Innovation of the Week: Winrock International and Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Sylvia Banda started Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited in 1986, even though just 30 years ago women weren’t allowed to own businesses—or even eligible for loans—in Zambia. She began her business by serving people food she cooked and brought from home on what she calls, a “standing buffet,” because she didn’t have enough money for tables and chairs.

Not having furniture didn’t stop Sylvia’s business from taking off; she made almost a hundred dollars after a few days. And with her husband listed as the proprietor of her business because land rights are limited if not inaccessible to women in Zambia, Sylvia was able to grow her small “standing buffet” into three subsidiary businesses.

Sylva Professional Catering Services Limited is dedicated to creating, selling and serving nutritious foods, made from indigenous and traditional products that are purchased from local farmers and merchants. Sylvia provides work for 73 people and has developed partnerships with local development organizations, using her financial and popular success to become a proponent of farmer and employee training. She calls it “economic emancipation.”

Sylvia’s success has benefited not just her own family, but the wider community as well. And Winrock International, an organization that collects examples of projects focused on sustainable food, improving livelihoods and preserving local food traditions, hopes to extend her positive impact even further still by making her case study available as a resource and model for potential entrepreneurs—and for policy makers and NGOs who support potential entrepreneurs—around the world.

For more information about Sylvia’s work and other projects that are focusing on sustainable food, improving livelihoods and preserving local food traditions, see Winrock International’s site on Community Food Enterprises.

Malawi's Real "Miracle"

This is the first in a two-part series about my visit to the home of Kristof and Stacia Nordin in Lilongwe, Malawi. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard. Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have over 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in the 1990s as Peace Corps Volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia works for the Malawi Health Ministry, educating both policy-makers and citizens about the importance of indigenous vegetables and permaculture for improving livelihoods and nutrition.

Malawi may be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago the government decided to do something controversial—provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story. But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonderbread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, however, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer compared to hybrid varieties. According to Kristof, “48 percent of the country is still stunted with the miracle.”

Stacia and Kristof use their home as a way to educate their neighbors about both permaculture and indigenous vegetables. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops may hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi.

Rather than focusing on just planting maize—a crop that is not native to Africa—the Kristofs advise the farmers they work with that there is “no miracle plant, just plant them all.” Maize, ironically, is least suited to this region because it’s very susceptible to pests and disease. Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct—crops that are already adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than importing things like amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa, and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “A lot of solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.” And as I walked around seeing—and tasting— the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it’s obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle. Stay tuned for more about my trip to the Nordins.

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.

There's more...

Agro-Imperialism in the New York Times

In case you missed it, check out Andrew Rice's piece on land grabs in Africa- a very new and potentially troubling consequence of our globalized economy- in the New York Times Magazine. Rice touches on some of the same things I've seen during my trip to sub-Saharan Africa--Chinese and the Middle Eastern investment in not only road construction, but also agricultural land, particularly in Ethiopia and Kenya. According to Rice, the global economic and food crises have spurred countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and India to invest heavily in African land. By controlling the areas of production, they hope to secure future supplies of food for their own populations. But as sub-Saharan Africa faces increasing hunger--at least 23 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation--its role as a food exporter becomes increasingly hard to justify. And this increasing foreign investment in African land has largely stayed under the global radar. Stay tuned for more on land grabs in the upcoming State of the World 2011.

There's more...

Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call

It’s hard to believe, but an estimated 2.6 billion people in the developing world—nearly a third of the global population—still lack access to basic sanitation services. This presents a significant hygiene risk, especially in densely populated urban areas and slums where contaminated drinking water can spread disease rapidly. Every year, some 1.5 million children die from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.

It is in these crowded cities, too, that food security is weakened by the lack of clean, nutrient-rich soil as well as growing space available for local families.

But there is an inexpensive solution to both problems. A recent innovation, called the Peepoo, is a disposable bag that can be used once as a toilet and then buried in the ground. Urea crystals in the bag kill off disease-producing pathogens and break down the waste into fertilizer, simultaneously eliminating the sanitation risk and providing a benefit for urban gardens. After successful test runs in Kenya and India, the bags will be mass produced this summer and sold for U.S. 2–3 cents each, making them more accessible to those who will benefit from them the most.

In post-earthquake Haiti, where many poor and homeless residents are forced to live in garbage heaps and to relieve themselves wherever they can find privacy, SOIL/SOL, a non-profit working to improve soil and convert waste into a resource, is partnering with Oxfam GB to build indoor dry toilets for 25 families as well as four public dry toilets. The project will establish a waste composting site to convert dry waste into fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil that can then be used to grow vegetables in rooftop gardens and backyards.

In Malawi, Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project (which Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg visited during her tour of Africa) uses a composting toilet to fertilize the crops. Although these units can be expensive to purchase and install, one company, Rigel Technology, manufactures a toilet that costs just US$30 and separates solid from fluid waste, converting it into fertilizer. The Indian non-profit Sulabh International also promotes community units that convert methane from waste into biogas for cooking.

On a larger scale, wetlands outside of Calcutta, India, process some 600 million liters of raw sewage delivered from the city every day in 300 fish-producing ponds. These wetlands produce 13,000 tons of fish annually for consumption by the city’s 12 million inhabitants. They also serve as an environmentally sound waste treatment center, with hyacinths, algal blooms, and fish disposing of the waste, while also providing a home for migrating birds and an important source of local food for the population of Calcutta. (See also “Fish Production Reaches a Record.”)

Aside from cost and installation, the main obstacles to using human waste to fertilize crops are cultural and behavioral. UNICEF notes in an online case study that a government-run program in India provided 33 families in the village of Bahtarai with latrines near their houses. But the majority of villagers still preferred to use the fields as toilets, as they were accustomed to doing their whole lives. “It is not enough just to construct the toilets,” said Gaurav Dwivedi, Collector and Bilaspur District Magistrate. “We have to change the thinking of people so that they are amenable to using the toilets.”

 

 

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