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Forage options for smallholder livestock in water-scarce environments of Afghanistan

 

This four-year research project aimed at reducing the gap in feed supply for ruminants especially in winter through increased forage production and availability of seeds of improved forage species/varieties in Baghlan and Nangarhar Provinces of Afghanistan. The project was implemented as a part of the Afghanistan Agricultural R4D Program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and managed by ACIAR. The project tested and evaluated a large number of forage crops of various origins to identify varieties with superior biomass production and to produce and disseminate ‘best practices’ packages for forage production. To achieve the projected outcomes, the technical components aimed at increasing forage productivity per unit area of land and water through on-station and on-farm research using participatory approaches with all stakeholders. The specific objectives of the project were to:
•    Assess the main climatic, edaphic, and agronomic constraints leading to nutritional gaps and identify appropriate technologies (new species, varieties, and/or management practices) to overcome or reduce constraints.
•    Evaluate forage and fodder production options for smallholder livestock systems.
•    Expand the scope of existing community-based seed enterprises to include feed and forage seeds, vegetative propagation of shrubs, and planting materials.
•    Develop capacity of Afghan researchers in forage and livestock systems research.

An overarching objective of this project was to foster the development of inclusive and sustainable forage production systems within the water constrained provinces with processes for broad (national) uptake. This was achieved through:
•    Evaluating adaptability of promising forage genotypes and accessions.
•    Demonstrating the validity and potential of these to farmers that are interested in cultivating forage, thereby reducing seasonal gaps in access to feed resources.
•    Identification of avenues to support an enabling environment for varietal introduction and release of forage varieties as well as broad uptake by farmers.

Over the course of the project, 97 improved forage and crop genotypes were evaluated for adaptation and/or productivity (measured by biomass and grain yield). Based on the preliminary results, nine promising genotypes were further evaluated on-station and on-farm to generate data to support varietal registration/introduction and to provide guidelines for their agronomic management. Some varieties produced up to 30% more biomass than existing lines. Eighteen forage shrub accessions/ecotypes were multiplied on-station for distribution to public agencies, international and national developmental agencies, as well as private farmers. Concerted efforts were made in fostering ownership and oversight of national systems of research, international developmental agencies, and civil society organizations. A project working committee comprising ICARDA and representatives from five departments from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock (MAIL) was constituted. Despite challenges inherent within a complex and unstable environment, the committee was functional in terms of joint planning, implementation, and monitoring of project activities. Equally important was participation of the seed certification directorate within the project working committee to ensure that the process of varietal registration/introduction of the nine genotypes was in accordance with existing regulations. Security concerns and instability limited the range of research and development activities, as well as the intensity with which activities were undertaken. Mirror trial sites in Western Australia and Turkey therefore provided safe environments for more intensive measurements of productivity and adaptability of tested genotypes; and effectively hosted close to 450 Afghan partners (private, public, and civil society) for approximately 20 training and orientation sessions. Representation of international developmental organizations within the committee was equally constructive, leading to the distribution of seed to the Aga Khan Foundation for collaborative on-station and on-farm research trials within three provinces (Takhar, Badakhshan, and Bamyan) that were outside the project target area of Baghlan and Nangarhar Provinces; thereby showing significant promise for scaling-out through effective partnership with an international development organization.

Some of the tested varieties proved to be highly adaptable and offer potential to reduce the winter-feeding gap. Through exposure visits and access to global lessons learned, the national research and innovation systems in Afghanistan were effectively exposed to arguments for why forage crops ought to be treated differently from cereal crops – specifically within the framework of national regulations for varietal introduction and release. Mutually beneficial interactions between international development organizations, civil society organizations, and the national research system were enhanced, within the spirit of an innovation systems approach, where matters related to gender are now better understood; although there is a need for continuous improvement in this area.

The baseline survey related to the assessment of the seed systems and markets in Baghlan and Nangarhar Provinces resulted in two major findings and recommendations: (1) farmers’ knowledge on seed production standards is very poor and the need for strong extension efforts for raising farmers’ awareness is evident. Mass communication tools and hands-on training on seed standards could support this effort; and (2) farmer-to-farmer (community) exchange is the common source for seed and information on many crops in Afghanistan and therefore access to quality seed needs to be enhanced and crop-specific strategies for seed production need to be developed.

The gender study led by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) identified both challenges and opportunities for women to create space to innovate and exert agency to mobilize support from their informal networks, both as members of a male-headed household and as female heads of households. For example, women are, to a greater extent than men, reliant on their informal network of (female) family and friends to access information about agricultural innovations that can help them to increase forage production. Related to this, the study found that gender norms around the ‘appropriateness’ of female–male interactions can greatly inhibit women from interacting with a number of (male) actors. These challenges and opportunities are mediated by gender norms, roles, and relations produced and reinforced by the forage system, i.e. the network of organizations, enterprises, and individuals focused on bringing about change related to forage production and forage value chains, as well as the institutions and policies that affect their behavior and performance (adapted from De Klerk et al. 2012a). It is imperative that these norms, roles, and relations are considered when attempting to introduce new forage varieties into the forage system in Baghlan and Nangarhar as they might effectively prevent women from both adopting and benefiting from the new varieties.

Based on positive experiences attained through sustained engagement and interaction, the project produced a number of valuable results within an environment plagued with limited national capacity (budgetary and other) as well as significant instability. Whether or not national systems amend existing policy on varietal release, excluding forage varieties from a formal release system is a matter of political economy and will.