Bumped into an ‘agricultural anthropologist’, Jeff Bentley, who works in Cochabamba, Bolivia and was intrigued by his work promoting ‘plant clinics’, where farmers bring in examples of sick plants and get a diagnosis and prescription in a system modelled on human healthcare (they even have a two tier structure of General Practitioners as first point of contact and more expert consultants for the tricky diagnoses).
Plant clinics helps farmers avoid the futile costs of self medication, dosing fields with the wrong pesticides, and makes sure they use the right ones instead, or none at all, if that works best. Advocates argue that it’s also extremely cost effective, compared to, say extension services, where government officials visit farmers to give advice, suggest new techniques etc. Plant clinics are particularly well suited to those government agronomists (and I’ve met a few) who sit around in their office because they have no budget for transport. To open a plant clinic they just need to find an office near to the local market and wait for the farmers to come to them.
Jeff is affiliated with the Global Plant Clinic (CABI, Egham, Surrey, UK), which provides technical backstopping for the plant clinics, for example the clinic staff can email digital photos and descriptions of their problems to CABI for identification and recommendations. Jeff is also working with like-minded types to get greater outreach through local radio. He says that worldwide there are over 80 clinics operating through local organizations in Bolivia and Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Uganda, Pakistan, Nepal, India, 10 clinics in Viet Nam and a national system in Sierra Leone. The focus is fairly limited to plant health, but also includes advice on alternatives to pesticides (crop rotation, shade trees etc) and general crop health.
I talked to Shahid Zia, an agronomist and agricultural economist at Oxfam, about the idea. He reckons it works if you stick to plant health, but can easily be overcomplicated by adding entomology, animal health, soil science etc. Organizations like CABI have got the research backup and find this kind of scheme particularly easy to run. Non-science outfits have to rely on partnerships with local universities or other institutions, which can often prove problematic.
Shahid compares plant clinics favourably to other more expensive forms of outreach, such as research stations attached to institutions, which are often selling new products (more like high tech hospitals rather than clinics). He says a lot of the outreach is of the ‘we have this fertiliser, this is how you use it’ kind. Farmer field schools are a more two way process that more closely matches farmers’ needs, and mainly promoting integrated pest management, but they are considerably more expensive to run than plant clinics.
Sometimes good development practice seems both obvious and easy – please tell me what the catch is!