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Digital African agriculture September 6th, 2020 by

In the report Byte by Byte, seventeen African and international experts shed some optimistic light on the digital future of agriculture in Africa. In many ways, the continent is ahead of other regions of the world.

Africa is leading the world in cell phone finance. In Kenya in 2007, Vodaphone started M-Pesa for the mobile network operator, Safaricom. M-Pesa, (from “M” for mobile, and “pesa,” the Kiswahili word for money) offers simple financial services on the phone. Customers go to a small shop to exchange cash for online money which they can save or send to anyone else in Kenya who has a mobile phone. It is an effective way for rural and poor people to send and receive money. People in the city can send cash back home, to invest in agriculture, for example.

M-Pesa was so popular that mobile money has been replicated in Malawi, Uganda and many other African countries. Rural Africans who were underserved by banks were able to make use of the little shops that sprang up all over the small towns and in peri-urban neighborhoods.

Mobile finance is not the only innovative digital service in Africa. Other companies are offering tractor services online. TROTRO Tractor is a platform in Ghana that allows farmers to hire a tractor (and a driver), like getting a ride from Uber. Other companies use cell phones to sell agricultural supplies, or to connect farmers to buyers of agricultural produce. The largest telecommunications company in Zimbabwe has been providing weather insurance to farmers on a mobile platform since 2013. The National Network of Chambers of Agriculture of Niger (RECA) has been providing commodity price information online to farmers since 2011.

The Third Eye project in Mozambique has used drones to get an aerial view of farmers’ fields, and make recommendations on irrigation for 2,800 smallholder farmers, mostly women.

Digital technology makes sense for Africa, which has a young population. Young Africans like digital technology as much as youth on other continents. One advantage is that phones are also relatively inexpensive in Africa. I’ve seen smartphones for sale in Kenya for under $40. There are some limitations. Airtime tends to be expensive in Africa, and only about half of the population is on the electric grid.

Many Africans work around the lack of electricity, paying to charge their phones at weekly markets, barbershops or other small businesses when shopping in town. The popularity of cell phones has sparked a growing demand for small solar panels that are becoming a common site, propped up in the bright sunshine outside of an earthen house.

African farmers need appropriate new agricultural technology as well as digital devices. As more African households get online, it will be easier to reach them with digital extension, including videos.

Further reading

Malabo Montpellier Panel 2019. Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s. Food System with Digital Technologies, Dakar.

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The fate of food August 2nd, 2020 by

In The Fate of Food, Amanda Little (professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University) takes us on a strange journey to the cutting edge of agricultural research. Little has an astonishing knack for getting quality face time with some of the most innovative (and busy) people in the science of food.

She takes us to Shanghai to meet Tony Zhang, an entrepreneur who dreamed of being the Whole Foods (grocery store chain) of China. Zhang was so enraged when he found out that his vegetable farmers were growing special plots of organic produce just for their own families, while selling produce tainted with pesticides, that he created his own 4,000 hectare farm where he monitored his crops with electronic soil sensors that captured data on soil moisture and temperature, humidity, acidity and light absorption. The cost of managing the data and cleaning the heavily polluted soil eventually led Zhang to quit farming, but other companies continue to improve his idea of the digitalized soil sensors.

In Silicon Valley, Indian cardiologist Uma Valeti leads a startup that is culturing meat in the lab. It’s real meat, just grown in a Petri dish, not in an animal’s body. Little finds the duck meat tasty, although at over $100,000 a serving, it’s still not commercial. But costs are falling.

In Norway, commercial salmon grower Alf-Helge Aarskog is growing the fish in cages in the seawater of a fjord. Fish farmers are racing to invent technology fast enough to solve their emerging problems. Captive salmon were once fed wild sea creatures, but the diet is now 75% grain, with the goal of creating a completely vegetarian, cultivated fare. The dense populations of penned fish are a breeding ground for “sea lice,” a crustacean parasite of salmon. Aarskog is using a robot that can spot the sea lice and zap them with a laser as the fish dart through the water.

Robots are the newest farm workers on dry land as well. Peruvian engineer Jorge Heraud and colleagues in California have invented a “lettuce bot” that can thin a field by recognizing when seedlings are too dense, and kill the extra plants with a precision over-dose of chemical fertilizer. John Deere sees enough promise in the idea that the corporation recently bought Heraud’s company for $305 million.

In the USA, most lettuce is grown in California in the summer, and around Yuma, Arizona in the winter, a continent away from the big consumer markets of the East Coast. Former Cornell professor Ed Harwood and colleagues have solved this problem by growing aeroponic lettuce in an old building in Newark, New Jersey, where the plants grow under LED lights, without soil. The lettuce is marketable after 12 to 16 days instead of 30 or 45, and the plants yield four times as much as in the open field. The lettuce is grown on trays stacked high, so the yield per hectare can be 390 times as high as in a conventional farm.

The book is crowded with insights. For example, drip irrigation was invented in the 1930s by Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer, after he observed a tree growing big and lush in the desert, thanks to a nearby, overlooked leaking faucet. Little is also cautious about some recent innovations; 90% of the maize, soy and cotton grown in the USA now is genetically modified, mostly to be grown with high doses of herbicides. Pigweed has now evolved resistance to the herbicides and infests 70 million acres (28 million hectares) in the United States.

As we learned from professor Calestous Juma, earlier in this blog (The enemies of innovation), innovations often look awkward at first; it took years for the farm tractor to become agile enough to really compete with horses. It’s hard to tell which of the innovations that Little describes will produce the food of the future. But big data, robots and more indoor farming may all be here to stay. Little starts and closes her book with a vignette about Chris and Annie Newman, a young couple in Northern Virginia raising pigs and chickens, and fruit and nut trees, with permaculture. The Newmans are pro-environment and pro-technology; they look forward to the day when they can use weeding robots on their farm. It’s just possible that digital technology of the future might tempt more young people to invest in highly productive, organic family farming.

Further reading

Little, Amanda 2019 The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. New York: Harmony Books. 340 pp.

Strawberry fields once again March 15th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Like many Bolivians, Diego Ramírez never thought about remaining in the village where he was born, and starting a business on his family’s small farm. As a kid, he loved picking fruit on his grandparents’ small strawberry patch in the village of Ucuchi, and swimming with his friends in a pond fed with spring water, but he had to leave home at a young age to attend high school in the small city of Sacaba, and then he went on to study computer science at the university (UMSS) in the big city of Cochabamba, where he found work after graduation.

Years later, Diego’s dad called his seven children together to tell them that he was selling their grandparents’ farm. It made sense. The grandparents had died, and the land had been idle for about 15 years. Yet, it struck Diego as a tragedy, so he said “I’ll farm it.” Some people thought he was joking. In Ucuchi, people were leaving agriculture, not getting into it. Many had migrated to Bolivia’s eastern lowlands or to foreign countries, so many of the fields in Ucuchi were abandoned. It was not the sort of place that people like Diego normally return to.

When Diego decided to revive his family farm two years ago, he turned to the Internet for inspiration. Although strawberries have been grown for many years in Ucuchi, and they are a profitable crop around Cochabamba, Diego learned of a commercial strawberry farm in Santo Domingo, Santiago, in neighboring Chile, that gave advice and sold plants. Santo Domingo is 2450 km from Cochabamba, but Diego was so serious about strawberries that he went there over a weekend and brought back 500 strawberry plants. Crucially, he also learned about new technologies like drip irrigation, and planting in raised beds covered with plastic sheeting. Encouraged by his new knowledge, he found dealers in Cochabamba who sold drip irrigation equipment and he installed it, along with plastic mulch, a common method in modern strawberry production.

Diego was inclined towards producing strawberries agroecologically, so he contacted the Agrecol Andes Foundation which was then organizing an association of ecological farmers in Sacaba, the small city where Diego lives (half way between the farm and the big city of Cochabamba). In that way Diego became a certified ecological farmer under the SPG PAS (Participatory Guaranty System, Agroecological Farmers of Sacaba).  Diego learned to make his own biol (a fermented solution of cow dung that fertilizes the soil and adds beneficial microbes to it). Now he mixes biol into the drip irrigation tank, fertilizing the strawberries one drop at a time.

Diego also makes his own organic sprays, like sulfur-lime brew and Bordeaux mix. He applies these solutions every two weeks to control powdery mildew, a common fungal disease, thrips (a small insect pest), red mites, and damping off. I was impressed. A lot of people talk about organic sprays, but few make their own. “It’s not that hard,” Diego shrugged, when I asked him where he found the time.

Diego finds the time to do a lot of admirable things. He has a natural flair for marketing and has designed his own packing boxes of thin cardboard, which he had printed in La Paz. His customers receive their fruit in a handsome box, rather than in a plastic bag, where fruit is easily damaged. He sells direct to customers who come to his farm, and at agroecological fairs and in stores that sell ecological products.

Diego still does his day job in the city, while also being active in community politics in Ucuchi. He also tends a small field of potatoes and he is planting fruit trees and prickly pear on the rocky slopes above his strawberry field. Diego has also started a farmers’ association with his neighbors, ten men and ten women, including mature adults and young people who are still in university.

The association members grow various crops, not just strawberries. Diego is teaching them to grow strawberries organically and to use drip irrigation. To encourage people to use these methods he has created his own demonstration plots. He has divided his grandparents’ strawberry field into three areas: one with his modern system, one with local varieties grown the old way on bare soil, with flood irrigation, and a third part with modern varieties grown the old way. The modern varieties do poorly when grown the way that Diego’s grandparents used. And Diego says the old way is too much work, mainly because of the weeding, irrigation, pests and diseases.

Ucuchi is an attractive village in the hills, with electricity, running water, a primary school and a small hospital. It is just off the main highway between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, an hour from the city of Cochabamba where you can buy or sell almost anything. Partly because of these advantages, some young people are returning to Ucuchi. Organic strawberries are hard to grow, and rare in Bolivia. But a unique product, like organic strawberries, and inspired leadership can help to stem the flow of migration, while showing that there are ways for young people to start a viable business in the countryside. Diego clearly loves being back in his home village, stopping his pickup truck to chat with people passing by on the village lanes. He also brings his own family to the farm on weekends, where he has put a new tile roof on his grandparents’ old adobe farm house.

Agriculture is more than making a profit. It is also about family history, community, and finding work that is satisfying and creative.

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EN EL FRUTILLAR DE NUEVO

Por Jeff Bentley, 15 de marzo del 2019

Como muchos bolivianos, Diego Ramírez nunca pensó en quedarse en la comunidad donde nació, y empezar un emprendimiento agrícola en las pequeñas chacras de su familia. Diego cuenta que de niño le encantaba recoger fruta en la pequeña parcela de frutillas de sus abuelos en la comunidad de Ucuchi, y nadar con sus amigos en una poza de riego, llena de agua de manantial, pero de joven tuvo que vivir en la ciudad pequeña de Sacaba para estudiar en colegio. Luego se fue a estudiar a la Universidad UMSS, la carrera de ingeniería de sistemas. Culminado los estudios, empezó a trabajar en la ciudad de Cochabamba.

Años más tarde, el padre de Diego llamó a sus siete hijos para decirles que estaba vendiendo el terreno de sus abuelos. Tenía sentido. Los abuelos habían fallecido, y nadie había trabajado la tierra durante unos 15 años. Sin embargo, a Diego le pareció una tragedia, así que dijo: “Yo la voy a trabajar”. Algunos pensaron que era un chiste. En Ucuchi, la gente estaba en plan de dejar la agricultura, no meterse en ella. Preferían emigrar al Oriente de Bolivia y muchos se habían ido del país. Por esta razón muchas de las parcelas están abandonadas. No es el tipo de lugar al que la gente como Diego normalmente regresa.

Cuando Diego decidió revivir su finca familiar ya hace dos años, buscó inspiración en el Internet. Aunque la frutilla es un cultivo ancestral de la comunidad de Ucuchi y muy rentable en Cochabamba, Diego se enteró de una empresa productora de frutillas en Santo Domingo, Santiago, en el vecino país de Chile, que daba consejos y vendía plantas. Santo Domingo está a 2450 km de Cochabamba, pero Diego se tomó tan en serio las frutillas que fue allí un fin de semana y trajo 500 plantas de frutillas. Crucialmente, también aprendió sobre el cultivo tecnificado de frutillas, aplicando el riego por goteo y plantado en camas tapadas con plástico. Movido por sus nuevos conocimientos, buscó distribuidores en Cochabamba que vendían equipos de riego por goteo y los instaló, junto con el mulch plástico, un método común en la producción moderna de fresas.

Diego se inclinó más en la producción agroecológica para producir frutillas, así que se contactó con la Fundación Agrecol Andes que estaba organizando una asociación de productores ecológicos en Sacaba, la pequeña ciudad donde Diego vive, a medio camino entre su terreno y la ciudad grande de Cochabamba. Diego ya tiene certificación de productor ecológico con SPG PAS (Sistema Participativo de Garantía Productores Agroecológicos Sacaba), Diego aprendió a hacer su propio biol (una solución fermentada de estiércol de vaca que fertiliza el suelo mientras añade microbios buenos). Ahora mezcla el biol en el tanque de riego por goteo, fertilizando las frutillas una gota a la vez.

Diego también hace sus propias soluciones orgánicas, como el sulfocálcico y el caldo bordelés. Fumiga estas preparaciones cada dos semanas para controlar el oídium, los thrips (un pequeño insecto), la arañuela roja, y la pudrición de cuello. Me impresionó. Mucha gente habla de aplicaciones orgánicos, pero pocos hacen las suyas. “No es tan difícil”, Diego dijo cuando le pregunté de dónde hallaba el tiempo.

Diego encuentra tiempo para hacer muchas cosas admirables. Tiene un talento natural para el marketing y ha diseñado sus propias cajas de cartón delgado, que ha hecho imprimir en La Paz. Sus clientes reciben la fruta en una bonita caja, en lugar de en una bolsa de plástico, donde la fruta se daña fácilmente. Vende directamente a los clientes que vienen a la misma parcela, en las ferias agroecológicas y en tiendas que comercializan productos ecológicos.

Diego todavía hace su trabajo normal en la ciudad, mientras que también tiene una cartera en la comunidad de Ucuchi. También cultiva una pequeña chacra de papas y está plantando árboles frutales y tunas en las laderas pedregosas arriba de su frutillar. Diego también ha iniciado una asociación de agricultores con sus vecinos, diez hombres y diez mujeres, incluidos adultos mayores y jóvenes que todavía están en la universidad.

Los miembros de la asociación cultivan diversos cultivos, no sólo frutillas. Diego les enseña a cultivar frutillas orgánicamente y a usar el riego por goteo. Para animar a la gente a usar estos métodos, ha creado sus propias parcelas de demostración. Ha dividido el frutillar de sus abuelos en tres áreas: una con su sistema moderno, tecnificado, otra con variedades locales cultivadas al estilo antiguo en suelo desnudo, con riego por inundación, y una tercera parte con variedades modernas cultivadas a la manera antigua. Las variedades modernas no rinden bien cuando se cultivan al estilo de los abuelos. Y Diego dice que la forma antigua es mucho trabajo, principalmente por el desmalezado, el riego y las enfermedades además de las plagas.

Ucuchi es una atractiva comunidad en las faldas del cerro, con electricidad, agua potable, una escuela primaria y un pequeño hospital. Está justo al lado de la carretera principal a Santa Cruz, a una hora de la ciudad de Cochabamba donde se puede comprar o vender casi cualquier cosa. En parte por estas ventajas, algunos jóvenes se están volviendo a la comunidad de Ucuchi. Las frutillas orgánicas son difíciles de cultivar, y son raras en Bolivia. Pero un producto único, como las frutillas orgánicas, y un liderazgo inspirado pueden ayudar a frenar el flujo de la migración, al mismo tiempo de mostrar que hay maneras viables para que los jóvenes empiecen con un emprendimiento personal en el campo. A Diego le encanta estar de vuelta en su comunidad: para su camioneta para charlar con la gente que pasa por los caminos del pueblo. También trae a su propia familia a la finca los fines de semana, donde ha puesto un nuevo techo de tejas en la vieja casa de adobe de sus abuelos.

La agricultura es más que la búsqueda de lucro. También se trata de la tradición familiar, la comunidad y de sentirse realizado con un trabajo satisfactorio y creativo.

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The red bucket March 31st, 2019 by

I recently had a chance to visit some dairy farmers near Cochabamba. They live in a small community and are members of a dairy cooperative which was able to buy a refrigerated milk storage tank with support from the Bolivian government. Twice a day the farmers bring their metal milk cans to the collection center, a small brick building which houses a 1,000 liter storage tank.

The stainless-steel tank has an electric cooler to chill the milk and a paddle that gently stirs it. This keeps the milk fresh until a tank truck from the dairy collects the milk later in the day. After each milking, the farmer simply takes her milk to the center, avoiding the work of selling it door-to-door, or of making it into cheese.

The farmers are organized in groups of a dozen or so households, and they take turns running the collection center. This involves measuring the density of each delivery of milk with a little gadget that looks like a pistol (a density meter) to make sure that no water has been added, and jotting down how many liters each person brings in.

Every two weeks the co-op pays each farmer for their milk produced. It sounds simple but the reality is different, particularly in calculating the volume of milk each farmer delivers.

The farmers bring in one or two milk cans each time they come. The factory that makes the milk can labels each one “40 liters” but they only physically hold 39 liters. The staff at the co-op are not sure why this is. The farmers at the collection center have been known to naively give a neighbor credit for 40 liters, because the can looked full. Besides, the cans are not always full, so the milk from each family has to be measured accurately, in a special pail. Pouring the milk into the pail (while trying not to spill any) is a tedious task, and another transaction cost. But it has to be done well. The dairy and the cooperative will fine the farmers if they report more milk than they deliver.

Another problem is that farmers report whole liters to the dairy, often rounding down actual volumes.

At the meeting I attended, one young farmer complained bitterly about this. “Sometimes I bring in almost five liters, and they write down four!”

She went on to say that sometimes the person in charge is nice, and gives her credit for five liters, but most of her fellow farmers won’t do that. She singled out one other farmer, doña Irma, as being especially strict.

But doña Irma had a solution for that. “That’s why we have the red bucket,” she politely reminded the group. If someone has a little extra milk, they pour it into the red bucket. If someone needs milk to make up a liter, then can take it from the red bucket.”

Transaction costs can be higher for smaller producers. It may take as much time and effort to deliver 40 liters as to bring in 400. The collection center makes it easier to deliver milk, but it introduces a few new costs, such as the time it takes to run the center, and the risks of mis-measuring the milk.

The young farmer was still angry. No doubt some producers are more motivated to take milk from the red bucket than to add milk. Still, the red bucket was a local if imperfect solution to a nagging transaction cost.

Smallholders will make marketing and institutional innovations, like the red bucket, to stay profitable in a world where food systems are getting every more complex. At a time when many people are leaving the countryside, and multinational corporations are monopolizing the food supply, it’s good to know that at least some cooperatives are trying to work with smallholders so they can earn a decent living in their home communities.

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The joy of farming October 21st, 2018 by

Yesterday in Mandera village in Tanzania, we were lucky to meet an inspiring young farmer.  32-year old Sadiki Mchama is an entrepreneur with passion and vision who left his office job to become a farmer. Across Africa, well-organised farms that produce for markets are often set up by older government officials who invest their savings into farming to provide a steady income after they retire. But Sadiki was clearly a different case, which triggered my curiosity.

Until 3 years ago Sadiki worked as an accountant at the Water Supply and Sanitation Authority of the Wami River Basin. Once he had saved enough money, he decided to start his own farm.

When asked what attracted him to go into agriculture, he replied happily: “You can enjoy everything in agriculture. Everything I do are my own ideas.”

Sadiki started growing cassava on his 10 acres (4 hectares) of land. But some of the planting material he got from the open market was infested with disease, such as the cassava mosaic virus and the cassava brown streak disease. As he uproots some of the infested plants it does not take long to realise that infested plants yield no tubers.

Eager to find a solution, Sadiki turned to the extension officer who introduced him to a project that tried to set up a cassava “seed” system, involving community “seed” producers. Sadiki successfully took the course, bought certified cassava planting material and planted it far from other fields, so the disease would not spread to his new crop.

“When you start a business, you need to find customers and look after them so they come back to you,” Sadiki says. While many farmers struggle to find a market for their cassava roots, Sadiki did manage. He now rents a car and brings his produce to the customers however far away they are.

Asked how Sadiki would manage to find customers for his new cassava planting material business, he said: “I attend village meetings and talk to the farmers, but I also use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram to inform potential customers.”

Sadiki is a people person. His open, smiling face radiates with positive energy. As we were filming a video on healthy cassava planting material, we were pleased to include him. In farmer training videos, enthusiastic people like Sadiki communicate ambition and show what is possible.

Once our video on quality cassava planting material is posted on the Access Agriculture video platform, Sadiki plans to download the video and share it with his network. The video in turn may help to boost his business, the same way that vegetable training videos in Uganda boosted the demand for tomato, chilli and onion seed.

Young people across Africa are starting to see opportunities in agriculture. And they cleverly combine their great interpersonal skills with new ICTs and social media.

Further reading

Bentley, J. 2016. The Luo translations: farmer learning videos in northern Uganda. Agro-Insight, Belgium. See: www.accessagriculture.org/publications

Acknowledgement

The video on Quality Cassava Planting Material is developed for IITA under the ACAI project (African Cassava Agronomy Initiative)

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