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Voices from Africa.

Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg spent two months late last year touring several countries in East 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 mate rial below is adapted from blog entries Danielle posted during her trip. Updates and more information can be found at our "Nourishing the Planet" blog (


October 29

I met Kes Malede Abreha, described by my interpreter as a "farmer-priest," on his farm near Aksum in the Central Zone of Tigray region. A small, wiry, soft-spoken man with a neatly trimmed beard, Kes Malede is one of the leading "farmer-innovators" in his community. Roughly eight years ago, he started digging for water on his very dry farm. His neighbors thought he was crazy, telling him he would never find water on the site. His wife even left him, moving their children into town.


But about 16 meters down, Kes Malede hit water. After his wife returned, he began sketching ways that would make it easier to "push" that water to the surface. He developed a series of pumps, improving on each one. The one he's using now is built from inexpensive wood, iron, and metal piping, all available locally. It can push or lift water not only to the surface, but also through a system of hoses to irrigate his fruit trees and farm crops, including teff, sorghum, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

As part of a group of farmers who can apply for and receive funding for their innovations from the global, NGO-initiated organization, Prolinnova, Kes Malede is teaching other farmers in the community by example, showing them how small investments in technology can make a big difference on the farm.

He's now helping other farmers--the same ones who thought he was crazy--by teaching them about his water lifting system and by selling modern, box-style beehives that allow farmers to both manage the bees better and pollinate their crops.

October 30

Prolinnova isn't the only foreign NGO working outside of Aksum. The German development agency GTZ is also operating programs in the area, helping farmers develop erosion control systems, irrigation, and integrated pest management (IPM). The erosion here is phenomenal--we teetered over gullies, some as much as 16 meters deep, which have developed over the years because of bad weather, overgrazing, and unsustainable cropping practices. But over the last five years, GTZ has worked with farmers to develop intercropping systems, helping to build soil fertility and prevent erosion by making sure that the soil is not left exposed. The group has also helped farmers develop zero-grazing systems--instead of allowing sheep, cattle, and goats to graze freely on already eroded land, further impacting the health of the soil and disrupting vegetation, animals are corralled or penned and farmers bring fodder, such as elephant grass, to them.


November 9

Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera, it's nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 225 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Everywhere you look there are people. People walking, people working, people selling food or tennis shoes, people sorting trash, people herding goats--people everywhere. Anywhere from 700,000 to a million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa--it's hard to count the exact number here because people don't own the land where they live and work, making their existence a very tenuous one. Often people are evicted from their homes (most of them wooden shacks with tin roofs) because the city government doesn't want to recognize that Kibera exists. But it does. And despite the challenges people here face--lack of water and sanitation services and lack of land ownership are the big ones--they are also thriving.


Our hosts for this visit were Mary Njenga and Nancy Karanja, researchers with the group Urban Harvest, an organization with offices in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru.

We met a "self help" group of women farmers in Kibera who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus. These groups are present all over Kenya, giving youth, women, and other groups the opportunity to organize, share information and skills, and ultimately improve their wellbeing.

The women we met are raising vegetables on what they call "vertical farms." But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall sacks filled with dirt. The women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and planting seeds. They received training, seeds, and sacks from the French NGO Soladarites to start their sack gardens.


The women told us that more than 1,000 of their neighbors are growing food in a similar way--something that Red Cross International recognized during 2007 and 2008 when there was conflict in the slums of Nairobi. No food could come into these areas, but most residents didn't go without food because so many of them were growing crops--in sacks, on vacant land, or elsewhere.

These small gardens can yield big benefits in terms of nutrition, food security, and income. All the women told us that they saved money because they no longer had to buy vegetables at the store, and they claimed the vegetables taste better because they were organically grown--but it also might come from the pride that comes from growing something themselves.


November 16

We met Mary Matou and a group of about 20 urban farmers on a farm across from Kibera, a slum of nearly 1 million people in Nairobi. Dressed in a skirt and rubber muck boots, Mrs. Matou has farmed the land here for nearly two decades. She and the other farmers--more women than men--don't own the land where they grow spinach, kale, spider plant, squash, amaranth, and other vegetables. Instead the land is owned by the Kenyan Social Security Administration, which has allowed the farmers to farm the land through an informal arrangement; in other words, the farmers have no legal right to the land. They've been forced to stop farming more than once over the years, and although they're getting harassed less frequently, they still face challenges.


About a year ago, the city forced them to stop using wastewater (sewage from an underground pipe they tapped into) to both irrigate and fertilize their crops. Although wastewater can carry a number of risks, including pathogens and contamination from heavy metals, it also provides a rich--and free--source of fertilizer to farmers who don't have the money to buy expensive store-bought fertilizer and other inputs. And because of longer periods of drought (likely a result of climate change) in sub-Saharan Africa, the farmers didn't have to depend on rainfall to water their crops.


December 3

As hunger and drought spread across Africa, there's a heavy 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, and other importtant 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 that need a lot of water and fertilizer.


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

In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient definciencies among the poor. Often referred to as "hidden hunger," micronutrient deficiencies 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.

December 4

The World Vegetable Center is focusing on "building a sustainable seed system in sub-saharan Africa." What does that mean? According to Dr. Tenkouano, 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 liaison officer with the Center's Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program, 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.


December 9

In Mukono District, about an hour outside of Kampala, Uganda, agriculture used to be considered a "punishment" for young people at school if they didn't behave and something they would be forced to do if they couldn't go to university or find jobs in the city, according to Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project. Edward, 23, and Roger, 22 started the project in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture in Mukono by establishing school gardens at 15 pre-school, day, and boarding schools. And over the last year, DISC has received global attention for its work and is now partly funded by Slow Food International.

They started with Sunrise School, a preschool taking care of children between the ages of 3 and 6. By teaching these kids early about growing, preparing, and eating food they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions. In addition to teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, DISC puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing. "If a person doesn't know how to cook or prepare food, they don't know how to eat," says Edward. The kids at Sunrise and the other schools working with DISC know how to grow, how to prepare, and how to eat food, as well as its nutritional content.

As a result, these students grow up with more respect--and excitement--for farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School, we met 19-year-old Mary Naku, who is learning about farming from DISC. This was her school's first year with the project and Mary has gained both leadership and farming skills. "As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables," she says, "to support our lives."

Betty Nabukalu, a 16-year-old student at Kisoga Secondary School, manages her school's garden and explained how DISC has taught the students "new" methods of planting vegetables. Before, she says, "we used to just plant seeds," but now she and the other students know how to fertilize with manure and compost. Betty represents students from here on the local Slow Food Convivium, groups of Slow Food members who are dedicated to preserving local food cultures.


Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities, and preserve biodiversity.

December 15

Edward Mukiibi says that after fulfilling their goals of being able to go to university, he and Roger Serunjogi wanted to "help other people realize their dreams." And they wanted to spread their "passion for producing local foods to the next generation." By focusing on school gardens, Edward and Roger are not only helping to feed children, but are also revitalizing an interest in African indigenous vegetables. The schools don't use any hybrid seeds, but rely on what is locally available. Students and teachers at DISC project schools are taught how to save seed from local varieties of amaranth, sumiwiki, maize, African eggplant, and other local crops to grow in school gardens. They learn how to both dry the seeds and store them for the next season. With support from Slow Food International, DISC is establishing a seed bank to, according to Edward, "preserve the world's best vegetables."

Improving nutrition is especially important for boarding school students, who eat all of their meals at school. These children come from all over Uganda, and DISC tries to make them feel at home by growing varieties of crops that are familiar to them from both the lowlands and highlands. According to Edward, "a child needs to see what she's used to" in order to appreciate its importance.

At both day and boarding schools, students work with school chefs to learn how to cook foods--giving them the opportunity to understand food production literally from farm to table. And unlike most other schools in Uganda, DISC project schools get local fruits with their breakfast and can harvest their own dessert at lunchtime. DISC is planning the "Year of Fruits" for the next school year, which begins in January or February depending on the school--each school will be planting its own fruit trees on campus.


December 21

Recovery is a word you hear a lot in Rwanda. From public service announcements on television to billboards, it's the motto for a place that just 15 years ago was literally torn apart by genocide. More than 1 million people were murdered in 1994 as ethnic strife turned neighbor against neighbor in one of the bloodiest civil wars in African history.

Recovery, and healing, are also things I heard a lot about during my visit with Heifer International Rwanda. "Heifer is helping a recovery process," explained Dr. Dennis Karamuzi, a veterinarian and the programs manager for Heifer. Heifer started its projects in Rwanda in 2000 in a community in Gicumbi District, about an hour outside of Kigali, the capital. This community was especially hard hit by the genocide because it's close to the border with Uganda. Residents who weren't killed fled to Kigali for safety.


Gicumbi District is making a comeback, thanks in part to Heifer International. Heifer International works with farmers all over the world, helping them develop sustainable agriculture practices, including providing livestock and training farmers how raise them.

Heifer began working in Rwanda in 2000, but their start was a little rocky. At first the community was suspicious of the group--because they were giving farmers "very expensive cows," says Holimdintwoli Cyprien, one of the farmers trained by Heifer to raise dairy cows; they didn't understand how the group could just give them away. Many community members thought that it was a plot by the government to have them raise livestock and then take them away, a remnant of the ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis that started the conflict there in the 1990s. And Heifer has certain conditions for receiving cows--including that farmers build a pen and dedicate part of their land to growing pasture--which made people skeptical, especially when they were used to letting animals roam freely to graze on grass. But as people began seeing the results of Heifer's training, they become less suspicious and more interested in working with the group.

Heifer introduced a South African dairy breed known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr. Karamuzi, "no stock of good [dairy cow] genes" was left in the country after the genocide. And he says that these animals help prove "that even poor farmers can take care of high producing cows."

And these animals don't only provide milk--which can be an important source of protein for the hungry--and income to families. They also provide manure, which not only serves as fertilizer for crops, but also is now helping provide biogas for cooking to households raising cows in the country as part of the National Biogas Program.

December 22

Holindintwali Cyprien hasn't always been a farmer. After the genocide in the 1990s, he and his wife, Mukaremera Donatilla, were school teachers, making about US$50 monthly. Living in a small mud house without electricity or running water, they were saving to buy a cow to help increase their income. And when Heifer International started working in Rwanda almost a decade ago, Cyprien and Donatilla were among the first farmers in the country to be Heifer beneficiaries. Along with the gift of a cow, the family also received training and support from Heifer project coordinators.

Today, they've used their gift to improve their monthly income--they now make anywhere from $300 to $600 per month--and the family's living conditions and nutrition. In addition to growing elephant grass and other fodder (one of Heifer's requirements for receiving animals) for the five cows they currently own, Cyprien and Donatilla are also growing vegetables and keeping chickens. They've built a brick house and have electricity and are earning income by renting their other house.

Today Cyprien is going back to his roots and making plans to teach again--this time other farmers. He wants, he says, "the wider community to benefit from his experience."


December 23

In addition to milk and income, dairy farmers also get another important resource from their cows: manure. While raw manure can be composted for use on crops, cow dung can also be a source of fuel for households.

Madame Helen Bahikwe, another farmer in Gicumbi District, began working with Heifer International in 2002. She now has five cows--and an excess of manure. With a subsidy from the government as part of the National Biogas Program, Madame Helen built a biogas collection tank, which allows her to use the methane from decomposing manure to cook for her 10-member family. She no longer has to collect or buy firewood, saving both time and money, and protecting the environment. The fuel is also cleaner burning, eliminating the smoke that comes from other sources of fuel.


And according to Mukerema Donatilla, another farmer we met, biogas "helps with hygiene" on the farm because they can use hot water to clean cow udders before milking and for cleaning milk containers.

Both Mukerema and Madame Helen had to contribute about $700 for the materials to install their biogas units, while the government contributed about $400. With funding from SNV, a Netherlands-based organization, and the Rwanda Ministry of Infrastructure, the government hopes to have 15,000 households in the country collecting and using biogas by 2012.

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