In southern Mali, more intensive soil fertility management strategies are needed to guarantee sustainable production. However, the increasing diversity of the farming systems places high demands on research and extension. Technologies proposed as recipes for the average farmer are becoming less and less relevant. The Farming Systems Research team (ESPGRN) of the Agricultural Research Institute (IER) in Mali is developing an action-research approach to enable farmers, together with researchers, to analyse and understand farmer strategies and practices of soil fertility management and to identify technologies which both meet farmers' needs and are sustainable.
The analysis is done at the village and farm levels, using different participatory tools. First a village territory map is made to analyse the management of the natural resources in the village. Next, the diversity of soil fertility management practices between farms is investigated and its underlying causes are diagnosed. A classification of farms is made by the villagers using their own criteria for distinguishing levels of fertility management. Subsequently, the actual management practices are depicted pictorially using resource flow models, drawn by 'test' farmers, representing each of the different categories of farms. On the basis of these models, farmers and researchers discuss various possibilities for increasing the recycling of crop residues and reducing losses from their farms, and flow models are made to plan management practices for the subsequent year.
The combination of analysis and regular feedback of farmers' results, together with exposure to information on new technologies, motivates farmers to plan their own activities. If farmers so request, a field worker assists them to implement the new techniques. Village intermediaries are also being trained in mapping techniques and practical aspects of the new technologies. There are clear indications that this approach has improved soil fertility management practices. Farmers have started to recycle considerable amounts of crop residues as litter and fodder. They are also experimenting with contour farming and planting fodder crops in association with cereals.