van Mourik T.A., Adam M., Sogoba B., Giller K.E.. 2017. European Journal of Agronomy, 89 : p. 61-74.

DOI: 10.1016/j.eja.2017.06.008

Farm systems were re-designed together with farmers during three years (2013¿2015) in Southern Mali with the aim to improve income without compromising food self-sufficiency. A cyclical learning model with three steps was used: Step 1 was the co-design of a set of crop/livestock technical options, Step 2 the on-farm testing and appraisal of these options and Step 3 a participatory ex-ante analysis of re-designed farm systems incorporating the tested options. Two iterations of the cycle were performed, in order to incorporate farmers' point of view and researchers' learning. We worked together with 132 farmers representing four farm types: High Resource Endowed with Large Herd (HRE-LH); High Resource Endowed (HRE); Medium Resource Endowed (MRE) and Low Resource Endowed (LRE) farms. In the first cycle of 2012¿2014 farmers re-designed their farms and the reconfigurations were assessed ex ante using the average yields and gross margins obtained in the 2013 on-farm trials. HRE-LH farmers experienced a disappointing decrease in food self-sufficiency and MRE farmers were disappointed by the marginal improvement in gross margin. In a second cycle in 2014¿2015, farmer insights gathered during field days and statistical analysis of trial results allowed a better understanding of the variability of option performance and the link with farm context: niches were identified within the farms (soil type/previous crop combinations) where options performed better. The farm systems were re-designed using this niche-specific information on yield and gross margin, which solved the concerns voiced by farmers during the first cycle. Without compromising food self-sufficiency, maize/cowpea intercropping in the right niche combined with stall feeding increased HRE-LH and HRE farm gross margin by 20¿26% respectively (i.e. 690 and 545 US$ year-1) with respect to the current farm system. Replacement of sorghum by soyabean (or cowpea) increased MRE and LRE farm gross margin by 29 and 9% respectively (i.e. 545 and 32 US$ year-1). Farmers highlighted the saliency of the niches and the re-designed farm system, and indicated that the extra income could be re-invested in the farm. Our study demonstrates the feasibility and the usefulness of a cyclical and adaptive combination of participatory approaches, on-farm trials and ex-ante analysis to foster learning by farmers and researchers, allowing an agile reorientation of project actions and the generation of innovative farm systems that improve farm income without compromising food self-sufficiency. The re-designed farm systems based on simple, reproducible guidelines such as farm type, previous crop and soil type can be scaled-out by extension workers and guide priority setting in (agricultural) policies and institutional development.

Mots-clés : mali

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