Fertilizer Sector Improvement (FSI+) in Burma

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The five-year Fertilizer Sector Improvement (FSI+) project initiated in 2014 led the way for USAID interventions in the agricultural sector of Myanmar. Over two-thirds of the country’s population is engaged in agriculture, which is dominated by small-scale farming. As implemented by the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), the project contributed to building a strong and resilient food and agriculture system that can have a transformational effect on people’s lives. It achieved that by improving incomes equitably and by enhancing food security for small-scale farmers in target districts of the Delta and Shan regions. The approach focused on increasing production and income from crops in rice-based farming systems and on building the capacity of agricultural input and other service providers to supply and advise farmers. The guiding mantra was to harness the power of science, technology, innovation, and markets to improve food and agricultural system practices dramatically and sustainably. Such advances were tailored to promote more inclusive income growth for empowered small-scale farmers so they can benefit from the country’s economic progress. The initial FSI plan concentrated on introducing the technology of urea deep placement (UDP) to smallholder rice producers as a more cost-effective way to fertilize their fields and achieve higher yields. The practice of applying urea briquettes near the root level instead of broadcasting the fertilizer had proven successful in Bangladesh and some African countries. IFDC thought UDP could be a breakthrough for the rice farmers of Myanmar as well. It was thought they would rapidly adopt the technology and spread it exponentially. That proved to be a miscalculation because of the larger size of farms and the shortage of labor available to hand-place the briquettes. While not abandoning the UDP concept, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and IFDC wisely adjusted the strategy after two years to address more broadly soil degradation and other obstacles impeding farmer progress. The agricultural system in general had languished under 60 years of military rule and the concurrent lack of direction FSI+ | Project Completion Report iv in the government agencies assigned to help farmers. Seeing the need and opportunity, USAID agreed to extend the project from three to five years and to increase the budget to an eventual $7.05 million total. The first step in the project pivot involved expanding the range of field trials to discover the best seed-fertilizer-soils combinations. The information helped fill the existing research gaps and was continually updated through more trials and seasonal crop cuts. The project organized staffspecialists and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners to show farmers the results of UDP. The training modules and over 300 field demonstrations were then expanded to all aspects of the cropping system and best practices to achieve increased yields and profits. The research-extension interface enabled FSI+ to find answers to questions from farmers through trials in the next season and to tailor training to their interests and needs. This in turn helped capture and establish the enduring impacts of the site-specific integrated soil fertility management strategy. In addition, IFDC entered into a partnership with Syngenta. This enabled the project to capitalize on USAID’s global agreement with Syngenta and obtain cost-sharing for joint training of retailers and field demonstrations for maize farmers in southern Shan State. To meet the expected demand for high-yielding varieties of seed and more balanced fertilization, project staff recruited small and medium retailers of agricultural inputs in the project zones and trained them on both technical aspects of agricultural inputs and the management and marketing tools that would help grow their businesses. The project ensured that about 40% of selected farmers and almost half of recruited retailers were women, because they were enterprising and would be instrumental in transforming rural quality of life. Over the five years of implementation, the FSI+ project: • Trained over 13,000 farmers, more than one-third of whom were given refresher courses. • Reached another 5,000 farmers through field days and organized visits to model farms. • Encouraged trained farmers to share information with their neighbors, of whom an estimated minimum of 17%, or 2,500, adopted improved technologies. • Trained 345 agro-input retailers who in turn educated and encouraged their clients in modern inputs and good practices. At least 25%, or over 50,000 farmer customers, have adopted improved technologies as a result. FSI+ | Project Completion Report v A rigorous monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system employed independent household surveys and used crop cuts to assess progress by the trained farmers, who are regarded as “direct beneficiaries.” Those in the second category above who participated in other project activities are considered “indirect beneficiaries” in the official terminology. Except for the activities and results indicators related to adoption of UDP, the project met or exceeded all the targets for activities and for the economic returns for farmers, measured by gross margins. They are defined as the value of production minus the cost of inputs. According to the survey results from the Project Impact Report submitted in August 2019: • Gross margins increased by 28% for wet season rice and 18% for the dry season crop against the target increases of 15% in each season. • The impact on households was an average annual net income increase of $890 per farm, with 50% of this attributed to FSI+. Beyond the positive economic impacts for farmers and retailers, the project team set the stage at multiple levels for sustained progress and for resilience in the face of likely shocks and stresses. Disaster-prone, Myanmar is one of the most affected countries by climate change. Its farmers also face shocks from policies and trade barriers. FSI+ helped strengthen the capacity of individuals, institutions, and governments. It improved the quality of data and research. In short, the project contributed to the pipeline of innovations, tools, and approaches designed to improve agriculture and food security – and to help reduce susceptibility to food crises. The U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS) states that “scaling requires promoting the diffusion of adoption beyond direct beneficiaries of development interventions. We will do this by working with delivery pathways (public and private) to demonstrate value and make technologies available.” FSI+ accomplished this by: • Convincing a nucleus of farmers that good agricultural practices are profitable. • Developing a cadre of agro-input dealers who form a strong private sector-led value chain that will provide the supplies and services that farmers need because it is good business. • Training and engaging public extension and research staff so they are better informed and motivated to help farmers adopt good practices and adapt to changed conditions. The project introduced extension informed by data through its research to update best practices. FSI+ | Project Completion Report vi • Helping design and implement research investments that anticipate and treat recurrent shocks and stresses as perennial features, not as unanticipated anomalies. • Organizing an influential national conference and producing studies and a strategy for the government to advance soil fertility and fertilizer management. Ministry officials respect and appreciate the project’s help, including on UDP, and they are using the strategy to guide the agricultural research masterplan. As a result, soil fertility is now a top priority. The USAID Mission asked the project to respond to the impending threat of a fall armyworm (FAW) infestation of the maize crop in 2019. The FSI+ team mobilized its network of retailers, relationships with the Department of Agriculture (DOA), companies producing and supplying inputs, and the confidence of farmers built over the years. As a result, the project was able to respond swiftly and cost-effectively to the threat. The coordinated plan of action and prepared platform supports the GFSS IR 5: Improve proactive risk reduction, mitigation, and management. The initial project proposal focusing on UDP was ahead of its time. Everyone involved learned a valuable lesson about trying to replicate a successful approach without fully understanding local conditions and constraints. Fortunately, USAID enabled the project to change course. Being flexible and adaptable to new opportunities is another important lesson and one that will be applicable to future projects when adaptation to shocks and stresses will become the norm. Of course, critical factors in successful project implementation hinge on the caliber and dedication of the leadership and staff – and their ability to discover, develop, and deploy what will make a difference in farmer livelihoods. Despite the impediments and disappointments, IFDC and the project did not abandon the concept of UDP as an eventual breakthrough for Myanmar rice and maize farmers, some of whom are continuing to apply it. Recognizing the need for mechanization, especially for deep placement of fertilizer whether in briquette or prilled form, FSI+ entered informal partnerships with John Deere and an Indian firm. The project engineer worked with them and local machine shops to design prototype seed and fertilizer applicators that could be produced commercially at affordable prices. There is expectation that the working models today will be on the market within a few years and thus open the way for an eventual UDP take-off. Based on the FSI+ and Dry Zone project experience, IFDC recommends that USAID and other donors continue to support small-scale farmers in the production of rice, maize, and alternative FSI+ | Project Completion Report vii crops. Many improvements are required – from land preparation to good seed and balanced fertilization to post-harvest drying and processing. Myanmar farmers should be able to achieve yields and quality of rice that match their counterparts in Southeast Asia. In conclusion, the FSI+ project pioneered and helped embed new and improved technologies and a private sector-led delivery mechanism. They hold promise for the rural poor of Myanmar to achieve sustainable income growth and food security.