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 problemsâ poverty, malnutrition for example âinevitably paints a rather bleak picture.
When 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, âthatâs where you get tropical rain forests â and they store lots of rainâ. 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.
I 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 childrenâs 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 youâve 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.
The 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 â as a chocolate maker would do. In two hours weâd 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.
Todayâs children are tomorrowâs 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.
My thanks to Marianne Quinsee and Toni BoaÂ 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.
Everyone wants to see lots of farmers benefitting from agricultural innovations, managing risks more effectively and creating new pathways out of poverty. Success in pilot projects is always encouraging but it is no guarantee that this will translate into bigger gains for the masses.
I recently witnessed a golden opportunity in Rwanda to spread the word about iron beans, one of several biofortified crops developed under the umbrella of Harvest Plus, a major donor-funded programme on nutrition which works closely with national governments around the world. A quartet of development practitioners working with HarvestPlusÂ recently won the World Food Prize.
Rwanda is famous for its ability to mobilize lots of people. They have a special word: Umuganda, a âcoming together in common purpose to achieve an outcomeâ. To some thereâs a strong element of âcome or elseâ, yet my experience of events in Gakenke district suggested clear enthusiasm and interest in attending.
The first event was a mass planting of âiron beansâ close to the main road, a prominent place that was both easy to reach and easy to see. The Governor of the North Province was there, as was a government minister, appointed to strengthen ties from national to local level. It was clearly a significant occasion and I watched in awe as over 100 people placed seed in prepared furrows, adding a dollop of fertilizer. It was a powerful way to promote a nutrient-rich variety of a key staple crop.
Everyone then moved a short distance to a much larger community meeting. New people arrived, swelling numbers to around 1500. As the audience settled on a gentle slope, a singer moved sinuously with microphone in hand, keeping them amused as the assembled dignitaries took their seats in a tented enclosure facing the crowd. My heart sank a little as I waited for long speeches. Managing a large meeting requires skill and active participation keeps people engaged. If they get bored they can leave, even in Rwanda.
I was unsure about the purpose of the community meeting. Was this an extension of the bean planting Umuganda? I could see a display of bean varieties at the end of the tent, but as the singer departed we turned to other things. A short line of people formed on the flat ground between the tent and the slope. It was a mixed group with a common purpose, but each seeking a different outcome. They had all come to petition the authorities about a problem or wrong-doing.
My friend Jean Claude Izamuhaye explained what was going on. âThis woman is disabled, and so is her husband. She wants help with health insurance.â Another lady had problems paying school fees for three daughters. There was a land dispute that a man wanted resolving. Each case was dealt with courteously. A moderator relayed questions to the Governor, Minister and local officials present. A village leader commented on a case.
The large crowd also responded, and not always favourably. One petitioner was deemed to have a frivolous case and was pelted with clumps of grass by neighbours as she retook her seat. The petitions lasted for over an hour. I waited for someone to say something about the beans and point to the display, but nothing happened. When the meeting ended lots of people crowded around the bags of beans, eager to learn about the different varieties on show.
At this point I was mentally urging someone to stand on a seat and give a short message about the beans, encouraging farmers to talk to knowledgeable staff from extension, dressed in distinctive green T shirts, who had been present throughout the meeting as silent observers. Now was the time, I thought, to form small groups and talk about the iron beans or even some other hot topic â the meeting took place soon after maize lethal necrosis disease was found in Rwanda. The extension workers all knew how serious this was.
The farmers milled around, the extension workers talked amongst themselves, and gradually people drifted off, back to their homes and offices. Someone had thought it was a good idea to have an attractive display of bean seeds, in full view of 1500 people, mostly farmers, but that was it. A golden opportunity to âscale-upâ an innovation was only partially seized.
Piggybacking on a community meeting held to resolve social issues needs to be done sensitively, so as not to disrupt the main reason why people came. But with a little thought and effort â getting the agreement of the meeting organisers to talk briefly about beans to everyone assembled, then tagging on a short Q&A session at the end â so much more could have been achieved.
Read more about the World Food Prize 2016
With increasing urbanisation, fewer people have the chance to learn about agriculture. OurÂ blogs tell stories that illustrate how it works, particularly through the experiences of farmers around the world. Â But there are other ways in which the busy city-dweller can learn about crops and livestock.
Iâm particularly interested in how young people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to society. Iâve just been to the Museo del Oro Precolombino (Museum of Precolombian Gold) in San JosĂ©, Costa Rica, a delightful place that many schoolchildren are taken to. It was an unexpected pleasure to see so much about agriculture and how early societies and communities began to move from harvesting natureâs bounty to growing their own crops.
The displays were in Spanish and English, clearly presented, not too long yet still informative. I read that from 2000 â 500 B.C. âagriculture encouraged the establishment of permanent villages and the development of âŠ ceramicsâ. The horse did indeed come before the cart. Early crops included beans, yam and maize, still prominent in todayâs diet. Coyol palm, whose sap is turned into an alcoholic drink, and pejibaye, a palm with edible, starchy fruits, were also shown and available in the streets outside the museum.
The museum displayed many exquisite gold objects, created to signify wealth, status and accompany their owners after death. There were fine ceramics on show, some used for ceremonial purposes, and a series of grinding stones (metates in Spanish) for making meal and flour out of grain. A photo-montage, as one exited the museum, showed indigenous people using techniques known from prehistoric time, including a Bribri woman grinding maize with a large stone. SuchÂ technologies are still in use today
Few museums in big cities pay much attention to agriculture, which is a great pity. Sophisticated systems for irrigation and storing crops were created a long time ago with skill and ingenuity, and deserve as much attention as visually appealing collections of artefacts, coins and costumes. At the Museo del Oro Precolombino you get to see both high art and quotidian endeavour. Without agricultureÂ sustainingÂ people and creating newÂ wealth,Â there would beÂ no fancy gold objects in the museumÂ .
As Henry Hobhouse wrote in Seeds of Change, crops such as sugar cane, tobacco, tea, potato and cinchona have played a crucial part in shaping world history. The wealth of Great Britain is derived as much from trading in crops, as extracting minerals, for example. Yet you will be hard pressed to find much mention of agriculture in some of the great museums of major cities.
An irrigation channel is unlikely to excite a schoolchild, but Iâm sure they would be fascinated by an amazing collection of miniature agricultural machinery I recently saw in the University of Padova in Italy. Lovingly worked in wood and metal, I marvelled at the fine detail of hand carts, grape presses and other examples of equipment used by farmers in Italy. There were five cases containing around 150 models, sadly languishing in a corridor and out of sight to the general public. We could all do more to showcase the industry, creativeness and intrigue of agriculture, not just in museums but in other public displays that everyone has the opportunity to see.
I found such an example in a small village in Cyprus, where the guide explained that he and a few others had wanted to celebrate the land and the dependency of local communities on agriculture. There were pitchforks, saws, axes, shovels and animal traps, as well as moulds for making bread. A timely and telling reminder that the things we depend on most for our survival and development come from agriculture, and that we should celebrate this more.
Museums dedicated to the past are a great way to showcase the evolution of agriculture and the shaping of societies. However, agriculture cannot really be fully understood without knowing more about the farmers of today. For example, the Access Agriculture video library offers everyone, including farmers or students, the opportunity to learn about agriculture and the people practicing this noble profession.
As I landed in Bishkek a few weeks ago I marvelled at the sharp contrast between soaring, snow-capped mountain, and plains with multi-coloured strips, mature fields of wheat and freshly planted maize, sunflower and other field crops. On the ground there are plenty of hardy fruit trees, such as apples, pears, apricots, plums and other stone fruits. I watched a family pick cherries from trees they had planted in a hedgerow, making maximum use of their agricultural land. Kyrgyzstan is still hugely dependent on agriculture. A short growing season means that farmers have to be creative. There is plenty of water, if you have access to irrigation.
I heard mixed stories about the profitability of large scale field crops, much of this linked to the phrase that cropped up repeatedly: âafter the collapse of Soviet Unionâ. In the winter of 1991-92 state farms lost their support and the new Kyrgyz Republic could no longer count on the USSR to absorb its exports, leaving farmers exposed to unfamiliar, global competition. Cotton, a major commodity during the Soviet era, is still widely planted in Osh district, in the warmer south, though areas have decreased.
The Kyrgyz language is related to Turkish, and expanding links with Turkey offer new opportunities for trade. Savvy buyers from Turkey have introduced improved cotton varieties, as have the Chinese, only a few hours away by road from Osh. Foreign buyers provide technical advice and training to farmers. Turkey and China also sell agrochemicals. The private sector is taking up some of the slack of a once dominant state-controlled agriculture. Farmers welcome the new sources of support.
Russiaâs influence has not entirely disappeared. They will build and equip a new plant diagnostic laboratory in Osh, and advisors from Moscow were discussing the start of construction during my visit. As they arrived in shiny 4 x 4 vehicles, the similarities to a development project in Nepal or Nicaragua were difficult to ignore.
The agricultural scientists I talked to constantly said how difficult it was for farmers to afford things, part of a general post-collapse pessimism. But it is easy for those who work in laboratories to underestimate farmers. I saw farmers who were investing in their farms and who appeared optimistic about the future. In a recently planted cotton field near Aravan, on the edge of Fergana valley, I was impressed by the size of Israilâs farm, the health of his plants and a modern tractor working the land. Israil has been growing cotton for the last five years, after deciding it was more profitable than wheat.
Farmers now have the freedom to change the crops each season, no longer bound by central planning that may have limited agricultural potential but created a dull kind of certainty. And, encouragingly, there are newcomers to agriculture with no previous experience of farming. Tima and his business partner, Mirlan, had left secure jobs in finance and telecommunications to start a strawberry farm, complete with drip irrigation. They asked me to examine some unhealthy strawberry plants in a newly planted field on the edge of Bishkek, the capital city. They were learning the hard way that small-scale agriculture can be risky, particularly when you are growing a crop for the first time.
Tima and Mirlan wanted a change in lifestyle and were attracted by the commercial potential of fruit growing. Tima and Mirlan hadÂ done their homework before planting, sourcing the best plants and following recommended planting procedures. But Tima also told me that strawberry farmers were not so keen to share information and experiences. After years of working in enforced collectives I have read that farmers in ex-Soviet republics value their independence. On the way back to Bishkek we met Dilmurat, an experienced strawberry grower. He was more than happy to talk about what he did. Maybe my presence made a difference, but I think farmers everywhere want to learn and the best way to do this is to be open and share experiences.
Iâm never quite sure what to expect from a farmer interview. Many projects take visitors to see the same farmers over and over again, who become a little weary answering questions. There is something to be said for striking out on your own, as we did one Sunday lunchtime, about 30 km north of Nairobi.
I was in Kenya to learn more about how farmers use bamboo. Although typically associated with Asia, there are two native species in East Africa and huge natural stands (at least in Ethiopia). Several recent projects have explored the business potential of bamboo, tempted by an abundant, renewable substitute for wood, and the untapped riches of âgreen goldâ, as bamboo enthusiasts often call the worldâs largest grass.
Our quest for a farmer began in Kambaa Market. Mwai, the driver, asked if anyone sold bamboo baskets. The rest of us stayed in the car, keen to avoid distractions, but it is difficult for white people to remain unnoticed in a large white Land Cruiser. Kariuki, a bystander, was soon tapping at our window, asking us what we were looking for. At first he thought we wanted to buy baskets, but then he said: âIâll show you a man who not only makes the baskets but is also a big sellerâ. How far was it? âJust around the corner, down the hill.â
âJust around the cornerâ can mean anything, but Kariuki was true to his word. When we arrived at John Kabugaâs farm his wife, Veronica, said that he was away, tending another plot near Nakuru. We suggested coming back later when her husband was at home, but Veronica would have none of this. âIf the president is away, it is the vice-president who acts on his behalf. I am the VP in this family and can tell you whatever you want to know.â
Even though Veronica was clearly busy, she stopped what she was doing and started telling us about bamboo. âWe are makers and wholesalers of bamboo baskets and supply five tea estates with bamboo baskets for collecting the leaves and well as several other small-scale farmers.â Veronica gave us invaluable information about costs, retail prices and how many baskets they made each month. She opened the house to show me 80 baskets, ready to sell, stacked against a wall.
I asked Veronica where the bamboo came from. âCome, Iâll show youâ. Twenty metres above the house, on the borders of their shamba (farm), stood two bamboo clumps. They were well managed with none of the tangled mass of collapsed and rotting culms that we had seen earlier in a government forest. Bamboo culms grow to their full length in a matter of months but take around three years to mature. Veronica tapped a culm to see if it was ready to cut.
Veronica cut down a mature culm, which are much heavier than they look. She trimmed the leaves and small branches, and put them at the base of the clump as green manure. She used a hammer with her panga (a large knife) to split the culm lengthways, repeating with each half to create four equal lengths. Her damaged thumb suggested this was dangerous work.
Looking back on this remarkable day, I feel privileged that Veronica invited us into her house. I doubt she had ever been interviewed before, yet she performed with gusto, exuding hospitality and sharing personal information with strangers. I learned more during the short visit than I had during the previous week, all thanks to the vice president.
The Kabugaâs bamboo business had been created with just a bit of land and a lot of hard work. When I first wrote this story I hoped that it might encourage more support for people like John and Veronica. But the project that hired me wasnât set up to work with small scale users, despite the rhetoric in project documents. A good interview is still worth its weight in (green) gold. The information gathered prepares you better for the next time you try, as E F Schumacher urged, to âfind out what people do and help them do it betterâ.