UPENDO uses the Farmer Field School (FFS) approach to implement livelihoods programs, leading to increase in farm productivity, greater food security, and enhanced incomes. The FFS, sometimes called “school without walls”, is a group-based approach that teaches farmers how to experiment and solve problems independently. Farmers meet regularly with a facilitator, observe, discuss, ask questions, and learn together. Farmer field school approach was first developed by FAO to teach integrated pest management (IPM) but is now widely used in organic farming, animal husbandry, and non-farm income generating activity.
The FFS approach acts on the basis that the best learning takes place by doing. The facilitator helps the farmers to learn by asking them questions and building on their experience and observation. Farmers are encouraged to make their own observations and make conclusions. The farmers interact with researchers and ask for help only when they cannot solve the problem by themselves. Most FFS programs aim to provide skills in agricultural production. However, over the years the scope of FFS had expanded to include empowerment objectives and to address issues such as livelihoods, water management, marketing, and water and sanitation. FFS has become a participatory group approach for collective action and social mobilization to improve the lives and well being of participants and their communities.
A typical FFS consists of 8-12 weeks of hands-on farmer experimentation and non-formal training during the crop growing season. Farmers are expected to attend weekly classes over one growing season. For arable crops and /tree crops, the meetings may be held fortnightly. For livestock, FFS groups meet for a full year, one or 4-hour sessions per week, making medium-term field experiments for livestock issues, especially breeding, and feeding of livestock such as cattle or pigs easier.
Steps of Implementation of FFS:
- Identifying the focus of FFS; selection of FFS activity depends on farmers’ needs, interests, and the problems they are currently facing.
- Identifying participants and forming learning groups; the group comprises of 30-40 members with common interest and willingness work together and to attend all sessions and share ideas as a team.
- Identifying learning site; the site must be suitable for the FFS activity, representative of problems in the area, and accessible. The identified owner of the plot must avail themselves for most of the meetings.
- Training of facilitators; facilitators may come from government or non-governmental organizations, private companies, or graduate of previous FFS sessions. Facilitators are trained on the FFS methodology.
- Developing the curriculum; once the FFS group is formed the facilitator develops the curriculum based on the problems identified by the group. The FFS follows the cycle of its subject. If, for example, the subject is a crop the cycle is from seed-to-seed, or if livestock egg-to-egg. Each activity is well structured, has procedure for action, analysis, and decision-making. The emphasis is not only on “how” but also on “why?”. This helps to cover all aspects of the subject and link up with what is happening on the farmer’s own field so that the lessons learnt are timely and can be applied directly.
Evidence based on small-scale pilots shows participation n FFS has shown improvement in farmers’ knowledge of farming technology, confidence in problem-solving, and better decision-making skills.