Background

Research and development are generally poorly integrated. Numerous NGO projects fail because they lack basic insights and research capacity: crop- and tree-species, farming techniques and machinery is regularly introduced and promoted in situations and locations where it can never never thrive. A bit of research could have made that clear early on.

Research on the other hand is funded by donors and undertaken by institutions that do not involve themselves closely with implementation on the ground.

For project developers it is a dilemma. Funding sources for research are not available for projects with extensive development components and development funding is not available for research.

The FACT/ADPP Jatropha project is unusual. It was from the beginning designed with a relatively big research component.

I was asked to develop and manage the research program. At the time I was technical adviser to the government of Mozambique, working within the national agricultural research system (IIAM) seconded by Danida. I had been looking into crops that had potential for the small-scale farmers that dominate agriculture in the region. Jatropha came out as one of the promising crops.

There had been a “Jatropha boom” in neighbouring Zimbabwe a few years earlier and some of the experience appeared applicable to the Mozambican situation. Unfortunately the break down of the Zimbabwean society meant that some of the people most experienced in Jatropha were no longer around and a big living reference collection of Jatropha varieties had been destroyed. We had to start from zero.

We got very strong political support when president Armando Guebuza in 2004 declared his intention to use biofuels to turn Mozambique into an oil exporting country. He wanted all uncultivated land in the country to be turned into Jatropha fields.

Within IIAM and together with ICRAF-Mozambique I was starting research on Jatropha at the time when Jan de Jongh visited Mozambique to explore the options for a Jatropha pilot project. It was clear that we had overlapping interests and that together we would be able to get a close coupling of research and development. IIAM and Danida kindly allowed me to spend part of my working time on researching Jatropha curcas for the FACT/ADPP project.

The Caritas project in Messica, Manica Province played an important role. Their farmer groups planted significant amounts of Jatropha around 2004 and thus provided a "living lab" where we could observe plant performance, pest and diseases, and discuss with farmers about their preferences and experience. The observations confirmed the susceptibility to water logging, poor performance on clay soils and soon pests problems emerged. The information was important in guiding the research agenda.

Some research needs were obvious from the beginning but the list of potential research topics was endless. Research issues and goals were discussed with farmers and researchers in the field as well as a few workshops. A tentative prioritization was made but revisions were done at least annually because the needs of the project changed. Some research areas like the energy- and carbon-balance of the project were not seen as important when the project started but ended up being central.

The research program had several general objectives:

  • It should research problems encountered by the project and provide solutions.

  • It should research the sustainability and viability of the concept “Jatropha for local development” to assess if the pilot project should be recommended for up-scaling.

  • It should build professional capacity in the region and elsewhere.

Stringent scientific research often takes many seasons. In a project like this where the research and development activities are started simultaneously it is necessary to make shortcuts wherever possible. In many cases observations takes the place of trials and careful measurements. This is less a problem than it may sound like because so little is known about Jatropha.

The lack of knowledge about best pruning regime to optimise yield can serve as an example. A conventional trial would easily require four or five years and many trial plots before conclusions are reached. The project would have ended by then. In this case we have relied on observations. Farmers in the project and elsewhere have followed different pruning regimes and some have not pruned at all. It was not difficult to see that pruning increased yield and in general the more branches the higher the yield. That is sufficient knowledge at this stage for the project to move ahead and give recommendations to the farmers. In some years when the Jatropha system has been more optimised the question may be if farmers should do the first pruning to 30cm, 45cm or 60cm height. That will require more stringent and longer trials to determine.

Personally I find it very satisfying to work under the pressure to produce tangible results fast and to constantly adapt to new needs, requirements and circumstance. This is very different from some of the pure research organisations I have worked for in the past.

2010
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