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The big, bad beans January 25th, 2015 by

In a village down a dirt road in Malawi, Ronald Kondwani Udedi and I meet a young man named Charles, who is copying videos for farmers.

Charles, a small boy, and the customers are sharing a bowl of “big beans,” a large, odd looking legume. In an utterly charming gesture, Charles gives us a spoon, passes us the plate, and tells us to have some beans.

The beans are bigger than limas, and are an uninviting grey color, about like cement when you shovel it out of the bag. I have a bite. The beans are almost tasteless, and chalky in texture. But I’m always glad to try something new. As Tyler Cowen says in his book An Economist Buys Lunch, the only way to experience different cuisines is by traveling.

We show Charles the rice transplanting video made by AfricaRice. Two friends also watch it, intently all the way to the end. Another guy comes over and looks through the window to watch it. They pass him the beans. So far, the beans have been making the rounds, but nobody eats very many of them. But this guy asks for salt and watches the rice transplanting video while he slowly finishes the plateful. Every dish has its connoisseurs.

A few days later, Ronald and I are outside of Blantyre, the biggest city of Malawi. The hill of Malavi rises steeply over the rolling plain.

During the tribal wars, the Ngoni people attacked a village of the Yao people near Blantyre. The villagers ran to the top of Malavi in terror. In the tradition of ancient warfare, the Ngoni warriors decided to eat the villager’s lunch before attacking them. There would be plenty of time for fighting, but to build up their strength, the Ngoni stopped in the village where big beans were boiling on the fire.

The Ngoni laughed at the thought of the Yao running away so fast they left the food cooking.

“But big beans are poisonous if you don’t cook them right,” Ronald explained.

“Extremely toxic,” added his friend Menard, who was driving the car.

“You have to cook them for like 9 hours or they can kill you.”

In this case, the beans had only been cooking for an hour. The Ngoni, who had never seen big beans, ate their fill of them and then trotted off to conquer the Yao on the hillside.

Just as the raiders reached the lower slopes of the hill, the big beans took effect. The Ngoni began to stagger and fall over. Seizing the opportunity, the Yao begin to push boulders over the side of the hill. The Malavi hill is so steep that once the stones start to roll, they are harder to stop than a cannonball.

Those few Ngoni who lived to tell the tale created the legend of the invincible Yao, with their magic beans. The village of Malavi lived in peace for a long time after that.

Ronald tells the story with equal affection for both parties. His grandfather was Ngoni, and his grandmother a Yao.

Local knowledge of agriculture is more than planting and harvesting. It goes all the way to cooking and eating.

The big bean is called kalongonda, in the Chichewa language, and is called velvet bean in some countries. Its scientific name is Mucuna pruriens. It contains high levels of L-DOPA, which acts upon the nervous system. Please don’t try to eat mucuna. I worked with this bean many years ago in Honduras, where people reported stomach aches and other health problems from eating mucuna.

However, mucuna is a useful cover crop, and can be grown to enrich the soil, as seen in one of our previous blog stories: The Big Mucuna. You can also watch or download our training video: Reviving soils with mucuna

Weight watchers January 18th, 2015 by

A lot of donor aid is spent on strengthening farmer groups, from the local to the regional level. Another fashionable topic is value chains.

Within farmer groups tensions inevitably emerge sooner or later.

The Maisha Bora women’s group in Tinganga village, central Kenya, is no exception. They started in 2012 with fifteen members, but two years later only ten members remain.

“We have developed clear rules to which all members have to abide,” says the chairperson Margaret Ruhiu. “From the initial group some members left. We are stronger now, as the remaining members all collaborate well.”

When probing about the type of tensions they have faced over the years, the women explain how initially they bought bananas from group members and nearby farmers by the bunch. Some women brought small bunches, others large ones, and all would get paid the same price, no matter the size.

I have seen many examples of farmer cooperatives and other groups that failed as soon as the outside facilitator stopped visiting the group. In part this is because the outsider can be an honest broker who helps to mediate conflicts as they come up. Once that support is gone, the group dissolves in bickering. In this case, the women were able to come up with their own ways of easing tensions.

For the Maisha Bora women’s group the size of the bunches varied so greatly that it created tensions. But this is now history: they now buy bunches by the kilogram after they bought a scale to weigh the bananas.

When individual members sell bananas to the group, they may be paid for the bananas the week after, once the banana flour has been sold. Other farmers are paid on the spot.

Contributions in labour are another potential area for tension. But the group also found a solution. For processing the bananas into flour, all members contribute labour equally. The time that they work is properly recorded, so that there is no space for misuse.

The money the members make by selling banana flour is put into a bank account, and supplements their weekly group savings. Each year, every member receives an equal dividend.

Trust can go a long way, but simple tools (such as weighing scales), proper rules and recording add just enough objectivity to discourage free-riders and to reward everyone fairly for their contributions. Organized groups of smallholders can function smoothly, but the members have to find ways to keep everyone honest.

For other examples of functioning farmer groups see our book on African Seed Enterprises, which you can download from

Lions, leopards and overnight delivery January 11th, 2015 by

Halfway between Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, and the former capital, Zomba, there is a charming and unusual museum in Namaka, dedicated to the first postal service in the country. The small brick building (circa 1891) that now houses the museum was once the rest stop for the postal carriers.

One team would leave Zomba, while the other one set out from Blantyre about 3:30 PM. They would meet in the middle, at Namaka, at this one-room brick house, to exchange mail packets and rest for a couple of hours before returning home with their overnight deliveries, arriving at 7 AM.

The postal carriers were barefoot, but wore dashing uniforms. Along the whole way they sang “Wamtokoma sagona, eeh, eeh, eeh” which according to Kondwani Udedi means “the mail carrier never sleeps, hey, hey, heey”. The postal people carried spears (and later shotguns) to fend off the lions and leopards. No doubt the singing also helped to warn the big cats out of the way.

The mail runners were replaced by bicycles about 1936-37, and by a mail van in 1942. Malawi now has a post office in all the large towns, although the lions are scarce on the ground.

There is a lot of buzz today about ICT (information and communication technology), so it is worth reminding ourselves that before the revolution in electronic communication, there was an earlier breakthrough, with paper, which spread from China to the Middle East and Europe in the thirteenth century. Yet paper, as simple as it seems, enabled the printing press (about 1450), translation of the classics of Greek philosophy (see our earlier blog Translate to innovate), the newspaper (1606), scientific journals (1665) and a boom in letter writing.

Paper ICT was based on earlier conventions (like the written word, for example) but it replaced parchment and papyrus, which were expensive and could only be produced in fairly small amounts). Paper is cheap, and when you reach out to a mass audience, cheap is good.

Like the rest of the world, the people of Africa are now going through a communication revolution based on electronic gadgets. If the previous experience with paper is any guide, we can predict that the results will be far-reaching and democratizing, and unpredictable. Who would have guessed that paper would have led to shotgun wielding, overnight singing mailmen, hey, hey, hey.

Kiss of death in the cactus garden January 4th, 2015 by

It may be a slight turn off to learn that the sexy red color in lipstick comes from squished bugs, called cochineal. But wait, it gets worse.

Cochineal live on the prickly pear which is native to the Americas. Cochineal was grown in ancient times in Mexico and Peru, but much less so in Bolivia.

The soft-bodied cochineal or scale insects are so full of crimson juice that the insects look like berries, covered with a delicate white dust. The female cochineal barely moves during its lifetime, clinging like a tick to the leaves of the prickly pear. The needles of the cactus no doubt offer some protection from birds and other insectivores.

The colonial Mexicans dried the cochineal (like raisins) and exported them to Europe, to dye the red coats of the British army, among other gear. Synthetic dyes invented in the 19th century ended the cochineal trade in Mexico, but it lingered in Peru. Then in the late 20th century natural dyes became fashionable, and were now favored for food, cosmetics, and fabrics. Peruvian cochineal was back in business.

In South America, people love the prickly pear fruit, carefully peeled that is. The thick skin is full of nearly invisible hair-like thorns, called qhepu, in the native Quechua language, which are a pain to get out of your poor fingertips if you harvest the fruit badly.

One of my elderly relatives remembers a man he used to know, who would vanish when the prickly pear fruit came into season, living in the cactus groves and eating nothing but their fruit for weeks.

Then the party ended. From about 1987, when dried cochineal was selling for over $100 a kilo, NGOs encouraged farmers in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to raise the insect on local prickly pear stands, to harvest the cochineal and sell them for a profit. The prickly pear was native to Bolivia, but the cochineal was uncommon.

But by the 1990s the price of cochineal soon tumbled to as low as $17. The bugs were not worth the trouble to harvest, which was a pity, because by then they were everywhere. People had taken the cochineal to new areas that had been free of it. The cochineal then escaped from the cactus gardens where they were seeded, and became a pest of prickly pear in the valleys of Bolivia. Prickly pear cactus loses much of its fruit when bugs sip away its sap. We still eat some of the delicious fruit in Bolivia, but not as much as before.

Smallholder farmers tried getting rid of the cochineal with insecticide, but the cactus leaves are covered with a thick layer of wax, and the insecticide slips right off.

The cochineal market is a roller coaster. Only a few hundred tons of the dried bugs are sold worldwide. A bumper crop in Peru can swamp the market. If manufacturers shy away from chemicals, the demand for natural colors can soar. Or prices can fall when industry returns to synthetic dyes. Bolivian cochineal was rarely exported at all, apparently never able to compete with the established producers in Peru, which exports its entire production.

Development is full of stories of magic species that were going to solve all the poor’s problems: bamboo, gliricidia, and tilapia, among a few. Developers also hold onto some magic ideas that just won’t go away. One cherished myth is that smallholder poverty can be solved by exporting a commodity which they have never even grown before. The moral of the story is: start small; grow something you can eat and sell on the local market, before you try to export it. It would have been better to encourage families to grow the cactus for its fruit, which is good to eat and good to sell. After all, you can’t have your cochineal and eat your cactus fruit too.

Scientific names:

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.)


The NGOs that introduced cochineal to Cochabamba included Fepade (Fundación para el Desarrollo) and Tukuypaj (“for everyone”) and the Bolivian Export Foundation, with funding from the World Bank and the Dutch Government.

Watching videos without smartphones December 28th, 2014 by