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European and African research partners gather for UPSCALE general assembly

European and African research partners gather for UPSCALE general assembly

UPSCALE researchers gather to test field protocols (photo credit: Grace Ambuka).

Last week, members of the EU-funded UPSCALE project studying push-pull cropping systems in sub-Saharan Africa gathered for their second general assembly. The meeting, originally planned as a face-to-face event in Rwanda, shifted to a hybrid virtual/in-person format to accommodate on-going travel restrictions and challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers at the Institute for Geobotany at Leibniz University of Hannover (LUH) represented one of the 18 project partners from six African and four European countries at the assembly. 

The goal of UPSCALE is to promote sustainable agricultural intensification practices in East Africa in lieu of conventional methods that are environmentally costly, unsustainable, and poorly adapted to low-income farming. Push–pull relies on crop biodiversity to reduce insect pest pressure by using repellent crops to drive pests from the main crop (the “push”) and trap crops to “pull” them. Implementing push-pull can also suppress weeds and enhance the ability of soils to absorb and retain water, which is particularly important given the effects of climate change. 

To date, push-pull technology has mostly been used in cereal cropping systems in the sub-Saharan region of East Africa. The UPSCALE team is working in five countries— Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda—to expand the use of push-pull and increase its adoption across crops and geographic scales to improve food security and resilience to climate change. The general assembly afforded the large research team an opportunity to take stock of their collective progress, identify challenges, and outline next steps. 

Food for the Hungry-Rwanda hosted the meeting and the Rwanda Agriculture Board welcomed participants to the four-day meeting before handing it over to the project coordinator, Professor Emily Poppenborg of LUH, for a progress update. Professor Poppenborg explained that despite challenges posed by the pandemic, substantial progress was made over the past year. Collectively, the research team surveyed over 1,500 households to assess the current adoption of push-pull systems across five East African countries; identified and mapped roughly 150 farm fields in each country, and developed field protocols in preparation for data collection; created two mobile apps to support information dissemination; established communication and social media channels; and created training and dissemination materials. 

Over the course of the general assembly, project partners shared their progress on foundational work to develop highly standardized protocols for sampling insects, weeds, soils, and crop yields. These protocols will be implemented across the five study countries. With field protocols in place and the majority of experimental fields identified, data collection can soon begin to elucidate the main drivers of the benefits of push-pull.   

Preliminary results from baseline socio-economic surveys identified some potential barriers to the adoption of push-pull that will help guide next steps for the project team. In particular, farmers noted a lack of appropriate seeds, knowledge, and training as key barriers to implementing push-pull. Female heads of household were particularly constrained by small land-holding sizes compared to male heads of households, and in most instances women reported being responsible for most of the agricultural labor. The full results of the surveys will be disseminated in a series of seven reports.  

In the next phase of the project, the research team will commence data collection in the field as well as social-ecological and climate modeling to predict the effectiveness of push-pull in other cropping systems and assess its contribution to climate resilience. Three researchers from the Institute for Geobotany—Drs. Adewole Olagoke and Felipe Miguel Libran Embid, and Ph.D. student Celina Apel—will join their collaborators in East Africa this spring to begin field work in earnest. Results from these data collection efforts will be used to evaluate the mechanisms driving the effects of push-pull systems, as well as the impacts of scaling up push-pull and integrating it with other sustainable intensification strategies.

To learn more about the project and stay up-to-date on its progress, visit the UPSCALE website here.