Promoting sustainable agri-food value chains in Syria

One of the most critical impacts of the Syrian conflict on agriculture was the collapse of support services for farmers (so-called extension services) which, before 2011, were provided by the government. The transition to a free-market economy has added further challenges. This project aims to address these difficulties by promoting capacity building. It provides Syrian agricultural experts living in Turkey and Syria with knowledge and new media to sustain farmers in northwest Syria.

Overview

After almost ten years of armed conflict, the Syrian economy is nowhere near the start of an enduring recovery. The crisis impacted the agricultural sector, resulting in losses and damage of crop production, livestock, infrastructure and agricultural assets, and severe disruptions of the value chains.

While the institutional structures remained in place in government-controlled areas, support systems for agriculture collapsed in opposition-held areas (northwest Syria). Despite some success with specific projects, adapting the humanitarian aid to sustain agricultural capacity has proved challenging for international donors.

The migration of many Syrian agricultural experts has led to a substantial loss in skills necessary for reconstruction efforts. Due to the lack of facilities and sector professionals, the extension services in agriculture cannot be rebuilt through fragmented programmes offered by NGOs. Furthermore, the transitions from a state-planned system, in place before 2011, to a market economy, require farmers to learn about actors, forces and processes embodied in global value chains. This knowledge gap must be addressed in order to implement a transition strategy which is not based on humanitarian aid but on long-term reconstruction.

Inspired by interdisciplinary research interests and fuelled by pre-existing collaborations, the activities promoted in this project aim to address this problem by providing Syrian academics in Turkey and Syria with knowledge of sustainable agri-food value chains, and new tools such as podcasting and digital services, to sustain farmers and other agricultural operators in northwest Syria.

Unlike other media that have seen fallow global growth in recent years, podcasting is expanding exponentially. In 2018, 350,000 podcasts were available; today there are nearly 1 million. This growth has been particularly rapid in Africa where traditional media access can be sporadic. Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in the UK says, “in Africa, smartphones are more dominant than in the rest of the world.” As a result, he estimates 40% of more educated Africans were using podcasts. This suggests that podcasting is likely to be successful in reaching Syrian farmers with sustainability and value chain messages. 

Based on this research, follow-on project using digital infrastructure to improve food security and environmental conservation in Northwest Syria was funded by SSRP. 

An introduction to the ‘Agricultural Voices Syria’ project

Download the transcript of this video in English [PDF 354KB].

Download the transcript of this video in Arabic [PDF 349KB].

Project description

One of the main project goals was to facilitate the delivery of extension services directly to farmers and other agricultural operators. The project set a target of 500 farmers to use the app and listen to the podcast episodes. The information provided helped farmers to improve the quality of agricultural inputs, increase productivity, reduce waste, sustainably process agricultural by-products; these actions translated into increased income and more sustainable agricultural practices.

This project increased cohesion in the community of farmers in Afrin, Jarablus, Al Bab and Azaz districts who have become communities of podcast users and will potentially be more likely to share common goals. Over time it will contribute to the growth of farmer organisations – the main promoters of podcasts on the ground – and will strengthen the relationship between farmers and Syrian agronomists in exile. Several experts in agriculture-related disciplines living in Turkey are collaborating with local NGOs in northwest Syria and cooperation between all these actors will provide top-down support to the agricultural policy reforms strongly needed in this area.

Through dissemination, the impact of this work will proliferate and underpin a significant broadening of the field of media studies to encompass developmental challenges in conflict contexts. Another important impact is in capacity building of researchers from conflict-affected states. Academic populations in exile embody the country’s intellectual heritage, and are thus crucial to its industrial, cultural and civic futures. Supporting them to network and publish internationally will leave a legacy of increased Syrian presence and influence in the international academic arena.

This project promoted a culture of partnership and collaboration between Syrian academics (members of the Academic Centre for Development and Peace Studies (ACDP) and local NGOs and farmers in Syria which, in the long term, should create the foundations for multi-stakeholder organisations capable of promoting the development of a modern and sustainable agricultural sector in Syria. The ACDP's vision is that Syrian food and agriculture should become an ‘engine for peace’ in the process of reconstruction. Podcasting and other communication platforms allows Syrian researchers living in Turkey and in Syria to actively promote values of peace and cooperation through their work.

The project was implemented by the University of Sussex in partnership with the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara) Syria Programme, the Academic Centre for Development and Peace Studies (ACDP) and Syrian Academic Expertise (SAE) for Agriculture and Food Security.

Cara's institutional aim is to provide a lifeline to academics at risk which resonates with our university’s values and vision. The University of Sussex is already committed to Cara’s work, being a member of the ‘Cara Scholars at Risk UK Universities Network’ but to date has not capitalised on this partnership by opening, for example, an interdisciplinary hub. Building on the opportunity to carry out research in Syria should reinforce cross-school collaborations for joint research and teaching programmes.

The project was organised in four stages, and several activities implemented over 30 weeks:

First stage (4 weeks)

The first stage was dedicated to the organisation of activities, selection of the research assistants, and purchase of the equipment for podcasting.

Second stage (12 weeks)

This stage was divided into three main groups of activities which are developed in parallel.

The first group was dedicated to the preparation of the first podcast series called 'Agricultural Voices Syria' (fifteen episodes were recorded in Arabic, with a transcript in English also available). The topics include:

  • Irrigation and fertilisation of crops, vegetables and fruit trees
  • Soil preparation and productivity improvement
  • Integrated control of crop and fruit (olive, pistachio) diseases
  • Alternative crops
  • Seed production and conservation of local vegetables
  • Organic fertilisers and compost production
  • Olive products and quality improvement
  • Production methods and yield
  • Cultivation methods in hydroponics
  • Home-made methods of preserving and processing vegetables

The second group was dedicated to designing a smartphone application, allowing Syrian farmers to access the podcasts from mobile phones, and developing the ACDP-SAE website to support podcasts and additional communication with users.

The third group was dedicated to researching the best international practices of sustainability in agri-food value chains. Drawing on academic literature from environmental studies, global value chains, political ecology and international trade studies, five case studies on successful practices in agri-food value chains were prepared: agricultural resource use; producer organisations; food standards; by-products and waste and international institutions and trade regulations. Specific examples from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries were selected because their climatic conditions make the farming of crops and trees present in Syria possible.

Third stage (10 weeks)

The third stage was dedicated to promoting the app and podcasts among the Syrian farmers and their organisations through ACDP-SAE’s network in northwest Syria (including Afrin, Jarablus, Al Bab and Azaz districts in the Governorate of Aleppo) which brought together local NGOs and farming organisations representing hundreds of farmers. The promoters instructed farmers on how to download the app, use the podcasts and subscribe to the user community (free subscription). They also ran a survey to gather information from farmers. The data collected through a questionnaire was analysed and used to inform further decisions regarding podcast content and promotion channels.

Final stage (4 weeks)

This stage was dedicated to the dissemination of final results via a workshop delivered on Zoom, assessment of the project impact, and planning of future actions for developing the partnership.

Agricultural Voices Syria podcast host Zuhier AghaAgricultural Voices Syria podcast host, Eng. Zuhier Agha

Timeline and funding

Timeline

January 2021-July 2021

Funding

SSRP-IDCF funding (£25,000)

Further information

Listen to the podcast episodes on Anchor by Spotify (recorded in Arabic) and see the English transcripts of each podcast episode.

For more information about the project and for the latest updates, visit the Agricultural Voices Syria website.

Agricultural Voices Syria banner

Awards and media coverage

In April 2022, the project received the Interdisciplinary Research Award 2021, granted by Emerald Publishing, for providing knowledge transfer from Syrian agricultural experts living in Turkey and Syria and new media to sustain farmers in northwest Syria.

Interdisciplinary Research Award 2021 banner

University of Sussex news items:

The team

Follow-on project

Agricultural Voices respond to Syrian farmers. Using digital infrastructure to improve food security and environmental conservation in Northwest Syria

The Agricultural Voices of Syria podcast series, launched in 2021 by Syrian agricultural experts living in exile and in Syria, has contributed to the empowerment of the farmer community in northwest Syria who, during a survey launched in May, requested corresponding video recordings to the podcasts. This project was designed to address their demand by creating a series of short videos on sustainable agricultural techniques and best sustainability-oriented projects implemented in northwest Syria.

  • Project description

    The ICDF-SSRP funded project addressed the lack of agricultural extension services in northwest Syria and created Agriculture Voices Syria (AVS), a podcast series aimed at providing essential information to farmers. Currently, it reaches more than 5,000 farmers providing them with timely needed information about cultivation techniques, resource uses and crop diseases. During the launch of AVS in May 2021, more than 1,000 farmers were surveyed. About one third expressed strong interest in supplementary videos, practical demonstrations and field visits. The SSRP-funded Impact Project helped to promote AVS within local councils and NGOs in northwest Syria. During three workshoporganised in Azaz, Idleb and Gaziantep, the interest for using AVS as a platform to promote best practices emerged.

    This follow-on project will produce videos to complement the topics covered by podcasts, and interviews with NGOs which implemented successful agricultural projects in Northwest Syria. The expansion into visual material builds on the knowledge and expertise in the audio outputs. It also creates further pedagogical engagement and knowledge-transfer opportunities in an easily accessible medium, well-suited to prevalent forms of access and consumption (mostly mobile phones). The skills and equipment acquired during the duration of the project will enable the participants to continue and expand this work independently, after the project is completed.

    Project stages and activities

    First Stage (6 weeks): Training provided by the University of Sussex and Cara 
    • Purchase of the equipment for filming and video editing software
    • Practical training courses for four participants on video making delivered by a professional filmmaker, including provision of permanent, accessible learning materials and feedback sessions 
    Second Stage (10 weeks): Video production (provided by SAE, supported by the University of Sussex and Cara)
    • Production of videos on agricultural practices and interviews on environmental conservation best practice with local NGOs, undertaken by training course participants 
    • Promotion of videos on social media and through newsletters
    Final Stage (6 weeks): Promotion and dissemination (led by SAE and the University of Sussex, supported by Cara)
    • Promotion of videos to Syrian farmers and collection of feedback through a short questionnaire
    • Dissemination of project results

    Expected outcomes and impacts

    AVS is a user-friendly digital infrastructure which delivers quick advice to farmers.Given the very material/physical nature of many of the pragmatic issue faced when farming, adding easily accessible visual content to the already existing audio output provides an effective way of communicating vital information and providing reference material that can be accessed as and when necessaryThe information provided with the podcasts and videos will help farmers to improve the quality of agricultural inputs, increase productivity, reduce organic waste, sustainably process agricultural by-products. These actions will translate into increased income and more sustainable agricultural practices while food supply and food security will be increased (SDG 2). By learning to control the quality of agricultural inputs and waste management, how to use local cultivars, implement updated irrigation techniques and prioritise solar power sources, farmers will be able to achieve sustainable production and conservation of natural resources (SDG 12). 

    As well as providing access to vital information, the project’s focus on skills and training responds to the well-documented need to draw on and amplify local knowledge already present and applied in northwest Syria. By creating the opportunity for local stakeholders (farmers, agricultural experts and NGOs) to lead the knowledge production process, and gain the means and expertise to effectively communicate it, the project fosters peer-to-peer knowledge exchange which is likely to result in establishing strong and lasting community networks. Moreover, using this social media infrastructure helps contribute to the consolidation of farmers’ networks, and this is beneficial for developing a bottom-up approach to local development.

    The consolidation of our relationship with Cara and SAE is important for developing future initiatives. The University of Sussex is already committedto Cara’s work, being a member of the ‘Cara Scholars at Risk UK Universities Network’, but more support is needed to sustain Cara’s institutional goals.

  • The Team

    Principal Investigator

    Co-investigator

    Project Partners

  • Timeline and funding
    Timeline

    March 2022-July 2022

    Funding

    SSRP funding (£12,000)

Where we worked

Turkey and Syria.