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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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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Bringing High-Quality Food Aid Closer to Home

Cross-posted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Danielle Nierenberg with Felix Edwards of the World Food Programme's Zambia P4P Program. (Photo: Bernard Pollack) The highways in southern Africa are filled with trucks carrying food aid across the continent. In the past, much of the maize, rice, soy, and other foods loaded onto these trucks came not from African farmers, but from the United States. And while these shipments provided much needed calories to people in need, they also disrupted national and local markets by lowering prices for locally grown food.

But today, more and more of the crops providing food aid come from African farmers who are selling directly to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) through local procurement policies. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and several other nations in sub-Saharan Africa (as well as in Asia and Latin America), WFP is not only buying locally, but helping small farmers gain the skills necessary to be part of the global market.

The WFP’s Progress for Profit (P4P) program, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the Belgian government, is working with the private sector, governments, and NGOs to provide an incentive for farmers to improve their crop management skills and produce high-quality food, create a market for surplus crops from small and low-income farmers, and promote locally processing and packaging of products.

In Zambia, WFP buys food directly from the Zambia Agricultural Commodity Exchange while remaining “invisible,” says Felix Edwards of the Zambia P4P Program. This way, WFP Zambia doesn’t distort prices and helps create an alternative market for farmers. WFP also works through its partners, including USAID’s PROFIT program, to help farmers and farmer associations meet the quality standards required by the Exchange. As a result, they are preparing Zambian farmers to provide high-quality food aid not only to programs and consumers in their own country, but also potentially to growing regional and international markets.

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To Improve Competitiveness of Rural Businesses, Linking Farmers to the Private Sector

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Danielle Nierenberg (left) with Rob Munro, Mark Wood, and Reuben Banda from USAID PROFIT in Lusaka, Zambia. (Photo by Bernard Pollack)The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Production, Finance, and Technology (PROFIT) program in Lusaka, Zambia, is different from other development projects, according to Rob Munro, the program’s senior market development advisor. This is because PROFIT has “real clients” in the private sector who maintain relationships with smallholder farmers.

By working with these partners, PROFIT isn’t distorting the market “by throwing money at it” or giving farmers subsidies for inputs, such as fertilizer. Instead, it is working with farmers, the private sector, and donors to improve the competitiveness of rural businesses by linking large agribusiness firms to farmers. It’s helping to improve linkages within industries that large numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises participate in, such as cotton, livestock, and non-timber forest products like honey.

Specifically, PROFIT helps communities select and train agricultural agents who work with agribusiness to provide inputs to farmers in rural areas-places where agribusiness firms had been reluctant to go because they didn’t think there was a big enough market. The agents are essentially entrepreneurs who provide goods and services that the communities didn’t have access to. In addition to selling things like hybrid maize or fertilizer, the agents can also provide ripping services to farmers practicing conservation farming methods, as well as herbicide spraying and veterinary services.

The “key” to the program’s success, says Munro, is that the agent is a “community man” selected by the communities themselves, not by agribusiness firms. The farmers trust the agent not to run off with their money and to deliver the goods and services they’ve purchased.

Unlike traditional development projects that “inundate” communities with trainers, PROFIT minimizes the number of USAID staff involved locally, helping to ensure that the project isn’t viewed as traditional “aid,” which can create dependency. Unlike the AGRA-supported CNFA, which relies extensively on its own staff to train agro-dealers, 80 percent of the trainings for agents are not provided by PROFIT, but by firms that are training agents how to use their products.

PROFIT’s model means that the program doesn’t work “with the poorest of the poor,” but with farmers who have the ability to scale up, says PROFIT chief of party Mark Wood. If you start with the very poorest, Wood says, “it’s like trying to start a car without an engine.” But by working with the 200,000 farmers in Zambia who have the means to collaborate with businesses, PROFIT is helping to create opportunities for thousands of poorer farmers in the future.

Stay tuned this week for more about PROFIT and Mobile Technology’s work to help small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers use mobile phone technology for e-banking services and to access market information.

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Helping Conserve Wildlife-and Agriculture-in Mozambique

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Madyo Couto has a tough job. He 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. Establishing alternative-and profitable-sources of income is vital to protecting both agriculture and biodiversity in the TFCAs.

Stay tuned for more blogs about the links between wildlife conservation and agriculture.

Greening the Golden Arches

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet

McDonald’s is hoping to change the way consumers view fast food. In partnership with the E-CO2 Project, an independent U.K. consulting firm, the company is launching a three-year study to assess methane production from beef cows in the United Kingdom, as well as ways to reduce livestock production of the greenhouse gas.

A burger joint famous for drive-thru windows and Happy Meals is certainly not the first business that comes to mind when one thinks about environmental sustainability. But with increasing mainstream awareness of the negative consequences of beef production for both human health and the environment, the fast-food giant is looking to reposition itself as leader of green business models.

McDonald’s purchases beef from more than 16,000 British and Irish farmers, who raise their cattle in large feedlots. The methane gas produced by livestock accounts for an estimated 4 percent of the U.K.’s total carbon emissions. McDonald’s hopes that the results of the study will help guide efforts to reduce suppliers’ methane production. The initiative also will likely help “green” the corporation’s image in the minds of an increasingly environmentally conscious public.

Looking to Agriculture to Help Rebuild in Haiti

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the critical role that agriculture will play in rebuilding Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

Food security is not a new problem in Haiti, and development organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme, as well as nongovernmental organizations like Heifer International and Oxfam, have been forced to halt food programs in the country as these groups themselves attempt to recover from the disaster.

Before the quake, FAO alone was implementing 23 food and agriculture projects in Haiti, hoping to improve access to food in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Prior to the disaster, an estimated 46 percent of Haiti’s population was undernourished, and chronic malnutrition affected 24 percent of children under five.

Right now the most urgent need is to get food and water to millions of people in the capital city of Port au Prince and elsewhere in Haiti. But as the country looks to the future, the need for sustainable sources of food, such as those we are learning about in sub-Saharan Africa, is more important than ever.

Journalism’s Role in Educating Africa About What it Eats

This is the second in a two-part series of my visit to Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former journalist, says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues-let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. “No one knows who Bill [Gates] is in Africa,” lamented Kamanga. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest and most influential funders of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture).

“You can’t have a revolution in Africa if people aren’t briefed,” says Kamanga, referring to the call for a Green Revolution in Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent.

But it’s not just a question of reporters having more knowledge, according to Kamanga. It’s also a matter of compensation. African journalists are typically paid very little compared to journalists in other countries. In Burkina Faso, reporters receive just 160 dollars per month. As a result, many journalists see bribes as a way to supplement their income.

Yet with newspaper and media consolidation, fierce competition for advertisers, and lackluster economic conditions in Africa and all over the world, it’s a trend that might only get worse.

Sweeping Change

This is the final in a four-part series about my visit to Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project in Lilongwe, Malawi. Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Travel anywhere in Malawi and you’ll see people sweeping-the sidewalks, the floors of their houses, and the bare dirt outside their homes. And while the sweeping makes everything look tidy, it’s also one of the major causes of damage to soils in the country. Because sweeping compacts soils, leaving it without any organic matter, erosion is widespread and the soil has very little nutrients. As a result, crops-especially corn-in Malawi rely heavily on the use of artificial fertilizers.

Kristof and Stacia Nordin have been working in Malawi to help educate farmers that “tidy” yards and gardens aren’t necessarily better for producing food or the environment. Stacia works for the German-base NGO GTZ, while Kristof runs the farm and is a community facilitator. Their home is used as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from the garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property.  And while their neighbors have been skeptical of the Nordins’ unswept yard, they’re impressed by the quantity-and diversity-of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on the land, providing a year round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re training the 26 tenants who rent houses on the property to practice permaculture techniques around their homes and have built an edible playground, where children can play and learn about different indigenous fruits.  More importantly, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, people can get more out of the land than just maize.

Such practices will become even more important as drought, flooding, other effects of climate change continue to become more evident in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more about permaculture, check out Chapter 6, “From Agriculture to Permaculture” in State of the World 2010, which was released today.

A Different Kind of Livestock

Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Boy with Caterpillars, UgandaI’ve had the opportunity to try some traditional-and tasty-local foods while I’ve been traveling in Africa, including amaranth, breadfruit, matooke (mashed banana), posho (maize flour), groundnut sauce, spider weed, sukuma wiki (a leafy green), and a whole lot of other vegetables and fruits with names that I can neither remember nor pronounce.

One thing I haven’t tried yet is found all over Africa and, in addition to being a food source, it is also considered a pest-grasshoppers. As I was walking through a market in Kampala, Uganda I noticed women “shelling” what I thought were beans, but upon closer inspection the baskets sitting between their legs were full of wriggling grasshoppers. As they sat, chatting with one another and the curious American, they were de-winging the insects so that they could be either sold “raw” or fried for customers.

Despite the yuck factor many of you reading this might have for eating insects, grasshoppers, crickets, termites, and other “bugs” can be a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, minerals,

and other nutrients. According to the results from a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization workshop in 2008, caterpillars are an important source of food for many people in Central Africa, providing not only protein, but also potassium and iron.

Collecting and selling insects can also be an important source of income, especially for women in Africa. And as climate change increases the prevalence of certain insects, they become an even more important source of food in the future.