As with any profession, farmers need access to basic training, all the more so as the current food crisis forces them to make rapid structural changes.

The burden weighing on farmers in the South is becoming increasingly hard to bear. Over the past half century, the number of producers providing food for their compatriots has dwindled with each passing year. Before, in Africa, 20 farmers fed one city dweller between them; today, there are just two and sometimes only one to do the same task. That is mission impossible given current agricultural conditions. In order to feed their growing populations, most ACP countries therefore rely heavily on imports. But the current rise in food prices makes the situation untenable.

How can farmers increase their output with the speed required and on the scale that is needed? Massive financial support to buy seed and fertiliser is not enough to help producers undertake structural reforms and significantly increase productivity. There can be no sustainable improvement unless farmers acquire a solid foundation. Badly neglected in recent years, professional training is now more important than ever.

Training for all

The evolution of local and regional societies and of the global economy and environment is forcing a rethink of training methods and their objectives. For a long time, agricultural extension agents were there to teach farmers improved production techniques. After national training structures were dismantled, the NGOs and producer organisations stepped in to fill the gap. The training they offer has a practical slant, but is often limited due to lack of resources.

Today, experts including those from the international network Agricultural and Rural Training (FAR) agree on a number of points. The first is the need to put in place mass professional training programmes aimed at all farmers in a given country, if results are to be swift and far-reaching. Second, if villagers are to be persuaded to stay where they are rather than leave for the towns, it is important to view rural life as a whole, and not just focus on agricultural production. Last, farmers must learn how to press for their rights and take part in the development of policies that affect them.

Adapting education

It all begins at school. More and more young, rural dwellers, both boys and girls, now have access to it as part of the Millennium Development Goal Education for all. But the programmes tailored to urban-based youngsters do not provide young people living in rural areas with the knowledge that they will need in later life. Yet basic education is recognised as playing an important role in development, especially for girls. At a conference on education for rural Caribbean communities, held in St Lucia in 2006, it was widely acknowledged that there needs to be a complete overhaul of the educational system, which was developed for the elite and ignores the needs of young rural people.

Generally, only a tiny proportion of young rural dwellers pursue their studies once they have left primary school. The others are left by the wayside, and can only learn from their elders. Such know-ledge sharing is certainly essential, but it will no longer be enough to enable them to make progress. With few prospects on the horizon, they are tempted to move to the towns or even abroad. In Mozambique, the Education and Training on Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS) programme has trained 7,000 AIDS orphans in an effort to stop them from leaving their communities. These young people have not just acquired farming skills and knowledge; they have also developed the capacity to understand their problems and ensure that their rights are respected.

A job and a way of life

The prime objective of today's professional training is to develop agricultural ventures that are viable and sustainable rather than trying simply to increase the yield of a single crop, as in the past. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) believes there must be a radical change in training methods: focusing first and foremost on fieldwork and farmers' knowledge and stimulating innovation. But it is also crucial to bear in mind that agriculture is a way of life and that it is important to take the whole range of needs of rural people into account, as well as the long-term conservation of their environment. Producers must know how to analyse situations, diagnose problems, plan their activities and manage their farms.

To achieve such results, experts from FAR and FAO's Education for Rural People (ERP) programme stress the need to create national strategies involving the ministries of Education, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Health. Unfortunately, the political will needed to do this has been sadly lacking in recent years. The training strategy should however be part of a wider framework tailored to answer the needs of the country. In order to produce results, it should go hand in hand with services to farmers such as organising markets, securing supplies of inputs, maintaining infrastructure and ensuring land tenure. That means making resources available, at least the 10% of the national budget that African States agreed to devote to agriculture in 2006, a goal which remains a long way off.

Nor will it do any good to come up with a single training model and apply it in a blanket fashion to all countries. Each national programme must be adapted to specific requirements, based on the needs of producers. Such initiatives are still few and far between: exceptions include the World Bank-funded PASAOP programme in Mali, the RENCAR project in Chad and the Education and Training Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development in South Africa.

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