“Our ideas fell on fertile ground”

Andi Schriber looks back on 20 years of real help. At the start, we also had problems to overcome. In an interview, the CEO looks forward to future challenges and reveals the secret to Biovision’s successful development.

By Stefan Hartmann, Journalist, Zurich

Man and woman are perching on a field
Left: Andreas Schriber, CEO Biovision

There are now many western NGOs working in Africa. The Biovision Foundation was set up 20 years ago. Does it have a particular message?

It’s quite simple: If we were not needed, we would no longer exist. We started with an idea and not money and so we first had to demonstrate that we could get our idea to the farmers in question.

What is the Biovision idea?

At its heart is the spread of sustainable, ecological solutions for agriculture. We want to convey useful information that encourages development and helps to end hunger.

How is this practical knowledge transferred to the rural population?

We take findings from scientific research into rural areas and make them useable in practice. The best known example is probably the push-pull method for maize that was developed in Kenya.

What is it?

The stem borer moth destroys the stems of the maize and the striga weed damages the roots. Such attacks often totally destroy the harvest. To combat them, the researchers at icipe developed practices that were just as effective as harmful chemicals but were also sustainable.

How difficult was it to introduce farmers to the icipe method?

The farmers had been persuaded in the past to spray their crops or use different varieties of maize. When Biovision came along, we showed them that there were alternatives.

Did the method immediately fall on fertile ground?

We selected groups of farmers living on the shores of Lake Victoria and thought that if we could show the method worked there then the word would spread like wild fire. However, the desired snowball effect was not forthcoming – despite the work of our eco-instructors who offered the training.

Why was this? What were the barriers to acceptance?

It involved more work for the farmers. First of all, they had to learn something new and also plant an intercrop. The benefits were not immediately obvious.

What did Biovision learn from that?

We decided to target women in particular because planting is primarily done by them. In addition, the women had been reluctant to attend a course if it were run by a man. The gender aspect was, therefore, crucial.

It is very important to spread ideas and create momentum; how does Biovision do this?

Radio plays a major role in Africa. If listeners hear their own people talking on the radio about what happened to them, they are much more likely to be persuaded than if external advisers visit their village. In addition, our magazine for farmers is also very popular.

Biovision focusses on the UN Sustainable Development Goal “Zero hunger”. What is that?

Our generation has the power to conquer global hunger. However, this is not just something for developing countries because food security is closely allied to issues such as climate change and poverty. This is why Biovision is a strong advocate both in Switzerland and internationally for development that is both fair and ecological.

So, Biovision provides development aid in Switzerland as well?

Sustainability is an issue that not only affects Africa! Switzerland is a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 and Biovision is one of the founders of the Swiss Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). Political conditions in Africa often impede important changes.

How does Biovision deal with this?

Our work to raise awareness is particularly targeted at decision makers. In Senegal and Kenya, we brought together government agencies, farmers and the private sector and worked through a range of future scenarios. An increasing number of people in both the Global North and South are now showing an interest in sustainable solutions and therefore, you first need a constructive, informed dialogue.

Does this political dialogue mean a change in strategy for Biovision?

The various interest groups must work together – both locally and globally. What we have achieved with farmer groups locally must be reinforced by action at the highest level.

Is Biovision on the right course?

There is a huge demand in rural areas for our approach despite the fact that we do not hand out money or provide infrastructure. What we offer is information on how to farm differently without poisonous chemicals.

What does Andreas Schriber dream of?

That one day we can launch a campaign for sustainable solutions fronted by a superstar such as Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese musician and UN Malaria Ambassador. We have already made contact but funding is not currently available.

Biovision has enjoyed impressive growth. What is its secret?

The reputation and experience of our founder Hans Rudolf Herren were certainly a huge help. We then linked his vision to a sustainable structure. Our approach makes sense and is smart and effective. Our donors appreciate that – as do the people for whom our help for self-help offers real prospects.