By: Tan Swee Lian, Ph.D.
Published: 2015-02-15

This article is from ECHO Asia Note #23

Working with Farmers in Malaysia 1

[Editors’ Note: Dr. Tan Swee Lian is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and has been a member of ECHO’s network since the 1980s. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Malaya, Malaysia, before working in agricultural research at the Malaysian Agricultural Research & Development Institute (MARDI) for 37 years.]

In Malaysia, agriculture is practised by a range of farmers – from subsistence cultivators of the soil to sophisticated, commercially-driven entrepreneurs. The latter group are quite adept at assessing the latest in technology and varieties, and already have established marketing channels. The challenge for an agronomist and scientist like me is determining how to effectively transfer scientifically-generated technology and know-how to the aforementioned subsistence cultivators.

I worked with a government agricultural research institute for 37 years as a plant breeder and agronomist, specializing in cassava (Manihot esculenta) and sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), before retiring from fulltime employment. I continue to work with farmers and entrepreneurs who have an interest in these two root crops. In this article, I would like to share some of my experiences with ECHO Asia network members who are also involved in extending technologies to farmers.

Some Lessons Learned

1. Never assume that book learning is more important than hands-on experience or even common sense!

One day, a farmer approached me for help when his recently planted cassava crop showed patches of uneven growth. A well-meaning friend with a degree in agricultural science urged him to add more fertilizer, but more fertilizer did not help. In fact, the farmer’s wife was able to determine the problem. She told me that the cassava cuttings had arrived at the farm before the soil had been tilled in readiness for planting. She remarked that the cuttings had been left out in the open, exposed to the hot sun, while waiting to be planted (she had also shared this with the farmer at the time of planting, but was largely ignored). Of course this caused some cuttings to dry out and when planted, they either failed to survive or, if they did, they were stunted in growth. Mrs. Farmer even took the initiative of digging out these plants to “unearth” the reason…only a few shrivelled roots had developed - which were naturally unable to take advantage of the added fertilizer!

2.Showing is better than telling.

The eldest brother of a family with 25 years of experience in planting cassava always assumed that luxurious top growth is indicative of a promising root yield. He always used a balanced NPK fertilizer (15:15:15), just as the patriarch did. He proudly uprooted a large cassava plant to show me, but was disappointed (and embarrassed!) to find a disproportionately small clump of scrawny storage roots. There I was, a slip of a girl (this was in the early days of my working career), coming along to tell him that cassava needs at least twice as much potassium (K) as nitrogen (N) for good root yield. The youngest brother decided to do his own “experiment,” planting a small plot of cassava and applying a fertilizer with higher K content (12:6:22). The scepticism of the eldest brother vanished when harvest time came and the plot yielded well-filled roots!

(Auxiliary lesson: A younger farmer tends to be more open to new ideas than an older one).

[Editors’ Note: This is a great example of the benefit of small-scale research conducted with or by farmers in a “Participatory Approach.” For some past ECHO work on the Participatory Approach, see EAN #18, Fraiser; also see the MEAS project, and ECHO Asia’s work on the continuing role of the Small Farm Resource Center.]

3. Sometimes, a new farmer is more accepting of new technology.

In a group-farming pilot project to plant sweet potato for a flour factory, it was often more difficult to get farmers who had been planting sweet potato for a long time to adopt a recommended agronomic package. These farmers felt that they already had experience in planting sweet potato, so what was new to learn? They were more willing to accept a new variety than to change their agronomic practices, such as plant spacing or fertilizer rate. By contrast, those farmers who had never planted sweet potato were open to the agronomic package and keen to get it right.

4. Even “less educated” farmers can recognise a profit-making venture.

Do not assume that farmers with little to no book learning do not understand or recognise a good thing (= an opportunity to make more money) when they see it. The best way to transfer an improved technology is by actually showing it to be better. The timetested method is to plant one plot showing the traditional method of doing things, right next to another plot in which the new technology is adopted:

Working with Farmers in Malaysia table1

This can be expanded further to a 4-plot demonstration:

Working with Farmers in Malaysia table2

The last three plots should be able to clearly demonstrate that yield is increased in each case, in comparison to what the farmer had been doing in the past (the first plot).

5. Transfer of technology, like communication, is a two-way street.

Getting off your high horse and being a humble learner certainly helps. Nothing cultivates respect from farmers better than working alongside them…do not just stand back and give instructions on what should be done.

Useful Practical Tips Learned from Farmers

1.Keeping wild pigs away. Wild pigs love sweet potato and the edible varieties of cassava (they are able to sniff out the varieties that are safe to eat!). Collect hair clippings from the local barber and sprinkle them around your crop. This works in two ways:

• The human scent keeps them away,

• The snuffling or routing habit of wild pigs leads to the hair clippings being inhaled, which does not harm the pig, but is an unpleasant experience for it!

2.Keeping monkeys away. Monkeys can cause damage by breaking off shoots and branches from the cassava plants (sometimes it is just for the heck of it!). Trap one monkey, paint it red and let it go. The red monkey will frighten off his pals! It is not a permanent solution though; the monkeys learn quickly there is nothing to fear.

3. Which way up? Cassava cuttings (or setts) are either planted upright or laid flat and buried. In the former case, cuttings must be planted the right way up (i.e. the buds face up), otherwise they will not root properly and will die off eventually. When preparing cuttings, gather the long woody stems together in a bundle with the shoot ends all facing in the same direction, and tie at regular intervals. Cut them into 20-25 cm lengths, and allow the smaller bundles to fall upright into a tray containing red food dye (any other strong colour will do) so that the soilfacing ends of the cuttings are stained. This will guide the farmer on how to position the cutting correctly during planting.


Working with small farmers can sometimes be frustrating for scientists who are anxious (and impatient) to push their improved technologies. Being humble, accommodating, and helpful goes a long way in cultivating goodwill with farmers. When the farmers do finally adopt new practices which bring better yields and more income, the broad smiles on their faces will really make your day, and render all your efforts worthwhile!

Working with Farmers in Malaysia 2

Exchanging ideas with farmers