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On the road May 14th, 2017 by

View to Rwenzori from Beni roundabout copyEven a dangerous, war-torn province may be on the road to economic recovery, as I saw last week when I was driven from Beni to Komanda. The two hour, 120 km journey was part of my on-going involvement with cocoa growing here in North Kivu, DR Congo.

North Kivu has a bad reputation. The British Government map shows the province in blood red and “advises against all travel”. The capital, Goma, is associated with chaos and on-going conflict. North Kivu is at the heart of internecine battles involving countless, shifting factions, watched closely by neighbouring countries with their own interests to safeguard. Beni is a long way from Goma, yet it also has periodic outbursts of violence.

Our journey started and ended peacefully. We passed more motorbikes than cars. The motorcyclists drove cautiously, partly because they were loaded up with people, produce and belongings. Bunches of bananas, bags of leeks, cassava and charcoal – lots of charcoal. A few wore helmets. Traffic is increasing year on year, but it’s all remarkably peaceful compared to the heaving roads of Kenya. We moved smoothly along.

But still we had an early reminder of the dangers of driving. A truck driver had ploughed off the road the previous evening and one person had died. A UN armoured car was parked at the side of the road, one of several that we’d seen on the outskirts of Beni. People walk pass the white UN behemoths, ignoring the blue helmets that protrude from the turrets.

Brasimba adverts on walls copyThe roadside houses had walls made of mud plaster over wooden slats and corrugated roofs. We went through many small towns. There were more shops than I remembered from last year’s journey to Komanda. The local Beni brewery, Brasimba, advertises its various brands of beer by painting buildings in yellows and reds, both bright, optimistic colours. Mobile phone companies do the same all over Africa, a sure-fire way to be noticed. Beer and phones: signs that investment and businesses are growing, part of an increasing prosperity in Beni that is closely linked to cocoa.

We stopped in Oisha at a cocoa depot. Outside, a farmer was carefully tending his cocoa beans, which he had brought a bit too wet to sell. A motorbike was refuelling from a mini-depot, small stands stacked with plastic bottles of petrol. The vendor poured the fuel through a funnel while the passengers remained in place. They looked cramped but soon they were on their way.

Mini-depot and fill motorbike copyWe passed through areas of tall eucalypts, a tree maligned by some ecologists but hugely popular with farmers. The tree grows fast and straight; producing light but strong timber for construction and fences. Oil palm groves flashed by, the seeds crushed in simple presses to produce a viscous, orange cooking oil. More bags of charcoal by the road as we headed north, a sign that were getting close to forested areas. But the most surprising part of the journey so far was that we were on a tarred road, a real luxury in North Kivu: 60 km of smooth highway, courtesy of China – another investment in the future.

Just after Eringeti we stopped at a local government checkpoint marking the boundary with Orientale province. My colleague went to report my presence, clutching my passport. Such checkpoints are of dubious legality, a way to exact tolls and exercise notional authority. Haggling over payments can be protracted, but Patrick returned after 10 minutes: “all he wanted was a bottle of water”.

Shortly afterwards the tarred road ended. There were bumps and lurches but the graded road was well maintained and surprisingly smooth as we made good progress. My mobile phone signal stayed strong throughout the journey. Many more mobile phone masts have been erected in recent years, another tick on my mental list of improvements that makes peoples’ lives easier.

Komanda is an important but nondescript town, strategically positioned at the crossroads of three major roads: Beni to the south, Bunia to the east and Kisangani to the West. All of us gave a little gasp at the brand new hotel in the centre of town, with modern façade, multi-storied and all gleaming blue windows (de rigeur in North Kivu).

Oxygen hotel frontA modern hotel in Komanda? We entered the Oxygen Hotel and looked around. The owner from Butembo had invested a lot: proper beds and en suite bathrooms, a big improvement on the decrepit but serviceable hotel where we stayed last year. Here was another sign of confidence in the future, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t pretend that one hotel in the back of beyond is a harbinger of economic prosperity, but it is a significant step forward.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer, said that the journey was as important as the destination. The view from the car paints only a partial picture, yet it is still an important window on other people’s worlds and backs up what I’ve seen in the wider countryside. My journey gave me hope, reinforcing improvements I’ve seen over the last 13 years, powered by a steady increase in cocoa production. Decline and disarray is not inevitable nor irretrievable, especially if the agricultural economy is thriving. There is still violence and civil society struggles to flourish in North Kivu, but there are plenty of people who are optimistically investing in their future.

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Are you poor? May 7th, 2017 by

Big smile with banana bunch on head copyWhen Jeff, Paul and I write these blogs we chose our words carefully. We want to paint a positive yet realistic picture of development, reflecting an optimism founded on first-hand experiences. Yet it can be difficult when writing about the poorer regions of the world to avoid emphasising poverty and creating a spiral of despair, however unintentional.

The recent vogue in development is to classify countries by income, the latest in a long list of attempts to find a neutral way to describe poor countries. We have come a long way since Henry Kissinger’s crude and infamous description of Bangladesh as a “basket case”, back in the 1970s. “Third World” countries prevailed for a while, but its use faded as political divisions between East and West began to disappear.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development proposed the use of North and South to distinguish rich and developed nations from their impoverished counterparts. This has never quite caught on, though “the global South” is still in current use. “Under-developed” countries had a patronising ring to it and though “developing countries” has a more positive connotation it has never really conveyed a strong sense of transition out of poverty.

Now we have low, middle and high income countries, with rankings monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Donors find this classification a convenient way to separate countries in terms of needs and to target funds at the most deserving. Ranking by income matters a lot because it determines where projects will be funded and allowed to work.

Caravan at petrol staton copyBut there are still anomalies, particularly in large countries such as Brazil and South Africa, where regional disparities in income and life prospects are particularly marked. Even low income countries have wealthy people, and middle income countries have pockets of poverty. When I drove from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape, in 2000, it was like entering a different country. The landscape became bleaker, towns more ramshackle and the mobile phone signal disappeared.

The OECD list classifies South Africa as “upper middle income”, so there are drawbacks to this method of deciding which countries do and don’t deserve donor support. Fortunately, South Africa is able to fund its own development projects and I was intrigued to experience a few years ago  an initiative that used the expertise and knowledge of white farmers to train black farmers in maize production. Maize has been a popular smallholder crop for many years, but on a small scale and with poor yields.

Hat lady with samples and Richard copyI got to know the white farmers, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, when I ran a course on plant clinics in Drankensville. I assumed that most of them belonged to the rich world, yet although they had undoubtedly benefited from apartheid-era privilege, there was no simple division between them and the black farmers they worked with. At a plant clinic, I watched in admiration as the Afrikaaners gave advice on maize problems in fluent Zulu. Many of the (white) people on the course had been given additional Zulu names, probably by domestic staff. I saw a genuine rapport between the two groups of farmers and an obvious mutual respect. It made me think hard about the way we decide who is poor and who is not.

Later I learned that some of the Afrikaaners had left school with minimal qualifications. They’d been in the army and then worked the land. Yes, they clearly had more material wealth, but to label them rich and the black farmers they worked with poor seemed wrong. This bleak division did little to emphasise the dignified way in which the white and black farmers treated each other.

Remo consultation copyAid agencies and international NGOs learnt long ago that pictures of suffering children attract funds, but they over-emphasise misery at the cost of hope for a better future. A poor country is a poor country, whichever way you look at it. But we should think carefully about how we describe their farmers, people who strive hard to do better. Their ambitions, perseverance and creativity deserve respect, hence the importance of choosing the right labels for the countries where they live.  Our blog stories will continue to feature the successes of farmers and entrepreneurs in poor countries. Publicising their achievements is the simplest way to enrich the lives of everyone.

Acknowledgements

I’m grateful for the support of the Agriculture Research Council of South Africa and for the support of my colleagues at the Plant Protection Research Institute.

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Wonder Crops April 9th, 2017 by

Innovation in agriculture is the key to progress, yet new ideas need to be carefully examined. This is particularly true for “if only” crops, where wondrous benefits could be realised, so we are told, if only more were produced for eager markets. It rarely turns out to be so simple.

Neem products Fortune company copyFrom the 1960s onwards the neem tree received a lot of attention from pest scientists who promoted the pesticide properties of naturally occurring compounds. Neem’s properties had been known across India for centuries, but were a source of wonderment to Western scientists, intrigued by the possibilities of natural alternatives to the highly toxic pesticides damned in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

“If only” crops often promise increased incomes for farmers, with other benefits such as reduced pest management costs and health risks in the case of neem. Neem was promoted widely in West Africa as part of IPM (integrated pest management), though the most notable success I am aware of was an agroforestry scheme in Niger, where neem was used as windbreaks for annual crops. Neem was also promoted widely as a botanical insecticide in Central America in the 1990s, but the most lasting result of plantings seems to be attractive trees in public parks.

I did hear of a commercial scheme to harvest neem oil from neem plantations in Indonesia, driven by a reported US market price of US$50 per litre. But, like many other wonder crops, the hype didn’t match the reality. Neem products are sold widely in India, often with heavy government subsidies, but wider, international trade has yet to happen.

Promoting any new plant-based product for profit requires a complex series of coordinated steps, from getting farmers to grow enough plants to guarantee a steady supply of raw material, to having processing facilities that can produce the quality product needed by traders that are ready and willing to pay a fair price.

Patchouli possible copyAdd to this: trading regulations, alternative suppliers and fluctuating demand, and the barriers to success become daunting. The promotion of neem products has been a qualified success where farmers were already familiar with the plant. Creating enterprises based on a first-time crop is much more challenging, as I learnt last week in Rwanda. Patchouli is a small herbaceous plant whose leaves produce a pungent oil used in perfumery. Patchouli oil is also used in making incense and anyone who has visited India or passed by Hindu temples elsewhere is likely to have smelled its particularly intense and persistent aroma.

About 10 years ago an entrepreneur from Haiti, Pierre Léger, visited Rwanda and convinced the government to support a scheme to plant patchouli, a previously unknown crop. This was the wonder plant, according to the spiel, that would transform the lives of many poor farmers in Rwanda. Patchouli is well-suited to conditions in Rwanda, where aid agencies and the government were keen to support new enterprises, particularly those that promised high financial rewards. Add to this a global patchouli oil shortage and skyrocketing price at the time, and it’s easy to understand why a proposal to establish a patchouli industry in Rwanda received a sympathetic welcome. Rwanda already grew geraniums for essential oils, so this type of business was already familiar to some farmers.

Showing quinoa products copyToday, however, patchouli still languishes as an “if only” crop for Rwanda: if only more farmers had planted it; if only distilling facilities had been successfully established; if only investment from the government had been realised; and if only the original promoter had stayed the course necessary to establish a patchouli oil business. There are wonder crops that have succeeded, but usually because they were already grown by farmers and there was a semblance of a local industry that could be expanded when market conditions became favourable. It also helps to have committed private investors.

Quinoa is not an overnight success for Bolivia or Peru. Many people have worked for years to promote its nutritional benefits, efforts that are now being rewarded by sustained exports to North America and Europe. The quinoa was also supported for years at the exporting end in the Andes by researchers and entrepreneurs in Bolivia.

The overall picture of wonder crops is, however, of patchy success. Leucaena, a woody legume, was widely promoted by projects as a reliable solution to fodder shortages, yet it was plagued by a psyllid (a sucking insect) that followed the expansion of planting aroundPsyllids on leucaena 2 copythe world. Goji berries, a super-food grown mainly in north-west China, is a wonder crop that continues to do well. But success also encourages competitors, with increased quinoa and goji production in the US, for example.

The main lesson from the fates of many crops promoted as “the next big thing” for development is to exercise caution. It is tricky linking production to markets and finding reliable investors who will keep working on processing and marketing after donor dollars have disappeared. A committed community of researchers, processors, exporters, producers and policy-makers is essential. There is undoubtedly a place for wonder crops in creating new enterprises, but only if the assumptions and claims of the promoters are thoroughly scrutinised before taking the plunge.

Related blog stories

The quinoa boom in Bolivia has been years in the making: Quinoa, lost and found

Persistence helped to establish cardamom in Guatemala, as explained in A troubled crop.

A wonder crop can also be an insect, as we read in Kiss of death in the cactus garden

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Simple is beautiful March 12th, 2017 by

Grove seen down the slope copyA lot of time and effort goes into development projects, from writing proposals and getting funds through to building partnerships, doing the work and finally evaluating it to show that you’ve made a difference. Sometimes a simpler, direct approach is more effective, as my experiences with bamboo in Ethiopia have suggested.

I first learnt about the vast swathes of bamboo in Ethiopia twenty years ago. I was engaged in a pilot project to assess a largely untapped resource comprising huge natural stands and a patchwork of smaller plots dotted around peoples’ homes. Existing uses of bamboo included conversion into charcoal, building fences and making small household items, such as baskets. The resource assessment was the first step in suggesting profitable enterprises on a much larger scale.

Mats used for construction big building copyEach year the million hectares of Ethiopian bamboo produce new culms, as the woody, fast-maturing stems are known. There has been no shortage of ideas on what to do with this rapidly regenerating biomass. The most ambitious suggestion has been to burn bamboo and generate electricity. More modest proposals, though still requiring major investment, have included fashioning the bamboo into high quality flooring and decking for export to the North.

When I returned to Ethiopia ten years ago for a new bamboo project, I found little evidence of new enterprises or large scale industrial uses. The most striking discovery, though one that at first seemed commonplace, was the continuing operation of a workshop where people were trained to make handicrafts from bamboo. Some of the oldest ideas had been the most enduring.

Fuel bundles2 copyDuring the second visit I went to talk with a small group of shopkeepers who sold bamboo furniture to the better-off denizens of Addis Ababa. These were, as far as I could see, the same shops that had been present when I made my first visit in 1997. The shops were well-stocked with chairs, beds, tables and all the other furniture that middle class families were keen to have in their homes.

The furniture sellers and the handicraft makers were all beneficiaries of a much earlier initiative, some time back in the 1980s, when Ethiopia was run by the Derg, a revolutionary committee drawn from the army and police. The Derg admired the socialist ideals of China and one of the outcomes was a visit by Chinese technicians, who introduced Ethiopian artisans to new designs for bamboo arts and crafts. The Chinese supported the establishment of a workshop in a government-supported, small enterprises institute, where people were still being trained thirty or so years later.

In 1997, the bamboo furniture makers and the craftsmen seemed unremarkable to me because at the time I thought that chairs and baskets would never generate huge amounts of income. But as roads improve, cities expand, and the Ethiopian middle class comes of age, there is now solid demand for sensible furniture. Bamboo industries benefit farm communities with small plots, who send regular truck loads to the bustling workshops of Addis Ababa.

Save Generation Assoc staff and goods2 copyWhat of the other more ambitious schemes for bamboo? A quick search of the web for current bamboo activity in Ethiopia shows USAID giving a grant of $1.75 million in 2014 to ‘develop processes to make industrial and quality bamboo’. This grant will have a detailed proposal, plan of action and agreed outcomes, all requiring regular monitoring, reporting and so on. In other words, a hefty administrative overhead will eat into the available finds.

But this recent public/private enterprise may also mean that bamboo enterprises are finally going to succeed on a big scale – though there’s no guarantee that this will happen. Meanwhile the impact of a small gesture by China forty or more years ago to show solidarity with Ethiopia continues to reap benefits, an unexpected outcome of the otherwise tragic and violent period of Derg rule. Sometimes the most effective interventions are also the simplest.

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Teach your children well (with cocoa) January 22nd, 2017 by

Children in the UK know more about the developing world than ever before. Some of what they hear is exceptional, with brutal conflicts and spectacular natural disasters grabbing headlines. Fortunately, schools try to give a more complete view of life in poor countries, even if learning about major social problems– poverty, malnutrition for example –inevitably paints a rather bleak picture.

YPG cocoa opening slide copy reducedWhen I was asked recently to talk to primary school pupils, I decided to focus on a tropical food crop. I chose cocoa. Everyone likes chocolate, especially children. My aim was to explain how the plant was grown and beans were produced and sold, discussing the people involved at different stages in an attempt to explain why agriculture is so important.

In a small town 100 miles north of London, I reckoned few if any in my class of ten year-olds would know the cocoa plant. But I checked before starting the two-hour session, just in case. Sure enough, one girl had seen a cocoa tree in a greenhouse in a botanic garden. We began by making a long list of things that contained cocoa, including cocoa butter. We then discussed countries where cocoa was grown, using maps I provided.

The children quickly realised that cocoa grows close to the equator, because, as one girl said, “that’s where you get tropical rain forests – and they store lots of rain”. We went through the list of cocoa-producing countries. No one had heard of Guatemala, but several boys knew about Togo, because of another more famous export: professional footballers.

Emily or Emma helps the kids copyI planned an illustrated journey, going in stages from planting seed to producing cocoa beans, first showing large pictures on a screen before getting the children to look more carefully at photo-sheets. We began with photos of different cocoa gardens, one well-tended, another in decline and one with dead and dying trees. Next, we did seed to pod and then pod to bean. The children asked good questions about planting, flowering, pod production and shading of young cocoa plants with bananas and other plants.

I brought out three cocoa pods and said we were going to look inside. Eyes widened as the children carefully cut open the pods, exposing a perfect sequence from unripe to ripe and over-ripe pod (this was more luck than judgement). Handling the pods sparked the children’s curiosity, and they asked more questions: how do you know when the pods are ripe? They change colour. How long can you keep a pod after you’ve removed it from the tree? About a week.

The children tasted the flesh surrounding the beans in the ripe pod, pleasantly surprised at its fruity flavour. A few nibbled at the beans, equally surprised to discover these did not taste of chocolate. We moved on to the next sequence of photos: from pod to bean, then bean to truck. The children learnt about fermentation and drying, the challenges of selling and buying beans, and moving 63 kg bags from DR Congo to the port of Mombasa in Kenya for export, a journey that takes about two to three days by truck.

Group with cut pods CU copyThe children also cut open some dried beans. They graded them, as a buyer would do, then cut them open to check the quality, using a colour chart – as a chocolate maker would do. In two hours we’d gone from growing cocoa to exporting beans. Along the way the children had seen farmers in action, where they lived, the clothes they wore, and learnt about the importance of cocoa as a major source of income to nearly 30,000 farmers in DR Congo.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders, and in a world where people are far removed from the source of their food, it is vital that we help people in the North understand the importance of agriculture to people in the South, and the need to help farmers succeed. Better yet, while stimulating young minds, to allow children to taste the real flavours of the South.

Acknowledgements

My thanks to Marianne Quinsee and Toni Boa of Little Bowden Primary School, Market Harborough, for enthusiastically supporting the visit, and to Andrew Daymond of the International Cocoa Collection at the University of Reading for providing the pods and beans.

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