ECHO and University of Tennessee: Ongoing collaborations serving smallholders in Southeast Asia

By Drs. Tom Gill and David Ader, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

Since 2015, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) has collaborated with the ECHO Asia Regional Impact Center on two agricultural projects in Cambodia. Collaboration is essential but finding effective partners who can build trustworthy networks has proven challenging for UTIA in the past. 

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ECHO Asia’s partnership with UTIA has leveraged the teaching-research-extension expertise of the University, providing reliable and responsive networks through ECHO to advance sustainable agro-ecological solutions for Cambodian smallholders.

ECHO has helped UTIA by training Cambodian farm managers and technicians. In November 2017, this group of managers and technicians traveled to ECHO Asia’s office and seed bank in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a one-week workshop. The workshop was led by Dr. Abram Bicksler (ECHO Asia) and Dr. Ricky Bates (The Pennsylvania State University). These managers and technicians worked with UTIA, Penn State, and a range of other Southeast Asian partners on the Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab project. The SIIL project is USAID-funded and Kansas State University-managed. The Cambodian farmers trained are leaders of agricultural technology demonstration parks throughout the country. The training helped them increase the potential capacity of these demonstration parks as places for learning and innovative research. 

ECHO’s Dr. Bicksler, along with UTIA researchers, delivered a workshop to 50 farmers at the University of Battambang’s farm.

ECHO’s Dr. Bicksler, along with UTIA researchers, delivered a workshop to 50 farmers at the University of Battambang’s farm.

The workshop discussed agricultural diversification options to improve smallholder farming systems. In this lowland, rainfed region of northwest Cambodia, smallholder farmers have faced frequent challenges. They struggled with managing cattle and providing high quality fodder in their rice-dominated systems. Workshop sessions addressed the following issues: silage production for improved animal nutrition and health, production of high quality fodder through diverse species’ cultivation, the use of living fences for control of cattle in the dry season, and the use of grafting for improved production of vegetables in the rainy season. 

A critical constraint to strategic farming is the availability and knowledge of high performing and well-adapted seeds. Dr. Bicksler provided information to farmers about low-tech options. These ideas included seed storage, well-adapted monsoonal seed varieties, high quality open-pollinated vegetables and other nutritionally supplemental crops for smallholder diets.  

Collaborations between UTIA, ECHO Asia and other partners in Southeast Asia have proven fruitful. Moving forward, the partnership hopes to further investigate options for Cambodian smallholders. One proposed next step may be documenting smallholder “wild gardens”. These typically-overlooked spaces could be assessed for opportunities to learn and improve smallholder management.

In East Africa, the average ECHO trainee trains 472 others. Here's why:

Over the last year, ECHO East Africa has mobilized communities to prevent the spread of a toxic weed and invasive worm that threaten farmers’ crops and livelihoods.


Demand for ECHO’s agricultural training events is expanding in East Africa. In the last 12 months, the East Africa team has held nine training events, directly training over 300 small-scale farmers, development workers, and extension agents in six countries. These partners overwhelmingly have communities with whom to share ECHO techniques. At the ECHO office in Arusha, they have welcomed 829 visitors to tour their grounds and learn from the different demonstrations.

Training Trainers to Impact Others 

We celebrate that ECHO trainings are inspiring other NGOs to seek additional ways to use agriculture to address the needs of those they are serving. For example, a fruitful partnership with SHARE, a non-profit organization in the region, was formed after a staff member attended an ECHO East Africa Pastoralist Symposium in Nanyuki, Kenya. The SHARE staff was so impressed with the gospel proclamation along with the sustainable agriculture methods being promoted that they asked ECHO to lead a training in the Turkana region of Kenya and decided to hire someone to lead an agricultural aspect of their organization. To ensure he was well prepared for the job, they sent him to the ECHO East Africa Impact Center for an internship.

In Their Own Words

“Erwin [ECHO East Africa Director] came to Rwanda thoroughly prepared and led an outstanding Christ-centered training program. His leadership led to the establishment of a follow-up plan that will result not only in ensuring the trainees’ implementation of what they learned, but also in the dissemination of this throughout their community and beyond”.    ~Rob, whose Virginia church sponsored a training 

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One Training Leads to Many More

Last year, ECHO began to establish a relationship with Theological Book Network (TBN). TBN is a non-profit organization with connections to more than 1,000 seminaries around the world. 

Once the students become pastors, they are often sent to remote areas of their countries to work in churches and farm to provide for the needs of their families. Training these students not only benefits the families of future pastors, but can also impact entire congregations.

Because there was a felt need among the students for training in sustainable agricultural practices, TBN invited ECHO to train on Sustainable Integrated Agricultural at Africa Renewal University in Uganda. Twenty-eight students attended the training, learning simple agricultural methods proven to advance food security, nutrition, and livelihoods. 

This event also sparked other universities to recognize the need for ECHO trainings. Two additional universities have requested for ECHO to hold training events for their students, and ECHO continues to be in discussion with TBN about how to continue to work with seminaries to provide training in sustainable agriculture.

This same multiplication is happening over and over across villages, church networks, and partner organizations throughout the region. 

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As our impact grows... our opportunities expand

Indigenous Trees Meet Indigenous Needs

The East Africa team has cultivated a diverse collection of thousands of indigenous tree saplings that they are propagating to disseminate throughout Tanzania. These trees have helped entire communities to fight erosion and build healthy soils. The staff has also been educating about these indigenous trees on radio programs broadcast throughout the Arusha area.

Could you farm... if you had never been trained in agriculture?

Christopher D'Aiuto is a soil scientist that was on staff at ECHO from 2011-2013, as part of the research team in South Africa. He and ECHO’s East Africa Director Erwin Kinsey traveled to Tzaneen, Limpopo, South Africa in March to conduct a five-day sustainable agriculture training.

The training was for 25 leader farmers from multiple churches within Limpopo Church Network (LCN) and other government officers from the area, supported by the Willow Creek Church.  These leader farmers will be able to pass on what they have learned to many others through their churches and communities. An unexpected outcome has been the willingness of government officers who attended to support follow-up work through visits to the trainees over the next few months. This was especially encouraging to the entire group. 

by Christopher D'Aiuto


After Apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa started a voluntary land reform program where the government would pay farmers for their property and redistribute it for free to peoples disadvantaged by Apartheid. Largely, I've only heard the sad stories of how this land's crop production is diminished, the land is sold for cash, or just used to build a house.

I was very intrigued to learn that many of the farmers at this training had been given their farms through this land reform program. They said that the government never offered training on how to farm once they took over. This week-long training was the first in-depth agricultural workshop they'd ever had. Despite a lack of farming education, they had learned most of what they needed to start up from their experienced neighbors. Impressively, some of our trainees were selling to large South African regional markets and even exporting fruits and vegetables to Europe. These achievements were the best success stories I'd ever heard from land reform, and have given me so much hope that South Africa will move forward to be a country with more equality and fairness without losing food security. There is great need to keep teaching these emerging farmers!

On the first day Erwin and I demonstrated soil principles about the effects of tillage and mulching on water infiltration and erosion. The trainees were astounded to see how much soil is eroded during a simple rain after being tilled and left with a bare surface. When they saw how little water went into the soil and how much soil was washed away, many of them vowed to till their soil less and to try minimal tillage implements. 

After teaching a session on Integrated Pest Management, one farmer, who was a very quiet student, came up to me and commented that he had never been told that there are things he can do to prevent pest and diseases from attacking his crops! He said his agricultural suppliers only ever wanted to sell him more and more chemical sprays to treat problems after they happened. He said he would start using control methods to prevent infestations, reducing or eliminating the need for chemical treatments. 

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The facilitators and hosts of the workshop, Linda and Johnson, were an inspiring and incredible example of how much faithful farmers can accomplish. In only a few years living on this farm they are exporting dried sweet potatoes, and sending zucchini and green beans to regional markets. On the farm they use worm compost and tea, have demonstration kitchen garden options, and use legumes, that they received from ECHO, as a green manure. They prayerfully hosted this exceptional training workshop, and showed their deep interest in teaching farming from a biblical perspective. Their example and hard work was a blessing to all the farmers who attended, and especially to Erwin and me. They are the most inspiring farmers I've ever met.