(Tetum) They travel hundreds of kilometres on bumpy district roads each year, visit hundreds of farming families, and give expert advice on selecting seed and good agricultural practices.
They’re the suco (village) extension officers (SEOs) of Timor-Leste, and they’re helping thousands of farming families grow more food by enabling access to improved food crop varieties released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF).
According to Seed of Life’s (SoL) Community and Commercial Seed Development Advisor Buddhi Kunwar, SEOs are leading the frontline charge to improve food security at the household level.
“SEOs give farmers knowledge about improved varieties with higher yields and then how to work together to produce their own stock of improved planting materials, enabling families to grow more food to feed themselves.
“Extension officers are teaching farming families how to manage risk and become more resilient. Farmers are learning how to choose quality seed for planting and how to use better storage methods to minimise post-harvest losses,” he said.
This is vital work in a country where 70% of the population depend on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and over 30% are subsistence farmers.
SoL working with SEOs on extending seed and production techniques
There are 400 extension officers (370 men, 30 women) employed by MAF and working in all 13 districts of Timor-Leste advising farmers on new technologies, planting techniques, seed varieties and seed storage.
“Farmers are learning how to choose quality seed for planting and how to use better storage methods to minimise post-harvest losses”
Seeds of Life work closely with the SEOs to teach them about extending new seed varieties and good planting techniques to farmers explains Buddhi.
“Last month we organised cross visits for SEOs in each district to successful farmers in neighbouring districts.
“During these trips they learned about seed production and marketing activities of successful commercial seed producers and observed model sweet potato cuttings production centres maintained by community seed production groups,” he said.
“Early in 2013 we also ran communication and facilitation training workshops for over 70 SEOs and coordinators to teach them tools to use in engaging farmers in two-way dialogue.”
These trainings are collectively helping SEOs provide farmer-oriented information that are more responsive to farmers needs.
“Farmers are very keen to learn new information,” says Buddhi. “They want to know what new varieties are available, if they’re adapted to the stresses of the local climate and how they can access the varieties.”
“These trainings are empowering SEOs to give better advice, meaning farmers have more choice and can make more informed decisions.”
These activities support GIZ, CAMOES and other NGOs’ efforts to build the overall capacity of the agricultural extension service.
SEOs enabling access to improved varieties
Domingos and Eliza Mendonca along with their seven children are one family in Fihiria, Aileu, that got improved variety seed from their SEO, which Seeds of Life research shows is farmers’ main method of access.
“We first got Nakroma rice seeds from our extension officer in 2012 and every harvest in the last three years has been good.
“I only want to plant the Nakroma variety because it’s soft to eat, sweet, and tasty like milk,” he said.
Beyond supporting 400 SEOs, Seeds of Life is working with 31 registered commercial seed producers to make improved varieties available in suco markets, enabling broader access to the varieties.
SEOs will continue to play a large role in disseminating information about improved seed varieties as Seeds of Life work towards its goal of 50% of all Timorese farming families using one or more improved variety by 2016.