MANHATTAN, KANSAS, U.S. — Kansas State University (KSU) professors recently traveled to West Africa to assist with projects in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Ghana.

“We could help more people across the world by employing existing technology, than we can by inventing something new,” said KSU’s Gary Pierzynski, noting that many parts of the world lack technology, infrastructure and other resources that developed countries take for granted.

Pierzynski, who is interim dean of the university’s College of Agriculture, and director of KSU Research and Extension, traveled to West Africa with KSU associate agronomy professor P.V. Vara Prasad.

The projects are supported by a grant from the International Sorghum, Millet and Other Grains Collaborative Research Support Program (INTSORMIL CRSP) and Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM CRSP). INTSORMIL and SANREM projects are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

In each country in which KSU has a project, there is an in-country cooperator who works with local farmers and research facilities, said Pierzynski, who is an agronomy researcher himself. The first step of each project involved conducting farmer surveys where producers were asked about their needs and limitations in growing crops.

From those surveys, the KSU researchers designed a two–tiered approach, which included “mother experiments” — those in which the research team worked with the in-country cooperators to plan and implement larger-scale experiments (with multiple treatments), with a goal of increasing yields and improving ecosystems and profitability.

“The key practices that can help improve crop productivity in this region are improved cultivars, optimum fertilizer use and efficient water harvesting and management practices,” Prasad said. “Farmers in these regions are very hard working and willing to adopt the improved practices, but timely availability of technologies, financial resources and market opportunities are limited and need attention.”

The in-country cooperators enlisted farmer cooperators to take the information further and conduct “baby experiments” on individual farms. Those farms are often just a few acres, Prasad said.

“The best way to get technology to use in under-developed countries is to have the farmers actually doing it themselves,” Pierzynski said. Most of the projects involve water or soil conservation or the use of a “micro-dose” of fertilizer.

While in West Africa, Prasad and Pierzynski attended agricultural field days and, with the help of an interpreter, spoke directly with farmers involved in some of the “baby experiments” that demonstrated the benefits of selected treatments.

“The most unique thing about this is the farmer-cooperator role in the research,” Pierzynski said, adding that the countries do not have a land-grant university system. Although some countries have extension educators, they work for government agencies rather than research universities.

“It is critical to link and improve communication and collaboration between research and extension agencies,” Prasad said. “Similarly, improving capacity of national institutes through short- and long-term training is critical. Several graduate students are being trained at K-State through funding from these projects.”

Working with farmers in West Africa is appropriate for not only humanitarian reasons, but because work that promotes food security anywhere in the world benefits everyone, Pierzynski said.

“We learn, too,” he said, noting that the researchers sometimes see diseases or pest problems that could eventually reach U.S. farm fields. Plus, growing conditions in some areas are similar to Kansas, so lessons learned in one place can benefit another.

“Clearly the biggest challenge is the distance,” he added. “We can’t just jump in a vehicle and check to make sure actions occur in a timely manner. Communication is a limitation, and overall, it’s a harsher environment (in West African countries). They have more extreme weather events, including drought, heat, and heavy rain.”

Sometimes it’s not difficult to determine what a farmer or farmers in a region need to increase yields and profits, he said, but a matter of making it happen.

“In southern Ghana, for example, they have a good environment to raise cattle. But there are disease and parasite problems.”

“The experiences the researchers and faculty bring back to students are important components to this,” he said. “Something as simple as hybrid corn, which they don’t use over there, students can see how we have advantages. It certainly helps to internationalize our student efforts.”