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Voices from Africa: the South.

Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg spent two months earlier this year touring several countries in southern Africa in search of farming innovations that are adaptive, sustainable, and ecosystem-friendly. Supported by a major grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this and related work will culminate in State of the World 2011, a report designed to guide policymakers, foundations, and international donors interested in the most effective agricultural development interventions in various agroecological and socioeconomic settings. The material below is adapted from blog entries Danielle posted during her trip. Updates and more information can be found daily at our "Nourishing the Planet" blog (


Biotechnology in Africa

In our Nourishing the Planet project we're looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they're trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization's mission is "to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development."

While the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development and use of the technology by African researchers and farmers. "If you want to make a difference on this continent," says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, "you have to look at African crops," including staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum.

But these are also crops that are greatly vulnerable to diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop the tissue culture banana. TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the "rapid and large scale multiplication" of disease-free bananas.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating "golden sorghum."

"But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control--among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector," said Kamanga. So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. "If we're going to have GMOs on the continent," says Kamanga, "we want scientists who know how to do it." Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.


Valving What They Already Have

Richard Haigh doesn't look like your typical African pastoralist. Unlike many Africans who grew up tending cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, Richard started his farm in 2007 at the age of 40. He quit his 9-to-5 job and bought 23 acres of land outside Durban, South Africa. That land became Enaleni Farm (enaleni means "abundance" in Zulu), raising endangered Zulu sheep, Nguni cattle (a pest-tolerant breed indigenous to South Africa), and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Richard likes to say that his farm isn't organic, but rather an example of how agroecological methods can work. He practices "push-pull" agriculture, which uses alternating intercropping of plants that repel pests (pushing them away from the harvest) and ones that attract pests (pulling them away from the harvest) to increase yields. He also uses animal manure and compost for fertilizer.


But perhaps the most important thing Richard is doing at Enaleni has to do with the "stories" he's telling on the farm. By showing local people the tremendous benefits that indigenous cattle and sheep breeds, and sustainably grown crops, can have for the environment and livelihoods, he's putting both an ecological and economic value on something that's been neglected. "Local people don't value what they have," he says, because extension agents have tended to promote exotic livestock and expensive inputs. Richard also asks himself, "What can we do that is specific to where we live?" In other words, how can we promote local sources of agricultural diversity that are good for the land and for people?


Improving Access to Livestock

Disease Prevention

Although avian influenza and H1N1 have dominated the news for the last few years, many other serious diseases can ravage livestock and rural communities. Newcastle disease, which can wipe out entire flocks of chickens and spread from farm to farm, is especially devastating for rural farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Vaccines for Newcastle used to be hard to come by in Africa. They were imported, usually expensive, and required refrigeration. Today, however, thanks to the work of the International Rural Poultry Center of the Kyeema Foundation in Mozambique, villages have access both to vaccines and to locally trained community vaccinators (or para-vets) who can help spot and treat Newcastle and other poultry diseases before they spread.

With help from a grant from the Australian Government's overseas aid program (AusAID), Kyeema developed a thermostable vaccine that doesn't need to be refrigerated and is easier for rural farmers to administer to their birds. Dr. Rosa Costa, Kyeema's director in Mozambique, explained that vaccinations take place three times a year and farmers are taught how to apply the vaccines with eyedroppers.

Community leaders help Kyeema identify people who are well respected in the community to be community vaccinators, who then receive training. The vaccinators aren't compensated by Kyeema, but they can make a small profit from each bottle of vaccine. Typically, women are chosen as vaccinators, says Dr. Costa. Not only do they tend to stay in the villages more than men, but the money they earn usually does much more to help the family because they use it to buy food or schoolbooks for their children.

Farmers Learning from Farmers

In Maputo, I sat in on a workshop organized by Prolinnova, the Spanish NGO Centro de Iniciativas para la Cooperacion/Bata, and the National Farmers Union of Mozambique (UNAC) about different agricultural innovations. However, the farmers weren't there to be trained by the NGOs but to share their experiences and learn from each other

According to Santiago Medina of Bata, this workshop was the culmination of a series of workshops that Bata/Prolinnova/UNAC held in 2009 to help farmers identify innovations in their communities and then share them with other farmers. They plan to identify 12-14 innovations and practices presented at the workshops for a book which will be translated into three of Mozambique's languages, allowing these different innovations to spread throughout the country.


Agriculture and Conservation

Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve used to be known more for raising livestock than protecting wildlife. But after years of ranching degraded the land, the owner decided to devote the area to protecting elephants, giraffes, impala, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, ostriches, warthogs, and various other animals and birds. But in addition to teaching students and the community about conserving and protecting wildlife and the environment, the reserve is also teaching permaculture. By growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers--including elephant dung--the Reserve's Education Center is demonstrating how to grow nutritious food with very little water or chemical inputs.

I met with Tuelo Lekgowe and his wife, Moho Sehtomo, who are managing the permaculture garden at Mokolodi. Tuelo explained that the organically grown spinach, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, green peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, coriander, and other crops raised at the garden are used to feed the school groups that come regularly to learn about not only animals, but also sustainable agriculture. Tuelo and Moho use the garden as a classroom, teaching students about composting, intercropping, water harvesting, and organic agriculture practices. The garden also supplies food for the Education Center and Mokolodi's restaurant.



Markets and Resilient Agriculture

Care International's work in Zambia has two main goals: increase the production of staple crops and improve farmers' access to agricultural inputs. 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 about how to use them. 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.

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, working in six districts since 2007 and reaching 24,000 house-holds. 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 for training farmers.

Linking Farmers to the Private Sector

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. 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. 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. In addition to selling things like hybrid maize or fertilizer, the agents can also provide soil 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. The farmers trust the agent not to run off with their money and to deliver the goods and services they've purchased.

A Sustainable Calling Plan

In addition to hoes and shovels, more and more farmers in sub-Saharan Africa carry another agricultural "tool": a cell phone.

Over the last decade, cell-phone use in Africa has increased fivefold, and farmers are using their phones to gain information about everything from markets to weather. Farmers can learn about prices before they make the long trips from rural areas to urban markets, giving them the option to wait until prices are higher. Agricultural extension agents and development agencies use mobile phones to communicate with farmers, letting them know about changes in weather that could affect crops.

Farmers and agribusiness agents in Zambia are also using cell phones as bank accounts, to pay for orders, to manage agricultural inputs, to collect and store information about customers, and to build credit. Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the "unbanked," allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card, says Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions general manager. An estimated 80 percent of Zambians lack bank accounts, making it difficult for them to make financial transactions such as buying seed or fertilizer. But by using Mobile Transactions, farmers are not only able to make purchases and receive payment electronically, they are also building a credit history, which can make getting loans easier.


Horns and Thorns

While wildlife conservation and sustainable farming practices are spreading across sub-Saharan Africa, it's a struggle to help preserve elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife in countries riven by political unrest and conflict. In Zimbabwe, for example, "it's pretty hard to get anything done," says Raol du Toit, director of the Rhino Conservation Trust. Although a new president, Morgan Tsvangirai, was elected in 2008, Robert Mugabe, the 86-year-old dictator who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, refused to cede power. A "power-sharing agreement" between the two leaders allows the country to function, but just barely. Unemployment rates are over 90 percent and people who voice public opposition to Mugabe are often jailed and tortured.

Despite these obstacles, Raol is showing farming communities how they can benefit economically from helping to save dwindling rhino and other wildlife populations. "Wildlife is like a herd of cattle," says Raol, and farmers "will get benefits" if they manage and conserve wildlife. This "horns and thorns" approach gives farmers an opportunity to be paid for the ecosystem services they provide, including protecting wildlife, conserving water, preventing deforestation, and sequestering carbon in the soil.


What's needed, says Raol, is more "landscape-level planning" that takes into account the needs of wildlife, of the environment, and of farming communities. Instead of development agencies and governments deciding where fences for cattle should go or where farmers should plant their crops, local communities and stakeholders need to be part of the process. Development aid, says Raol, should follow what local stakeholders need and perceive, not the other way around.

Fighting for Farmworkers' Rights

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


Unfortunately things haven't gotten much better since the 2008 elections. Land reform policies have left many farm workers without a source of income as farms are divided up and many 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," says Hambira, "was taken from the rich and given to the rich." These rich farmers, however, are not utilizing the land, she notes, leading to lower agricultural productivity, higher prices for food, and hunger.

Hambira says that as rural areas become a target for government reforms, "farmers have become voiceless." 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 Hambira and her staff often get arrested. Shortly after our meeting, her office was raided by government police and she was forced into hiding in South Africa.

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

Photographs by Bernard Pollack
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Author:Nierenberg, Danielle
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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