Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young Farmers

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

At the Rural Development Foundation's (RDF) primary school in Kalleda, a small village in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, India, students carry gardening tools, along with their notebooks and pencils.

All of the students work in the school's garden, cultivating and harvesting rice, lentils, corn, and cotton that is used to make the daily meals or sold to the village and to other schools. Students also take turns tending a field of marigolds and selling them in Kalleda. All of the profit goes back to the school.

And the students carry another important tool-a camera.

Cameras were provided by Bridges to Understanding (Bridges), a Seattle-based non-profit that uses digital technology to empower and connect children around the world. Students participating in the Bridges curriculum are taught to use cameras and editing software to develop stories about their community and culture. These videos, comprised of a photo slide show with a running narration, are then shared with the Bridges online community which is made up of schools in seven countries: Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Guatemala, India, Peru, South Africa, and the U.S.

For many students, it's the first time they have ever even held a camera. "When I first asked my students if they thought they could ever design, shoot and edit their own film they just shook their heads and said, 'there's no way," said Elizabeth Sewell, Bridges program coordinator at the RDF school in Kalleda.

But not only did her students successfully develop a concept for, shoot and edit a video about local water pollution, they are also participating in an online discussion about their school garden with another group of students at the Aki Kurose school in Seattle. Students at Aki Kurose are learning to grow corn, squash, and beans using traditional Native American practices. And they volunteer at a local food bank, a completely new concept to the students at Kalleda. "Thank you for your post about your school garden and information about your food bank," wrote Sewell's students. "We had never heard of a food bank before your post. We like the idea of a place where people can get free food."

Sewell explains that having a conversation about farming with students in Seattle helps students at Kelleda "realize what makes their community unique but also that there are other kids out there dealing with similar issues, providing a model or inspiration for alternatives and creating a global sense of solidarity in facing these problems."

And, according to Sewell, the Bridges video project gives students a concrete and achievable goal to strive towards as they grapple with larger questions about their role as "agents of change" in their community and the world.

"At first, the prospect of designing, shooting and editing a movie seems insurmountable but then they produce these beautiful films," says Sewell. "And then you knock down that barrier, you show them what they are capable of doing. And then they can start to approach other, larger and more institutional, problems the same way. Suddenly, in their own eyes, there are no limits to what they can achieve."

To read more about the use of storytelling and digital technology to connect and educate farmers, see: Acting it out for Advocacy and Messages from One Rice Farmer to Another.

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Making a Living Out of Conservation

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

The farmers of the Neleshi Grasscutter and Farmers Association (NAGRAFA) consider themselves not only farmers and businesswomen and men, but also conservationists. Grasscutters, or cane rats, are found throughout Western Africa and, as their name suggests, they live in grasslands. But many poor farmers in Ghana use slash and burn methods on grasslands to provide short term nutrients to the soil, as well to drive out grasscutters and sell their meat, which is considered a delicacy. To help preserve the grasslands and help other farmers increase their incomes, NAGRAFA offers free trainings to farmers and youth about how to raise, slaughter, and process grasscuttter and rabbit meat.

The group is made up of about 40 active members--both men and women--who have been working together to find better ways to raise grasscutters and rabbits on a small-scale. Their biggest challenges, says Farmer Brown (which is the only name he gave us), the leader of the group is finding inexpensive ways of housing and feeding their animals,  finding better packaging for their products, and publicizing the health and nutritional qualities of their products.

NAGRAFA is also reaching out to youth to engage them in farming. Because the rabbits and grasscutters are cute, it's easy to get children and teenagers interested in them, according to Ekow Martin, one of the members of NAGRAFA. He's training 5 to 6 youth in his community about how to raise the animals--and earn money from the sale of the meat. And, Mary Edjah, another NASGRAFA farmer says that "we need more hands" to help raise rabbits and grasscutters. She and other members of the group are helping train 6 orphans about how to raise and care for the animals.

Ms. Edjah also says that raising grasscutters and rabbits helps "bring the family together" and "keeps the children at home." Raising these animals, says Mr. Martin, "changes everything." The family is happy, he says, because they're able to supplement their income, as well as improve the family's nutrition.

And like other livestock such as cattle and goats, grasscutters and rabbits are like walking credit cards, giving families the opportunity to sell them to pay for school fees or medicine, or eat them. Ms. Edjah says "that in times of need, women know they can slaughter the rabbits."

For more about NAGRAFA, check out the videos below.

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Holding Families and the Country Together: Providing Scholarships to Improve Gender Equity and Alleviate Hunger and Poverty

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Fridah Mugo and her 13 siblings grew up in a farming family in rural Kenya, where the majority of young girls are not expected to finish primary school. But, in 1999, with a scholarship provided by Winrock International's African Women Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment program (AWLAE), she was able to complete her PhD in Natural Resources Policy and Management.

Now, with an education and AWLAE's Leadership for Change training, Mugo is working to address the problem of devastating deforestation in Kenya where only 2 percent of the country is forested-in the 1950's one third of Kenya was covered in trees. She provides extension services to rural communities dependent on wood burning cookers. Training women to make and use new and alternative energy sources, such as fireless cookers (reed baskets lined with cloth that can be quickly heated on fires to slowly cook food over the course of an entire day, reducing the need for firewood), Mugo is helping prevent the loss of more forest and improving livelihoods.  (See also: Reducing the Things They Carry)

She also lobbies for women's participation in agricultural development projects in Kenya and other African countries, and founded an education program for young girls, enabling dozens of girls to attend and complete primary school.

But in Kenya and most of sub-Saharan Africa, Mugo's achievements as a woman are the exception, not the rule. "Women hold their families and country together. The problem is they have no decision-making power and lack access to resources and education. Those who do have resources can make a huge difference," says Mugo.

Since its start in 1989, AWLAE has presented 570 women with scholarships for advanced studies, helped over 50,000 young girls gain access to primary education, and provided training to more than 100,000 farmers.  The program also provides a network, connecting scholarship and training recipients to each other for support and to exchange knowledge and experiences.

And this support is just as important as the education itself because, according to Mugo, "women are brought up to listen. You're not supposed to talk. At the training, they taught us that we could achieve anything."

And, according to a growing number of voices in the global agriculture community, when women are allowed to strive to achieve anything, it is their families and the wider community that benefit. To read more about how empowering women can alleviate hunger and poverty, see also: Feeding Communities By Focusing on Women, Women Farmers Are Key to Halving Global Hunger by 2015, and Panelists Call for Women's Important Role in Alleviating Global Hunger to be Reflected in Agriculture Funding.

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Giving Farm Workers a Voice

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Gertrude Hambira doesn't look like someone who gets arrested regularly. Nor do the other women and men in suits who work with her at the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), formed in the mid-1980s to protect farm laborers. But arrest, harassment and even torture have been regular occupational hazards for Gertrude-the General Secretary of GAPWUZ-and her staff for many years.

Unfortunately, things have not gotten much better since the 2008 elections when President Mugabe refused to cede power to the democratically elected Morgan Tsvangirai, a former union leader himself. The resulting power-sharing agreement has left the two sides battling for control as the nation plummets deeper into unemployment and poverty. At least 90 percent of the populati0n is not part of formal workforce.

Meanwhile, land reform policies have left many farm workers (about 1.5 million) without a source of income as farms are divided up-with many tracts given to Mugabe supporters.  While Zimbabwe's land reform was initially intended to decrease the number of white-owned farms in the country and provide land to the landless, it's done little to help the poor in rural areas. "Land was taken from the rich and given to the rich," says General Secretary Hambira. The rich farmers are, however, not utilizing the land, she notes, leading to lower agricultural productivity, higher prices for food, and widespread hunger.

Hambira says that as rural areas become a target for government reforms, "farm workers have become voiceless." But giving them back their voice is what GAPWUZ is trying to do by helping reduce child labor, by educating members about their rights in the fields and on the farm, by educating workers about HIV/AIDS , and by helping women workers gain a voice in decision-making. And, unfortunately, that's why General Secretary and her staff often get arrested.  Shortly after I met with her, the GAPWUZ office was raided by government police and she was forced to go in hiding to South Africa for several weeks.

But GAPWUZ isn't just working to protect the rights of farm workers in Zimbabwe, says Hambira.  By "looking at the plight of farm workers," the union is helping to build productivity on the farm and to build a strong agricultural sector-one that will be needed more than ever as Zimbabwe struggles to rebuild and restore democracy.

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Using the Market to Create Resilient Agriculture Practices

Care International's work in Zambia has two main goals: increase the production of staple crops and improvefarmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers.

But instead of giving away bags of seed and fertilizers to farmers, Care is “creating input access through a business approach,” not a subsidy approach, according to Steve Power, Assistant Country Director for Zambia.

One way they’re doing this is by creating a network of agro-dealers who can sell inputs to their neighbors as well as educate them about how to use hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs. At the same time, “we are mindful” of the benefits of local varieties of seeds, says Harry Ngoma, Agriculture Advisor for the Consortium for Food Security, Agriculture and Nutrition, AIDS, Resiliency and Markets (C-FAARM). Care and C-FAARM are working with farmers to combine high- and low-technology practices.

Care thinks that this “business approach” will help farmers get the right inputs at the right time, unlike subsidy approaches that give farmers fertilizer for free, but often at the wrong time of year, making the nutrients unavailable to crops. And Care’s focus on training agro-dealers and giving them start-up grants allows the organization to remain invisible to farmers. Power says that Care wants to be a “catalyst to the market” and help transfer resources, without distorting the basic pricing structure.

Another component of Care’s work is improving the production of sorghum and cassava. “Zambia is as addicted to maize as we are to Starbucks coffee,” says Power. But by encouraging the growth of other crops, including sorghum, which is indigenous to Africa, Care can help farms diversify local diets as well as build resilience to price fluctuations and drought.

Care is promoting conservation farming in Zambia as well. The organization has been working in six districts since 2007, reaching 24,000 households. In addition to promoting minimum tillage practices and the use of manure and compost, Care is helping to train government extension officers about conservation farming so that eventually they’ll be responsible—instead of Care—for training farmers.

According to Power, the key to Care’s work is promoting business-like approaches to agriculture alongside more traditional ones, so farmers don’t become dependent on the organization for gifts of fertilizer or seed. These sorts of programs, according to Care, will be more effective at feeding people and increasing incomes than traditional food-aid projects that rely on long-term donor support. This is a big challenge in a country—and a region—facing the impacts of both climate change and the global economic crisis.

Stay tuned for more blogs about how farmers are linking to the private sector.

To learn more about Care’s work in Zambia, visit




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