This paper presents the findings of a short qualitative study funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, under the auspices of Phase I of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s (IITA) African Cowpea Project (PRONAF), based in Cotonou, Benin. The study showed that pilot cowpea Farmer Field Schools (FFS) in Benin were a vital source of new skills and information, integrating a number of existing knowledge-sharing networks of rural men and women. These included church and family ties, and work and savings groups of various kinds. Members of the networks tended to be influential or well connected in terms of membership of various groups, though they were not necessarily the wealthiest members of society. The relevance of the contents of the FFS technical curriculum to these farmers’ current needs was variable. Information about neem extract as an alternative to available chemical pesticides, recognised as toxic, was very frequently shared. However, the labour needed to prepare enough of the extract for larger crop areas, and the fact that it was less effective than chemical pesticides under high pest pressure in some localities, were important reasons expressed for not using it. Initial efforts to spread FFS-style farmer education to other organisations were hampered by a complexity of interactions, with many stakeholders holding different views and seeking different goals, in which the FFS programme was only one factor. Though representing a major break with previous extension practice, the FFS methodologies used did not always appear to maximise the potential for experimental learning amongst farmers nor did they necessarily suit the illiterate. There was an apparent lack of functional interaction between PRONAF I and the national agricultural research system (NARS), then in the process of becoming more demand-driven. The potential for expanding positive contacts between the FFS programme and a variety of other organisations is large, and Phase II of PRONAF is making additional efforts to increase communication and collaboration with other projects, programmes and organisations, and to expand FFS at village level.
Nicholas Q.R. Nathaniels