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Simple is beautiful March 12th, 2017 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why people drink cow’s milk January 15th, 2017 by

Nutritionists and physicians have started to question milk-drinking, suggesting that many consumers eat far too much dairy. Dr. Michael Klaper has even suggested that milk is just “baby calf growth fluid”, designed to “turn a 65 pound calf into a 400 pound cow”, and that unless you have long ears and a tail, you should never drink the white stuff (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toZ7Mr-ClCE).

In other words, Dr. Klaper argues that cow´s milk should be avoided because it was designed as calf food. But his reasoning is absurd reductionism, because most of what humans eat was meant to be something else, not people food. Wheat grains were intended to be seed, not flour. Honey is supposed to tide the hive over the lean season, not to be added to pastry. Fish certainly did not evolve so that people could make sushi.

sun, cow, strange toolSo why do people eat dairy products?

Before agriculture, all humans were hunters-and-gatherers. They ate meat when they could (but seldom as much as people who get their food from the supermarket). They ate a bit of fat (wild animals can be pretty lean). Fish were part of the diet in many places and so were insects in a few areas where other sources of animal protein were scarce. Honey was occasionally on the menu, but no processed sugar. Some grains were eaten, but not much, because large-seeded grasses were not very common in the wild. The ancestral human diet was mostly fruit, nuts, roots, tubers and vegetables, and no milk.

peris Njenga dairy farmerThis began to change about 8500 BC when wheat and a handful of other crops were dom
esticated in the Near East (Zohary et al. 2012). Studies at the site of Çatal Hüyük, in what is now Turkey, suggest that farmers began to domesticate cattle at that same time. But the transition to agriculture was gradual, and early farmers still hunted; most of their meat still came from the wild. Livestock only began to provide most of the meat for Near Eastern farmers about 7500 BC, around 1000 years after the beginning of animal domestication (Helmer and Vigne 2007). It seems that then as now, farmers were adapting gradually, experimenting as they went.

loading milk cans on wagonDaniel Helmer (a specialist in the ancient Near East) and Jean-Denis Vigne (a zoo-archaeologist) suggest that during these early centuries of animal rearing, domestic animals were not kept so much for their meat, but for other products like traction, skin, hair, and manure, but most of all for milk. Archaeological evidence (especially remains of milk residues on pottery sherds) suggests that dairying was established by about 7000 BC in the Near East, and by about 5900-5700 BC in Britain, and in central Europe (Helmer and Vigne 2007).
Over the centuries, ancient farmers selected for cows that gave more milk. The modern dairy cow yields around 40 liters of milk a day during the first month of lactation, far more than the calf can drink. Milking allowed farmers to take food from their livestock every day, without killing the animals. The milk was rich in fat and protein, both of which were scarce in early agricultural diets.

piles of cheeseThere was one problem with ancient dairying; most people could not digest lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Human babies can digest the lactose in their mothers’ milk, but most lose this ability in adulthood.

Humans managed to eat milk products in two ways. One was to make cheese or other fermented products, where the yeast or lacto-bacteria broke down the lactose. The second way: some peoples evolved a genetic ability to absorb lactose, a trait governed by a single, dominant gene. Anthropologist William Durham asked why people would evolve the ability to digest fresh milk, if they could simply make it into easily digestible cheese. There must be a high adaptive advantage to being able to digest fresh milk, since in some populations, e.g. in Northern Europe, nearly 100% of the population has the genetic ability to digest fresh milk. It turns out that fresh milk is rich in vitamin D, which allows easy absorption of calcium. Durham reasons that this conferred a special advantage on people in cold countries, where they did not always get enough sunlight to synthesize their own vitamin D.

Fulani woman selling snacksIt is also possible that when people had been raising cows for centuries, and milk was abundant, people who could drink fresh milk were better fed than their neighbors, and so the milk-drinking gene spread through the population. That is my guess, but there is no doubt that the modern people who can drink milk are the ones whose ancestors tended cows in ancient Europe, Africa or South Asia.

If your ancestors were not dairying folks, you may be lactose intolerant. If you can drink milk, you can thank your forbearers who herded cows and put milk on the table.

Further reading

Durham, William H. 1991 Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pp. 228-259.

Helmer Daniel and Jean-Denis Vigne 2007 “Was Milk a ‘Secondary Product’ in the Old World Neolithisation Process? Its Role in the Domestication of Cattle, Sheep and Goats.” Anthropozoologica 42(2):9-40.

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further viewing

Access Agriculture has a small collection of videos for small-scale dairy farmers.

Pure milk is good milk ; Keeping milk free from antibiotics ;  Managing cattle ticks; Taking milk to the collection center ; Keeping milk clean and fresh ;  Hand milking of dairy cows

Related blog stories on the prehistory of food

The sugar palms of Angkor Wat, The sunflower: From Russia with love, and oil

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Stop erosion January 1st, 2017 by

stop-erosion-1When farmers have limited access to arable land and soils are poor, limiting soil erosion can make the difference between harvesting a crop or nothing at all.

Soils are indeed at the core of any crop production system. Without a healthy soil, crops cannot thrive. While measuring the effect of soil erosion at national and global scales is near impossible, all farmers see the difference when effective soil conservation techniques are in place.

Putting the right strategies in place to control erosion is becoming increasingly urgent as climate change is leading to rains falling more erratic and intense than before.

stop-erosion-2From the gentle rolling lands in Burkina Faso to the steep hills in northern Vietnam, I have seen the devastating effects of rainfall on poorly managed soils. On gentle slopes of even as small as five degrees, the torrential rains wash away the top soil and seal the top layer, after which no more water can penetrate the soil. To remedy this, farmers in Burkina Faso learned about making contour bunds (raised ridges every 20 meters across the field) to allow the rainwater to infiltrate. On steeper slopes, where the land is much more difficult to be ploughed by anaimals or machines, vegetation barriers or terraces are possible solutions to stop soils eroding.

stop-erosion-3Depending on the slope, type of soil, availability of labour and other resources a wide range of options are available to improve soil and water management. Networks such as WOCAT (the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies) support organisations working on the ground with farmers by making hundreds of sustainable soil and water management technologies available in an authoritative website.

While many development agencies and projects believe that encouraging smallholder farmers to use mineral fertilizers is the quickest way to solve low crop productivity, without proper soil conservation techniques farmers will see most of their money invested wash down the drain.

Related videos

Grass strips against soil erosion; Contour bunds; Till less to harvest more; Conservation agriculture; Grow more, earn more

And many more under Sustainable Land Management

Related blogs

Nurturing ideas, and seed

Other resources

The WOCAT SLM database: https://qcat.wocat.net/en/wocat/

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Deeper nitrogen, more rice, a cooler planet December 25th, 2016 by

About 10% of greenhouse emissions are from agriculture, especially from wet rice cultivation. Rice plants need a lot of nitrogen which is often provided as urea, a chemical fertilizer which is usually broadcast by hand into the irrigation water: this is easy, but wasteful. Some 60% of the nitrogen fertilizer is lost as it is transformed into gases and enters the atmosphere. Some nitrogen is washed away by irrigation water. A practical alternative known as “urea deep placement” makes much better use of nitrogen.

usgUrea usually comes in round grains, the size of fine gravel. For deep placement, the small grains are pressed into larger, oval pellets, about the size of your thumbnail. The farmer pushes these “super granules” of urea into the soft soil, between four rice plants. This deep placement puts the urea underground, near the plants’ roots, so less nitrogen escapes into the air and water. The rice crop yields more and the farmers save money because they only need to use half as much fertilizer.

usg-bricketing-machineThe efficiency of urea deep placement was demonstrated by 1980. The practice has not been adopted more widely because of the lack of supply of the super granules, the additional labor required and the difficulty of correctly placing the super granules in the field.  But by the early 2000s, urea deep placement re-emerged in parts of Asia. The manufacture of small briquetting machines meant that the super granules could be made at the village level, and has led to a dramatic increase in their use, e.g. in Bangladesh (Giller et al. 2004).

urea-usg-granule-plantingThere are two types of innovations: some you can try alone and others need to be adopted by a network. A solitary person can plant a new crop variety, for example, but it takes many people to start using super granules.  A manufacturer has to build the briquetting machines. A second manufacturer has to buy a briquetting machine, make the super granules and sell them. Extensionists have to teach farmers how to place the super granules in the rice field. Then the farmers have to use the super granules, and make the idea their own.

It is kind of a chicken and egg problem. Farmers can’t use the super granules until someone makes them. Nobody will make them if there are no customers.

urea-granule-plantingA step in the right direction is to show farmers the value of the super granules. The IFDC (International Fertilizer Development Center) commissioned Agro-Insight to make a farmer learning video on how to use urea deep placement. The video was filmed in West Africa, but the concepts also apply to Asia or even Latin America.

Of the 80 million hectares of irrigated rice worldwide, two million are in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 800,000 smallholders make their livings growing rice: 59% of which is irrigated (i.e. appropriate for urea super granules). And the region has the most potential of any to expand irrigated rice production. Rice is a popular food; tropical Latin Americans eat an average of 37 kilos of milled rice every ear, equivalent to a generous portion of 1.3 cups of cooked rice per day. As incomes increase, Latin Americans eat (and import) more rice.

As Latin America and the Caribbean grow more rice, it will help to make better use of nitrogen. So the urea deep placement video was recently translated to Spanish (there was already a Portuguese version). The video is a start, as it can teach farmers and extensionists about the importance of using fertilizer more efficiently, so that farmers can start to demand super granules and encourage companies to make and stock them. Even without super granules, growers of any crop will harvest more and save money if they grasp the idea that urea goes further if it is buried in the soil. This innovation makes a small contribution towards solving the problem of global warming.

Further viewing

You can watch the urea deep placement video in English here, in Spanish here, and in nearly 30 other languages here.

Related blog

Take a stab

Further reading

Bent, Elizabeth 2015 The ground exhales: reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions http://theconversation.com/the-ground-exhales-reducing-agricultures-greenhouse-gas-emissions-40795

Giller, Ken E., Phil Chalk, Achim Dobermann, Larry Hammond, Patrick Heffer, Jagdish K. Ladha, Phibion Nyamudeza, Luc Maene, Henry Ssali, and John Freney 2004 “Emerging Technologies to Increase the Efficiency of Use of Fertilizer Nitrogen,” pp. 35-51. In Arvin R. Mosier, J. Keith syers and John r. Freney (Eds.) Agriculture and the Nitrogen Cycle: Assessing the Impacts of Fertilizer Use in Food Production and the Environment. Washington: Island Press.

Pulver, Eduard 2010 “Manejo Estratégico y Producción Competetiva del Arroz bajo Riego en América Latina,” pp. 350-362. In Víctor Degiovanni B., César P. Martínez R., & Francisco Motta O. Producción Eco-Eficiente del Arroz en América Latina. Volume 1. Cali, Colombia: CIAT. http://ciat-library.ciat.cgiar.org/Articulos_Ciat/2010_Degiovanni-Produccion_eco-eficiente_del_arroz.pdf

Ricepedia http://ricepedia.org

Savant, N. K. and P. J. Stangel 1990 “Deep Placement of Urea Supergranules in Transplanted Rice: Principles and Practices.” Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 25(1):1-83

 

 

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Our younger readers December 18th, 2016 by

Some countries with deeply contrasting linguistic histories are now becoming literate in similar ways. In Nepal and Malawi reading is becoming more common, as governments set up more schools and encourage girls and boys to attend.

Unlike most of Africa and Asia, Nepal was never formally colonized. The British were content to recognize the kingdom and install a British ministry in 1840 to advise on key issues, especially foreign policy. And the British accepted Nepali soldiers, the famous Gurkhas, into the Indian army.

Malawi was colonized, but fairly late. The Scottish missionary-explorer, David Livingstone ambled across what is now Malawi in 1861. The first traders, the African Lakes Company, set up shop in 1878, in Blantyre, and military conquest was complete by 1890.

A country’s literary tradition can be old or recent. Nepali has been written from the very start, since the language first evolved from Sanskrit, which itself had a sophisticated writing system by the second millennium BCE. The languages of Malawi (then called “Nyasaland”) were not written until the 1870s when Scottish missionaries devised scripts (“alphabets”) to translate the Bible. By the 1890s children were learning to read and write in mission schools. In Malawi, a literary heritage of thousands of years had been compressed into a single generation.

juno-gaha-reads-mites-pamphletAn old literary tradition is not necessarily a democratic one. In Nepal, as late as 1900, only 5% of the population could read. Government schools gradually improved. By 1951 the literacy rate was 39%, rising to 58% in 1991. Some of this effort was motivated by a policy to promote the Nepali language at the expense of the others spoken in the country, many of which are entirely unrelated to Nepali, linguistically.

In Malawi there were never enough mission schools to meet the demand from parents who wanted their children to study. Government schools expanded, especially after independence in 1963. The languages of Malawi are all Bantu tongues, and are all fairly closely related to one another. People learn to read in their own language (e.g. Tumbuka or Yao), besides Chichewa, which is the de facto national language.

The world literacy rate (the percentage of people over 15-years-old who can read), is 86% (83% for women). Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have some of the lowest literacy rates in the world: 65% for Nepal and almost the same for Malawi at 66%. Fewer women are literate, 55% in Nepal and just slightly more, 59%, in Malawi.
I was in Nepal and Malawi this year, and while the school systems are not over-funded, in both countries I was pleasantly surprised to see people reading, even in the countryside. Even people who didn’t go to school usually have someone in the household who can read a document to them. In Nepal, shops advertise their wares in writing on the storefront, and in Malawi, roadside grain buyers scrawl their maize and bean prices onto signs, to attract farmer-sellers.

buying-maize-and-beans-chichewa-languageIn both countries, when extensionists give farmers a piece of paper, their first reaction is to read it. There is room for improvement, e.g. schools need to be better resourced and more girls and women need to be included, but even in some of the poorest parts of the world many more people can read now than in their parents’ day. This is an opportunity for communicating agriculture. It means that agencies can write fact sheets for farmers, as long as the writers can avoid jargon. While videos are an important way of reaching women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, even a DVD of farmer learning videos is enhanced with a bit of writing, such as a cover with a title, and a menu so farmers can choose the videos they want to watch.

World literacy rates have improved so fast that it is much more common for young people to read than for elders (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2016). Let’s make sure that this generation of literate farmers has something appropriate to read about agricultural technology.

Further reading

McCracken, John 2012 A History of Malawi: 1859-1966. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey. 485 pp.

Roser, Max and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina 2016 “Literacy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/

Whelpton, John 2005 A History of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 296 pp.

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