Listening to Farmers

This is the second blog in a series about Danielle's visit to the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

4140998514_60433ed91b_m.jpg The World Vegetable Center is focusing on "building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa." What does that mean? According to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, Director of the Regional Center for Africa, it requires "bringing farmers voices into the choices of materials they are using."

The Center does this not only by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits--including resistance to disease and longer shelf life--but also by bringing farmers from all over eastern, western, and southern Africa to the Regional Center in Arusha, Tanzania, to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market. Mr. Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, was at the Center when I visited, advising staff about which tomato varieties would be best suited for his particular needs--including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

The Center works with farmers not only to grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Dr. Mel Oluoch, a Liason Officer with the Center's Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (VBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times. "Eating is believing," says Dr. Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes--and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook--they don't need much convincing about the alternative methods.

Dr. Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. In fact, one of the women farmers we met in Kibera slum in Nairobi had been trained at the Center and is selling seeds to rural farmers, increasing her income. "The sustainability of seed," says Dr. Oluoch, "is not yet there in Africa." In other words, farmers don't have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops. As a result, the Center is working--partly with CNFA, an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) grantee--to link farmers to input or "agro-" dealers who can help ensure a steady supply of seed.

In addition, the Center is providing how-to brochures to farmers in Swahili and other languages to help them better understand how to grow vegetables in different regions.

Stay tuned for more about our visit to the World Vegetable Center later this week.

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Breeding Vegetables with Farmers in Mind

This is the first in a series of blog posts about my visit with the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

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As hunger and drought spread across Africa , there's a huge focus on increasing yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice. And while these crops are important for food security, providing much needed calories, they don't provide much protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, other important vitamins and micronutrients--or much taste. "None of the staple crops," says Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center's Regional Director for Africa, "would be palatable without vegetables." And vegetables, he says, "are less risk prone" than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods of time. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize often scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

Unfortunately no country in Africa, according to Dr. Tenkouano, has a big focus on vegetable production. But that's where the Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Center (which is a 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.

Despite the focus on staple crops, vegetable production generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises, according to the Center's website. And unlike staple crops, vegetable production is something that benefits urban and rural farmers alike (See our posts on urban farmers in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).

In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor. Often referred to as "hidden hunger," micronutrient deficiencies--including lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine--affect some 1 billion people worldwide. They lead to poor mental and physical development, especially among children, and cause poor performance in work and in school, further crippling communities already facing poverty and other health problems.

But by listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, the Center is helping to alleviate these problems. Watch for more blogs about our visit to the World Vegetable Center and their efforts to raise nutrition and income in Africa.

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It's more than about trees at the World Agroforestry Centre

This is the second in a two-part series about my visit to the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

I'm always excited to meet with researchers who are passionate about their work. Dr. Dennis Garrity, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, assembled three members of his team to meet with me last week to talk about some of the innovations the Centre is helping support in Africa.

Dr. Maimbo Malesu, the director of Water Management Research, described the Centre's work on water. "One of the biggest challenges in Africa," says Maimbo, "is the lack of rainwater harvesting." Many countries, he says, are only utilizing 2 to 5 percent of their rainwater potential. To help reverse this, the World Agroforestry Centre is helping train farmers and agricultural extension officers in places like Rwanda to build lined ponds that can catch and store rainwater. In 2007, there were just 65 of these demonstration ponds in Rwanda; now there are more than 400.

About 40 kilometers outside of Nairobi, the Centre is working with UNEP on a multidisciplinary project that incorporates water storage tanks, agroforestry, more efficient stoves, and microfinance projects to help communities deal with water shortages, deforestation, fuel shortages, and lack of credit for women.

Dr. Frank Place, an economist and head of impact assessment, explained the World Agroforestry Centre's research on fertilizer trees--leguminous trees and shrubs that are grown along with or before or after crops--can improve soil, increase yields, and eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers. In some places, intercropping fertilizer trees with crops can be most beneficial for farmers who want to add nutrients to maize and other crops that need fertilizer, while in other areas indigenous trees that shed their nitrogen-rich leaves during the rainy season are the best way of increasing yields.

In addition, Dr. Place explained how fodder shrubs can help increase milk production in Kenya. There are nearly two million small dairy farmers in the country and lack of high quality food is their biggest challenge. And concentrated grain feeds are too expensive for most producers. But growing nitrogen-fixing fodder shrubs can provide a nutritious--and inexpensive--feed that helps dairy producers increase their income. Five hundred shrubs can feed a cow for a whole season and increase daily milk production by one to two liters a day, which, says Dr. Place, results in an additional income of $USD .50 per day and $USD 100 per year.

Dr. Delia Catacutan, a social scientist, is working with the Centre and Landcare International to help farmer and community groups work together to decide how land should be managed. In Uganda, Land Care has helped 40 different community-based organizations to negotiate and access services from the government. In addition, they've helped with conflict resolution and eased the tension between farming and wildlife. "Innovations," Dr. Catacutan said, "don't walk by themselves." But by helping farmers work together and giving them a greater voice in decision-making, agricultural innovations such as agroforestry, are more likely to spread, as well as raise farmer income and protect the environment.

Stay tuned for more stories about how agroforestry can help improve food security in Africa.

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