Homegrown Solutions to Alleviating Poverty and Hunger

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

 

"We’ve got hundreds of local foods, almost 600 that we’ve categorized through our research," said Kristof Nordin in a January interview with Nourishing the Planet project co-Director, Danielle Nierenberg, at the permaculture project he runs in Malawi with his wife, Stacia (see also: Malawi’s Real Miracle). "But we are starving because we are only planting one crop: maize, which came originally from America."

Many efforts to combat hunger and drought across Africa emphasize boosting yields of staple crops such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice, which can provide much-needed calories as well as income to millions of farmers. These staples, however, lack many essential micronutrients, including Vitamin A, thiamin, and niacin. That is why many communities rely on indigenous vegetables such as amaranth, dika, moringa, and baobab to add both nutrients and taste to staple foods. These vegetables are rich in vitamins and nutrients and are often naturally resistant to local pests and climatic fluctuations, making them an important tool in the fight against hunger and poverty.

"We are not saying stop growing maize, we grow maize as well," continued Kristof. "But we try to show people how it can be part of an integrated system, how that integrated agriculture can be part of a balanced diet."

Greater variety can lead to a better tasting diet, too, according to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center’s Regional Director for Africa in Arusha, Tanzania. "None of the staple crops would be palatable without vegetables," he told Danielle when she visited the center last November. For almost 20 years now, the Center—part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan—has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs (see Listening to Farmers).

In addition to providing the vitamins and nutrients needed for a complete diet, indigenous vegetables are more affordable and accessible to farmers who might otherwise be forced to pay for costly imported staple crops and the inputs they require. According to the Center’s website, vegetable production also generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises.

Indigenous vegetables help to preserve culture and traditions as well. "If a person doesn’t know how to cook or prepare food, they don’t know how to eat," said Edward Mukiibi, a coordinator with the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project in Uganda, in a December interview with Danielle. The DISC project, founded by Edward and Roger Serunjogi in 2006, hopes to instill greater environmental awareness and appreciation for food, nutrition, and gastronomy by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day, and boarding schools. By focusing on indigenous vegetables, the project not only preserves Ugandan culture, but also shows kids how agriculture can be a way to improve diets, livelihoods, and food security (see How to Keep Kids Down on the Farm).

Sylvia Banda is another cultural pioneer. She founded Sylva Professional Catering Services in 1986 in part because she was tired of seeing Western-style foods preferred over traditional Zambian fare like chibwabwa (pumpkin leaves) and impwa (dry garden eggplant) (see Winrock International and Sylva Professional Catering Services Ltd).What started as a catering business grew into a restaurant, cooking school, and hotel, with training programs that teach farmers in Zambia, mostly women, to grow indigenous crops. Sylva’s company purchases the surplus crops from the farmers it trains and uses them in the traditional meals prepared by her facilities, improving local livelihoods and keeping the profits in the local economy.

"When I first met some of these families, their children were at home while school was in session," Sylvia said during a Community Food Enterprise Panel and Discussion hosted by Winrock International in Washington, D.C., in January. "They told me that they didn’t have money to pay for education. But after becoming suppliers for my business, the families can afford to send their children to school and even to buy things like furniture for their houses."

Women who grow vegetable gardens in Kibera slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya, were among the best prepared for the country’s 2007 food crisis, despite being some of the poorest members of society. Their gardens provided family meals at a time when no other food was coming into the city. With food prices on the rise in Africa and the impacts of climate change becoming more significant, home gardens raising indigenous vegetables that are resistant to extreme weather and are rich in vitamins and nutrients have become even more important (see Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera).

As these examples illustrate, most parts of sub-Saharan Africa "have everything they need right here," according to Kristof.

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1,000 Words About Mauritius

Crossposted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

Full disclosure: We had never heard of the Republic of Mauritius until the day we bought a ticket to go there.

Our pathetic excuse: Lonely Planet doesn’t list it in their Africa book.

When we arrived people seemed shocked to meet two people from the United States – hotel clerks, cab drivers, and street vendors who’ve worked on the island for years said they never met Americans before.

Yet, this is clearly America’s loss because sitting in the middle of the Indian ocean is one of the most incredible islands we’ve ever visited.

We always try to reduce our carbon footprint by traveling via public buses, but in this case a boat didn’t seem like a good option and flights from Johannesburg were extremely cheap. We resisted the urge to splurge on an all-inclusive beach holiday and opted for the more budget hostel pay-as-you-go experience.We had only four days and wanted to make the most of them and interacting with people seemed more interesting than lounging forever on a beach.

While English is the official language, few people spoke it. Bernie’s upbringing in Montreal came in handy as we interacted with people using French. Our cab driver from the airport to Grand Bay, Shivan, told us how safe the country was and how people co-exist harmoniously, “we are different colors, with different cultures, but we live together peacefully here. People are all the same, and we all treat each other that way.” The more we interacted with locals, the more people echoed the same sentiments. The traditional foods we ate reflected this multi-ethnicity melting pot, blending Indian, Creole, Chinese and European influences.

“It’s not like most places in Africa,” another cab driver told us. “You can walk anywhere at night. You can leave your stuff unattended. We don’t have much crime here, people will help you  – not bother you  – and its very rare that they will steal anything from you.”

We asked another local named Richard why he thought it was so safe and he told me that the government took care of it’s people. “Everyone gets a good pension, no matter how long or where you worked; all people get access to health care and free education; and if you’re too poor to own a house then the government builds one for you with electricity for free (and after paying basic rent for seven years, you own it).”

Another person we asked, named Marie, said that Mauritius lacked the government corruption of most African countries, citing it as the reason people visit there over nearby islands such as Madagascar and Comoros. “We have a real democracy,” she said.

In Mauritius, the government is elected on a five-year basis. The last general elections took place on July 3, 2005 in all the 20 mainland constituencies, as well as the constituency covering the island of Rodrigues.

The British left the country after they attained independence in 1968, and became a republic in 1992. According to the 2009 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures governance using a number of different variables, Mauritius’ government earned the highest rank among African nations for “participation and human rights” and “sustainable economic opportunity”, as well as earning the highest score in the index overall. Mauritius came second in “rule of law”, and fourth in terms of “human development” (source: Wikipedia).

Our hostel (Grand Bay Beach Residence), booked via Student Flights (affiliated with Liberty travel in the United States), was terrific value. It is located in short walking distance from the town of Grand Bay and the ocean. The price was around thirty dollars per night, but considering the fact that free 3G WiFi worked on the outdoor deck and taking into account the hours we spent uploading video files and talking on conference calls to the United States on Skype – we got lots of unexpected value.  Things like restaurants and tourist destinations are very expensive on the island, but buying groceries and having drinks in the hotel room before heading out dancing allows budget travelers to enjoy everything without a hefty toll on your wallet. All the beaches everywhere in the country are public for both locals and tourists and that was something we enjoyed taking advantage of.

We drove across the Island learning more about the country’s agriculture, which, next to tourism, is their biggest source of income. Sugar cane is the largest export, and the plots of land growing them stretched for miles. We were told that this crop accounted for a quarter of all exports from the country. We also saw lots of pineapple and coffee being grown.

Yet, an industry that surprised us was the booming hi-tech sector. We certainly didn’t expect coast-to-coast wireless internet (3G) when we arrived (it covers 60 percent of the island and is cheap and widely assessable).  

We also played tourists and visited Triolet Shivala, the biggest Hindu temple of the island. The temple is dedicated to the Gods Shiva, Krishna, Vishna, Muruga, Brahma and Ganesha. This place is also the longest village on the island.

We also saw the “Coloured Earths of Chamarel,” among the oddest sites of the island. There are seven-coloured dunes at Chamarel, the result from the weathering of volcanic rocks. And a short drive away, we relaxed, eating spicy pineapple near the breathtaking Chamarel waterfalls. And we admit, we visited the beaches there as well.

As we boarded the plane, we looked at each other, and said we hoped to visit this magical island again.

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Recovery is a Word You Hear a Lot in Rwanda

Crossposted from BorderJumpers.org. Originally featured on Thought Leader, written by Danielle Nierenberg, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and Jim De Vries, director of Heifer International’s Programs Division.

From public-service announcements on television to billboards – it’s the motto for a place that just 15 years ago was torn apart by genocide. More than one million people were murdered in 1994 as ethnic strife turned neighbour against neighbour in one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history.

“Heifer is helping a recovery process,” explained Dr Dennis Karamuzi, a veterinarian and the programmes manager for Heifer International Rwanda. Heifer started its projects in Rwanda in 2000 in a community in Gicumbi District, about an hour outside of Kigali, the capital. This community was especially hard hit by the genocide because it’s close to the border with Uganda. Residents, who weren’t killed, fled to Kigali for safety.

In the years following the genocide, Gicumbi District is making a comeback thanks, in part, to Heifer International. Heifer works with farmers all over the world, helping them develop sustainable agriculture practices, including providing livestock and training farmers how to raise them.

Heifer’s start in Rwanda was a little rocky. At first the community was suspicious of the group – because they were giving farmers “very expensive cows” says Holindintwali Cyprien, one of the farmers trained by Heifer to raise dairy cows; they didn’t understand how the group could just give them away. Many community members thought that it was a plot by the government to have them raise livestock and then take them away, a remnant of the ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis that started the conflict there in the 1990s.

But Heifer introduced a South African dairy breed, known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr Karamuzi, “no stock of good [dairy cow] genes” was left in the country after the genocide. And he says that these animals help prove “that even poor farmers can take care of high-producing cows”.

And these animals don’t only provide milk – which can be an important source of protein for the hungry – and income to families. They also provide manure, which is a source of fertiliser for crops and is now helping provide bio-gas for cooking to households raising cows in the country as part of a national bio-gas programme.

Madame Helen Bahikwe, another farmer in Gicumbi District, began working with Heifer International in 2002. She now has five cows – and an excess of manure. With a subsidy from the government, Helen built a bio-gas collection tank, which allows her to use the methane from decomposing manure to cook for her 10-person family. She no longer has to collect or buy firewood, saving both time and money and protecting the environment. The fuel is also cleaner burning, eliminating the smoke that comes from other sources of fuel.

Heifer is also helping farmers become teachers, training other Heifer partners. Holindintwali Cyprien hasn’t always been a farmer. After the genocide, he and his wife, Donatilla, were school teachers, making about $USD50 monthly. Living in a small house constructed of mud, without electricity or running water they were saving to buy a cow to help increase their income. But when Heifer International started working in Rwanda almost a decade ago, Cyprien and Donatilla were chosen as one of the first 93 farmers in the country to be Heifer partner families. Along with the gift of a cow, the family also received training and support from Heifer project coordinators.

Today, they’ve used their gift to not only increase their monthly income – they now make anywhere from $USD 300-600 a month – but also improved the family’s living conditions and nutrition. In addition to growing elephant grass and other fodder – one of Heifer’s requirements for receiving animals – for the 5 cows they currently own, Cyprien and Donatilla are also growing vegetables and keeping chickens. They’ve built a brick house and have electricity and are earning income by renting their other house.

Today, Cyprien is going back to his roots and making plans to teach again – this time to other farmers. He wants “the wider community to benefit from his experience”.

And Heifer’s work is now being recognised – and supported – by the Rwandan government. In 2008 the government instituted the One Cow Per Poor Household Programme, which aims to give the 257 000 of the poorest households in the country training and support to raise milk for home consumption.

But Heifer, says, Dr Karamuzi, is also building an exit strategy by connecting farmers to cooperatives, which can organise and train farmers themselves.

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Discovering History in Ghana

Crossposted from BorderJumpers.org, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack. This piece was originally featured on Cheapflights.

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We understand why Barack and Michelle Obama made Ghana their first stop on the African continent.

When you touch down in Accra (or anywhere in Ghana), you are greeted with the word “akwaaba” or “welcome” and the place is buzzing with activity: construction projects, vendors hawking antennas and groundnuts to commuters, roads being built and new investment.

Ghanaians boast about their stable democracy – they just peacefully transitioned governments in a 2009 election decided by only 40,000 votes. We visited several projects across the country, and each of them reinforced the fact that people are working hard to lift themselves out of poverty

In Abokobi, just outside of Accra, we met with women who are using dairy cows donated to them by Heifer International to make yogurt to sell to local businesses and schools. In the village of Akimoda, we met the “King” of the village who is working with farmers to grow and market moringa, a plant known as the green gold of Ghana because of its health benefits for people and livestock. In Kasoa we met small-scale livestock farmers who are helping prevent slash-and-burn agriculture by raising grasscutters – large rodents which, to the locals at least, are considered a delicacy. And in Cape Coast we met with a group of women fishmongers who are working together to process and sell fish.

While in Cape Coast, we visited the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves from all over Africa were imprisoned before being shipped to the US and Europe. We walked through the ‘Door of No Return’, which was the last thing some two million slaves saw before being loaded on to what the slave traders referred to as “floating coffins”. For every one slave that made it to the US, at least four others died somewhere along the journey.

We learned that slaves were forced to walk to their prisons from all over West Africa. And once they arrived, hundreds were packed into dark dungeons with little food and water. The ones who survived were then herded on to ships, leaving behind their homes, their families and their culture forever. As disturbing as this was to hear, it only strengthened our admiration for the resilience and strength of Ghanaians.

We ended our journey visiting the Kakum National Park, watching birds and monkeys at eye level as they walked along their 350 meter ‘canopy’, located in a small rain forest about 35 miles from Cape Coast. Though we didn’t see much of the beach, the Cape Coast sits along the Atlantic and the sound of the waves crashing around you undoubtedly beats the docile murmurs of a Caribbean island.

For many travelers, we doubt Ghana ever makes it onto the radar. But if you’re bored of lying around on beaches and want to visit somewhere that will truly inspire you, then maybe it should.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoy our diary every day we invite you to get involved:

  1. Comment on our daily posts — we check for comments everyday and want to have a regular ongoing discussion with you.

  2. Receive regular updates–Join the weekly BorderJumpers newsletter by clicking here.

  3. Help keep our research going–If you know of any great projects or contacts in West Africa please connect us connect us by emailing, commenting or sending us a message on facebook.

Supporting Policy, Governance, and Democracy with Workers in Mind

Cross posted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

While in Harare, Zimbabwe, we met with the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ), an initiative of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) which started operating in September of 2003. The research institute’s primary objective to develop, through research, well-grounded policy positions designed to influence development processes and outcomes at the national, regional and international levels. This is particularly important in the context of globalization where national policy is increasingly giving way to regional and international developments. In this regard, the ability to anticipate developments will help in designing proactive policies that respond promptly to external challenges.

LEDRIZ shared with us the training and research materials and documents they use in training programs throughout the country around the “8 Socio-Economic Rights.’ Rather than directly endorsing political candidates, ZCTU advocates for democracy and good governance in Zimbabwe. LEDRIZ is strategically positioning itself to be part of every major economic policy debate in Zimbabwe, an impressive feat given the tight autocratic rule President Mugabe maintains over the country. In addition, LEDRIZ is fighting hard to establish progressive policies such as opposing the privatization of public utilities, providing support for the informal sector, protecting workers’ pensions and their ability to retire with dignity.

In establishing an aligned research institute, the labor movement in Zimbabwe is following the examples of the US, European, South African and Namibian trade unions. Such a research think-tank is particularly helpful in an economy like Zimbabwe’s which has experienced a wrenching brain drain, undermining capacity. The main strength of LEDRIZ is that it is a member of several national, regional and international networks such as the Alternatives to Neo-liberalism in Southern Africa (ANSA) which it coordinates; the African Labour Research Network (ALRN); and the Global Union Research Network (GURN), launched in January 2004 under the coordination of the ILO Bureau of Workers’ Activities and the International Trade Union Council (ITUC).

1,000 Words About Mozambique



We love the energy of Maputo.

It’s the good kind of energy where we never felt like people were trying to hustle us like in the tourist traps of Arusha and Zanzibar, Tanzania. We also felt safe to wander in the evenings unlike in Nairobi, Kenya or Johannesburg, South Africa where we would jump into cabs after evening meetings (or linger in the suburbs).

Maputo’s vibrant, entrepreneurial, positive, and alive. It reminded us of Kampala, Uganda where the youth are bursting with energy, from the buzzing music scene, to the street and informal economy, and small upstart businesses.  

Mozambique is not without its problems. Real poverty is everywhere, drug use rampant,  many schools are dilapidated and deteriorating, and there is lots of evidence of environmental destruction and deforestation. But Maputo is clearly on the move, transforming itself and melding some of the best parts of its rich and diverse cultures.

We arrived by an Intercape bus from J’burg on an all night ride that spent an extra five hours on the road due to a closed highway from a chemical spillage and accident. And after pulling an all-nighter we jumped right into a series of meetings for Dani’s research for Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

We checked into Base Backpackers largely because it was in walking distance to the Intercape bus station and twenty dollar a night for a private room. We’d be lying if we told you it was a perfect situation: we were in the lower basement (it wreaked of mold), had to walk two flights of stairs and across a hallway to go to the bathroom (twenty people were sharing the one working toilet), cold water showers, and internet so bad that old school AOL dial-up would have felt like luxury. With that said, the hostel was in the heart of the city and across the street from vegetarian friendly Chinese and Indian food. The hotel staff was extremely friendly, and the “guard” — a mutt resembling a bijon frise named Spudd — made for a warm, tail wagging welcome when we came home.



We spent the day visiting a workshop organized by Prolinnova, the Spanish NGO Centro de Iniciativas para la Cooperación/Batá, and the National Farmers Union of Mozambique, UNAC, about different agricultural innovations. The workshop brought farmers together from across the country to share with each other different innovations each farmer was practicing in her or his community. What I loved about the workshop was that it wasn’t some NGO preaching about what should be done, the farmers led the meeting, they drove the discussion, they presented their own findings. It was really refreshing to hear from the people who know best what is working and what needs to be scaled-up across the country. Throughout the morning, farmers presented other innovations and practices-including how to prevent diseases that affect their crops and fruit trees and how to raise farmed fish. Batá/Prolinnova/UNAC plans to identify 12-14 innovations and practices identified at the workshops for a book which will be translated into three of Mozambique’s languages, allowing these different innovations to spread throughout the country.

The next day we spent an awe-opening couple of hours with Dr. Rosa Costa at International Rural Poultry Center of the Kyeema Foundation in Mozambique. We know all too well how avian influenza, H1N1 and serious diseases can ravage livestock and rural communities. Newcastle disease, which can wipe out entire flocks of chickens and can spread from farm to farm, is especially devastating for rural farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Vaccines for Newcastle used to be hard to come by in Africa. They were imported and usually expensive, putting them out of reach of small farmers. And even when they were available, they required refrigeration, which is not common in many rural villages. Today, however, thanks to the work of the Kyeema foundation in Mozambique, villages have access not only to vaccines, but also to locally trained community vaccinators (or para-vets) who can help spot and treat Newcastle and other poultry diseases before they spread. With help from a grant from the Australian Government’s overseas aid program (AusAID), Kyeema developed a thermo-stable vaccine that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and is easier for rural farmers to administer to their birds.



Dr. Costa also talked at great length about the importance of nutrition when it comes to treating HIV/AIDS. Many retroviral and HIV/AIDS drugs don’t work if patients aren’t getting enough vitamins and nutrients in their diets or accumulating enough body fat. She noted that while many farmers are often too sick to grow crops, “chickens are easy.” Because women are often the primary caregivers for family members with HIV/AIDS, they need easy, low-cost sources of both food and income. Unlike many crops, raising free-range birds can require few outside inputs and very little maintenance from farmers. Birds can forage for insects and eat kitchen scraps, instead of expensive grains. They provide not only meat and eggs for household use and income, but also pest control and manure for fertilizer.

On our last day we visited with Madyo Couto who works under the Mozambique Ministry of Tourism to help manage the country’s Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs). These areas were initially established to help conserve and protect wildlife, but they’re now evolving to include other uses of land that aren’t specifically for conservation. Madyo explained that in addition to linking the communities that live near or in conservation areas to the private sector to build lodges and other services for tourists, they’re also helping farmers establish honey projects to generate income. In many of national parks and other conservation areas, farmers resort to poaching and hunting wildlife to earn money. He added that establishing alternative-and profitable-sources of income is vital to protecting both agriculture and biodiversity in the TFCAs.

Finally we met with Jessica Milgroom, an American graduate student working with farming communities living inside Limpopo National Park, in southern Mozambique. When the park was established in 2001, it was essentially “parked on top of 27,000 people,” says Jessica. Some 7,000 of the residents needed to be resettled to other areas, including within the park, which affected their access to food and farmland. Jessica’s job is to see what can be done to improve resettlement food security. But rather than simply recommending intensified agriculture in the park to make better use of less land, Jessica worked with the local community to collect and identify local seed varieties. One of the major problems in Mozambique, as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of seed. As a result, farmers are forced to buy low-quality seed because nothing else is available. In addition to identifying and collecting seeds, Jessica is working with a farmer’s association on seed trials, testing varieties to see what people like best.

After only five days in Maputo, we will definitely come back for another visit. Mozambique is so vast and incredible with loads of incredible projects to visit that our brief trip simply wasn’t enough time. But with meetings already scheduled in Durban, we boarded the 20 hour bus ride (had to go via J’Burg) back.

Human Rights Battle in Uganda Hits Close to Home

Cross posted from Border Jumpers.

Uganda, like most of the countries in Africa, is full of contradictions.

While everyone we met in Uganda was friendly and helpful, going out of their way to assist us when we needed directions, a Wifi hotspot, or a place to find vegetarian food, the country also has some of the most restrictive laws against human rights on the continent. While we were there, the “Bahati Bill” was introduced in parliament.  The Bahati called for life in prison — and in some case the death penalty — for people found “guilty” of homosexual activity.

As gay marriage laws are passed around the world, including most recently in Mexico City, it’s hard to believe that lawmakers would punish people for being gay or having HIV/AIDS. The Bahati bill also punishes anyone who fails to report a homosexual act committed by others with up to three years in jail, and a prison sentence of up to seven years for anyone who defends the rights of gays and lesbians.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, due to mounting pressure from governments such as the United States, across Europe, and in Canada, said that he opposes the measure, and would attempt to try and soften the bill. According to a recent story in Reuters, “the president has been quoted in local media saying homosexuality is a Western import, joining continental religious leaders who believe it is un-African.” With a national election looming in 2012, politicians seem to be using hatred against gays as a scapegoat for rising corruption and the weakening of civil liberties and freedom of the press.

Yet, even the possibility that a watered-down version of the proposed law could be passed, is an alarming sign of a dangerous trend of prejudice all over Africa. In Blantyre, Malawi, for example, a gay couple was arrested last week after having a traditional engagement ceremony. Homosexuality is punishable by 14 years in jail in Malawi

However, human rights advocates continue to fight. In Latin America, they hope that the success of legalized marriage in Mexico City will spread to Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, and other places. Uruguay permits gay parents to adopt and Columbia grants social security rights to same sex couples.

In the United States, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender rights is one of the most import civil and human rights battles we currently face. Despite recent setbacks in California, New York, and Maine — recent success in places like Iowa, DC, and New Hampshire — means that during next decade the battlefield for LGBT rights is not only in Africa but also right here at home.