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Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’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.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring 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.  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.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo 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 cash—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 “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  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 don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’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.

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Modern ideas for an ancient land July 10th, 2016 by

In his beautifully crafted book, A Shepherd’s Life, British farmer James Rebanks describes what it is like to grow up on a smallholding in the north of England, in the mountainous country called the Lake District. He describes how it feels to be sitting in a concrete school building, enduring a lesson on Esperanto (the artificial language), when one could have been helping one’s grandfather catch a badger. Or the frustration of watching a hay wagon turn over late on a summer day, and all the bales will have to be dragged up the slope and restacked in the gathering twilight.

Hill scene LD 1smallThe book catches the dynamic tension of blending an ancient herding way of life with newer technology. The sub-title calls it: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks muses that if a Viking shepherd were suddenly resurrected on the mountainside on a fine day in late summer, he would feel at home, watching the men and women use their dogs to gather the sheep from the upland pastures. The Old Norse visitor would understand that the farmers were guiding their flocks to winter shelter.

Windermere smallFarming in the Lake District involves aesthetics as well as economics. For example, farmers take pride in rebuilding a handsome stone wall so that the flat, mossy slabs are back on top of the wall. At livestock shows, one particular old breed of sheep (Herdwick) is died red for the audience, as though the animal had rusted from the neck down.

Yet it is hard to make enough money in the sheep business. The price of wool is abysmal, thanks to competition with synthetic fibers. So farmers adapt in an effort to stay profitable. As Rebanks says of his grandfather’s career.

“(He) was an opportunist, like so many of his peers. If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change.”

James Rebanks continues to adjust and adapt, unselfconsciously describing the various modern vaccines, antibiotics and topical ointments that he applies to keep his sheep alive and healthy. He mentions his new metal barn, which was no doubt fast to build, spacious and easy to connect to electricity. It is a practical place for tending the sheep in the dark winter evenings.

Paradoxically, Rebanks says “resisting change is key for us.” I think I know what he means. Farmers have to always accept new ideas with some rational skepticism. On the Rebanks’ farm, new improved breeds of sheep were more profitable than the ancient breeds, but only as long as feed and fuel were cheap. When costs rose, the hardier native breeds became more profitable again, and more farmers switched back to them. The local sheep could withstand the northern winters and grow fat on the upland pasture.

The point Redbanks makes is not that the old ways are always better, but that smallholders must constantly use their creativity to adapt and be inventive. Never forget or abandon the old technologies completely because some day they will be useful again. Old breeds of animals cannot be recovered once they have become extinct. As Rebanks puts it “some of the smartest people I know are semi-literate.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading

Rebanks, James 2015 The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. New York: Flatiron Books. 293 pp.

The website www.accessagriculture.org hosts videos for creative smallholder farmers (literate and illiterate), who are looking for new ideas to experiment with.

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Things ain’t what they used to be July 3rd, 2016 by

Patchwork fields at anglesHidden away in the vast mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a largely forgotten former republic of the Soviet Union which gained independence in 1991.

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: “after the collapse of Soviet Union”. 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.

Israil, Myrzabamov Payzulla, Tumar, OrunbayRussia’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 Israil’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 Tima examines plantsfinance 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 had 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.

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Veronica, vice-president May 22nd, 2016 by

Veronica with bamboo croppedI’m never quite sure what to expect from a farmer interview. Many projects take visitors to see the same farmers over and over again, who become a little weary answering questions. There is something to be said for striking out on your own, as we did one Sunday lunchtime, about 30 km north of Nairobi.

I was in Kenya to learn more about how farmers use bamboo. Although typically associated with Asia, there are two native species in East Africa and huge natural stands (at least in Ethiopia). Several recent projects have explored the business potential of bamboo, tempted by an abundant, renewable substitute for wood, and the untapped riches of “green gold”, as bamboo enthusiasts often call the world’s largest grass.

Our quest for a farmer began in Kambaa Market. Mwai, the driver, asked if anyone sold bamboo baskets. The rest of us stayed in the car, keen to avoid distractions, but it is difficult for white people to remain unnoticed in a large white Land Cruiser. Kariuki, a bystander, was soon tapping at our window, asking us what we were looking for. At first he thought we wanted to buy baskets, but then he said: “I’ll show you a man who not only makes the baskets but is also a big seller”. How far was it? “Just around the corner, down the hill.”

Baskets in yard wee girl“Just around the corner” can mean anything, but Kariuki was true to his word. When we arrived at John Kabuga’s farm his wife, Veronica, said that he was away, tending another plot near Nakuru. We suggested coming back later when her husband was at home, but Veronica would have none of this. “If the president is away, it is the vice-president who acts on his behalf. I am the VP in this family and can tell you whatever you want to know.”

Even though Veronica was clearly busy, she stopped what she was doing and started telling us about bamboo. “We are makers and wholesalers of bamboo baskets and supply five tea estates with bamboo baskets for collecting the leaves and well as several other small-scale farmers.” Veronica gave us invaluable information about costs, retail prices and how many baskets they made each month. She opened the house to show me 80 baskets, ready to sell, stacked against a wall.

I asked Veronica where the bamboo came from. “Come, I’ll show you”. Twenty metres above the house, on the borders of their shamba (farm), stood two bamboo clumps. They were well managed with none of the tangled mass of collapsed and rotting culms that we had seen earlier in a government forest. Bamboo culms grow to their full length in a matter of months but take around three years to mature. Veronica tapped a culm to see if it was ready to cut.

Splitting culm with extra toolVeronica cut down a mature culm, which are much heavier than they look. She trimmed the leaves and small branches, and put them at the base of the clump as green manure. She used a hammer with her panga (a large knife) to split the culm lengthways, repeating with each half to create four equal lengths. Her damaged thumb suggested this was dangerous work.

Looking back on this remarkable day, I feel privileged that Veronica invited us into her house. I doubt she had ever been interviewed before, yet she performed with gusto, exuding hospitality and sharing personal information with strangers. I learned more during the short visit than I had during the previous week, all thanks to the vice president.

The Kabuga’s bamboo business had been created with just a bit of land and a lot of hard work. When I first wrote this story I hoped that it might encourage more support for people like John and Veronica. But the project that hired me wasn’t set up to work with small scale users, despite the rhetoric in project documents. A good interview is still worth its weight in (green) gold. The information gathered prepares you better for the next time you try, as E F Schumacher urged, to “find out what people do and help them do it better”.

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Congo cocoa April 24th, 2016 by

Pink jerkin ferments cacaoThe Democratic Republic of Congo is high on everyone’s list of failed states, with problems most acute in the east. Yet a closer look reveals pockets of success that suggest a rosier future than that revealed by frequent, grim news from Goma and beyond. I have been visiting cocoa farmers in the northern parts of North Kivu since 2004 and during the latest trip I saw further signs of how this crop is bringing about positive changes.

DRC is and will remain a tiny producer of cocoa on the world stage, but the money earned by farmers in North Kivu is hugely significant. Agriculture is the mainstay of Beni, whose major town of the same name bustles and throbs with life. The loud cheers from a nearby bar told me in advance of reading the latest update from the BBC online match report the latest goal in the Real Madrid football match. Satellite TV has arrived in town, as has Wi-Fi. Mobile phone coverage has improved dramatically in rural areas, where once we relied on a single mast in Beni ville.

There are now several fancy hotels and a modern factory on the outskirts producing beer and soft drinks. It is a radical change in a region whose history of conflict would still deter most businesses. At Nobili, the last major village before reaching Bundibugyo on the Ugandan border, there are now two motorcycle dealers. Inexpensive Chinese motorbikes abound in Beni ville and on the roads to Butembo, Komanda and surrounding villages. In farmer meetings I saw that more had phones and sensed that people looked healthier and wore better clothes compared to earlier visits.

Loaded up on motorbikeOf course these are just impressions based on fleeting glances. Smarter shops in Beni ville, more motorcycles everywhere, satellite TV and wider mobile phone coverage are hardly
robust indicators of widespread social and economic improvements. But there’s no doubting that progress has occurred and no denying the significant contribution of money
earned from growing cocoa.

There are few other sources of major income that people can rely on in Beni. Papain, the dried latex from papaya, is traded internationally, as is vanilla and coffee, slowly recovering from coffee wilt disease but displaced by cocoa in importance. In Lubero territoire to the south, where cocoa planting is still low, farmers earn a useful income from quinine bark. But none of these other commodities comes close to cocoa in value or potential to lift households out of poverty and give greater certainty to a more secure future.

And this is only the beginning. More and more farmers are catching on to the idea of growing cocoa and others are expanding cocoa plantings. Yields are still improving. Soils are fertile, the climate well suited to cocoa and the threat of pests and diseases is still relatively low.

Towards Basimba factoryBut anyone familiar with agriculture will know that the one predictable thing about the future is that it is unpredictable. North Kivu is still a fragile province, with social tensions that will take a long time to ease. Looking back over the last 12 years I am surprised and delighted by the positive changes I have seen. The popularity of chocolate – still a legal indulgence – is on the rise, and farmers in Beni are responding.

There will be glitches and setbacks ahead, but it is a real pleasure to see how agriculture is transforming a region rich in potential but supposedly weak in exploiting it. Growing cocoa can and is making a real difference to many people in North Kivu.

Read related blogs

Out of the shade (on cocoa and neighbour trees)

Eating bark (on quinine bark)

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