The full report is available from Earthscan.co.uk/sow2011
The Nourishing the Planet team travelled to 25 countries across Africa, talking to farmers, policy makers, NGOs, educators and others to learn about the many approaches that are working on the ground to help alleviate hunger.
Many of these initiatives are open for industry funding, and involvement and could go some way to mitigating the predicted global food shortage.
In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where the summer heat is intense and water shortages are common, it can be difficult to keep crops healthy and productive through the growing season. However, Roots Sustainable Agriculture Systems Ltd (Roots Ltd) has developed a system that could help farmers beat the heat.
The company’s Root Zone Temperature (RZT) optimisation technology uses geothermal energy to enable farmers to control the soil temperature at root zones, increasing plant growth and production dramatically. Using a low-pressure pump that can be powered easily by a solar panel, water is circulated from an above-ground tank into a system of pipes buried nearly two meters underground that acts like a radiator. In the summer, the ground cools the water, and in the winter, it warms it. The water is circulated back to closed pipes embedded beneath the vegetable rows, cooling or warming the roots before it returns to the tank for reuse.
By maintaining plant roots at an optimal range of 22-30°C, this system can increase the rate of CO2 exchange in plants, as well as the transport of sugars from leaves to roots, boosting plant growth. In trials conducted by Roots Ltd on Israeli farms between 2007 and 2010, the system successfully raised yields of strawberries, cucumbers and peppers, and helped crops reach maturity earlier.
Roots Ltd has developed a similar technology that irrigates crops via condensation. Instead of going through an underground radiator, the water is pumped through a solar-powered unit that chills it. The chilled water is then circulated through unperforated pipes next to the plants, causing water vapour in the air to condense on the pipes, just as it would on a glass of ice water. The condensation then drips off, simultaneously irrigating and cooling the crops. By utilising water from the air, the system conserves water supplies elsewhere.
These innovations can be used on covered and uncovered crops, require very little energy and can operate ‘off the grid’, meaning that they can be installed in remote locations. Following installation, costs are minimal and upkeep is simple, making the systems inexpensive and viable options for small farmers in developing countries. By keeping it cool (and hot) Roots Ltd’s technologies could help smallholder farmers grow more food at less cost.
In Cameroon, one of the foods that grows best is cassava, a starch-filled root crop, yet farmers struggle with low yields because of infestation by pests and diseases that damage crops, making each harvest more labour intensive than the crops are worth.
“Farmers are spending more on planting materials and field maintenance to grow cassava, and they’re unable to make a profit from the poor harvests,” says Emmanuel Njukwe, chief of service for the Crop Improvement & Utilization Unit at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). “They are fighting an expensive battle against pests and diseases.”
To make this battle less labour-intensive and costly, and to increase production, IITA, in partnership with the Cameroon Government National Program for Roots and Tuber Development (PNDRT), is developing and introducing improved varieties of cassava that are resistant to major pests and diseases. The two organisations are also training farmers in post-harvest processing techniques to improve quality and add value to marketable products, while also connecting farmers to high-paying enterprises and markets.
“Once we identify varieties of cassava that we think will benefit local growers, we work closely with farmers to identify and select the new varieties and ensure that the new varieties meet farmers’ needs. The farmers then pick the variety they like best,” says Njukwe.
Groups of farmers participating in a field test of a new IITA variety compare it with their best local variety and select the best variety. The IITA then trains them to get the most out of those varieties, in the field and at the market.
One of the farmer groups that received training and materials to process cassava into flour is now connected to a bakery that uses the flour to make cakes. The IITA encourages different farmer groups to specialise in different processing options or storage techniques and to then work together. A group that specialises in processing cassava into flour, for example, can reach out to another group that specialises in storage and utilisation for support and services. In this way, the farmer groups create financially beneficial links to one other, in addition to the links to the market that IITA also helps cultivate.
In Kenya, the dairy sector alone accounts for 14% of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP), and smallholder farmers produce some 80% of the country’s marketed milk. The ability to process dairy is an essential defence against losing money on spoiled milk, and processing milk also ensures access to its nutritional benefits while reducing the risks of food-borne illness.
Although milk is a top commodity, its journey to the market isn’t always an easy one, especially when the market is hours away (as in most of sub-Saharan Africa). Unpasteurised milk can spoil easily by the time it gets to market, making pasteurisation, which involves heating the milk to a specific temperature to kill pathogenic bacteria, a necessity. Reducing the amount of harmful bacteria means that the milk won’t spoil as fast before it’s sold, increasing farmers’ income and consumer base.
In Nairobi, Kenya, farmer Margaret Njeri Ndimu has seen an increase in her income by selling her goat’s milk in plastic bags sealed with candle wax. This simple method of processing, which Ndimu learned through a Mazingira Institute training programme, makes it easier for her to manage and sell her milk, enabling customers to buy small quantities of the perishable product in portable containers.
According to the Meridian Institute report Innovations for Agricultural Value Chains in Africa, unpasteurised milk is more popular with consumers than pasteurised milk because of the significant cost difference. Many dairy farmers are unable to afford pasteurisation or access to facilities that could pasteurise their milk, even if they had a consumer base that could afford to purchase it.
A project implemented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) and the World Health organisation (WHO) promotes use of the ‘lactoperoxidase system’ (LP-s), in which an antibacterial compound is mixed into unpasteurised milk, allowing farmers to keep it safe for longer periods. With the application of LP-s, milk will last 5-6 days in refrigeration (at around 4°C) and up to 4-7 hours at high temperatures (31-35°C), allowing the farmer time to transport the milk to market.
An East Africa Dairy Development Project (EADD) initiative recognises the benefits farmers see when they gain access to improved processing and preservation of their dairy products. It encourages farmers to join cooperatives, so that instead of processing the milk alone, members can turn to group-owned and -run milk collection centres, significantly reducing the financial burden of the process. The refrigerated milk is then transported to a processing facility and sent to market.
EADD’s projects in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda provide training and extension as well.
Proper milk processing isn’t important only for health reasons. Finding ways to preserve a product as perishable as milk makes it more marketable and increases income, improving livelihoods for smallholder dairy farmers and their families.
Food waste is a problem in the west as well developing nations. However, for a farmer in a hot country such as Sudan, a big harvest can end up being totally wasted, as a fresh tomato off the vine can last only two days in the stifling heat, while carrots and okra might last only four days.
Despite being highly capable of producing abundant harvests, without any means to store and preserve crops, farmers in Sudan are at risk of hunger and starvation. They are also losing money that could be made selling surplus produce to the market if they were able to keep the vegetables longer.
Practical Action, a development non-profit organisation that uses technology to help people gain access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation, and to improve food production and incomes, provides a simple solution to this problem in the form of homemade clay refrigerators.
These refrigerators, called ‘zeer pots’, can be built from mud, clay, water and sand. A farmer uses mud moulds to create two pots of different sizes. Once dry, the small pot is fitted into the larger pot, and the space between them is filled with sand. By placing this structure on an iron stand to allow for air flow, and by adding water to the sand between the pots daily, a farmer can use evaporation to keep the pots (and their contents) cool.
In a zeer pot, tomatoes and carrots can last up to 20 days, while okra will last 17 days. Practical Action provides trainings and demonstrations to teach small-scale farmers how to make and use the pots in developing regions such as Sudan and Darfur. An instruction manual on how to make the pots can be found on the organisation’s website.
In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 265m people are hungry, more than a quarter of the food produced goes bad before it can be eaten because of poor harvest or storage techniques, severe weather, or disease and pests. To prevent the loss of crops after they’re harvested, the United Nations Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) is implementing projects to provide education and technology to farmers.
In Kenya, the FAO partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture to train farmers to take steps to reduce maize crop losses to mycotoxin, the by-product of fungi growth. In Afghanistan, the FAO provided metallic silos to roughly 18,000 households to improve post-harvest storage. Farmers use the silos to store cereal grains and legumes, protecting these crops from weather and pests. As a result, post-harvest losses have dropped from between 15 and 20% to less than 1 or 2%.
Monoculture crops such as corn and soybeans rely heavily on tractors for tilling the soil. Although this and other soil-management practices have raised yields over the past 60 years, they have also done considerable damage. Over-turning dirt can lead to dryness and erosion, expediting the loss of soil nutrients that crops need to thrive. ‘Zero tillage’, on the other hand, helps retain soil moisture, prevent erosion and conserve nutrients.
In this technique, farmers cover the soil with remains from the previous season’s crops as well as any additional organic matter, such as animal dung. They then plant their seeds in the untilled soil in drilled holes or narrow ditches.
In Argentina, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report Milions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, the use of zero tillage in soybean cultivation has led to an estimated gain of US$4.7bn since 1991. And between 1993 and 1999, zero-tillage farming led to the creation of some 200,000 farming and extension-related jobs in the country.
In the Indo-Gangetic plains of north eastern India, rice and wheat cultivation increased following the development of zero-tillage drills in the 1990s. The affordability and accessibility of the technology, which creates holes in untilled soil, led to widespread use of the technique in the area, where zero or reduced tilling is now used for one-fifth to one-fourth of wheat production. According to Millions Fed, farmers were able to increase their incomes US$97 per hectare because of improved production and the reduced cost and time for soil preparation.
Farmers in Tanzania’s Uluguru Mountains are fighting a losing battle against increasingly degraded land. Repeated plantings are quickly depleting the nutrients in the soil, leaving it nearly barren and vulnerable to erosion. Meanwhile, downstream, the water is dark with sediment, unfit for drinking and expensive to treat.
“Downstream, people are complaining about the quality of water,” says Lopa Dosteus, programme manager for CARE International’s Equitable Payment for Watershed Management (EPWM) programme. “And upstream, the farmers are struggling to grow enough food while their soil washes away.”
CARE International, an organisation fighting poverty and hunger around the world, is partnering with the World Wildlife Fund and the International Institute for Environmental Development to improve farming practices and create financial incentives to take better care of the soil.
“The objective is to see if we can help farmers manage natural resources while at the same time increase their income,” says Dosteus. “We encourage these farmers, who are all farming on small pieces of land, to build terraces to limit soil runoff and erosion. We also encourage them to plant trees as crops and to plant trees in the areas of their land that are otherwise going unused. This helps sequester carbon in the soil and restores much-needed nutrients.”
EPWM also provides supplies and support, such as seeds and crop maintenance training, and encourages farmers to leave sections of their land alone for one- or even two-year periods to give the soil a chance to regenerate on its own. Once the harvest is improved, EPWM works to make sure that farmers have a place to sell the surplus.
Most farmers in the Uluguru Mountain region don’t have relationships with sellers at local markets. Instead, farmers take their produce to market dealers who purchase the rice, maize, beans, groundnuts, tomatoes, cabbages and bananas at the lowest rate possible in order to turn around and sell them to local businesses at marked-up prices.
“We support farmers throughout the process to go out and identify the market for themselves,” says Dosteus. “If they collect information and meet with interested businesses, they don’t need the dealers any more.”
Dosteus also points out that the participating farmers, motivated by their improved harvest and increased incomes, are collaborating to fight for government assistance and improved infrastructure to help them transport crops to market over often inaccessible roads.
“Farmers are seeing that this is increasing their production and their incomes, and it’s motivating them,” she says. “We’re helping them shout together and be heard by the government so that their already improved access to the market can be improved even more. Farmers are seeing that they can do this on the small level, and it’s making them think and act bigger.”
Roughly 1m people in South Africa live in the shacks that make up Khayelitsha, Nyanga, and the area surrounding the Cape Flats outside Cape Town. The majority of these residents are recent arrivals from the former apartheid homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, and just under half, or 40%, of the population is unemployed, while the rest earn barely enough income to feed their families.
Through partnerships with local grassroots organisations, the Abalimi Bezekhaya, a nonprofit organisation working with residents of these informal settlements, is helping to create a community of planters who can feed the township.
Abalimi Bezekhaya is helping to create income-generating green spaces in order to alleviate poverty and protect the fragile surrounding ecosystem. Providing training and materials, the organisation helps people turn schoolyards and empty plots into gardens. Each garden is run by six to eight farmers who, with support and time, are soon able to produce enough food to feed their families.
Abalimi Bezekhaya encourages community members to plant indigenous trees and other flora in township streets to create shade and to increase awareness of the local plant life, much of which is endangered due to urban sprawl. But Abalimi Bezekhaya isn’t just bringing food and wild flora into the townships. It’s also helping the townships bring fresh produce to the city.
With support from the Ackerman Pick n’Pay Foundation, and in partnership with the South African Institute of Entrepreneurship and the Business Place Philippi, Abalimi Bezekhaya founded Harvest of Hope in 2008. Harvest of Hope purchases surplus crops from 14 farmer groups working in the organisation’s community plots, boxes the produce, and delivers it to selected schools where parents can purchase the items to take home. For families in Cape Town, Harvest of Hope means fresh vegetables instead of the older (and often imported) produce available at the grocery store.
Claire Rowan is managing editor of Food & Beverage International magazine. Subscribe here.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020
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