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The world we have eaten May 17th, 2015 by

The people of London of the 1600s could never be more than a couple of miles from the green fields and pastures that surrounded the little city. There was no noise from machines or motors of any kind, writes Peter Laslett in his social history of Britain’s capital, longingly titled The World We Have Lost (1984, New York: Scribner).

London is now a grand city, probably a lot cleaner than it has ever been before, and blessed with a gracious string of wooded parks, but still a world of farms and villages has vanished beneath it. Paving over the farmland is now happening with astonishing speed in many tropical cities.

I was weeding the garden with my father-in-law a few weeks ago, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when he noticed our few stalks of corn and he said “This is a good country for maize, because years ago, all of this land was in corn.” He went on to say that as a kid in the 1940s he would come to this very same area, and study with his friends. They would bring their books and read out-loud to each other, or they would stop in the shade of a molle tree and read. Sometimes they got to goofing off and didn’t study very much. They might even go for a swim in the Rocha River.

There is now a busy avenue following the river, but back then, there was a broad forest of eucalyptus, with paths between the trees, and people would come out from town to stroll. There were always people walking, studying and just generally enjoying the peace and shade.

To put this little story in perspective, the places my father-in-law was describing as open countryside are now in the center of the city. For over 400 years, Cochabamba was a city just a few streets wide, in the bend of the Rocha River. In 1548, the Spanish conquistador G. de Camargo (and 450 native people) worked a farm in what would later be the city center. The city was founded there in 1572, and for centuries was just a small town, about two kilometers across, surrounded by farms and villages. The valley was part of a globalizing economy that sent food grains to the mines of Potosí, which sent gold and silver to Spain, which were spent on manufactures from England and the Netherlands, where the precious coins were used to finance industrialization.

From the 1940s to the 1990s Cochabamba spread to an area about 10 km by 10, all over the eastern end of this large, fertile valley. Since the 1990s the city has spread up into the foothills of the cordillera and into the neighboring valley of Sacaba. Buildings stretch for miles where the maize fields once waved.  The skyline is changing from mountains to concrete as houses are knocked down to make apartment buildings.

All is not gone. In a few places you can still get a glimpse of the river and imagine how it would have tempted teenagers to drop their homework and jump in, but the water is now so filthy it stinks, and no one but the homeless and the mentally ill get in it.

Cochabamba is just a provincial capital in a small country on the remote continent of South America, but cities are eating up the countryside from Tegucigalpa to Lagos to Cairo and Dhaka. Ironically, many of them were sited where they are because the soil was rich and the settlers could grow food.

Farmland is often well managed, especially by family farmers like Johan and Vera who you will read about week. But in an open land market, farming cannot compete with city dwellers. Urbanites can usually pay more for land and water than farm families can, unless public opinion and policy realize that farmland is a scare natural resource, just like forests and streams. If the cities eat the farmland, what will we eat?

Further reading

Baptista Gumucio, Mariano (Ed.) 2012 Cochabamba: Vista a través de Viajeros y Autores Nacionales Siglos XVI al XXI. Cochabamba, Editorial Kipus.

More than a mobile May 10th, 2015 by

Mobile phones are the fastest growing business in Africa. And as with any big, money-making business, companies fight for customers, and the winners buy out their competitors. When I first visited Uganda in 2005, various mobile phone companies were competing with clever advertisements. The most eye-catching and memorable one I saw was a tricycle that combined a telephone booth and taxi.

Ten years later, after many visits to Uganda, I am back again and for some reason this image of the yellow tricycle pops up in my memory. I now realise that it was much more than an advertisement: it illustrated how mobile phone companies were already thinking of expanding from a mere phone service to something bigger. And in doing so, that they were ready to go to the customers, rather than just waiting for them to show up in their office.

Driving through the country, each town along the roadside shows that the struggle for customers continues. Nearly every other house is painted in either red or yellow: the brand colours of Airtel and MTN, the two biggest surviving mobile phone service providers. In every village, mobile vendors are selling airtime scratch cards of 500 Ugandan Shillings (0.15 Euro) to 10000 Ugandan Shillings (3 Euro) to cater to all people, including those with just a small coin in their pocket. The affordability and proximity surely helped with the rapid boost of this technology.

Another key to success is the diversification of services. Many farmers use their mobile phones to listen to the radio when working in the field. After all, having their cell phones charged in a rural shop is much cheaper than having to buy new batteries for their radio every few days.

Nowadays, mobile companies are competing with rural banks, providing internet and mobile money services (see our earlier blog Cell phones for smallholders). With amazing ease, people can send small amounts of money to their relatives across the country with hardly any transaction costs.

The penetration of mobile phone companies into the financial sector is also forcing banks to become more innovative in reaching out to rural clients. Equity Bank in Kenya, for example, through its corporate social arm the Equity Group Foundation, wants to improve the lives of at least 100 million people by 2020, partly by partnering with the international NGO Access Agriculture to start providing quality training videos in local languages to their rural clients. Highly innovative delivery mechanisms are currently being tested; given the creative energy that has gone into African mobile phone systems, these new ways of sharing good farming ideas will also be worth watching.

In some of the least developed regions of Africa, mobile phones are much more accessible than some other basic services, such as electricity, sanitation and financial services. However, most of the population has the potential to access health, banking and other essential services through mobile networks.

The continued diversification of extension service providers is helped by new technologies such as mobile phone and the internet, but equally by solar power systems that have become increasingly affordable and available in rural areas. New technologies are finally starting to benefit smallholder farmers, and so is the healthy competition between large mobile and financial institutions.

Further reading:

GSMA 2014. The Mobile Economy.

Guardians of the mango May 3rd, 2015 by

I have read about weaver ants, but was not quite prepared to see the gleaming, reddish-gold insects nesting in their large mango trees in Benin, West Africa. A colony can have millions of ants, and they are highly territorial, taking over the canopy of a towering tree, or several, if they can find a bridge between them.

Part of the beauty of a mango tree is its young leaves, which emerge a different color from the older ones. These trees in Benin were splashed with patches of sea green leaves that had just emerged. And here and there on the lower branches, Paul pointed out to me where the weaver ants had pulled several of these fresh leaves together and clothed them with silk, making little purse-like chambers, which housed a troop of ants.

Other types of ants dig tunnels underground from one chamber to the next. The leafy chambers of the weaver ants are connected by invisible paths along the tree branches. I’ve seen ants in trees, but never in such perfect adaptation.

Like other ants, the weaver ant workers are all females, a family of sisters that wards off all invaders, biting humans that climb the trees, but also eating or frightening away any fruit flies—which can devastate the mango crop. Fruit flies lay eggs just under the fruit’s skin. The maggots hatch there and the tree aborts the damaged fruit, littering the ground below it with rotting mangos.

Simply tolerating the ants is a free way of managing fruit flies. Farmers can do simple tricks to help the ants, e.g. making “ant bridges” between trees with ropes or sticks that connect ant trees to neighboring ones, allowing the creatures to spread.

Florence Anato and her colleagues, experts on ants and fruit flies, had written a fact sheet for farmers on weaver ants. I stood in the grove while Florence asked mango grower Pierre Denjamin to read the draft fact sheet and comment on it. He read the whole page through and said that here people say that ants are the guardians of the mango tree. He already knew a lot about the ants, but after reading about them said that now he would do more to protect them.

The three authors of the fact sheet each invited three farmers to review it. They mentioned some intriguing local knowledge: when different colonies of weaver ants meet in the tree tops, the ants fight, and their battles leave black spots on the fruit, which farmers do not like. Florence and her colleagues knew about the black spots, but did not realize that farmers found them so annoying. They edited the fact sheet to say that if neighboring colonies were meeting and fighting, farmers could cut the branches that connected the rivals, to keep them from fighting. Without fights between colonies the problem of the black spots caused by formic acid would by and large be resolved.

It always helps the authors of fact sheets or other training materials to meet more often with their audience.

Further reading: Ants as Friends. By Paul Van Mele and Nguyen Thi Thu Cuc.

Peng, R. and Christian, K. (2013) Do weaver ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) marks affect mango internal quality and storage life? Journal of Economic Entomology 106(1), 299-304.

Van Mele, P., Camara, K. and Vayssières, J.F. 2009. Thieves, bats and fruit flies: Local ecological knowledge on the weaver ant Oecophylla longinoda in relation to three ‘invisible’ intruders in orchards in Guinea. International Journal of Pest Management, 55(1), 57-61. Download here.

Related blog story: Sugar sweet ants

Why drip irrigation isn’t sinking in April 26th, 2015 by

For 15 years, projects in Africa have been promoting drip irrigation kits with “missionary zeal”, but the kits have seldom been used by poor farmers to reap the intended benefits of more food, less poverty, and savings on water. This is too bad, as a growing population and climate change are conspiring to make water an ever more precious resource.

In a sobering paper, Jonas Wanvoeke and colleagues describe how a technology that is perceived to be eminently practical, such as drip irrigation, may never benefit the proclaimed poor beneficiaries if the people promoting it fail to learn from the farmers who have tried it.

For decades, private entrepreneurs and public research and extension agencies have promoted a technology they perceived to be inherently useful, happily ignoring the whole context of how it was acquired, learned about, and adapted. Donor funding is one way to reduce investment risks and to allow people to experiment with a technology in the real world. But progress can only be made with proper reality checks, documentation and drawing of lessons.

Despite the long-term investments, it is startling to read that there has never been “a systematic and independent review of the use and impact of drip irrigation kits in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The authors conclude that: “there is a need for in-depth independent evaluation of drip irrigation projects that reflect the perspectives of smallholders and not only of the promoters of the technology.”

In other words, thirty years after the development community began talking about “farmer participation” some research topics are allowed to continue for years, without seriously engaging with farmers or even taking stock of where the technology is going.

From my experience across Africa, I have seen that water is still by and large seen as a free resource. Anyone with the labour or fuel to pump up the water can take it. There may be little reward for spending money on buckets and hoses, if the investor is saving water that will benefit other users.

I have seen drip irrigation at work without project support, which is featured in the video listed at the bottom of this story, but these are prosperous family farmers, and not the poor households who are supposedly helped by publicly-funded projects.