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Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

Eating and talking about it November 25th, 2018 by

Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist, explains in a recent book about food that people perceive just a handful of basic tastes with our tongues: bitter, sweet, salt and sour. But our nose can sense many thousands of distinct scents. When we exhale, our nose smells the food in our mouths. Taste in the mouth and aroma in the nose combine to form the endless variety of flavor.

Other creatures cannot savor their food this way, because only humans have a glottis (vocal chords), covered by a flap that opens and closes to let air pass between our throats and our windpipe. This allows only humans to breathe in and out of our mouths, which is why we can speak (and unfortunately, why we can choke to death as well).

In all fairness, animals seem to enjoy their food, too. A dog will beg for a pancake and chickens get excited when they find a fat grub in the moist earth, but people go much further. As Richard Wrangham explains, humans have been adapting to cooked food at least since Homo erectus times. Cooking allowed us to evolve smaller guts and larger brains, which made speech possible.

And of course, one of the favorite topics of conversation is food. Whether it is fish curry in Bangladesh, millet and groundnut sauce in Uganda or chicken and tortillas in Guatemala, humans will sit down together to eat and talk, and sometimes to laugh.

Animals communicate, but only humans speak, compulsively spinning little stories for each other. Certainly discussing food is at the heart of the human experience. Whether eating, cooking or producing food, there is always something to say about it.

Further reading

Herz, Rachel 2018 Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science behind Our Relationship with Food. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 352 pp.

Wrangham, Richard 2009 Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books. 309 pp.

Cultivating pride in the Andes November 4th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

“When we first started working with these innovative farmers, they were embarrassed to list ‘farmer’ as their occupation on their national ID card.” María Quispe, head of a Bolivian NGO called Prosuco, reminded a large crowd of villagers and visitors in the village of Cutusuma, La Paz.

Last week yapuchiris from many communities along with the famers in Cutusuma were celebrating the launch of a new book about themselves, published by Prosuco, with Swiss support.

Swiss diplomats, local people and government officials took turns at the microphone to express their pride in the changes over the years. A national TV station, Channel 7, was recording the event while a professional broadcaster from Radio San Gabriel in El Alto moderated the event in Aymara, a native language of the High Andes.

Food was served as an aphtapi, an old buffet style that is making a comeback in Bolivia. Boiled native potatoes, chuño, broad beans and oca are wrapped in wool blankets, then spread out on the earth or on a table. Diners serve themselves. Most put the food in little plastic bags saved from their last trip to the shop. It’s an Andean lunch with attitude, and it saves on plastic plates.

There was also dancing to Andean flute music; the local High School marching band belted out the national anthem with confidence and enthusiasm.

The striking feature of the book launch was that no one seemed ashamed to be a farmer anymore. It had been a long trip. The book, printed on high quality paper and illustrated with professional photography, explained that in 2004, Prosuco had set out to train innovative farmers as extension agents. One of the first steps was to give these innovative farmers a name. They settled on “yapuchiri,” an Aymara word for “farmer.” Calling the new expert farmers “yapuchiris” was a way of saying that farming was an important job. During the next 14 years, yapuchiris were trained all over the Altiplano as well as the valleys of Chuquisaca. Seventy of them were certified as “Yapuchiri Community Facilitators” by the Vice-Ministry of Alternative Education (such an original and creative name for a branch of government).

The book explains how the yapuchiris and Prosuco tried new ideas on farms, adapting several organic fertilizers, such as bokashi and biol, to local conditions, along with mineral mixes and natural repellents. Non-chemical controls of Andean potato weevil were also adapted to local conditions.

The book has numerical data to show that the yapuchiris’ yields are higher than those of other farmers and higher than those achieved by farmers who received conventional agricultural training. This is important, as organic agriculture is often dismissed (famously by The Economist in 2016) as low yielding and incapable of feeding the World’s growing population.

Over the years, the yapuchiris developed the Pachagrama, a large chart for listing the yapuchiris’ weather forecast, while planning and documenting the year’s weather as it unfolds, day by day. We have discussed the Pachagrama in earlier blogs To see the future, and  Predicting the weather. The yapuchiris started the Pachagrama as a table with some drawings, then refined it over the years.

At first, some of the yapuchiris’ neighbors scoffed at the idea of farmers as extensionists, saying that they wanted a real agronomist to train them. But eventually the yapuchiris convinced the others and were able to work with up to 50% of the farmers in their own villages. As Mark Twain put it, “an expert is someone with a brief case who is 50 miles from home.”

In fact, it can be an advantage to offer advisory services “50 miles (70 km) from home”. Projects began hiring yapuchiris to teach other communities. The yapuchiris crisscrossed the Altiplano, promoting productive, organic agriculture to appreciative audiences.

It is foolish of anyone to denigrate the people who feed us and care for the land. Building pride in a profession takes time and creating a more productive, sustainable agriculture is only part of it. Twelve years of support and training were important to develop a cadre of self-confident yapuchiris. Events with music, speeches and a splendid lunch also help to display that confidence while books in an attractive format also help to show how the work evolved over the years.

The book

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo and Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Blog stories about yapuchiris

Inspiration from Bangladesh to Bolivia

Farmers produce electronic content

Forty farmer innovations

Acknowledgement  

Thanks to María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa and Paul Van Mele for their comments on an earlier version.

CULTIVANDO ORGULLO EN LOS ANDES

por Jeff Bentley, 4 de noviembre del 2018

“Cuando empezamos a trabajar con estos agricultores innovadores, les daba vergüenza poner ‘agricultor’ como su oficio en su carnet.” María Quispe, directora de una ONG boliviana llamada Prosuco, recordó a una gran multitud de campesinos y visitantes en la comunidad de Cutusuma, La Paz.

La semana pasada, Yapuchiris de diferentes comunidades junto con los agricultores de Cutusuma celebraron el lanzamiento de un nuevo libro sobre sí mismos, publicado por Prosuco, con el apoyo suizo. Los diplomáticos suizos, la población local y los funcionarios del gobierno se turnaron al micrófono para expresar su orgullo por los cambios a lo largo de los años. Una televisión nacional, Canal 7, grababa el evento mientras que una locutora profesional de Radio San Gabriel de El Alto moderaba el evento en aymara, un idioma nativo de los Andes Altos.

La comida fue servida como un aphtapi, un antiguo estilo de buffet que de nuevo se está poniendo de moda en Bolivia. Las papas nativas cocidas, el chuño, las habas y la oca son colocadas en aguayos de lana y se extienden sobre la tierra o sobre una mesa. Los comensales se sirven solos. La mayoría pone la comida en pequeñas bolsas de plástico guardadas de su última visita a la tienda. Es un almuerzo andino con actitud, y ahorra en platos de plástico.

También hubo baile con música de flauta andina; la banda del colegio local entonó el himno nacional con confianza y entusiasmo.

Al presentar el libro ya era claro que a nadie le apenaba ser agricultor. Había sido un largo viaje. El libro, impreso en papel de alta calidad e ilustrado con fotografías profesionales, explica que en 2004, Prosuco se había propuesto formar a agricultores innovadores como agentes de extensión agrícola. Uno de los primeros pasos fue poner un nombre a estos agricultores innovadores Ellos mismos eligieron “yapuchiri”, que es simplemente una palabra aymara que significa “agricultor”. Llamar a los nuevos expertos agricultores “yapuchiris” era una forma de decir que la agricultura era un oficio importante. Durante los siguientes 14 años, se formaron nuevos yapuchiris desde todo el Altiplano y hasta los valles de Chuquisaca. Setenta de ellos recibieron un certificado como “Yapuchiris Facilitadores Comunitarios” del Viceministerio de Educación Alternativa (un nombre tan original y creativo por una instancia gubernamental).

El libro explica cómo los yapuchiris y Prosuco probaron nuevas ideas en finca, adaptando los fertilizantes orgánicos, como el bokashi, los bioles, a las condiciones locales, junto con caldos minerales, y repelentes naturales. Los controles no químicos del gorgojo andino de la papa también se adaptaron a las condiciones locales.

El libro tiene datos numéricos para mostrar que los rendimientos de los yapuchiris son más altos que los de otros agricultores y más altos que los logrados por los agricultores que recibieron capacitación agrícola convencional. Esto es importante, ya que la agricultura orgánica es a menudo descartada (por ejemplo en un caso famoso por The Economist en 2016) como de bajo rendimiento e incapaz de alimentar a la creciente población mundial.

A lo largo de los años, los yapuchiris desarrollaron el Pachagrama, una ficha para sistematizar el pronóstico del tiempo de los yapuchiris, mientras planifican y documentan el tiempo del año a medida que se desarrolla, día a día. Hemos discutido el Pachagrama en blogs anteriores Conocer el futuro, y Prediciendo el clima. Los yapuchiris iniciaron el Pachagrama como un cuadro con algunos dibujos, luego lo refinaron con el paso de los años.

Al principio, algunos de los vecinos de los yapuchiris se burlaron de la idea de los agricultores como extensionistas, diciendo que querían que un ingeniero agrónomo los capacitara. Pero finalmente los yapuchiris convencieron a los demás y pudieron trabajar con hasta el 50% de los agricultores de sus propias comunidades. Como dijo Mark Twain, “un experto es alguien con un maletín que está a 50 millas de casa”.

De hecho, puede ser una ventaja ofrecer servicios de asesoramiento a “50 millas (70 km) de casa”. Los proyectos comenzaron a contratar yapuchiris para enseñar a otras comunidades. Los yapuchiris cruzaron el Altiplano, promoviendo la agricultura orgánica y productiva a audiencias apreciativas.

Es una tontería denigrar a la gente que nos alimenta y cuida de la tierra. Crear orgullo en una profesión lleva tiempo y crear una agricultura más productiva y sostenible es sólo una parte de la tarea. Doce años de apoyo y capacitación fueron importantes para desarrollar un grupo de yapuchiris seguros de sí mismos. Los eventos con música, discursos y un espléndido almuerzo también ayudan a mostrar esa confianza, mientras que los libros en un formato atractivo también ayudan a mostrar cómo ha evolucionado el trabajo a lo largo de los años.

El libro

Quispe, María, Eleodoro Baldiviezo y Sonia Laura 2018 Yapuchiris: Un Legado para Afrontar los Impactos del Cambio Climático. La Paz: Prosuco, Cosude & Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

Historias del blog sobre los yapuchiris

Inspiración Bangladesh a Bolivia

Agricultores producen contenido electrónico

Forty farmer innovations

Agradecimiento

Gracias a María Quispe, Eleodoro Baldiviezo, Sonia Laura, Eric Boa y Paul Van Mele por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior.

Not sold in stores October 14th, 2018 by

I love supermarkets; whenever I visit a new country I think of the local supermarket as a kind of interactive food museum, with its own unique groceries on display.

But the supermarket also has a stranglehold on what we eat and grow, as I learned last week when I heard a talk by Lauren Chappell, a plant pathologist at the University of Oxford. Dr. Chappell explained that carrots come in white, pink and even purple varieties, in a rich diversity of sizes and shapes. We only think of the long, tapered orange varieties as the one and only true carrot because supermarkets will only buy varieties like Nairobi and Nantes, the stereotypical carrots. Some British chefs love the white and purple “heritage carrots,” but you won’t find them at the supermarket.

It’s the same with apples. Supermarkets only stock a handful of varieties, so that limits what even small-scale commercial farms can grow. On a recent visit to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) gardens at Wisley, in southern England, I was delighted to see a whole orchard filled with 40 different kinds of apples. There was a large, bright pink variety, Rubinola, with a marvelous, spicy flavor, and a green Russet with a lumpy, almost toad-like skin, but an amazing, tart clean taste. These varieties, curated by the RHS, are rarely sold in stores, but keeping them alive is an important safeguard of our planet’s biodiversity. This rich gene pool is crucial for future efforts to breed fruit and vegetables that are adapted to tomorrow’s climate and to upcoming pests and diseases.

Preserving diverse food crops is also essential for a rich and varied diet. Gardens and small farms help to preserve our edible biodiversity.

Various institutions also encourage people to conserve genetic resources, for example by promoting farmers’ rights to seed, as we will see in next week’s blog story.

Other related blogs

Bolivian peanuts

From uniformity to diversity

Innovative processing (such as an apple juice factory on a truck) can help people to save time, and to maintain their orchards of local fruit trees (see The juice mobile).

Videos on farmer rights to seed

Farmers’ rights to seed: Malawi

Farmers’ rights to seed: Guatemala

Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

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