Nawee Nakwatchara is enabling farmers to become their own agents of change. His learning plots for alternative agriculture are stimulating farmers to experiment and contribute to a growing knowledge of locally appropriate agricultural practices.
The New Idea
Nawee is empowering small farmers to make their own informed decisions in pursuit of decent livelihoods from their agricultural endeavors. In the 1-ngan (0.1 acre) learning plotsthat he encourages farmers to set aside and employ, Nawee has developed an unusually effective tool for prompting farmers to ask questions, experiment, and contribute to a growing knowledge of locally appropriate agricultural practices. Working with small landowners in the northeast of Thailand, the countrys poorest region, Nawee is enabling farmers to break the cycle of debt and dependency using unviable farming practices.Nawee s work is a marked departure from the conventional packaging of rural assistance. He asks farmers to explore their own solutions, employing a familiar and tangible medium of communication: Land. The 1-ngan plots of individual farmers host collections of promising alternatives for increasing productivity and cutting production costs, with an emphasis on integrated farming, low-cost technology, and drawing on local wisdom. Farmers decide what to experiment with in their 1-ngan plots, while Nawee provides technical assistance in transforming the best of their ideas into widely replicable agricultural practices. Unlike traditional definitions of the word, Nawee believes that true self-sufficiency requires a cash surplus. To enable farmers to invest in their future, Nawee integrates the 1-ngan learning plot with a profit-generating production model. He works closely with the 300 member households in his Grassroots Innovation Network with the aim of transforming the most successful findings from the learning plots into readily replicable and commercially viable production techniques and marketable products. Nawee has also formed a microcredit cooperative to provide financing and established a business firm to undertake larger-scale production and marketing tasks on behalf of the network. During the four years in which Nawee s initiative has been underway, all of the 300 participating families have remained on their land, successfully resisting the strong pull of migration to urban areas. He is also actively advocating the adoption of his approach by government agencies charged with promoting rural development, and the national Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives recently launched a pilot project using his 1-ngan learning plot approach.
Over several generations, government-promoted monoculture has seriously depleted the fertility of agricultural lands in northeastern Thailand, and it has also deprived Thai farmers of their economic independence. In a region characterized by sandy soils and frequent droughts, the repeated production of a single cash crop has drained vital nutrients from the soil, with consequent declines in productivity. Farmers compensate for that loss of soil fertility by purchasing expensive fertilizers and pesticides, but their incomes have continued to decline, due in part to low market prices, especially for basic food items such as rice, tapioca, and corn. Also contending with the lures of modern consumer culture, many farmers in the region see no future in agriculture. Farming no longer allows them to accumulate capital, to purchase attractive consumer goods, such as television sets and motorcycles, or to invest in their childrens education. In much of northeastern Thailand, therefore, there is an unusually high rate of rural-urban migration, and many farmers who remain on their land are forced to seek supplemental income from low-paid work at nearby factories in the off-seasons.In recent years, the Thai government has promoted the concept of self-sufficiency in the northeast region. Many citizen organizations and academics argue, however, that the government s stance is little more than rhetoric aimed at camouflaging rural poverty. Moreover, most local efforts to define self-sufficiency and identify promising paths toward that objective have been limited to one-way communication in the form of Village Sage Networks. These networks routinely organize training workshops led by village sages,who instruct one group of farmers after another in alternative skills for rural livelihoodsorganic agriculture, appropriate technology, and indigenous farming techniquesusing a teacher-student model that restricts farmers to the roles of passive recipients of knowledge. After the workshops, most farmers return to their homes and revert to the usual farming practices, and there is little, if any evidence that this didactic model is an effective way to break the farmer s cycle of dependency.
From his previous experience in rural development work, Nawee saw the need for a new approach that would enable farmers to become their own agents of change. Accordingly, rather than relying on a conventional didactic model to encourage farmers to adopt improved practices, he has developed a tool to stimulate farmer-initiated inquiry and learning. Prior to launching the Grassroots Innovation Network, Nawee had spent a few years in Buriram province in the northeast of Thailand long enough to discover that most farmers had little confidence in the often-touted promise of organic agriculture and several other traditional practices. Outsiders had come and gone, offering workshops or dropping off their instructional kits, but with little or no practical consequence. Undeterred, Nawee was determined to find more effective ways to stimulate farmers to think, do, and planon their own. In 2005 Nawee formed a conversation group with members of ten farming households in a small community in Buriram province, and during the initial meeting of the group, discussion quickly focused on the farmers pressing need to lower their production costs. Nawee asked farmers to suggest ideas, and he used his technical know-how to devise a small-scale model for household-level experimentation. He fit everything into 1-ngan of land, and convinced the ten households to conduct experiments in plots of that size in small corners of their gardens.Reflecting the farmer s desires to reduce production costs and increase productivity, these 1-ngan learning plots were used for a wide variety of experiments in adapting agricultural technology to use locally available materials, integrate complementary crops with livestock, and employ natural farming techniques and local wisdom. Under the latter heading, experiments included using the common PVC pipe for a mini-sprinkler system, building a charcoal stove that burned smaller pieces of wood, growing tapioca alongside other crops in order to increase soil fertility, digging a frog well near an insect-infested area, and making a natural insecticide from a fungus that grows on steamed rice). To help expand this body of experimental learning, Nawee also encouraged each farm household to suggest new ideas, refine the ones that work, test them against local conditions, and share the lessons with one another. In its first three years after its founding, this conversation group grew from 10 to 100 to 300 households, and they and their learning approach, became widely know as the Grassroots Innovation Network (GIN).To encourage further experimentation and the community-wide spread of each successful technique, Nawee set up a GIN microcredit group, allowing members to take out small loans. Initially using a rotating fund of 30,000 baht (US$1,000) to provide open-purpose loans, the microcredit group now operates with a rotating fund of 520,000 baht (US$17,000) and finances only specific projects, such as one farmers experiment to improve a chicken feed recipe using locally available ingredients. The group functions like a cooperative, with shareholders who invest in and profit from successful technologies and products. Although the microcredit group has a membership of 50, the knowledge that it generates is shared with the entire Network of 300 households.In the fourth year of the GIN initiative, instead of expanding the group s membership, Nawee has developed another, more ambitious mechanism to provide a sustained flow of funding for additional farmer-initiated experiments. On the basis of previous success in several small-scale ventures funded by the GIN microcredit program, the group decided to produce its first commercial-scale productan organic fertilizer made from local cow and pig manure, with added nutrients from bat manure and dolomite, and to establish a new company to undertake that task. The newly formed companyGrassroots Innovation Company, Ltd.buys the needed raw materials (i.e. often from member households, produces the fertilizer, and sells the product back to members at a low cost for their own use, while marketing it to other buyers as well. The fertilizer has quickly become very popular, even beyond GIN s membership. During the recent planting season, the factory produced more than 30 tons of fertilizer per month and distributed it all across Buriram province. As a result, the company has already become financially self-sustaining after only one year of operation. Nawees work has enabled all 300 member households of GIN to remain on their land, despite being at the prime working age of 30 to 40-years-old. GINs learning/research activities have enabled participating farmers to make considerable reductions in their production costs, increase their farm outputs, and generate modest levels of surplus income from their farming operations.Nawee has also enabled the 300 farming households that constitute GIN to contribute to a growing database of successful grassroots innovations. He has documented in VCDs and voice recordings (in the local Northeastern dialect), farmer-to-farmer sharing of those innovations. The VCDs are shown at various meetings, and the voice recordings are broadcast through village announcements and two community radio stations in Buriram province. Nawee also plans to link with community radio stations in other provinces and regions of Thailand, with the aim of reaching some 5 to 10 million rural households with those messages over the next decade. Nawee has also compiled a visual database of grassroots innovation. With support from the Bureau of Agricultural Promotion, he created a GIS map of grassroots innovations. As GIN expands, he wants to create regional and even international maps of grassroots innovations, with a particular focus on similar developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.Nawee and the members of GIN receive some 2,000 visitors per year, from members of farmers groups, staff of academic institutions, and government officials, including representatives of the (Thai) Bureau of Agricultural Policy and several other government agencies. Last year, Nawee and the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, with approximately 10 million indebted farmers across Thailand, initiated a joint pilot project that is using farming techniques from GINs 1-ngan plot venture to help other Thai farmers withdraw from the cycle of debt. Nawee is also helping GIN member households develop additional marketable products (including an organic pig feed made from local vegetation), and he expects that the distribution network for GINs commercial products will become another increasingly important vehicle for spreading the GIN idea to other rural communities.
Nawee was born in the rural province of Lopburi, bordering on Thailands northeast region. Although his father was a postal worker, Nawee grew up surrounded by neighbors who farmed their own small plots of land, and he developed a keen interest in farming, protecting the environment, and finding new ways to enhance the livelihoods of farming communities.Nawees diligent study earned him a coveted seat at Bangkoks prestigious Thammasat University, where he completed his degree in the field of biotechnology. While there, he worked part-time with Loxinfo, Thailand s main Internet provider, where he gained considerable expertise in information and communication technology. Working with a professor, he developed an animated display of the DNA replication process for classroom use as part of a broader effort to stimulate interest in employing more interactive methods in classroom settings. An active student leader, Nawee was elected student council president for the Faculty of Science at Thammasat. In that role, he encouraged his fellow students to engage in volunteer activities, both in Bangkok and in the surrounding provinces. Unlike most of his classmates, however, who have moved on to technical posts in the industrial sector, Nawee took his biotechnology degree back to a village setting. Nawee volunteered for a project aimed at introducing ICT into rural communities in the northeast of Thailand, and led a team charged with building a community website documenting local wisdom, as described by farmers in their local dialect. In the course of his association with that project, Nawee began to question the effectiveness of the transmission of knowledge to passive participants, and he was thus inspired to found the GIN to develop a new, farmer-initiated experiment and learning approach. On the basis of his work on that project, Nawee has been profiled as a rising social entrepreneur in the book Startup and Change the World, produced by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Global Knowledge Partnership and the Youth Social Enterprise Institute.