Add Salt to the Soil: Is there a need for language innovation in Climate-Smart Agricultural Extension?

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) unites the agendas of climate change, development and agriculture and denotes a set of agricultural practices that simultaneously increase agricultural productivity, climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Future climate challenges mean that agricultural transformation is globally urgent (Meinke et al., 2009) and agricultural extension is a key contribution to enhancing agricultural production, poverty reduction and social change. Yet, across sub-Saharan Africa extension mechanisms are struggling to produce this needed change, and there is need for more innovative approaches to overcome limitations and take advantage of new opportunities (Spielman, Ekboir, & Davis, 2009).

Focus group discussions with farmers in Mwansambo, Malawi

Rural populations have long been the target of development and poverty alleviation strategies, within which CSA is an emerging agenda. The emphasis for CSA to be implemented at the local-level means that much of the responsibility to operationalise CSA has also been shifted to rural households and resource managers (Karlsson, Naess, Nightingale, & Thompson, 2018). In Malawi, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), a CGIAR organisation, have been running farm-trials in communities for around 10 years, aimed at promoting and upscaling Conservation Agriculture (CA). The farm-trials were established to compare biophysical results from research stations to the real-world outcomes, and to provide government and farmers an opportunity to observe CA first hand. Agricultural extension officers and local partners support farmers to manage the farm-trials and ensure the sites are worked according to CIMMYT’s design.

On a recent scoping trip to one of the on-farm CIMMYT trial sites in Central Malawi, with PhD student Thirze Hermans, I met with some of the farmers participating in the CA farm-trials. We had the opportunity to discuss how they communicate and learn about new agricultural practices. In group discussions with farmers and our field assistants Chisomo Mussa (LUANAR soil scientist) and Violet Mtaza (CISANET field officer), Thirze and I discovered that in the local and official language –Chichewa– there are no words to describe nor explain some of the biophysical soil processes that occur as a result of different agricultural practices, in this case those associated with CA.  We were told that vocabulary for terms such as carbon, nitrogen and pH simply do not exist, and in the villages we visited, the English (Malawi’s other official language) equivalent is not understood nor used when Agricultural Extension Officers teach new agricultural practices to farmers. Instead, innovative approaches have been devised to explain and describe many of the complex processes, where the use of metaphors and similes is common practice.

For example, the addition of carbon to the soil through the practice of mulching[i] is communicated as salt, ‘nchenga’ in Chichewa. The metaphor for salt is derived from its addition to food, in that adding salt to a meal improves the flavour. Thus adding ‘salt’ (carbon) to the field, improves yields. ‘Salt’ is also used for explaining the use of legume intercropping[ii] and rotation[iii] to add nitrogen to the soil. Similarly, soil pH does not have an equivalent word in Chichewa. Instead, it is communicated through the use of a simile, whereby soil that is acidic is described as like the taste of a lemon, and soil that is alkali is described as being like ash.

During the evenings and a hot 3-hour car ride back to Lilongwe, Thirze, Chisomo, Violet and I discussed the implications of the abstract use of metaphors and similes, in communicating complex biophysical processes. However eloquent the metaphor of salt, we wondered if abstract metaphors could restrict an adequate understanding of what, and perhaps why specific practices are important, how they can be combined and their ensuing results (e.g. on yield and soil fertility). Thirze and I hypothesised that a limit to understanding could be associated with the lack of available, appropriate and relevant language, which may hinder farmers to think and act creatively within their own farming systems, thus stifling both bottom-up innovation, and top-down communication within these systems. Equally, limited language may restrict how farmers’ own knowledge is communicated to extension officers (and beyond), and amongst farmers themselves.

Upon returning back to Leeds, the possibility that language may be a barrier to farmer-driven innovation got me thinking about my own research. Often, theories on and issues associated with development (including agricultural development) in Africa are discussed without reference or consideration of linguistics, yet language is central to development (Bodomo, 1996). Like many African societies, Malawi is multilingual, with the majority of the population polyglottic. I started reading around the subject of language and communication of science, with a particular focus on small-scale farmers, and discovered that there has been some research into understanding local perceptions and understandings of science communication. For example, in communicating climate predictions, differences in the use of scientific and popular key words can lead to diverging interpretations as, for example, the use of familiar words may hide conceptual differences, leading to misunderstandings (Pennesi, 2007).

Learning from this research, I realised that it is not sufficient to only define certain (scientific) terms, but also understand and clarify their meanings and interpretations from a range of stakeholders and users, in this case- farmers’ meanings and interpretations of words. I learnt that there is still poor understanding of smallholder farmers’ preferred information channels for agricultural information, particularly within Africa, and of the factors affecting access to various sources of knowledge (Adolwa et al., 2012). Access to knowledge must consider the use of language, and the way in which messages (e.g. about agricultural information) are delivered and received. Language is a social activity and it constructs an individual’s reality (Heymann, 1998), so if the language used is inadequate (where adequate language represents correct and locally relevant meaning), then do farmers really have access to that knowledge, and are they able to share their own knowledge?

That there has been little critical examination of language in the agricultural extension literature implies an assumption that the language used to communicate agricultural knowledge is adequate. Yet drawing on my experiences from Malawi, I am starting to question the legitimacy and adequacy of language in extension processes. Communication is key to inducing change (Leeuwis, 2013); it is the process through which people exchange meanings. Communication has long been an area of interest within agricultural extension, yet a “systematic rethinking of the role of communication in innovation processes is largely absent” (Leeuwis & Aarts, 2011).

Conceptualising innovation of language and communication within agricultural extension receives little attention and there is poor understanding as to how the use of language shapes people’s knowledge, perceptions and ultimately their behaviour (e.g. adoption) towards a particular agricultural practice. Equally, there is little consideration of the role of language in communicating farmers’ knowledge up, and its implications for more formal acknowledgement of farmers’ knowledge, and barriers to this. Despite its significance to knowledge exchange in agricultural extension processes, the application, development and innovation of language has received little attention in agricultural research (Fleming & Vanclay, 2003). This is an area I will be focussing on over the course of the AFRICAP project.

AFRICAP is planning work with farmers and extension workers in Tanzania, in the Usambara Mountains of Tanga Region, to understand how they receive and talk about farming knowledge and practices. Through our research, we plan to examine their sources of information, methods of knowledge acquisition and importantly, to understand the language used to convey these messages and associated meanings and interpretations. We hope to work with these farmers, to understand how they would like to receive information, and in turn, collaborate with extension officers and organisations working on the ground, to build their capacities in delivering practical and useable farming knowledge to farmers.

If you are interested in learning more about this particular research strand, please contact Dr Harriet Smith.

Reference materials

Adolwa, I. S., Okoth, P. F., Mulwa, R. M., Esilaba, A. O., Mairura, F. S., & Nambiro, E. (2012). Analysis of Communication and Dissemination Channels Influencing the Adoption of Integrated Soil Fertility Management in Western Kenya. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension.

Bodomo, A. B. (1996). On language and development in Africa: The case of Ghana. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 5(2), 31–51.

Fleming, A., & Vanclay, F. (2003). Using discourse analysis to improve extension practice. Extension Farming Systems Journal.

Heymann, F. V. (1998). From extension science to communication and innovation studies. European Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 4(4), 245–251.

Karlsson, L., Naess, L. O., Nightingale, A., & Thompson, J. (2018). ‘Triple wins’ or ‘triple faults’? Analysing the equity implications of policy discourses on climate-smart agriculture (CSA). Journal of Peasant Studies.

Leeuwis, C. (2013). Communication for rural innovation: rethinking agricultural extension. John Wiley & Sons.

Leeuwis, C., & Aarts, N. (2011). Rethinking communication in innovation processes: Creating space for change in complex systems. Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension.

Meinke, H., Howden, S. M., Struik, P. C., Nelson, R., Rodriguez, D., & Chapman, S. C. (2009). Adaptation science for agriculture and natural resource management – urgency and theoretical basis. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.

Pennesi, K. (2007). Improving forecast communication: Linguistic and cultural considerations. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Spielman, D. J., Ekboir, J., & Davis, K. (2009). The art and science of innovation systems inquiry: Applications to Sub-Saharan African agriculture. Technology in Society.

[i] Mulching is the process of applying a layer of material to the soil surface. Mulching can improve soil moisture, fertility and health of the soil and supress weed growth. On the farm-trial sites, farmers are using plant residues for mulch, often from maize, ground nut and pigeon pea. As the plant residues break down, carbon is put back into the soil.

[ii] Intercropping is the practice of growing plants together, in the same field. On the farm-trial sites maize is intercropped with cowpea. Leguminous vegetables such as cowpea help to fix nitrogen into the soil, improving soil fertility and can reduce the need for additional fertiliser.

[iii] Rotation is the practice of swapping crops from one field to another. It can help reduce soil nutrient erosion, and can increase crop yields. Crop rotation can also mitigate buildup of disease, improve soil structure and soil fertility. On the farm-trial sites, crops are rotated with groundnut and pigeon pea.