Innovation in agriculture is the key to progress, yet new ideas need to be carefully examined. This is particularly true for â€śif onlyâ€ť 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.
From the 1960s onwards the neem tree received a lot of attention from pest scientists who promoted the pesticide properties of naturally occurring compounds. Neemâ€™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 Carsonâ€™s Silent Spring.
â€śIf onlyâ€ť 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 attractiveÂ 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 didnâ€™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.
Add 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 byÂ Hindu temples elsewhere is likely to have smelled its particularly intense and persistent aroma.
About 10 years ago an entrepreneur from Haiti, Pierre LĂ©ger, 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 itâ€™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.
Today, however, patchouli still languishes as an â€śif onlyâ€ť 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 aroundthe 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 â€śthe next big thingâ€ť 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
A good video, one that lets farmers tell about their innovations, can spark the viewersâ€™ imagination. A video can even convince smallholders to try a new crop.
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.
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.
Mathews took one set of DVDs to Mpinda, because he was â€śa successful farmer. Mpinda had a DVD player, but no TV, so he watched the videos on chilli growing at a neighborâ€™s house, using the neighbors TV and Mpindaâ€™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.
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 wonâ€™t or canâ€™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 didnâ€™t watch the rice and chilli videos as part of a farmer group. He didnâ€™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.
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
Vea la versiĂłn en espaĂ±ol a continuaciĂłn
Producing food aid locally may take some work to organize, but the quality is better than shipping surplus grain from a big producer, such as the US or EU.
Last week I visited Yo Prefiero (I Prefer), a farmersâ€™ association in Ibarra, Ecuador that has been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries to provide food baskets every month to 200 impoverished mothers of small children. 300 other baskets go to other government programs. Giving food away is like anything else. You get better at it the longer you do it.
Food aid used to come in the form of surplus commodities. In Guatemala, years ago, I saw poor villagers receiving dried maize and beans, cooking oil and an unappetizing mix of ground soybeans and corn that looked like livestock feed.
The Yo Prefiero farmers are spread out over several municipalities and different agroecological zones. This means they produce a wide variety of food, such as round, moon-like, white cheeses, freshly harvested beans, cracked corn, fluffy quinoa bread, papaya, sweet potatoes, bananas and tree tomatoes. There are over 20 products and all are top class. Even the fussiest consumer would be delighted to get a large food basket from the Yo Prefiero farmers.
Yo Prefiero has 23 farmers: nine women and 14 men. Each farmer delivers a specific commodity to the warehouse on the morning the baskets are packed. The association members are obviously well experienced at this task. They organize the goods into neat stacks on two parallel rows tables, so that all of the products are within reach, and the packing goes quickly.
On basket day, the ladies from the association take a list, moving from pile to pile, snatching up an item and gathering into a blue cloth bag. The men lift the heavy bags of produce onto a rented truck, which takes the baskets to a local school or parish association, where representatives of the Provincial government give the moms short courses on child care and feeding. Sometimes other specialists come and teach courses on gender, gardening and there is even a cooking class taught by a chef. The mothers receive a food basket every month, when they attend one of these courses with their baby. During the month the moms also attend a local clinic, where doctors and nurses weigh the babies,Â to see that they are well nourished.
No one is paid to pack the baskets. The 23 members of the association do this work for free because they are able to earn more than if they sold their harvest on the open, wholesale market.
One of the farmers told how he was happy to sell his papayas through the association for a dollar each, around four times as much as he was paid before joining.
The farmersâ€™ association provides its food baskets as part of a program with several ministries and UN agencies; Â the farmers are paid for their goods with funds fromÂ the WFP (United Nations World Food Program), via the Provincial government. The baskets are so good that several hundred other people pay to receive one. These private subscribers fill in an order form once a month. A few days later they get a phone call telling them to pick up their produce. The subscriber goes to the Yo Prefiero warehouse, pays for her produce, and picks up her order.
I learned this when I spent a day visiting Yo Prefiero with colleagues from the Andes who all had a long experience of agricultural development. It was a sophisticated group, not one easily taken in by appearances. My colleagues asked how prices were set. The people from the Ministry said that they took into account all of the farmersâ€™ costs, including store-bought supplies and unpaid contributions by the farm household, such as water and labor. (There are various philosophies regarding whether household labor and other unpaid costs should be accounted in the same way as cash expenses, but that is a topic for another story). The staff from the Ministry of Agriculture compares the farmersâ€™ costs with the prices offered at the wholesale market, and decides on a fair price to pay the farmers.
This answer seemed a little fuzzy to my colleagues. It was not clear how much more the farmers made by selling for food aid than they could make on the open market. The contents of baskets vary, but one estimate was that farmers got $40 for produce worth $36 on the open market. But whatever the exact numbers, farmers were earning more by selling through the association.
Later in the day we visited one of the farmers, Rosmeri Menachu, who grows her own lettuce and broccoli seed which she uses to grow her own vegetables. She farms vegetables on a little over half a hectare, a small farm by any definition. Rosmeri is the carrot grower for Yo Prefiero. She plants carrots once a week so she always has fresh ones to sell.
It takes a certain amount of administration and training to keep this effort going. The communities have help from five extension agents from the Ministry, which is a lot. The scheme survives thanks to funding from the World Food Program and other donors.
It takes a lot of effort to create an alternative market. It might fail without outside help. But this model is an improvement on what went before. In Honduras in the 1980s, the US donated shiploads of wheat, which depressed grain markets, and discouraged local farmers. Food aid organizations are getting wiser. The World Food Program, for instance, now buys much of its food aid within the receiving country, which helps those who need the food, while stimulating local farmers to produce more.
Donaciones de comida, con estilo
El producir las donaciones de comida localmente puede costar algo de trabajo para organizarse, pero la calidad es mejor que enviar granos excedentarios de un productor grande, como los Estados Unidos o Europa.
La pasada semana visite a â€śYo Prefiero,â€ť una asociaciĂłn de agricultores en Ibarra, Ecuador que se ha contratado por el Ministerio de Agricultura, GanaderĂa, Acuacultura y Pesca para proveer canastas de comida cada mes a 200 madres pobres, con hijos pequeĂ±os. 300 canastas mĂˇs se destinan a otros programas gubernamentales. El donar comida es como cualquier otra cosa. Uno se mejora con la prĂˇctica.
Antes, la ayuda alimentaria venĂa en forma de alimentos excedentarios. En Guatemala, hace unos aĂ±os, vi a campesinos pobres que recibĂan a maĂz y frijol seco, aceite vegetal, y una mezcla desagradableÂ de soya y maĂz molido que parecĂa alimento de ganado.
Los agricultores de Yo Prefiero estĂˇn dispersos por varios municipios en diferentes zonas agroecolĂłgicas. Por lo tanto producen una amplia variedad de comida: quesos blancos y redondos como la luna, frijoles reciĂ©n cosechados, maĂz quebrado, pan fresco de quinua, papaya, camotes, bananas y tomate de Ăˇrbol. Hay mĂˇs de 20 productos y todos son de primera. Hasta el consumidor mĂˇs exigente estarĂa encantado de recibir una canasta grande de comida de los agricultores de Yo Prefiero.
Yo Prefiero tiene 23 agricultores: nueve mujeres y 14 hombres. Cada agricultor entrega un producto especĂfico al almacĂ©n el dĂaÂ que empacan las canastas. Los miembros de la asociaciĂłn obviamente son bien experimentados con esta tarea. Organizan los productos en grupos ordenados sobre dos filas paralelas de mesas, para que todos los productos sean fĂˇcilmente alcanzados, y el empacar progresa rĂˇpidamente.
El dĂa de las canastas, las socias de la asociaciĂłn toman un listado impreso, y pasan de alimento en alimento, agarrando una cosa a la vez, y juntĂˇndolas en una bolsa de tela azul. Los hombres alzan las pesadas bolsas de productos, cargando un camiĂłn alquilado, el cual lleva las canastas a una escuela o junta parroquial, donde representantes del Patronato Provincial (que es parte del Gobierno Provincial) Â dan cursos cortos sobre el cuidado y la alimentaciĂłn de los niĂ±os. A veces llegan otros especialistas y les dan cursos de gĂ©nero, jardinerĂa y hasta hay un curso de cocina impartida por un chef. Las madres reciben una canasta de comida cada mes, al asistir a uno de estos cursos con su bebĂ©. Durante el mes, las madres tambiĂ©n asisten a unÂ centro de salud local, donde los doctores y enfermeras pesan los niĂ±os (para ver si los bebĂ©s estĂˇn bien nutridos).
Nadie gana un salario por empacar las canastas. Los 23 miembros de la asociaciĂłn contribuyen este trabajo gratis porque les permite ganar mĂˇs que si vendieron su cosecha en el mercado mayorista.
Uno de los agricultores dijo que Ă©l estĂˇ feliz vendiendo sus papayas a travĂ©s de la asociaciĂłn por un dĂłlar cada una, mĂˇs o menos cuatro veces mĂˇs de lo que ganaba antes de ser socio.
La asociaciĂłn de agricultores vende sus bienes a un programa que incluyeÂ varios ministerios y agencias de la ONU. Los agricultores son pagados por sus bienes con fondos del PMA (Programa Mundial de Alimentos de las Naciones Unidas) a travĂ©s del Gobierno Provincial. Â Las canastas son tan buenas que cientos de otras personas pagan por recibir una. Estos abonados particulares llenan formulario una vez al mes. Unos dĂas despuĂ©s reciben una llamada informĂˇndoles que ya pueden recoger su producto. La abonada va al almacĂ©n de Yo Prefiero, paga por sus alimentos, y recoge su orden.
AprendĂ todo eso cuando pasĂ© un dĂa visitando a Yo Prefiero con algunos colegas de los Andes, todos con una amplia experiencia en el desarrollo agrĂcola. Era un grupo sofisticado, no uno que se deja engaĂ±ar por las apariencias. Mis colegas preguntaron cĂłmo se fijaban los precios. Los del Ministerio dijeron que tomaban en cuenta todos los costos de los agricultores, incluso los suministros que se compran en la tienda y los insumos no monetarios de la familia campesina, como el agua y su mano de obra. (Hay varias filosofĂas, si la mano de obra familiar y otros gastos no pagados deben ser contabilizados en la misma forma que los gastos en efectivo, pero eso es tema para otra historia). La gente del Ministerio de Agricultura compara los costos del productor con los precios ofrecidos en el mercado mayorista, y decide en un precio justo para pagar a los agricultores.
Tal respuesta pareciĂł un poco vaga a mis colegas. No era claro cuĂˇnto mĂˇs ganaban los agricultores al vender para las donaciones versus cuĂˇnto ganarĂan en el mercado libre. Los contenidos de las canastas varĂan, pero un estimado era que se pagaba a los productores $40 por productos que valdrĂan $36 en el mercado libre. Pero sean lo que sean los nĂşmeros exactos, los agricultores ganaban mĂˇs al vender a travĂ©s de la asociaciĂłn.
MĂˇs tarde en el dĂa, visitamos a una de las agricultoras, Rosmeri Menachu, quien produce su propia semilla de lechuga y brĂłcoli que ella usa para producir sus propias hortalizas. Ella cultiva verduras en poco mĂˇs de media hectĂˇrea, una finca pequeĂ±a segĂşn cualquier definiciĂłn. Rosmeri produce las zanahorias para Yo Prefiero. Ella siembra zanahorias una vez a la semana para siempre tener hortalizas frescas para vender.
Cuesta algo de administraciĂłn y capacitaciĂłn el sacar adelante este esfuerzo. Las comunidades reciben ayuda de unos cinco extensionistas del Ministerio, lo cual es bastante. El programa sobrevive gracias a financiamiento del Programa Mundial de Alimentos y otros donantes.
Se requiere de mucho esfuerzo crear un mercado alternativo. PodrĂa colapsar sin ayuda externa. Pero este modelo es mejor que los anteriores. En Honduras en los 1980, Los Estados Unidos donaba embarcaciones de trigo, las cuales deprimĂan los precios de los granos, y desanimaban a los agricultores locales. Las organizaciones de ayuda alimentaria se estĂˇn volviendo mĂˇs sabios. Actualmente, el Programa Mundial de Alimentos, por ejemplo, compra muchos de sus alimentos para donar dentro del paĂs que los recibe, lo cual ayuda a los que necesitan la comida, mientras estimula a los agricultores locales a producir mĂˇs.
What women donâ€™t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.
Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.
Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.
During a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari. Â To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.
To get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cashâ€”which they can spend or keep.
In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called â€śready markets,â€ť meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassavaÂ roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.
In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.
If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.
The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.
Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).
In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women donâ€™t ask for ready markets. What women donâ€™t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn womenâ€™s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.
Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.
The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.
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: â€śafter the collapse of Soviet Unionâ€ť. 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.
Russiaâ€™s 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 Israilâ€™s 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.