Workshop on building resilience of smallholder farming systems in Sri Lanka

Dr Ebrahim Jahanshiri shares his experience attending the Agri-Innovation Consortium: Building resilience of smallholder farming systems in Sri Lanka through innovative and sustainable agricultural technologies workshop, which was held in Sri Lanka from 19 – 24 March.
In February 2017, I was excited to receive the news that our application for the Newton Fund Extension Award was granted. Key contributors to the application were: Prof. Neil Crout from The University of Nottingham (UoN) (Principal investigator), Prof. Asha S. Karunaratne from Sabaragamuwa University (SUSL), Prof. Nissanka from the University of Peradeniya, (UPDN) and I represented Crops For the Future. The funding was to support consortium building activities, particularly, a workshop hosted by SUSL and UPDN to draw together relevant expertise from the UK and Malaysia, with potential Sri Lankan partners. This was supplemented by consulting and networking with relevant key stakeholders (Secretaries of Ministries, Director General-Department of Agriculture and Community Based Organisations), smallholder farm visits and follow-ups with potential industry stakeholders. The workshop was an important opportunity for us to build partnerships and learn more about the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka. Also in attendance with me was Dr Aryo Feldman
 
The first day of the programme was spent on knowledge sharing as speakers gave presentations to the workshop participants. This was followed by discussions in the afternoon on innovative solutions that could be implemented in Sri Lanka. The programme was not confined to just presentations and discussions, as we also had the opportunity to visit selected farms that were classified in the wet and dry zones i.e. wet (annual average rainfall of 2500 mm) and dry (precipitation below 800 mm per year) zones. One of the farms we visited was a ‘home garden’ near Kandy in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Farmers in these home gardens usually sustain themselves on the fruits and vegetables that are grown without much human intervention and therefore they do not need any specific farm operations (other than irrigation in dry months). 
Presenting to attendees of the workshop
My colleagues and I out in the home garden in ‘wet zone’. From left Dr Aryo Feldman (CFF), home garden farmer, Prof. Neil Crout (UoN), Prof. Sarath Nissanka (UPDN), Dr Debbie Sparkes (UoN), myself and Prof. Asha Karunaratne (SUSL)
Home garden farmer dissecting a wild grapefruit
Delicious tea break prepared by the farms’ family!
The next day, we travelled up north to the dry zone in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. We took part in a focus group discussion with the farmers and visited a few farms close to The Mahailluppallama Sub Campus, approximately 128 km away from the University of Peradeniya. The discussion we had with farmers allowed us to gain a better understanding on some of the challenges they are facing. A common challenge faced was on water management issues due to the lack of knowledge on agricultural best practices. It was also fascinating to hear some of the risks these farmers take in terms of agricultural productivity. For example, one of the farmers shared with us on how she took a risk when she decided to grow soursop, a crop that was unfamiliar to her. Another farmer was experimenting with intercropping systems such as banana-coconut and another one was cultivating rain-fed soybean. It was very encouraging to hear these farmers step out of their comfort zones and how open they were to experimenting with new crops and cropping systems. 
Focus group discussion with farmers
It was very interesting to hear the different challenges faced by these farmers
Farmers harvesting rain-fed soybean
Farmer experimenting with banana-coconut intercropping system
The last day of the workshop was spent on summing the innovation ideas and brainstorming projects that could be defined within the Sri Lankan context. Following this, the group will reconvene in the coming months to develop research proposals for funding applications around the raised ideas. The workshop was an opportunity to not only learn about Sri Lankan agriculture, but also admire the rich cultural and historical sights (including The Bodhi Tree of Anuradhapura) while we were there. I hope to visit again sometime soon!