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The joy of business July 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

On the 29th of June in Cochabamba, I watched as 39 farmers’ associations met with 183 businesses, in a large, rented ballroom, where tables just big enough for four were covered in white tablecloths and arranged in a systematic grid pattern.

cacao y árbolesAll day long the farmers and entrepreneurs huddled together, in 25-minute meetings, scheduled one after the other, for as many as 15 meetings during the day, as the farmers explained the virtues of products like aged cheeses, shade-grown cacao, and bottled mango sweetened with yacón (an Andean tuber). Some businesses had come to buy these products, but others were there to sell the farmers two-wheeled tractors and other small machines.

mango en alímbar de yacónEach association or business had filled out a sheet listing their interests and products. The organizer used computerized software to match up groups by interest, and set a time for the meetings. The time was tracked by a large, computerized clock, projected onto the wall.

At the end of each of the 25 minute meetings, each table filled out a one-page form stating if they had agreed to meet for another business deal (yes, no, maybe), and if so when (within three months, or later), and the amount of the probable deal. By the end of the day, the farmers and the business people had agreed to do business worth 56 million bolivianos, equivalent to $8.2 million.

Business representatives came from five foreign countries: Belgium, Peru, the Netherlands, Spain, and Argentina, to buy peanuts and other commodities. But most of the buyers and sellers were from Bolivia and only 6% of the trade was for export.

The meeting was self-financed. Each farmer’s group paid $45 to attend and each entrepreneur paid $50. This is the ninth annual agro-business roundtable, so it looks like an institution that may last.

Business is a two-way street. For example, one innovative producer of fish sausages made deals to sell his fine products to hotels and supermarkets, but he also agreed to buy a machine to vacuum pack smoked fish, and another deal to buy trout from a farmers’ association.

la boletaWith over 400 people lost in happy conversation on the ballroom floor, I barely noticed the three staff-members on the side, sitting quietly at a table, typing up each sheet from each deal, using special software which allows the statistics to be compiled in real time. This will also help with follow-up. Two months after the roundtable, professionals from Fundaci√≥n Valles will ring up the group representatives with a friendly reminder: ‚ÄúYou are near the three month mark when you agreed to meet and buy or sell (a given product). How is that coming?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitator, explained that in previous years the roundtable brought in $14 million in business, but that was mostly with banks and insurance companies, signing big credit deals, or insurance policies. Now the money amount has dropped a bit, but people are buying and selling tangible, local products, which is what the farmers want. It can be difficult and time-consuming for smallholders and entrepreneurs to meet each other, but with imaginative solutions buyers and sellers can connect.

Acknowledgment: this roundtable was organized by Fundación Valles and Fundesnap.

LA ALEGR√ćA DEL NEGOCIO

El 29 de junio en Cochabamba, observ√© mientras 39 asociaciones de agricultores se reunieron con 183 empresas en un sal√≥n de eventos, lleno de mesas que eran el tama√Īo perfecto para cuatro personas.

cacao y √°rbolesTodo el d√≠a los agricultores y empresarios se juntaron, en reuniones de 25 minutos, hasta 15 reuniones durante el d√≠a, donde los productores explicaban las bondades de productos como quesos a√Īejos, cacao producido bajo sombra, y frascos de mango endulzados con yac√≥n (un tub√©rculo andino). Algunas empresas vinieron para comprar esos productos, mientras otros estaban en plan de vender motocultores y otras peque√Īas m√°quinas a los agricultores.

mango en al√≠mbar de yac√≥nCada asociaci√≥n o empresa hab√≠a llenado una hoja detallando sus intereses y sus productos. El organizador us√≥ software computarizado para juntar los grupos seg√ļn sus intereses y fijar una hora para sus reuniones. La hora se controlaba con un reloj grande y computarizado que se proyectaba a la pared.

Al final de cada una de las reuniones de 25 minutos, cada mesa llenaba un formulario indicando si habían quedado en volver a reunirse para hacer negocios (sí, no, tal vez), y cuándo (dentro de tres meses, o más tarde), y el monto probable del trato. Al fin del día, salió que los agricultores y las empresas habían fijado tratos por un valor de 56 millones bolivianos, equivalente a $8.2 millones.

Asistieron empresas de cinco pa√≠ses extranjeros: B√©lgica, Per√ļ, Holanda, Espa√Īa, y la Argentina, para comprar man√≠ y otros productos. Pero la mayor√≠a de los vendedores y compradores eran bolivianos y solo 6% de la venta era para exportar.

La reunión era auto-financiada. Cada asociación de agricultores pagó $45 para asistir y cada empresa pagó $50. Esta es la novena rueda anual de agro-negocios, así que parece que es una institución duradera.

El negocio es una calle de dos sentidos. Por ejemplo, un productor innovador de chorizos de pescado quedó en vender sus finos productos a hoteles y supermercados, pero también compró una máquina para embalar su pescado ahumado al vacío, e hizo un acuerdo para comprar trucha de una asociación de productores.

la boletaCon m√°s de 400 personas felices, bien metidas en charlas en el sal√≥n, pasan desapercibidos tres miembros del equipo a un lado, sentados en una mesa, pasando a m√°quina las hojas escritas a mano en cada una de las reuniones. Las tres personas usan un software especial que permite compilar las estad√≠sticas ese rato. Los datos ayudar√°n con el seguimiento. Dos meses despu√©s de la rueda, profesionales de Fundaci√≥n Valles llamar√°n a los representantes de los grupos para hacerles recuerdo: ‚ÄúYa casi son tres meses desde que quedaron en volver a reunirse para comprar (o vender) su producto ¬Ņc√≥mo van con eso?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitador, explica que en los a√Īos previos, la rueda trajo hasta $14 millones en negocios, pero mayormente con bancos y aseguradoras, firmando contratos para cr√©ditos o seguros. Actualmente se mueve un poco menos de dinero, pero la gente vende y compra productos tangibles, locales, que es lo que los agricultores quieren.

Agradecimiento: La rueda de agro-negocios se organizó por Fundación Valles y Fundesnap.

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Chocolate evolution June 11th, 2017 by

Some foods, like bread and boiled potatoes, have been around for thousands of years, but since the 1500s, new options have evolved, including French fried potatoes, corn flakes, and those marvelous chocolate bars. Cacao was domesticated by Native Americans in Central America and Mexico. Cacao residue found on ceramics in Honduras may be 2400 years old. Ancient American cacao beans were so valuable they were often used as money. Cacao was made into a bitter drink and a food. A sauce made from cacao, chili and peanuts was used to make a turkey stew, called ‚Äúmole.‚ÄĚ (The word ‚Äúmole‚ÄĚ can either refer to the sauce itself, or to a dish that includes it.)

cacao beansChocolate reached Spain in 1528, after the conquest of Mexico. The Spanish soon found that cacao could be mixed with sugar and pressed into a solid disk or tablet, to mix with hot water to make a drink. For the first time in history chocolate was sweet.

Manufacturers in Mexico still sell boxes of chocolate disks, sweetened and spiced with cinnamon. The chocolate is hard and dissolves slowly, so it must be vigorously beaten into hot water, but the frothy drink is worth it.

By the 1700s, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, and its popularity soon led to other innovative uses, for example in confectionary.

In 1828 a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing half of the natural fat (cocoa butter), pulverizing what remained and treating it with alkaline salts to reduce the bitter taste. The cocoa powder was called ‚ÄúDutch chocolate.‚ÄĚ

In 1847, in Bristol, England, Joseph Fry invented bars of chocolate by adding cocoa butter back into Dutch chocolate, along with sugar, and pressing the mixture into molds. Fry’s Chocolate Cream Bars debuted on the market in 1866, but the confection was still somewhat bitter, and sales were slow.

From 1869 to 1887, Daniel Peter, a chocolate maker in Vevey, Switzerland, experimented with ways to add milk to improve the bitter flavor of chocolate. The challenge was to remove liquid from the milk, add sugar, and blend it with chocolate before the mix spoiled. Early attempts were often rancid or tasted of bad cheese. But Peter’s hard work paid off, and chocolate was being sold in the UK under the Nestle brand by 1901. By 1900 other manufacturers (including Milton Hershey in Pennsylvania) were also selling factory-made chocolate bars in America.

Allied troops in the Second World War were issued chocolate tablets (with oat flour added to prevent melting). Soldiers often used the chocolate as gifts or trade items. Paul Van Mele’s older relatives in Belgium recall how the British soldiers gave chocolate to the local families who offered them food and accommodation.

Since those optimistic days at the end of World War II, chocolate has continued to change, not always for the better. Manufacturers often substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oil for cocoa butter, and use the chocolate as a simple coating for cheaper candy.

So food evolves, fueled by the creative experiments of innovators who were stimulated by new commercial opportunities. The Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution both offered new foods, which the public craved, including the seductive taste of chocolate. As with other kinds of technologies, old food recipes often persist alongside new ones. In Mexico and parts of the USA you can still find the delicious mole, often made now with chicken instead of turkey. The sauce even comes conveniently packaged in class jars. So chocolate still survives, in at least some places, not just as a candy, but also as a drink and a main dish.

Further reading

Boynton, Sandra 1982 Chocolate: The Consuming Passion New York: Workman Publishing.

A brief history of chocolate

Chocolate, food of the gods

Daniel Peter ‚Äď The inventor of milk chocolate.

Related blog stories

Teach your children well (with cocoa)

Out of the shade

Forty farmer innovations

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An illusion in the Andes April 30th, 2017 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n.

When five, roughly rectangular blocks appeared on the mountainside high above Cochabamba, I assumed they were just fields of oats. The pale green shade seemed about right for the feathery grain, and the cool climate was ideal for oats.

oat fieldsHowever, social media soon turned the checkered slope into a mystery.  Cochabambinos began writing into a popular website to ask about the odd shapes. Some rushed in with answers. There was even one far-fetched suggestion that the blocks were fields of ripening coca, even though this narcotic shrub only grows in much lower and wetter country. Some thought the patches were just oats.

Others said they were wild flowers, sprouting where fields had been left fallow. My wife Ana wrote to say that the patches were so light that they could only be the brilliant white flower, known as ilusión in Spanish. Her suggestion was ignored, so one sunny afternoon, Ana and I decided to check out the fields first hand.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónAlthough the fields with the mysterious blocks are as visible as a beacon, the Bolivian bourgeoisie are not avid hikers, and few of the city dwellers know how to get up onto the slope. We drove up one of the steep, narrow roads, peeked over a few ridges, and finally spotted the ivory-colored fields up close. It wasn’t quite like finding Machu Picchu, but it was delightful to see five little plots of ilusión.

Called ‚Äúbaby‚Äôs breath‚ÄĚ in English, this hardy flower (Gypsophila muralis) is a native of northern Europe and Siberia, but has adapted well to the Andes, where it has become a poor person‚Äôs commercial crop. Baby‚Äôs breath has few pests and thrives on poor, stony soil. It is a low-input, low profit crop: a cheap flower that is complements and enhances bouquets of roses. A mourner with just a few spare pesos can buy a handful baby‚Äôs breath to take to a funeral.

The fields were surprisingly small, each just a few meters wide. They made up no more than a hectare all together. There were no houses near the fields, which were being tended by some absentee, peri-urban farmer, who trusted the isolated spot to keep his or her flowers hidden in plain sight, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk below.  Every crop whether food, fiber or flower has its own signature color. A person who knows and loves plants can spot the difference between illusion and reality from miles away.

CUANDO LA ILUSI√ďN SE VUELVE REALIDAD

Por Jeff Bentley

30 de abril del 2017

Cuando aparecieron cinco bloques, más o menos rectangulares en el cerro arriba de Cochabamba, me supuse que eran parcelas de avena. El tono verde claro parecía más o menos el del grano plumoso, y el clima fresco era ideal para la avena.

oat fieldsGracias a los medios sociales, los cuadraditos en la ladera pronto se volvieron un misterio. Los cochabambinos empezaron a escribir a una p√°gina web popular para preguntar qu√© eran las formas extra√Īas. Algunos se apuraron con respuestas. Hab√≠a hasta una soluci√≥n equivocad√≠sima que los bloques eran parcelas de coca, a pesar de que el arbusto narc√≥tico solo crece en zonas mucho m√°s bajas y h√ļmedas. Algunos s√≠ pensaron que las peque√Īas mantas eran avena.

Otros dijeron que eran flores silvestres, que nacieron donde las chacras se habían dejado en descanso. Mi esposa Ana escribió diciendo que las formas eran tan pálidas que solo podrían ser la brillante flor blanca, conocida como ilusión. Nadie hizo caso a su sugerencia; así que una tarde asoleada, con Ana decidimos descubrir las chacras de cerca.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónA pesar de que los bloques misteriosos son tan visibles como un faro, la burguesía boliviana no es muy fanática de las caminatas en el monte, y pocos de los citadinos sabían llegar a la falda de la serranía. En el auto subimos unos caminos angostos e inclinados, echamos un vistazo sobre algunos filos y al fin vimos de cerca los campos color de marfil. No era exactamente como encontrar Machu Picchu, pero nos encantó ver a las cinco parcelitas de ilusión.

La ilusión (Gypsophila muralis) parece delicada, pero en realidad, es un robusto nativo del norte de Europa y de Siberia, que se ha adaptado bien a los Andes, donde se ha convertido en un cultivo comercial de los pobres. La ilusión tiene pocas plagas y prospera en el suelo pobre y rocoso. Es un cultivo de baja inversión y baja rentabilidad: una flor barata que complementa y enriquece hasta a un ramo de rosas. Una persona que solo tiene dos o tres pesos en el bolsillo puede mostrar su respeto al muerto, llevando un ramito de ilusión al entierro.

Nos sorprendi√≥ que las chacras fueran tan peque√Īas, unos pocos metros de ancho cada una. Las cinco no sumaron a m√°s de una hect√°rea. No hab√≠a ninguna casa cerca de las parcelas, que eran cultivadas por alg√ļn agricultor peri-urbano pero ausente, que confiaba en el lugar aislado para proteger a sus flores, escondidas en plena vista, desconcertando a los vecinos de la ciudad en el piso del valle. Cada cultivo, bien sea alimento, fibra o flor tiene su propio color √ļnico. Una persona que conoce y ama las plantas puede ver la diferencia entre ilusi√≥n y realidad a kil√≥metros de distancia.

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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 ‚Äúif only‚ÄĚ 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.

‚ÄúIf only‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúif only‚ÄĚ 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 ‚Äúthe next big thing‚ÄĚ 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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New crops for Mr. Mpinda September 18th, 2016 by

A good video, one that lets farmers tell about their innovations, can spark the viewers’ imagination. A video can even convince smallholders to try a new crop.

mpinda-wateringLester Mpinda is an enterprising farmer in Mwanza, Malawi. Mpinda has a vegetable garden, known as a dimba, which is irrigated with water from a hand-dug well. A dimba is hard work, but worth it.

Mpinda grows vegetables, and sells them in the market in Mwanza. In 2013, he was able to use his earnings to buy a small, gasoline-powered pump to water his beans, onions and tomatoes. A $100 pump is a major investment for a Malawian smallholder, but also a great way to save time and avoid the backbreaking labor of carrying water from the well to the plants during the long, hot dry season.

mpinda-marches-up-to-get-the-hoseWith the money earned from his productive dimba, Mpinda bought a small stand, where his wife sells vegetables in the village.

In June 2015, Ronald Kondwani Udedi left some DVDs with videos at a government telecentre managed by Mathews Kabira, near Mwanza, Malawi. The DVDs had learning videos for farmers about growing rice and chilli peppers and managing striga, the parasitic weed.

handful-of-chilliesMathews took one set of DVDs to Mpinda, because he was “a successful farmer. Mpinda had a DVD player, but no TV, so he watched the videos on chilli growing at a neighbor’s house, using the neighbors TV and Mpinda’s DVD player. He watched the videos as often as the neighbor would let him. The more he watched, the more he learned.

Mpinda soon recognized the possibilities of chilli as a crop, even though he had never grown it.

To start a new crop you need more than a bright idea; you need seed. Getting chilli seed took some imagination. Mpinda went to the market and bought 20 small fresh chillies for 100 Kwacha (14 cents) and then dried them, like tomatoes, and planted the little seeds in a nursery, just like he had seen in the video. Mpinda had already been used to making seedbeds for onions and some of his other vegetables. At 21 days he transplanted the chilli seedlings, as he had seen on the videos.

lester-chizumeni-mpinda-in-gardenNow Mpinda has several dozen plants of chillies, a perennial variety which is eaten fresh in Malawi. People cut up the fiery chilli at table, to add some zest to meals.

Every few days Mpinda harvests three or four kilos of chillies and takes them to the market and sells them for 1000 kwacha a kilo ($1.40).

Mpinda has already planned his next step. After harvesting his little patch of eggplant, he is going to clear the land and plant a whole garden of chilli.

Mpinda has also watched the DVD of rice videos, and although no one in the area grows rice, he realizes that the crop would do well in the slightly higher space, just above his rows of vegetables. He has already looked for rice seed: there is none to be found in Mwanza and the agro-dealers won’t or can’t order it for him, so he is going to travel to the city of Zomba, 135 km away, and buy rice seed there. Mpinda has already identified the major rice varieties grown in Malawi and decided that one of them, Apasa, is the best for highland areas like his.

He is going to plant rice in October, possibly becoming the first rice farmer in Mwanza district.

Mpinda didn’t watch the rice and chilli videos as part of a farmer group. He didn’t have an extensionist to answer questions. He simply had the videos which he could (and did) watch several times to study the content. And this information alone was enough to inspire him to experiment with two crops that were entirely new to him.

Further viewing

You can watch the chilli videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/all/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/chilli/ny/

You can watch the rice videos in English here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/en/

And in Chichewa here: http://www.accessagriculture.org/search/rice/ny/

These videos and others are also available in other languages at www.accessagriculture.org

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