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Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from Comité Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

Related blogs

Reviving soils

A revolution for our soil

Damaging the soil and our health with chemical reductionism

Related video

Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Teaching the farmers of tomorrow with videos May 23rd, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Youth around the world are leaving agriculture, but many would stay on the farm if they had appropriate technologies and better social services, as Professor Alejandro Bonifacio explained to me recently.

Dr. Bonifacio is from the rural Altiplano, the high plains of Bolivia. At 4,000 meters above sea level, it is some of the highest farmland in the world. Bonifacio has a PhD in plant breeding, and besides directing an agricultural research station in Viacha on the Altiplano, he teaches plant breeding part-time at the public university in La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

The university attracts many rural youths. Every year Bonifacio asks his new class of students to introduce themselves one-by-one and to tell where they come from, and to talk about their parents and their grandparents.

This year about 20% of the students in Bonifacio’s class are still living on the farm, and taking their classes online. Another 50% are the children or grandchildren of farmers, but are now living in the city. Many of these agronomy students would be more interested in taking over their parents’ farm, if not for a couple of problems.

One limitation is the lack of services in the rural areas: poor schools, bad roads, the lack of clinics, and no electricity or running water. While this is slowly improving, Covid has added a new twist, locking young people out of many of the places they liked to go to, and not just bars and restaurants. One advantage of city life is having access to medical attention, but this past year the students said it was as though the cities had no hospitals, because they were full of Covid patients. Classes were all on-line, and so the countryside began to look like a nicer place to live than the city. Many students went home to their rural communities, where there was much more freedom of movement than in the city.

Dr. Bonifacio told me that even when the youth do go home, they don’t want to farm exactly like their parents did. The youngsters don’t go in for all the backbreaking work with picks and shovels, but there is a lack of appropriate technology oriented towards young, family farmers, such as small, affordable machinery. Young farmers are also interested in exploiting emerging markets for differentiated produce, such as food that is free of pesticides. Organic agriculture also helps to save on production costs, as long as farmers have practical alternatives to agrochemicals.

Fortunately, there are videos on appropriate technologies, and Professor Bonifacio shows them in class. Today’s youth have grown up with videos, and find them convincing. Every year, Bonifacio organizes a forum for about 50 students on plant breeding and crop disease. He assigns the students three videos to watch, to discuss later in the forum. One of his favorites is Growing lupin without disease, which shows some organic methods for keeping the crop healthy. Bonifacio encourages the students to watch the video in Spanish, and Quechua or Aymara. Many of the students speak Quechua or Aymara, or both, besides Spanish. Some feel that they are forgetting their native language. “The videos help the students to learn technical terms, like the names of plant diseases, in their native languages,” Bonifacio says.

During the Covid lockdown, Prof. Bonifacio moved his forum online and sent the students links to the videos. In the forum, some of the students said that while they were home they could identify the symptoms of lupine disease, thanks to the video.

Bonifacio logs onto Access Agriculture from time to time to see which new videos have been posted in Spanish, to select some to show to his students, so they can get some of the information they need to become the farmers of tomorrow.

Kids who grow up on small farms often go to university as a bridge to getting a decent job in the city. But others study agriculture, and would return to farming, if they had appropriate technology for family farming, and services like electricity and high-speed internet.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

Awakening the seeds

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

No land, no water, no problem

Videos from Access Agriculture

Check out these youth-friendly videos with appropriate technology. Besides videos in English, www.accessagriculture.org has:

104 videos in Spanish

Eight videos in Aymara

And eight in Quechua

ENSEĂ‘AR A LOS AGRICULTORES DEL MAĂ‘ANA CON VIDEOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 23 de mayo del 2021

Por todas partes del mundo, los jĂłvenes abandonan la agricultura, pero muchos seguirĂ­an cultivando si tuvieran tecnologĂ­as apropiadas y mejores servicios sociales, como me explicĂł recientemente el docente Alejandro Bonifacio.

El Dr. Bonifacio es originario del Altiplano de Bolivia. A 4.000 metros sobre el nivel del mar, es una de las tierras agrícolas más altas del mundo. Bonifacio tiene un doctorado en fitomejoramiento y, además de ser jefe de una estación de investigación agrícola en Viacha, en el Altiplano, enseña fitomeoramiento a tiempo parcial en la universidad pública de La Paz (Universidad Mayor de San Andrés).

La universidad atrae a muchos jóvenes rurales. Cada año, Bonifacio pide a su nueva clase de estudiantes que se presenten uno por uno y digan de dónde vienen, y que hablen de sus padres y sus abuelos.

Este año, alrededor del 20% de los estudiantes de la clase de Bonifacio siguen viviendo en el área rural, desde donde se conectan a las clases virtuales. Otro 50% son hijos o nietos de agricultores, pero ahora viven en la ciudad. Muchos de estos estudiantes de agronomía estarían más interesados en trabajar el terreno sus padres, si no fuera por un par de problemas.

Una limitación es la falta de servicios en las zonas rurales: colegios deficientes, carreteras en mal estado, la falta de clínicas, luz y agua potable. Aunque esto está mejorando poco a poco, Covid ha introducido cambios, porque los jóvenes ya no pueden ir a muchos de los lugares que les gustaban, y no sólo las discotecas y los restaurantes. Una de las ventajas de la vida urbana es tener acceso a la atención médica, pero este último año los estudiantes dijeron que era como si las ciudades no tuvieran hospitales, porque estaban llenos de pacientes de Covid. Las clases eran todas en línea, por lo que el campo empezó a parecer un lugar más agradable para vivir que la ciudad. Muchos estudiantes se fueron a sus comunidades rurales, donde había más libertad de movimiento que en la ciudad.

El Dr. Bonifacio me dijo que, incluso cuando los jóvenes vuelven a casa, no quieren trabajar la tierra tal como lo hacían sus padres. Los jóvenes no se dedican al trabajo agotador con palas y picotas, pero hace falta la tecnología adecuada orientada a los jóvenes agricultores familiares, por ejemplo, la maquinaria pequeña y asequible. Los jóvenes agricultores también quieren explotar los mercados emergentes de productos diferenciados, como los alimentos libres de plaguicidas. La agricultura orgánica también ayuda a ahorrar costes de producción, siempre que los agricultores tengan alternativas prácticas a los productos agroquímicos.

Afortunadamente, existen videos sobre tecnologĂ­as adecuadas, y el Dr. Bonifacio los muestra en clase. Los jĂłvenes de hoy conocen los videos desde su infancia, y los encuentran convincentes. Cada año, Bonifacio organiza un foro para unos 50 estudiantes sobre el fitomejoramiento y las enfermedades. Asigna a los alumnos tres videos para que los vean y los discutan despuĂ©s en el foro. Uno de sus favoritos es Producir tarwi sin enfermedad, que muestra algunos mĂ©todos orgánicos para mantener el lupino sano. Bonifacio anima a los estudiantes a ver el video en español y en quechua o aymara. Muchos de los estudiantes hablan quechua o aymara, o ambos, además del castellano. Algunos sienten que están olvidando su lengua materna. “Los videos ayudan a los alumnos a aprender tĂ©rminos tĂ©cnicos, como los nombres de las enfermedades de las plantas, en sus idiomas nativos”, dice Bonifacio.

Durante la cuarentena de Covid, el Dr. Bonifacio trasladĂł su foro a Internet y enviĂł a los estudiantes enlaces a los videos. En el foro, algunos de los estudiantes dijeron que mientras estaban en casa podĂ­an identificar los sĂ­ntomas de la enfermedad del tarwi (lupino), gracias al video.

Bonifacio entra en la página web de Access Agriculture de vez en cuando para ver qué nuevos videos se han publicado en español, para seleccionar algunos y enseñárselos a sus alumnos, para que aprendan algo de la información que necesitan para ser los agricultores del futuro.

Los hijos de agricultores suelen usar a la universidad como puente para conseguir un buen trabajo en la ciudad. Pero otros estudian agronomĂ­a, y volverĂ­an al agro, si tuvieran tecnologĂ­a apropiada para la agricultura familiar, y servicios como electricidad e Internet de alta velocidad.

Historias relacionadas en el blog de Agro-Insight

Despertando las semillas

Quinoa, lost and found

Videos to teach kids good attitudes

Sin tierra, sin agua, no hay problema

Videos de Access Agriculture

Vea algunos de estos videos apropiados para agricultores jĂłvenes en https://www.accessagriculture.org/es. Incluso, Access Agriculture tiene:

104 videos en castellano

Ocho videos en aymara

Y ocho en quechua

 

A Greener Revolution in Africa May 2nd, 2021 by

After settling in the USA in the 1990s, Isaac Zama would visit his native Cameroon almost every year, until war broke out in late 2016, and it became too dangerous to go home. About that same time a new satellite TV company, the Southern Cameroons Broadcasting Corporation (SCBC), was formed to broadcast news and information in English. (Cameroon was formed from a French colony and part of a British one in 1961).

In 2018, Isaac approached SCBC to start a TV program on agriculture to help Southern Cameroonians who could no longer work as a result of the war, and the thousands of refugees who sought refuge in Nigeria. The broadcasters readily agreed. With his PhD in agriculture and rural development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his roots in a Cameroonian village, Isaac was well placed to find content that farmers back home would appreciate. “I did some research on the Internet, and I found Access Agriculture,” said Isaac. “I liked it so much that I watched every single video.”

Isaac soon started a TV program, Amba Farmers’ Voice, which began to air every Sunday at 4 PM, Cameroon time. It is rebroadcast several times a week to give more people a chance to watch the program. With frequent power cuts many are not able to tune in on Sundays.

The program is broadcast live from Isaac’s studio in Virginia. He starts with a basic introduction in West African Pidgin. “If I’m going to show a video on rabbits, I start by explaining what a is rabbit,” Isaac explains. “And that we can learn from farmers in Kenya how to build a rabbit house, and to care for these animals.” After playing an Access Agriculture video on the topic (in English), Isaac comments on it in Pidgin, for the older, rural viewers who may not speak English. His remarks are carefully scripted, and based on background reading and research.

The show lasts an hour or more and allows Isaac to play several videos. Amba Farmers’ Voice has its own Facebook and YouTube pages. While his program is on the air, Isaac checks out the Facebook page to get an idea of how many people are watching. A popular topic like caring for rabbits may have 1,000 viewers just on Facebook. But most people watch the satellite broadcast. SCBC estimates that two to three million people watch Amba Farmers’ Voice in Cameroon, but many others also watch it in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and even in some Francophone countries, like Benin and Gabon.

Some farmers reciprocate, sending Isaac pictures and videos that they have shot themselves, showing off their own experiments, adapting the ideas from the videos to conditions in Cameroon. Isaac heard from one group of “mothers in the village” who showed how they were using urine to fertilize their corn, after watching an Access Agriculture video from Uganda.

People in refugee camps watched the video on sack mounds, showing how to grow vegetables in a large, soil-filled bag. But gunny sacks were scarce in the refugee camp, so people improvised, filling plastic bags with earth and growing tomatoes in them, so they could grow some food within the confines of the camp.

Isaac mentioned that people were installing drip irrigation after seeing the video from Benin about it.

“That can be expensive,” I said. “People have to buy materials.”

“Not really,” Isaac answered. Gardeners take used drink bottles from garbage dumps, fill them with water, poke holes in the cap, and leave them to drip slowly on their plants.

After seeing the video from Benin on feeding giant African snails (for high-quality meat), one young man in the Southern Cameroons got used tires and stacked one on top of the other to make the snail pen. It’s an innovation he came up with after watching the Access Agriculture video. He puts two tires in a stack, puts the snails in the bottom, and feeds them banana peels and other fruit and vegetable waste. Isaac tells his audience “We don’t need to buy anything. Just open your eyes and adapt. See what you can find to use.”

Solar dryers were another topic that people adapted from the videos. To save money, they made the dryers from bamboo, instead of wood, and shared one between several families. As a further adaptation, people are drying grass in the solar dryer. Access Agriculture has four videos on using solar dryers to preserve high value produce like pineapples, mangoes and chillies, but none show grass drying. Isaac explains that you sprinkle a little salt on the grass as you dry it. Then, in the dry season you put the grass in water and it turns fresh again. Now he is encouraging youth to form groups so they can dry grass to store, to sell to farmers when forage is scarce.

I was delighted to see so many local experiments, just from people who watch videos on television, with no extension support.

All of this interaction, between Isaac Zama and his compatriots, the teaching, feedback and organisation, is all happening on TV and online. He hasn’t been to Cameroon since he started his program.  Isaac’s interaction with his audience amazes me. It’s a testimony to his talent, but also to the improved connectivity in rural Africa.

“People think that Africans don’t have cell phones,” Isaac says, “but 30% of the older farmers in villages have android phones. Their adult children, living in cities or abroad, buy phones for their parents so they can stay in touch and so they can see each other on WhatsApp.” Isaac adds that what farmers need now is an app so they can watch agricultural videos cheaper.

Dr. Isaac Zama wants to encourage other stations to broadcast farmer learning videos: “Those videos from Access Agriculture will revolutionize agriculture in Africa in two or three years, if our national leaders would just broadcast them on TV. The farmers would do it themselves, just from the information they can see on the videos.” Isaac is willing to collaborate with other TV stations across the world, to share his experience or to broadcast Amba Farmers Voice, but particularly with broadcasters in Africa who are interested in agricultural development

Related Agro-Insight blogs

To drip or not to drip

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

Cell phones for smallholders

A connecting business

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana

Watch the Access Agriculture videos mentioned in this story

How to build a rabbit house

Human urine as fertilizer

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Drip irrigation for tomato

Feeding snails

Solar drying pineapples, Making mango crisps, Solar drying of kale leaves and Solar drying of chillies

 

Staying grounded while on the air in Ghana March 21st, 2021 by

It’s a simple matter to play a soundtrack about farming on the radio. The tricky part is making sure that the program connects with the audience, as I learned recently from Gideon Kwame Sarkodie Osei at ADARS FM, a commercial station in Kintampo, a town in central Ghana.

Since 2010 Gideon has been pleased to be part of an effort by Farm Radio International (FRI) that supported radio stations in Ghana, including ADARS FM, to reach out to farmers. With encouragement from FRI, Gideon started a weekly magazine show for farmers, where he plays Access Agriculture audio tracks. The magazine, Akuafo Mo, means “Thank You Farmers” in the Twi language. Before he started the show, Gideon (together with FRI) did a baseline study of the farmers in his audience. He found that they had more time on Monday evenings. Farm women do more work and have less time than most people, but they told Gideon that they were usually done with their chores by 8 PM, so that’s when he airs Akuafo Mo, every Monday for an hour.

The show starts with recorded interviews, where farmers explain their own knowledge of a certain topic, like aflatoxin, which is so important that Gideon had several episodes on this hidden toxin that can contaminate stored foodstuffs. After the interviews, Gideon plays an audio track, to share fresh ideas with his audience. Gideon has played Access Agriculture audios so often he can’t remember how many he has played. “It’s a lot more than 50,” he explains.

Gideon plays a portion of the audio in English, and then he stops to translate that part into Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. Every week there is a guest on the show, an extension agent who can discuss the topic and take questions from listeners who call in.

Gideon’s experience with the magazine inspired him to start listener groups, in coordination with FRI. Visiting listener communities, Gideon found that some did not have a radio set. So, with project support, he bought them one. “We give them radio sets so they can come together weekly and listen to the magazine,” Gideon told me. He has 20 groups, each with 12 to 30 people. Five groups are only for women, especially in areas where males and females don’t casually mingle. The other listener groups have men and women.

Gideon visits at least some of the groups every week. Because of these visits, Gideon is now downloading videos as well as audio from Access Agriculture. “Sometimes I see if they have electricity, and I rent a projector, to show them the video they have heard on the air.” Gideon says. “This is my initiative, going the extra mile.”

Some of the farmers are learning to sell their groundnuts, maize and other cereals as a group, netting them extra money and helping them to be self-sustaining.

Gideon is also a trainer for FRI. Before Covid, he would travel to other towns and cities in Ghana, meet other broadcasters, and go to the field with them to show them how to improve their interview skills and to craft their own magazine shows. Now he continues to train broadcasters, but online.

Working with the farmer listening groups gives Gideon insights into farmers’ needs and knowledge, making his magazine so authentic that 60,000 people tune in. That experience gives Gideon the confidence to train other broadcasters all over Ghana.

When I was in Ghana a few years ago, I met excellent extension agents who told me how frustrated they were to be responsible for reaching 3,000 farmers. It was impossible to have a quality interaction with all those farmers.

However, there are ways to communicate a thoughtful message with a large audience, for example with a good radio magazine.

Gideon has creatively blended his own expertise with resources from two communication-oriented non-profit organisations: Farm Radio International and Access Agriculture. Hopefully, his experience will inspire other broadcasters.

Videos in the languages of Ghana

Find videos and soundtracks in these languages of Ghana: Buli, Dagaari, Dagbani, Ewe, Frafra, Gonja, Hausa, Kabyé, Kusaal, Moba, Sisaala, Twi, Zarma and English.

Top-down extension on the rise? February 28th, 2021 by

Despite more than three decades of investments in participatory approaches, top-down extension with blue print recommendations seems to be gaining ground again. Why is it so hard to stamp out such denigrating, disempowering practices that consider farmers as passive takers of advice and obedient producers of food?

While working in Vietnam in 1997, roughly a decade after the government established a more liberal market economy with its Doi moi reform policy, my Canadian friend Vincent often shared his frustrations.  As he deployed the tools of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) to assess the priority development needs of rural communities, vegetables often emerged as number one. But as he concluded the full day’s exercise by asking the villagers what they wanted to work on, they always said “rice”. It drove Vincent nuts, as there was no way he could justify that to his NGO back home. As rice was still set as a priority by the local authorities, people had put their personal aspirations aside and abided by government policies.

All states throughout history have relied on making people follow rules … and pay taxes. In my blog two weeks ago, I referred to James Scott’s book Against the Grain, where he writes about the early development of agriculture, starting some 10,000 years ago. During the first several millennia of plant and animal domestication, early farmers and pastoralists continued to hunt, and gather wild plants, leaving them with plenty of leisure time and an incredible diverse and healthy diet, as they practiced sustainable agriculture for four or five thousand years.

When the first states emerged some 6,000 years ago, all this began to change. State elites collected tax as a share of the harvest or as forced labour (or both). As wheat, maize and rice need to be harvested at one particular time and can be easily stored, the early states forced farmers to grow more of these cereal crops. The first writings were not poems or epic stories, but accounts with names of people and taxes paid or other transactions. Rigid instructions on how to manage the crops allowed the tax collector to estimate yields and to calculate how much tax they could collect. Top-down extension is as old as the very first states. Crop diversity declined as people worked harder and ate less.

So despite the more recent, huge public investments and overwhelming evidence of the benefits of participatory approaches, whether farmer field schools, community seed banks or participatory technology generation, development practitioners are up against a difficult enemy (a pushy state that wants to tell farmers what to do). But now some new actors have entered the scene.

Over the past decade, non-traditional extension service providers like telecommunications companies and digital service providers have taken the stage, with many donor agencies and philanthropists believing that digital extension will shape the future of farming. These new service providers can provide pretty accurate information on market prices and weather forecasts, but their tools are too weak to provide an extension service. In the golden age of tweets, farmer advice is often summarised in short, simple text messages and by doing so, digital service providers play back into the hands of those governments and companies who believe they have a right to control rural folks.

Some of my recent research on apps and digital platforms revealed once more how fertilizer and seed companies (and some donors) are using digital services to push national fertilizer and seed recommendations.

Short, blunt messages are better for promoting agrochemicals than for discussing a complex agroecology. It is a rare digital service that understands farmers and responds to their needs in a non-directive way.

Anthropologist Paul Richards described small-scale farming as a type of performance whereby farmers learn by experimentation and adapt their behaviour to reach certain goals. To support diverse and healthy food systems, digital extension approaches will need to encourage experimentation and farmer-to-farmer learning across borders. While simple sms messages can be offered in local languages, video will become an increasingly important format to engage farmers in active learning, with images and verbal discussion from fellow farmers. In video, the audience can read the images, and listen to explanations by fellow farmers, plus viewers can go back and watch the video again and discuss with their friends and family. This gives video a depth and a subtlety that can’t be tweeted.

Modern states that see farmers as citizens, not as subjects, will need to explore many forms of participatory extension, and not simply try to digitize top-down approaches, which will never appeal to farmers.

Further information

James C. Scott. 2017. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 312.

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Khipu, a story tied in knots

Digital African agriculture

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Pay and learn

Private screenings

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