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Community seed producers February 24th, 2019 by

Smallholder farmers are clearly part of the private sector, along with agrodealers, traders, food processors and other actors on the value chain. Projects often encourage farmers to improve their livelhihoods by moving into other private sector roles, like seed production. But one project can easily undermine what another one is trying to create, as we recently learned in Tanzania.

For centuries farmers have developed their own plant varieties, kept their own seed and exchanged it with their neighbours. This has also been the case for cassava which is propagated by stem cuttings. Unlike cereal, legume and vegetable seed that can be stored for months if properly dried, cassava is a vegetatively propagated crop. Cassava is planted with stem cuttings that need to be as fresh as possible, or the cuttings may die. Cassava stems are also bulky. For half a hectare a farmer needs 25 bundles, each with 30 stakes of about a meter long. As with other vegetatively propagated crops, the short shelf life and bulkiness of cassava seed make it almost impossible to sell in shops, but farmer seed enterpreneurs who are close their clients could sell cassava stems.

In 2017, a regional cassava project invited Alli Abdalla Lugome from Mhaga village in Tanzania to become a community seed producer. Alli received training in good agronomic practices, bought certified cassava cuttings from the Kibaha research institute and had his field inspected by a TOSCI (Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute) official who accredited him as a producer of “quality declared seed”. Alli now officially and legally sells cassava seed to his fellow farmers.

It is difficult to develop a market for something like cassava stems that farmers can easily produce themselves. Cassava stems also have no alternative use; they are abundant and can only be used as seed. So when a cassava garden is harvested, most farmers will happily give the leftover stems to neighbours in need of seed. But farmers will buy seed to get a new cassava variety. The improved variety that Alli multplies is resistant to the cassava brown streak disease that is caused by a virus and spread by whiteflies and by cassava cuttings. Cassava across Tanzania and many other African countries has been seriously affected by this disease. There is an urgent need to get seed of new varieties into farmers’ hands and Alli is well-placed to sell such seed to his neighbours.

But while one project was helping Alli to get into the cassava seed business, other projects were killing his market by giving free cassava seed to members of the farmer group to which Alli belongs. As I saw during my time at AfricaRice, you cannot establish farmer seed producers while at the same time handing out seed for free to the farming community. 

When development organisations are under pressure from donors to create impact at scale quickly, they can be successful in their project, but the speed and scale of success may at the same time undermine an emerging private sector of community-based seed enterprises. Running a cassava seed business is a challenge, but it would certainly help farmers like Alli if organisations would come to his village and buy his seed to distribute to other smallholders, instead of undercutting Alli by giving away free seed to his neighbours.

What is clear from this case is that two or more projects can work at cross-purposes with the same crop, in the same village as though the other project did not exist. Unfortunately, such “coordination breakdowns” are all too common in seed projects for vegetatively produced crops like cassava. But such mishaps can be avoided with better planning and communication.

Further reading

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Bentley, Jeffery W., Jorge Andrade-Piedra, Paul Demo, Beloved Dzomeku, Kim Jacobsen, Enoch Kikulwe, Peter Kromann, P. Lava Kumar, Margaret McEwan, Netsayi Mudege, Kwame Ogero, Richardson Okechukwu, Ricardo Orrego, Bernardo Ospina, Louise Sperling, Stephen Walsh & Graham Thiele 2018 Understanding Root, Tuber, and Banana Seed Systems and Coordination Breakdown: A Multi-Stakeholder Framework. Journal of Crop Improvement.

Related video

The video Quality cassava planting material is available in English, French and Kiswahili on the Access Agriculture video platform. Soon, this video will also be available in Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and Pigeon English.

Mobile slaughterhouses February 3rd, 2019 by

A recent article on the BBC News reminded me of how policy-makers can look at narrow technical solutions (how to kill an animal) while ignoring broader, yet largely undebated issues about how we organise our food system. I will illustrate this by giving an example of my former neighbour, René, a farmer who lives in the east of Belgium.

René inherited the farm from his father. EU subsidies in the 1980s encouraged farmers to increase the number of livestock, so by the time his father handed over the farm there were around 1000 pigs. But René of course had to pay his brothers for their share of the inheritance. By the time he was in his early 50s he was still paying off loans to the bank. With the low price he got from selling to supermarkets, René realised he had to find a way to earn more money. He decided to take a butchery course and soon after he started selling meat products directly to the public on his farm.

By 2010, René had reduced his herd to some 200 pigs. He still sells some pigs to supermarkets, but his main income is now derived from selling meat from his own animals to people who visit his farm butchery. Every Monday morning René takes 2 pigs to the slaughterhouse, spends the week processing the meat into more than 20 products ranging from salamis to smoked hams and pâtés, and then he and his wife Marij open the shop from Friday to Sunday.

With a great sense of pride, René told me a few years back that he had finally paid off all his debts. But just a year later, the farm family had to take another main decision. The nearest slaughterhouse in Genk, some 20 kilometres from his farm, had closed down, so René was forced to drive over 50 kilometres to have his animals slaughtered.

Regulations required that for longer distances live and slaughtered animals had to be transported in special vehicles. René told me this would cost the family around 10,000 Euro, not counting the extra distance to be traveled each week. One has to sell a lot of sausages to pay for this extra cost. Closing the farm and going to work in a factory was not an option, so they kept their heads high, invested in a trailer and the family continued with their farm and food business.

It seemed that the slaughterhouse in Genk that René relied on had closed down under pressure of certain lobby groups in favour of more industrial agriculture. When supermarkets rule the food system, policies change to reflect the concerns of consumerss. Little thought is given to how changes work to the detriment of smallholder farmers and local food initiatives.

At least for the red meat sector, mobile abbatoirs could offer a great alternative to centralised slaughterhouses. Under the supervision of the farmer and the professional slaughterer who drives the mobile abattoir, animals can be spared the stress of long transport and be slaughtered humanely at home. We can learn from countries where such initiatives are in use, such as those in Scandinavia, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Food is power, and a democratic food system is one that is owned and controlled by as many people as possible instead of by a few giant companies. While community-supported agriculture can give people a sense of ownership over their food, more is required to fundamentally change our food system with due respect given to the people who produce the bulk of our food: professional and passionate smallholder farmers. Mobile abattoirs deserve more attention to enhance the welfare of animals and to keep farmers crafting food in a business they are proud to run.

Further reading

BBC News. Research into benefits of mobile abattoirs. 23 January 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-46958906

Related blog

In an earlier blog I wrote about the challenges of regulating the slaughtering of animals, with public debates in Belgium mainly focusing on how to deal with religious rituals (see: Forgotten food rites).

Three generations of knowledge January 20th, 2019 by

“As a youth I planted a little and my grandparents told me nothing about these bioindicators. My potatoes had a lot of worms. I was discouraged and decided to seek another life,” said don Miguel Ortega when we visited his farm a while ago in Voloco village. Now in his mid 40s don Miguel runs a prosperous organic farm in the Northern Altiplano of Bolivia (see also our previous blog: Harsh and healthy).

During his interview in front of the camera, don Miguel explained why he returned to his home village and picked up farming again: “Because when you work in a company, coming on time, leaving on time it is a form of slavery. So now that I work for myself I am a free man.”

In the meantime, don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, expert farmers who shares his knowledge with his peers and anyone who is interested in learning from nature and learning about healthy farming. But to become an expert farmer who can predict the weather based on observing plants, animals and insects has not been easy. The elders in the village were not forthcoming with sharing their knowledge about natural indicators, as don Miguel explained:

“When I asked the elders, they said “in this way.” But you do not ask them just like that with the mouth empty. You have to give them a little soft drink. I managed it this way. I did not pick up a piece of paper at that moment. I held it in my mind. I held it in my mind and when I arrived home, I wrote it on paper. That is how I worked. By questioning. If we would pick up a sheet of paper and write they would not want to tell us everything.”

Five days after meeting with don Miguel, we drive to the village of Ch’ojñapata, at an altitude of 4,250 meters. We interview Mery Mamani, who is in her early 20s. She runs a little shop where she sells soft drinks, beer and home-made cheese. Although we planned to interview her about an app that forecasts the weather, it soon became clear that this young woman had much more to tell us.

Full of energy she guides us down the steep slopes to a valley behind her house. A pretty cactus with red flowers, called sank’ayu in the local Aymara language, is what she wants to show us. “The app is great to tell us which day it will freeze or rain in the coming days, but this cactus tells us when is the best time to plant potatoes,” she said.

While Marcella films Mery in her little shop, she opens WhatsApp on her smart phone and shows photo after photo of various plants, mainly cactuses. All are bioindicators (see previous blog stories below that define “bioindicator”). Mery is clearly interested in making the right decisions on when to plant and do the other activities on her farm and she cleverly combines knowledge from the past with modern forecasting. Youth like Meri who remain in the countryside, and who are interested in ancestral knowledge can share those ideas and their observations with peers in other communities and other parts of the country. New communication devices can keep old knowledge alive.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform in the coming month

Recording the weather

Weather forecasting

Related blogs

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on live barriers and weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information, and to Edwin Yucra from UMSA for introducing us to farmers in Ch’ojñapata.

Harsh and healthy December 23rd, 2018 by

Hours away from any city and a half hour drive from the pavement, we meet don Miguel Ortega, a warm, welcoming man in his late 40s, along with his wife, Sabina Mamani, and three of their five children on their farm in Viloco village.  In this remote area on the northern Altiplano of Bolivia, I wonder how he manages to feed his family. But first impressions can be deceiving; later in the day we meet his daughter who studies at the university and I realize that this is a prosperous family that is investing in education and healthy food.

The landscape is quite unlike the Southern Altiplano, where the sandy soils and the mere 150 mm of rainfall per year allow farmers to only grow quinoa and rear llamas and sheep. Here, further north, there are more options; soils are more fertile and with 500 mm of rainfall farmers grow quinoa, potatoes, broad beans, barley and alfalfa as fodder. Dairy cows are as prevalent as llamas.

Don Miguel is one of the 70 Yapuchiris, experienced farmers on the Altiplano who share their skills with their peers. He is hired by several NGOs to train groups of farmers on organic agriculture, including how to make organic inputs, such as biol (fermented liquid manure), and how to fill out the Pachagrama, a locally invented method to record natural weather indicators and cropping calendar so farmers can make better decisions.

Don Miguel’s home, a cluster of adobe buildings, houses animals and vegetables that produce a tasty and healthy diet. The farm also has three neo-Andean greenhouses, made with adobe walls and topped with yellow agro-film, a tough plastic that withstands the sun. But one greenhouse is not used to grow vegetables. It turns out to be a home-made biogas installation. The greenhouse structure ensures that the manure and organic waste keeps fermenting during the cold winter months. The unit provides the family year-round gas to cook for 2 hours per day. Being off the grid, a solar panel supplies the household the minimum amount of electricity.

Mid-morning, one of the young girls brings us a mandarin. We accept the fruit with a sense of wonder. At nearly 4000 meters altitude there are hardly any trees, certainly none that require mild Mediterranean temperatures. When don Miguel invites us in one of his greenhouses, we see a single mandarin tree with a few fruits.

In the greenhouse he opens a black plastic sheet laying on the soil. Hundreds of earthworms seek shelter from the light, crawling deeper into the decomposing manure. He tells us that he watched a video a while ago from Bangladesh where farmers were also rearing earthworms. The video had been translated into Aymara and Spanish. While don Miguel had been rearing earthworms before he saw the video, he was pleasantly surprised to see farmers growing earthworms on the other side of the world, and he realized that in the future he could perhaps make enough vermicompost to have some to sell. Training videos from other countries not only give farmers new ideas, they also give them confidence about their own innovations and practices.

The family treated their visitors to a delicious, traditional Andean meal with mutton, potatoes and chuño (potatoes that are freeze-dried outside during the winter nights). Unusual for household on the Altiplano, they also serve organic, leafy vegetables, fresh from the greenhouse. All comes with a delicious, yellow sauce, which later on, we are told is prepared by their teenage son who aspires to become a chef one day.

It is often stated that people in remote areas only grow organic crops by default, because they cannot afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Don Miguel and the many Yapuchiris we have met during this trip confirm that such statements are an insult to the many farmers who decide to live in harmony with nature, with care for their environment, their health and their families. Enabling farmers in remote areas to learn from their peers within and beyond their own country deserves the necessary attention.

Watch or download the videos from the Access Agriculture video platform. Shortly the following ones will be added:

Taking notes to learn about the weather

Weather forecast in your hands

Related blogs

Cultivating pride in the Andes

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement

The videos on weather forecasting have been developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Sonia Laura, Edwin Chiara and colleagues from PROSUCO for introducing us to don Miguel and his family, and for providing background information.

Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

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