Transitioning field schools to safe, socially distanced learning environments using the FAO’s Farmer Field School COVID Recommendations

Group leaders from DIG’s 12 Senegal Farmer Field School sites are using the recently disseminated “FAO Guidelines to Running Farmer Field Schools in the Time of COVID” resources. Mother Awa N’Diaye explains this flyer to her 35 farmers at Kande Clinic site, in a rotation of smaller groups, as they prepare to transition back into group meetings.

In the Casamance region of Senegal, lies the second biggest city, Ziguinchor. Plagued with arid soils and an inescapably long dry season, the region largely relies on an import-based food system for a majority of their needs, including fruits and vegetables. With COVID-19 disrupting critical food distribution systems, DIG’s farmer field school network has been ramping up production to fill in the gaps.

In 2019, Development in Gardening, with support from Rise Against Hunger, The University of Washington Senegal Research Collaboration and the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Fann, partnered with local clinics and the surrounding communities to create a network of farmers that were focused on improving local health outcomes for their most vulnerable populations. DIG co-developed a nutrition-sensitive Farmer Field School at local clinics to support people living with HIV, and other priority populations in need of improved maternal, newborn and child health to be able to create a localized, self-reliant food system.

In a little under a year, DIG has supported 12 Farmer Field School groups and connected 500 families and 60 clinic workers to a network that aims to solve local health challenges through an improved nutrient rich food system. The system they are building relies on community members, not imports, to meet local food needs.

In addition to filling the the gaps of a broken food system, this network has been leading a local response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been able to quickly and effectively push expert information about the virus out to the wider community public demonstrating the power of Farmer Field Schools in sharing information, disseminating new practices, and enacting policy reform. 

Since the onset of the pandemic in early March, DIG’s Senegal Program Manager, Salam Sawadogo, has been busy scanning various platforms to share up-to-date information with DIG’s farmer network. He has continued to stay afloat on new government statements, World Health Organization publications, and non-governmental resources to develop an effective informational campaign appropriately tailored for the Ziguinchor region.

Thoughtfully adapting this information took time, but it became a priority for keeping DIG’s farmer network safe and in production.  “A lot of information was put out, but not much could be used without altering it to fit our farmers context. It is difficult to find the time to create these informational flyers specific to our program,” says Salam. When the DIG Program Manager came across the FAO’s Farmer Field School Guidelines in French, he was thrilled to be able to print these resources and share them immediately.

Now Salam’s time can be spent working on responding to emerging farmer needs such as launching DIG’s SMS messaging and farmer feedback campaigns, which reaches out to over 380 DIG farmers three to four times a week. DIG is using this platform to share important tailored messages around ideal planting schedules, growing tips, and advice to increase ones nutritional health, as well as sharing up-to-date health information from trusted global health experts for DIG’s Ziguinchor farmers. The initiative is also used to solicit context-specific information and address concerns directly from our farmers. Farmers are prompted to discuss concerns and provide local information on seed prices, food availability, supply and demand constraints, and more. This critical information allows our team to understand, prepare, and plan a revised farming programs as the country prepares to open up.

Through DIG’s new SMS two-way communication channel, DIG is able to support farmers with timely agriculture advice. DIG has been encouraging farmers to save seeds and share saved seeds with fellow community members to boost resilience to supply-side shortages. Here, Salam Sawadogo, Senegal’s Program Manager, demonstrates how to properly save seeds from boro boro, a local leafy green which can be planted at home, shared with community members, or sold for a profit.

Other initiatives include the transition to contact-less marketplaces. DIG’s facilitators have been working with farmer leaders to reform weekly marketplaces into contactless systems that directly link farmers to buyers. With imported food items hard to find, new demands emerged. This created an opportunity to directly connect markets to our farmers, and our farmers have quickly put into practice the marketing techniques they learned during their previous Farmer Field School trainings. What’s best is they don’t have to risk their health by being out in a busy marketplace.

DIG Facilitator, Seckou Badji, hangs signage in local community centers that share information on how to access vegetables and seeds from local producers. This new way of marketing vegetables has created an economic opportunity for small-scale farmers in the region.

Farming cooperatives have also been learning new ways to safely collect and distribute their excess produce for sale. Groups have designed new working schedules to reduce the number of farmers that are meeting and working together, while also following new protocols to clean, wash, and store produce. This has strengthened the cooperation of group members and given them a new platform to put into practice leadership skills gained through their Farmer Field Schools.

DIG farmers from Lydiane Health Center work in smaller groups, often from the same housing area, to safely collect, package, and distribute collard greens and swiss chard to areas in need. This more localized food system distributes benefits to more farmers.

The advantage of using the Farmer Field School network as a launching point for cross-sectoral partnerships, have allowed us to reach a wider region. Working hand-in-hand, our farmer groups and clinic partners are able to exchange food and health information. 

During the time of COVID, family members are discouraged from visiting their loved ones in the hospital, which means that patients often go without food. Our clinic partners at Belge Hospital are able to source nutritious food right outside of their clinics and support patients with healthy, well balanced meals.

The inherent flexibility and adaptability of the Farmer Field School model have positioned our farmer networks in Senegal to respond quickly and safely to the food gaps presented by COVID-19. As we continue to listen, learn, and plan for the near future, we are grateful for the resources provided by FAO Farmer Field School Platform that enable us to continue working on the ground.

Senegalese Farmer Field Schools lead the way in creating the new normal for other social and economic cooperatives.
The FAO’s Farmer Field School’s informational campaign and technical manual ‘Running Farmer Field Schools In the Time of COVID-19: A REsource Handbook’ has supported both DIG’s implementing team as well as farmers like Saly Bodian of Lydiane Health Center’s Farmer Field School Cooperative. With the support of this flyer, Saly can ensure her cooking demonstration is safely carried-out and farmers get to continue their Farmer Field School experience.