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Families, land and videos in northern Uganda January 14th, 2018 by

Enyang Bua Philips grew up in the remote Lira District of northern Uganda, an area which is only now emerging from the poverty and violence brought about by the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. Philips studied agriculture in High School. Then he went on to earn a diploma in marketing. In 2016 he was one of the co-founders of the Lango Family Farmers’ Association, which he organized to help farmers with land, marketing and technical issues. The association has four staff and 569 members, including 333 women.

I asked Philips recently how he was able to encourage so many women to join the association. It wasn’t hard, he explained. The women were already organized in village-based, self-help groups, and when he told them about the advantages of belonging to a larger association, all of these groups and their members signed up.

Land grabbers are a serious threat to family farms in Uganda, where rural people are easily swayed by the promise of money. The land grabbing companies take land, strip it of its fertility by growing export crops, and then abandon the community. Philips and his colleagues teach the groups that they have the right to reject the land grabbers, who come to the villages promising money. “The land grabbers come in disguise,” Philips explains to the groups, telling them “There are no benefits, no money. (Not only do they make false promises), but when they go the land will be degraded and useless.”

Another way to protect the land is by ensuring that family farmers can benefit from it.

In March 2017, Philips read an article in the Farming Matters online magazine about the videos hosted on www.accessagriculture.org. He downloaded over 20 videos and has shown 10 of them to the members of the association. He takes his laptop to the villages. There is seldom electricity, so he uses his battery to show the video to groups of about 30 people. He starts by introducing the video; afterwards he explains and discusses it with the members.

Philips recently shared the video on managed regeneration of forests with several villages. Many of the local people were amazed to see crops growing among the trees. “Here people cut down all of the trees before planting a garden,” Philips told me over the phone.

While some of the Ugandan farmers still doubt the wisdom of growing trees and crops together, other local people have started experimenting with the idea. In each community, the Association helps people set up a demonstration plot, where they can try out innovations shown on the videos.

The farmer groups loved the videos on maize, on striga biology, and the one on mucuna, or velvet bean, a hardy legume that can be planted as a cover crop to regenerate degraded soils (such as the ones stripped by the land grabbers).

Mucuna seed can be hard to find in Northern Uganda, but these observant farmers quickly spotted wild mucuna growing on the edges of their fields. They are now gathering seed so they can plant it in damaged fields during the next rainy season, to see if they can bring some of their land back to life.

The internet is quickly spreading, but it will be a while before most farmers in Lira District are online. Meanwhile, a grassroots community organizer finds useful videos online, and shares them with groups of village farmers. That is one way that videos from the internet are reaching the most remote places.  This farmers’ association is not only helping farmers learn from videos, but also to understand the potential of the Internet as a source of knowledge.

Other blog stories about mucuna

The big mucuna

The big, bad beans

Other blog stories about northern Uganda

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Late night learning

The sesame cleaner

Watch videos in Luo

Luo is the language spoken in Lira and surrounding areas of Uganda and Kenya. Access Agriculture hosts 38 videos in the Luo language.

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No land, no water, no problem December 17th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

A hot, parched gravel patch on the edge of the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia may seem like a poor place to grow high value vegetables, but a group of agricultural students and a local entrepreneur are making it happen.

The entrepreneur, René Cabezas, is an agronomist who gives training courses in hydroponics, where vegetables are produced in tubes of water. Mr. Cabezas also produces hydroponic vegetables himself, and he recently bought in three metal frame houses—each about the size of a modest suburban home, about 7 by 15 meters—at a cost of 45,000 Bolivianos ($6400) each. Aldo Chipana and Arturo Siles, two thesis students, were showing Ana and I how the vegetables are grown. The metal frames were covered in a fine, plastic mesh, a fabric which keeps out insects, such as aphids and whiteflies. The structures were a big investment, and making them pay off will depend on using them carefully for a long time. Several agronomy students are working in the vegetable houses, writing their theses on the experience, and keeping some of the profits from the produce.

One house was full of tomatoes watered with drip irrigation three times a day, carefully regulated by an electronic timer and a humidity-measuring device. Mineral fertilizer had been dissolved in the water, feeding the plants with every drop. The tomatoes had no obvious health problems: which is astounding for the tropics, where the plants grow year round, and so do the pests and diseases. I thought of some of the commercial farms I had seen in Bolivia and elsewhere, where the tomatoes were under constant attack by pests and diseases and dripping with pesticides.

These tomatoes are planted in small pots of soil with lots of organic matter. The dry climate of the Southern Andes helps to avoid disease, but Aldo and his colleagues also prune off any unhealthy leaves. The fine mesh covering will limit the fungal spores that blow in, though in this sprawling neighborhood, houses are more common than fields, so there are few other vegetables in the vicinity to act as sources of infections. Ana and I were lucky to visit; Aldo and colleagues allow few visitors, who might carry pathogens on their shoes or clothing.

Like much of peri-urban Cochabamba, this south-side lot has no city water. People have to buy expensive water from tank trucks, from 7 Bs. to 15 Bs. ($1 – $2) for a 200 liter barrel. It seems like madness to irrigate vegetables with water at this price, but these tomatoes only use about 200 liters of water a day, for some 800 plants, thanks to the carefully controlled drip irrigation, which makes the most of every drop.

In another metal frame house, Aldo showed us the lettuce growing in plastic (PVC) tubes filled with water, laced with mineral fertilizer. Unlike the tomatoes, which are growing in pots, the lettuce was growing only in water, with no soil. Like the tomato plants, the lettuce was free of disease and of pesticides, producing the kind of vegetables that demanding consumers really want.

There was one unforeseen problem: the sun. There was simply too much light for the lettuce. Even with the roots sitting in water, the little plants were wilting. Aldo and his colleagues had found that a thick, black net provided the best shade while still allowing the lettuce to thrive.

I had seen hydroponics before, but usually at universities, research centers (and once even at an amusement park), so until seeing these vegetables I doubted that plants could be grown for a profit in tubes of water. Now I was starting to change my mind, seeing these young people invest their time and energy to make it work, raising a commercial crop on a stony lot that was unfit for conventional gardening. They were saving so much water that they could afford to irrigate even when water is expensive.

My dad was a hydrologist and used to be fond of saying that agriculture could never compete with a city for water. City dwellers could always outbid farmers for water. But dad was thinking of old-fashioned ditch irrigation. As irrigation technology improves and becomes more efficient in using water, agriculture can afford to buy water at high prices.

As climate change continues to make for a warmer, thirstier planet it is good to see creative solutions providing healthy produce, and doing so without pesticides.

Watch some related training videos

Drip irrigation for tomato

Hydroponic fodder

Related blog

To drip or not to drip


Por Jeff Bentley

Una parcela pedregosa, caliente y reseca en las afueras de la ciudad de Cochabamba, Bolivia, puede parecer un lugar equivocado para cultivar verduras de alto valor, pero un grupo de estudiantes de agronomía y un empresario local lo están logrando.

El empresario, René Cabezas, es un agrónomo que imparte cursos de formación en hidroponía, donde las verduras se producen en tubos de agua. El Sr. Cabezas también es productor de verduras hidropónicas, y hace poco compró tres casas de marcos de metal, cada una del tamaño de una modesta casa suburbana, de aproximadamente 7 por 15 metros, a un costo de 45,000 bolivianos ($ 6400) cada una. Aldo Chipana y Arturo Siles, dos tesistas, nos estaban mostrando a Ana y a mí cómo se cultivan las hortalizas. Los marcos metálicos estaban cubiertos por una fina malla de plástico, una tela que impide la entrada de insectos, como los áfidos y las moscas blancas. Las estructuras fueron una gran inversión y para rescatarlo hay que hacer un uso cuidadoso durante mucho tiempo. Varios estudiantes de agronomía están trabajando en las casas de malla, escribiendo sus tesis sobre la experiencia y manteniendo algunas de las ganancias del producto.

Una casa estaba llena de tomates regados con riego por goteo tres veces al día, cuidadosamente regulados por un control electrónico y un medidor de la humedad. Se había disuelto fertilizante mineral en el agua, alimentando a las plantas con cada gota. Por lo visto, los tomates no tenían ningún problema de salud: lo cual es asombroso en los trópicos, donde las plantas crecen durante todo el año, igual que las plagas y enfermedades. Me acordé de algunas parcelas comerciales que había visto en Bolivia y en otros lugares, donde los tomates estaban bajo constante ataque de plagas y enfermedades y la fruta chorreaba plaguicidas.

Estos tomates se habían plantado en macetitas con suelo rico en materia orgánica. El clima seco de los Andes sureños ayuda a prevenir las enfermedades, pero Aldo y sus colegas también podan las hojas enfermas. Lo cobertura de malla fina limitará la entrada de las esporas de hongos por aire, aunque en este vecindario en expansión, las casas son más comunes que los campos, por lo que hay pocas otras verduras en la zona que serían fuentes de infección. Ana y yo tuvimos la suerte de visitar; Aldo y sus colegas permiten pocos visitantes, que pueden llevar patógenos en sus zapatos o en su ropa.

Al igual que gran parte de la parte peri-urbana de Cochabamba, este lote de la zona sur no tiene agua potable. La gente tiene que comprar agua cara de camiones cisternas, desde 7 Bs. a 15 Bs. ($ 1 – $ 2) por un barril de 200 litros. Parece una locura regar las verduras con agua a este precio, pero estos tomates solo usan unos 200 litros de agua al dĂ­a, para unas 800 plantas, gracias al riego por goteo cuidadosamente controlada, que aprovecha al máximo cada gota.

En otra casa metálica, Aldo nos mostró la lechuga creciendo en tubos de plástico (PVC) llenos de agua mezclada con fertilizante mineral. A diferencia de los tomates, que crecen en macetas, la lechuga crece solo en agua, sin tierra. Al igual que los tomates, la lechuga estaba libre de enfermedades y de plaguicidas, produciendo el tipo de verduras que los consumidores exigentes realmente quieren.

Hubo un problema inesperado: el sol. Simplemente había demasiada luz para la lechuga. Incluso con las raíces en el agua, las pequeñas plantas se marchitaban. Aldo y sus colegas descubrieron que una gruesa red negra proporcionaba la mejor sombra y permitía que la lechuga prosperara.

Yo habĂ­a visto hidroponĂ­a antes, pero generalmente en universidades, centros de investigaciĂłn (y una vez incluso en un parque de diversiones), asĂ­ que hasta ver estas verduras, yo dudaba que las plantas en tubos de agua fueran rentables. Ahora estaba empezando a cambiarme de opiniĂłn, viendo a estos jĂłvenes invertir su tiempo y energĂ­a para hacerlo funcionar, sacando un producto comercial en un terreno pedregoso que no era apto para la horticultura convencional. Estaban ahorrando tanta agua que podĂ­an regar incluso cuando el agua es cara.

Mi papá era hidrólogo y solía decir que la agricultura nunca podría competir con una ciudad por el agua. Los citadinos siempre podrían pagar más que los agricultores por el agua. Pero mi papá estaba pensando en las zanjas de tierra, al estilo viejo. A medida que la tecnología de riego mejora y se vuelve más eficiente en el uso del agua, la agricultura sí puede comprar agua a precios altos.

A medida que el cambio climático continúa generando un planeta más cálido y sediento, es bueno ver soluciones creativas que proporcionen productos saludables y sin plaguicidas.

Aprender más de los videos

Riego de goteo para tomate

Hydroponic fodder

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Finding solutions May 28th, 2017 by

Farmers may doubt the worth of an innovation, until they meet other people who have tried the idea on their own land. In 2015, the village of Korelach in West Pokot, Kenya, was suffering. The land was so eroded and degraded that it was getting difficult to raise crops. Many people were leaving the community. Then they got some help from researchers at the nearby University of Eldoret, who were looking for a community with challenging soil erosion problems. The researchers soon realized that the immediate culprit was sand extraction. Brokers from the city would come and load a lorry with sand in the dry river bed. A crew of local men could earn 3000 shillings ($30) for shoveling the truck full of sand, but no other villagers benefited. The sand would be sold in nearby cities for up to 60,000 shillings ($600), to use for construction.

carrying pale of water on headAs more sand was extracted, the dry river bed became a gully so deep that people could hardly walk to the other side of it. It was getting increasingly difficult to cross the river to farm or visit neighbors. When the researchers explained to the villagers how much the brokers were earning from the sand, the villagers said “We cannot let this gully hold us off; we need to hold on to it and fight it off.”

The villagers banded together and stopped the sand digging. With the next rainy season, the pits in the riverbed began to fill up with sand. The gully became easier to cross, and the riverbank stabilized. A minister from a church in Korelach convinced the local government to drill a well (a borehole) on the river bank, where women could pump their own water close to home, and avoid long walks to fetch water.

This success created enough trust for the researchers to propose new soil and water conservation techniques for the village. In May, 2016 the university took five farmers from Korelach to Tigray, Ethiopia, to learn about the new techniques. However, the results were disappointing: in part because the Kenyan farmers had to speak to their Ethiopian peers through interpreters, but also because the expense of international travel meant that the project could only take a few Kenyan farmers.

On their return, the five farmers were unable to convince the rest of the community to try the new techniques. The other villages had not been to Ethiopia, and were still skeptical that the land could be improved with simple techniques.

Then in December 2016, the researchers tried a different tactic. They took a whole bus load of farmers from Korelach to Machakos, on the other side of Kenya. This had several advantages, explained Professor Wilson Ng’etich of the University of Eldoret. First, the bus could hold more people, so women and youth were able to go on the trip, while only senior men had been to Ethiopia. Second, most Kenyans speak Kiswahili in addition to their local language, so the farmers from Korelach could speak freely to farmers in Machakos.

The farmers from Korelach were impressed with what they saw: “Those guys in Machakos have worse land than us, but they are taking better care of it than we are.”

After the visit, researchers were able to help the people of Korelach set up their own experiments with soil and water conservation, such as small, hand-made earthen “sand dams” to slow the rain runoff, so water would soak into the soil instead of washing it away. The farmers also tried cover crops, such as legumes that build soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and leaving biomass on the soil.

Now Korelach is ready to try other ideas, such as planting fruit trees and multi-purpose legumes (that not only enrich the soil, but also feed people).

“We didn’t want to be the solution bringers. We wanted to strengthen the idea that villagers can solve their own problems,” explained Dr. Syphylline Kebeney of the University of Eldoret.

The farmers are also starting to get a more positive vision of the future. One farmer could imagine her fruit trees so vividly that she said “I’m seeing myself with a gunny bag full of mangos on my back going to market.”

This experience shows that cross-site visits can spark farmers’ interest to overcome their own discouragement, engage in collaborative research and see a different future for their land.


The work in Korelach was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) of the McKnight Foundation.

Further reading

Watching other farmers on a video can often be as convincing as a meeting in real life, as we have seen in some earlier stories.

Call anytime

Stop erosion

Friends you can trust

New crops for Mr. Mpinda

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What do earthworms want? April 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Even seemingly simple tasks, like raising the humble earthworm, can be done in more ways than one, however all variations must follow certain basic principles.

In a video from Bangladesh, villagers show the audience how to raise earthworms in cement rings, sunk into the soil. The floor is covered with a sheet of plastic to keep the worms from escaping. The worms are fed on chunks of banana corm and the ring is covered to keep out the rain, but still retain some moisture.

My grandfather used to raise worms in a pressed-board box on his back porch. He fed them on strips of newspaper and used coffee grounds. So I knew that there was more than one way to raise worms, but I didn’t quite realize how many options there were, until I saw two small, family firms in Cochabamba, Bolivia this week at an agricultural fair. Both firms raise earthworms and sell the worms, the humus they make, and the excess moisture collected in the process (to use as fertilizer—applied on leaves or the soil).

mitt full of earthwormsOne company, Biodel, experimented with various types of containers. The worms died in plastic ones, but they thrived inside of aluminum cylinders, wrapped in foam (to keep them cool) inside of a metal barrel. A screened base with a tray collects the humus, while worm food (especially composted cow manure) is loaded into the top of the barrel.

worm rackA second company, Lombriflor, had a different devise. They use stacks of plastic-covered wooden trays on a slight slant, and they feed the earthworms corn plant residues, semi-composed cow manure, and kitchen scraps. Earthworms have their favorite foods. “Earthworms like all of the cucurbits (like squash), but nothing sour,” explained Silvio Gutiérrez and his wife, the company owners. “They don’t like citrus at all.” Earthworms will eat paper, but they prefer egg cartons.

So here we have a Bangladeshi cement ring, a Bolivian barrel and a set of wooden trays. It seems like a lot of different ways to raise worms, which is an important topic, because the night-crawlers, as my grandfather used to call them, help to enrich the compost, stabilize it and they improve the soil with the beneficial micro-organisms they release.

All of these worm brooders share certain core principles. The worms are kept cool, not allowed to escape, and are fed on organic matter (depending on what is abundant locally) and the earthworms are not allowed to get too dry or too moist.

The Bangladeshi earthworm video has been translated into Spanish and will soon be released in Bolivia. We hope it will inspire smallholder farmers to invent additional devices for raising the under-rated earthworm.

The Access Agriculture video-sharing platform will soon also host yet another video about rearing worms, featuring rural entrepreneurs in India who use woven polythene bags as containers.

Watch the video

The wonder of earthworms


Por Jeff Bentley, 16 de abril del 2017

Hasta tareas aparentemente sencillas como criar a la humilde lombriz de tierra, pueden hacerse en más de una forma, aunque todas las variantes deben seguir ciertos principios básicos.

En un video de Bangladesh, los aldeanos muestran a la audiencia cómo criar las lombrices de tierra en argollas de cemento, semi-enterrados en el suelo. El piso se cubre con una hoja de plástico, para que las lombrices no escapen. Las lombrices comen pedacitos de tallos de plátano y la argolla se cubre, para que las lombrices no se ahoguen con la lluvia, pero que no se resequen tampoco.

Mi abuelo solía criar lombrices en una caja de tablas de aserrín prensado en el corredor de su casa. Les alimentaba con tiras de periódico y borras de café. Así que yo ya sabía de más de una manera de criar lombrices, pero no me di cuenta de cuántas opciones había, hasta ver dos pequeñas empresas familiares en Cochabamba, Bolivia esta semana en una feria agrícola. Ambas empresas crían lombrices y las venden junto con el humus que hacen y el líquido que se recolecta en el proceso (para usar como fertilizante—aplicado a las hojas o al suelo).

mitt full of earthwormsUna empresa, Biodel, experimentó con varias clases de contenedores. Las lombrices se morían en los de plástico, pero prosperaban en los cilindros de aluminio, forrados en espuma (para mantener la frescura) dentro de un barril metálico. Una base de malla con una charola recolecta el humus, mientras la comida de lombrices (especialmente estiércol de vaca compostada) se pone a la parte superior del barril.

worm rackUna segunda compañía, Lombriflor, tiene otro dispositivo. Ellos usan bandejas de madera, una encima de la otra, livianamente inclinadas y cubiertas de plástico, y alimentan a las lombrices con residuos de plantas de maíz, estiércol de vaca semi-compostada, y restos de cocina. Las lombrices tienen sus comidas favoritas. “A las lombrices les gustan todas las cucúrbitas (como el zapallo), pero nada ácido,” explicó Silvio Gutiérrez y su esposa, los dueños de la empresa. “No les gustan los cítricos para nada.” Las lombrices comerán papel, pero prefieren maples de huevo.

Así que tenemos una argolla de cemento bangladesí, un barril boliviano y un juego de bandejas de madera. Parecen muchas maneras para criar lombrices, lo cual es un tema importante, porque las lombrices ayudan a enriquecer el compost, estabilizarlo y mejoran el suelo con los micro-organismos benéficos que liberan.

Todos estos criaderos de lombrices comparten ciertos principios de fondo. Las lombrices se mantienen frescas, no pueden escapar, y se les alimenta con materia orgánica (lo que esté localmente abundante) y a las lombrices no se les deja mojarse mucho ni secarse demasiado.

El video de Bangladesh sobre la lombriz de tierra se ha traducido al español y pronto será distribuido en Bolivia. Esperamos que ello inspire a muchos campesinos a inventar otras herramientas adicionales para criar a la subestimada lombriz.

La plataforma para compartir videos, Access Agriculture, pronto albergará otro video sobre la crianza de lombrices de tierra, presentando a empresarios rurales en la India quienes usan gangochos (sacos de yute plástico) como sus contenedores.

Ver el video

La maravillosa lombriz de tierra

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Chemical attitude adjustment February 26th, 2017 by

Kannappan, C. Sekar, his wife, Bharathidasan, BagyarajAgricultural extension can work deep changes in farmers’ attitudes. Ironically, the extensionists themselves often think that a change in heart is difficult to achieve, so it was good to meet some inspired farmers last week in Tamil Nadu, India, while teaching a course with Paul Van Mele to agricultural researchers and extension agents.

We wrote four fact sheets with advice for farmers and we wanted to show the papers to real farmers, as a kind of peer review. One of the participants, Mrs. P. Tamilselvi, took us to the village of Seethapappi, where she works as an extensionist. The course participants, mostly agricultural researchers, formed small groups and found farmers to talk to.

We approached a farmhouse, where entomologist K. Bharathidasan called out, asking if anyone was home. When a surprised couple emerged, Bharathidasan introduced himself and soon had the farmers reading a fact sheet in Tamil on groundnut stem rot.

After Mr. C. Sekar read the fact sheet he talked about an organic agricultural concoction he used as a fertilizer and insecticide. He called it pancha kaviya, alluding to five ingredients it contained. Bharathidasan wrote down the recipe:

Mix 1) cow dung, 2) cow urine, 3) ghee, milk and curd, 4) coconut water and 5) jiggery (a candy) or sugarcane juice. Mix the ingredients thoroughly. Keep for 45 days. Filter the liquid directly into a sprayer and spray the crop.

This was only the first of many natural agro-chemicals farmers in this village described to us. Sekar also makes an organic pesticide with eight types of local plants. He adds them to cow urine and keeps them for 20 days. Then he filters the liquid and sprays it on his crops.

When Mrs. Sekar read the fact sheet she mentioned another organic pesticide. Two more farmers had their own recipe for a home brew to spray on plants.

Bagyaraj and farmer Prakash Kanna CROPPEDFarmer Prakash Kanna showed us a batch of pancha kaviya he’d made, a dull brown mix in a plastic drum. It had a strong, sour smell. He put it in irrigation water to fertilize his plants. He called it a growth regulator. (The pancha kaviya adds nutrients and beneficial flora and fauna to the soil).

The farmers said they also used marigold extract and gypsum powder to control various diseases in groundnuts (peanuts). And they enhance the soil with a beneficial bacterium, Pseudomonas, mixed with aged cow dung which helps the bacteria multiply and suppress fungi that cause disease.

That’s quite a lot of innovation.

Bharathidasan later told me that the farmers really liked the fact sheets, except for the references to chemicals. That wasn’t surprising given the many non-chemical options the villagers were using.

Later that week we visited another village, Panayaburam, slightly larger than Seethapappi, with a small cooperative office where the farmers met.

Here we quickly learned of a different set of attitudes. The farmers did mention neem oil and using a net to keep small insect pests out of vegetables, but many said that “here we only use chemicals.” One went so far as to say that if you used a mix made from cow dung on your plants, the other farmers would say that you were insane.

Anthropologists have long known that each village is unique; conclusions drawn in one village may not apply to neighboring ones. Even so, such a big difference in attitudes to chemicals was surprising. Seethapappi farmers said that they liked everything in the fact sheets, except for the chemicals. In Panayaburam farmers only wanted to know about pesticides to manage pests and diseases.

There is one major difference between these two villages. Organic-leaning Seethapappi has a KVK (farm science center), where farmers receive training and get advice. Extension agents in that KVK have generated a lot of excitement about making inputs from local materials. Panayaburam does not have a KVK, and farmers rely on the biased advice of agro-chemical dealers to keep plants healthy.

A KVK is a permanent structure, with a building and staff, working with farmers over the years. Extensionists may become frustrated with the pace of change because farmers seldom adopt a new technique instantly. Smallholders have to try out innovations on their own. Extension agents can and do make a difference in farmers’ attitudes about agrochemicals, even if it takes time.

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