Since independence rural people in Africa have been subjected to a diversity of agricultural development schemes. These often conflicting schemes have not always been appropriate to subsistence farmer agriculture. The time has now come to define a new approach which truly takes into consideration the social, economic and political realities of the rural people.
Farmers in the Kivu region of Zaire have decided to take the matter into their own hands by forming voluntary research/action groups. ADI-Kivu (Action for Integrated Development in Kivu), a local NGO, has been conducting these research/action experiments for the last four years.
This activity was launched because local people realized that although traditional farming practices were rich and varied they have remained stagnant and can no longer meet the growing needs of the people.
Furthermore, most of the development agencies working in the rural areas such as NGOs, churches and government departments, rarely approach a problem from a holistic point of view. Each focuses on a specific aspect of the problem, depending on their own interests, e.g. growing crops, keeping livestock, health, crafts, and despite the fact that all these activities are interdependent, none of the activities undertaken would go far enough and they were therefore generally ineffective.
For a long time farmers have been considered as consumers of the products of research, not partners in research who are capable of making use of science to resolve their difficulties. In Zaire, for example, research stations have competent staff trained in the major universities throughout the world. However, these research workers, who are generally assigned to basic research, have no framework within which they could make their knowledge available to the community. They remain cut off from the community and results of their research do not reach the users.
The old idea of the specialist as the person with the knowledge, while the farmer is ignorant, must be abandoned, and the two must be made aware that they depend on each other. The specialist must take off his specialist hat and talk on equal terms with the farmer and be responsible for improving the farmer's knowledge by using his technical expertise. The result of working together would be a hybrid, neither a pure farmer not a pure specialist.
The Kivu agricultural groups, which were set up to remedy all these shortcomings offer a much broader vision of the true lives of subsistence farmers. It is not possible to expect to obtain high yields simply by insisting on the use of inputs or introducing techniques however impressive they may be.
Once these constraints have been identified, it must be realized that they will not be removed at once. A farmer has a problem to which he gives priority, then gradually tackles the other problems associated with it. He must therefore not be constrained to follow a strict regime, he must be able to have flexible planning to suit his situation. The speed of development cannot be governed by funds flowing from the North. A project only takes shape gradually as the farmers benefiting learn the principles and standards of management. Development of this nature is only possible in organized groups of sound, well-managed farmers' organizations.
In the Kavumu region, a group of 500 coffee producers has been formed in order to improve their crop husbandry, to seek the best markets and to find access to agricultural credit.
In the Katana region another group has been tackling the problem of the cassava mealy bug and that of bean leaf yellowing. The group is also tackling the problem of building up a stock of seed beans. The veterinary group has been developing potato growing in association with the National Institute of Agricultural Studies and Research (INERA) at Mulungu.
In Bushi a group has been undertaking research and collecting information on keeping goats in stalls, and how goats in their different forms can contribute towards improving the living conditions of farmers. The group began its work by erecting buildings for goats and then looked into problems of disease, especially in relation with nutrition, forage quality, etc.
The members of this small livestock farmers' association still meet once a week to work together (putting up buildings on each others' holdings), to hold discussions and to plan activities for the future. If one of the members reports a case of disease, he asks four or five of his neighbours for their diagnosis and to find a remedy.