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Using Livestock to Rebuild and Preserve Communities

9:27 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog.

4645208710_1a02b4b5db_m.jpgFor pastoralist communities like the well-known Maasai in Kenya, livestock keeping is more than just an important source of food and income; it’s a way of life that has been a part of their culture and traditions for hundreds of years.

But, in the face of drought, loss of traditional grazing grounds, and pressure from governments and agribusiness to cross-breed native cattle breeds with exotic breeds, pastoralists are struggling to feed their families and hold on to their culture.

The key, however, to maintaining the pastoralist way of life, at least in Kenya, may also be the key to preserving the country’s livestock genetic biodiversity, as well as improving local food security.“Governments need to recognize,” says Jacob Wanyama, coordinator with the African LIFE Network in Kenya— an organization that works to improve the rights of pastoralist communities in Eastern Africa, “that pastoralists are the best keepers of genetic diversity.” (See also: The Keepers of Genetic Diversity)

Anikole cattle, for example, a breed indigenous to Eastern Africa, are not only “beautiful to look at,” says Wanyama, but they’re one of the “highest quality” breeds of cattle because they can survive in extremely harsh, dry conditions—something that’s more important than the size and milk production of the cattle, especially as climate change takes a bigger hold on Africa. And indigenous breeds don’t require expensive feed and inputs, such as antibiotics to keep them healthy.

More than just a consistent and reliable source of food, Anikole cattle also help preserve the pastoralist culture and way of life. Though most pastoralists recognize that many of their children might choose to go into the cities instead of continuing the nomadic herding lifestyle of pastoralists, the preservation of Anikole cattle and other indigenous breeds will allow those that choose to stay to feed and support their families and community for years to come. (See also: Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World)

And, similarly, in Mozambique, the International Rural Poultry Center of the Kyeema Foundation and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are promoting livestock as more than just a means to improve food security.

The two organizations are partnering to work with farmers—most of them women—to raise chickens on their farms. Because women are often the primary caregivers for family members with HIV/AIDS, they need easy, low-cost sources of both food and income. Unlike many crops, raising free-range birds can require few outside inputs and very little maintenance from farmers. Birds can forage for insects and eat kitchen scraps, instead of expensive grains. They provide not only meat and eggs for household use and income, but also pest control and manure for fertilizer. (See also: Prescribing Improved Nutrition to Combat HIV/AIDS in Africa)

In Rwanda, Heifer International is helping farmers use livestock to rebuild their homes and improve their income after the devastating genocide that occurred 15 years ago. Heifer began working in Rwanda in 2000, introducing a South African dairy breed, known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr. Karamuzi, “no stock of good [dairy cow] genes” was left in the country after the genocide.

And he says that these animals help prove “that even poor farmers can take care of high producing cows.” Heifer has certain conditions for receiving cows—including that farmers build a pen and dedicate part of their land to growing pasture—which made people skeptical, especially when they were used to letting animals roam freely to graze on grass. But as people began seeing the results of Heifer’s training, they become less suspicious and more interested in working with the group.

And these animals don’t only provide milk—which can be an important source of protein for the hungry—and income to families. They also provide manure, which provides not only fertilizer for crops, but also is now helping provide biogas for cooking to households raising cows in the country as part of a the National Biogas Program. And they give families a sense of security as they, and the entire country, continue to recover and rebuild. (See also: Healing With Livestock in Rwanda)

To read more about how smallscale livestock can improve food security and preserve and rebuild communities, see: Teacher Turned Farmer. . .Turned Teacher, Got Biogas?, Conserving Endangered Animal Genetic Resources in Kenya.

Photo Credit: International Livestock Research Institute

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Protecting Wildlife While Improving Food Security, Health, and Livelihoods

8:36 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

This is the first in a two-part series about Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg’s visit with COMACO in Zambia. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

4365708645_7cb9a0c850_m.jpgOne of the first things you notice about grocery stores in Zambia is the plethora of processed foods from around the world, from crackers made in Argentina and soy milk from China to popular U.S. breakfast cereals. Complementing these foreign foods, however, are a variety of locally made and processed products, including indigenous varieties of organic rice, all-natural peanut butter, and honey from the It’s Wild brand.

It’s Wild was started by the Community Markets for Conservation(COMACO), an organization founded over 30 years ago to conserve local wildlife. COMACO helps farmers improve their agricultural practices in ways that can protect the environment—such as through conservation farming—while also creating a reliable market for farm products. It organizes the farmers into producer groups, encouraging them to diversify their skills by raising livestock and bees, growing organic rice, using improved irrigation and fisheries management, and other practices, so that they don’t have to resort to poaching elephants or other wildlife.

By targeting hard-to-reach farmers that live near protected areas, “we’re trying to turn things around,” says Dale Lewis, Executive Director of COMACO. For decades, many farmers in eastern Zambia practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and were involved in widespread elephant poaching. Farmers killed elephants and burned forests not because they were greedy, but because it was their only alternative, Lewis explains. Degraded soils, the lack of effective agricultural inputs, and drought left many farmers in the region desperate, forcing them to turn to poaching and environmentally destructive farming practices.

By training more than 650 “lead” farmers to train other farmers, COMACO hopes to not only protect the environment and local wildlife, but also help farmers increase their incomes by connecting them to the private market.

COMACO supports the creation of regional processing centers and trading depots to make it easier for farmers to process their crops and transport them to market. The group also offers a higher price to farmers who grow rice and other products organically, and for those use the conservation farming techniques they’ve learned from COMACO trainers and lead farmers. Where farmers “comply with COMACO, they see benefits,” Lewis says, including improvements in food security and health.

The resulting products are then sold under the It’s Wild brand in major supermarket chains across Zambia, such as ShopRite, Checkers, and Spar. Next year, COMACO plans to export its products to Botswana. The organization is trying to do as much of the product distribution as possible so that the money stays with the farmers and not middlemen.

COMACO has also gotten technical support from multinational food giant General Mills. The company paid for a COMACO food technician to visit its headquarters in early 2009 to learn how different food processing techniques can increase the nutritional and economic value of the foods that the organization is selling.

Lewis hopes that eventually COMACO will be self sufficient—and profitable—without the current heavy dependence on donor funding. But that’s not easy for an organization that works with thousands of farmers and has high administrative, transport, and salary costs.

Stay tuned this week for more about Dale Lewis and COMACO’s work.

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Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local

9:16 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Richard Haigh runs Enaleni Farm outside Durban, South Africa, raising endangered Zulu sheep, Nguni cattle (a breed indigenous to South Africa that is very resistant to pests), and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Check out this video from my conversation with Richard about his sheep, his garden, and the meaning behind the name of his farm:

Valuing What They Already Have

8:54 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

Richard Haigh doesn’t look like your typical African pastoralist. Unlike many Africans who grew up tending cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, Richard started his farm in 2007 at the age of 40. He quit his 9–5 job at a nongovernmental organization and bought 23 acres of land outside Durban, South Africa.

He wanted to totally change his life.

4315633110_6180160aec_m.jpgToday, he runs Enaleni Farm (enaleni means “abundance” in Zulu), raising endangered Zulu sheep, Nguni cattle (a breed indigenous to South Africa that is very resistant to pests), and a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Richard is cultivating GMO-free soya, as well as traditional maize varieties. “All the maize tells a story,” he says. Like the sheep and cattle, many maize varieties are resistant to drought, climate change, and diseases, making them a smart choice for farmers all over Africa.

This sort of mixed-crop livestock system is becoming increasingly rare in South Africa, according to Richard, because of commercial farms that rely on monoculture crops rather than on diverse agricultural systems.

Richard likes to say that his farm isn’t organic, but rather an example of how agro-ecological methods can work. He practices push-pull agriculture, which uses alternating intercropping of plants that repel pests (pushing them away from the harvest) and ones that attract pests (pulling them away from the harvest) to increase yields. He also uses animal manure and compost for fertilizer.

But perhaps the most important thing Richard is doing at Enaleni doesn’t have to do with the various agricultural methods and practices he’s using. It’s about the “stories” he’s telling on the farm. By showing local people the tremendous benefits that indigenous cattle and sheep breeds, and sustainably grown crops, can have for the environment and livelihoods, he’s putting both an ecological and economic value on something that’s been neglected. “Local people don’t value what they have,” says Richard, because extension agents have tended to promote exotic livestock and expensive inputs.

In addition, Richard asks himself “what can we do that is specific to where we live?” In other words, how can we promote local sources of agricultural diversity that are good for the land and for people?

Richard is also helping document the diversity on his farm. He’s been sending blood samples to the South African National Research Foundation to help them build a DNA “hoof print” of what makes up a Zulu sheep. This sort of research is important not only for conserving the sheep, but for helping to increase local knowledge about the breeds that people have been raising for generations.

As a result of his conservation work, Richard and Enaleni Farm have been recognized by Slow Food International, which wants to work with the farm and local communities to find ways to ensure that the Zulu sheep don’t disappear.

Richard hopes to share his knowledge about agriculture with local farmers, teaching them how to spot and prevent disease in indigenous sheep, as well as explaining agro-ecological methods of raising food.

Breeding Respect for Indigenous Seeds

8:01 am in International Aid and Development by borderjumpers

Today, farmers and breeders alike have a greater respect for Mozambique’s indigenous seed varieties. (Photo by Jose Gonzalez de Tanago)Jessica Milgroom isn’t your typical graduate student. Rather than spending her days in the library of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, her research is done in the field—literally. Since 2006, Jessica has been working with farming communities living inside Limpopo National Park, in southern Mozambique.

When the park was established in 2001, it was essentially “parked on top of 27,000 people,” says Jessica. Some 7,000 of the residents needed to be resettled to other areas, including within the park, which affected their access to food and farmland. Jessica’s job is to see what can be done to improve resettlement food security.

But rather than simply recommending intensified agriculture in the park to make better use of less land, Jessica worked with the local community to collect and identify local seed varieties. One of the major problems in Mozambique, as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of seed. As a result, farmers are forced to buy low-quality seed because nothing else is available.

In addition to identifying and collecting seeds, Jessica is working with a farmer’s association on seed trials, testing varieties to see what people like best. In addition, farmers are learning how to purify and store seeds (see Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa).

Weevils, the farmers tell Jessica, are worse than ever, destroying both the seed and crops they store in traditional open-air, granaries. But the farmers are now building newer granaries that are more tightly sealed and help prevent not only weevils but also mold and aflatoxins from damaging crops.

Today, farmers and breeders alike have a greater respect for Mozambique’s indigenous seed varieties. According to Jessica, one of the biggest accomplishments of the project has been getting breeders and farmers to talk to each other. “It’s been interesting for both groups,” says Jessica, “and it needs to be a regular discussion” between them.

Malawi’s Real “Miracle”

8:39 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard. Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have over 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in the 1990s as Peace Corps Volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia works for the Malawi Health Ministry, educating both policy-makers and citizens about the importance of indigenous vegetables and permaculture for improving livelihoods and nutrition.

Malawi may be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago the government decided to do something controversial—provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story. But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonderbread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, however, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer compared to hybrid varieties. According to Kristof, “48 percent of the country is still stunted with the miracle.”

Stacia and Kristof use their home as a way to educate their neighbors about both permaculture and indigenous vegetables. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops may hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi.

Rather than focusing on just planting maize—a crop that is not native to Africa—the Kristofs advise the farmers they work with that there is “no miracle plant, just plant them all.” Maize, ironically, is least suited to this region because it’s very susceptible to pests and disease. Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct—crops that are already adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than importing things like amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa, and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “A lot of solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.” And as I walked around seeing—and tasting— the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it’s obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle. Stay tuned for more about my trip to the Nordins.

Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste

6:35 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

They have unfamiliar names, like amaranth, baobab, cowpea, dika, enset, moringa, and spider plant. And many of them are typically thought of as weeds, not food, but these African indigenous vegetables and many others provide an important source of nutrients to millions of people.

Some have been used for thousands of years, providing an important cultural link, while also helping increase food security and incomes. But these “weeds,” which are a rich source of protein, calcium, and important micronutrients, are typically neglected on the international agricultural resource agenda. Although they’ve often been ignored by researchers and policy-makers alike, who tend to focus on staple and cash crops, these vegetables can be an important part of helping alleviate hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. As food prices continue to rise on the continent—in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007—indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.

And as the impacts of climate change become more evident, the hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables is becoming increasingly important. Many of them use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, which will likely increase as climate change becomes more evident.

Ignas Swai, a Senior Research Assistant at the World Vegetable Center, guided us through their demonstration plot, explaining the different nutritional qualities of the vegetable "weeds." Not only are these vegetables hardy and resistant to drought and disease, but they also taste good.

To find this post and others, visit Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Kigoma, Tanzania

7:42 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania excited to catch a flight to Kigoma, a region in the northwestern part of the country to visit a Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania project working with small farmers to promote sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately Precision Air, one of only two airlines that flies to the remote region, has suspended all flights for the next several weeks and the other airline is all booked. It’s the first major hiccup after traveling for the last month, so I really don’t have anything to complain about.

I did get a chance, however, to meet with JGI staff here in Dar and learn more about their work not only in Tanzania, but all over the world.

Pancras Ngalason is the Executive Director of JGI Tanzania and he explained how the Institute has evolved since it began in the 1970s. They’ve gone, according to Ngalason, beyond research to address questions of livelihood.

JGI started as a center to research and protect wild chimpanzee populations in what is now, thanks to their efforts, Gombe National Park. But in the early 1990s JGI realized that if it didn’t start addressing the needs of the communities surrounding the park, their efforts to conserve wildlife wouldn’t work. JGI first started by planting trees in the region, but soon found that communities cut them down, not because they wanted to, but because they needed them for fuel and for making charcoal. It was at that time, says Ngalason, that we “thought beyond planting trees” and more about community-based conservation.

JGI started working with communities to develop government- mandated land use plans, helping them develop soil erosion prevention practices, agroforestry, and production of value-added products, such as coffee and palm oil. They like to say that their products are “Good for All”—good for farmers by providing income, good for the environment by protecting natural resources, and good for the consumer by providing a healthy product.

They’re also working training community health practitioners about reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention, educating youth, establishing micro-credit programs, and working with UNICEF and USAID to supply clean water to communities.

“These are services,” says Ngalason, “people require in order to appreciate the environment,” and ultimately helps not only protect the chimps and other wildlife, but also helps build healthy and economically viable communities.

Stay tuned for more about JGI’s Roots and Shoots program.

It’s more than about trees at the World Agroforestry Centre

8:01 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers


I’m always excited to meet with researchers who are passionate about their work. Dr. Dennis Garrity, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, assembled three members of his team to meet with me last week to talk about some of the innovations the Centre is helping support in Africa.

Dr. Maimbo Malesu, the director of Water Management Research, described the Centre’s work on water. “One of the biggest challenges in Africa,” says Maimbo, “is the lack of rainwater harvesting.” Many countries, he says, are only utilizing 2 to 5 percent of their rainwater potential. To help reverse this, the World Agroforestry Centre is helping train farmers and agricultural extension officers in places like Rwanda to build lined ponds that can catch and store rainwater. In 2007, there were just 65 of these demonstration ponds in Rwanda; now there are more than 400.

About 40 kilometers outside of Nairobi, the Centre is working with UNEP on a multidisciplinary project that incorporates water storage tanks, agroforestry, more efficient stoves, and microfinance projects to help communities deal with water shortages, deforestation, fuel shortages, and lack of credit for women.

Dr. Frank Place, an economist and head of impact assessment, explained the World Agroforestry Centre’s research on fertilizer trees—leguminous trees and shrubs that are grown along with or before or after crops—can improve soil, increase yields, and eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers. In some places, intercropping fertilizer trees with crops can be most beneficial for farmers who want to add nutrients to maize and other crops that need fertilizer, while in other areas indigenous trees that shed their nitrogen-rich leaves during the rainy season are the best way of increasing yields.

In addition, Dr. Place explained how fodder shrubs can help increase milk production in Kenya. There are nearly two million small dairy farmers in the country and lack of high quality food is their biggest challenge. And concentrated grain feeds are too expensive for most producers. But growing nitrogen-fixing fodder shrubs can provide a nutritious—and inexpensive—feed that helps dairy producers increase their income. Five hundred shrubs can feed a cow for a whole season and increase daily milk production by one to two liters a day, which, says Dr. Place, results in an additional income of $USD .50 per day and $USD 100 per year.

Dr. Delia Catacutan, a social scientist, is working with the Centre and Landcare International to help farmer and community groups work together to decide how land should be managed. In Uganda, Land Care has helped 40 different community-based organizations to negotiate and access services from the government. In addition, they’ve helped with conflict resolution and eased the tension between farming and wildlife. “Innovations,” Dr. Catacutan said, “don’t walk by themselves.” But by helping farmers work together and giving them a greater voice in decision-making, agricultural innovations such as agroforestry, are more likely to spread, as well as raise farmer income and protect the environment.

Stay tuned for more stories about how agroforestry can help improve food security in Africa.

You can view this post and others at the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog.

An Evergreen Revolution? Using Trees to Nourish the Planet

9:11 am in Uncategorized by borderjumpers

The World Agroforestry Centre is located in Nairobi, Kenya, but you wouldn’t know it from the surroundings. Located on a lush campus, thick with vegetation, it offers a quiet oasis that seems far from the city of racing matatus and pollution ubiquitous in the city.

We were there to meet with the Director General, Dr. Dennis Garrity, and his colleagues to talk about the Centre’s work and learn more about how the types of innovations they are promoting for agriculture in Africa. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Roger Leakey, the former head of the Centre.

“We’re trying,” said Dr. Garrity, “to build the case that what farmers are doing with trees on farms is important.” What they’re doing is integrating trees with crops, a simple approach that can have huge benefits.

According to Dr. Leakey, “agro-forestry is an interface,” combining social, institutional, policy, and scientific approaches, making it more holistic. “All the other single approaches,” he says, “end up not working.”

One particularly innovative example Dr. Leakey talked about was a Centre project in Cameroon. There, he explained, combining agroforestry with horticulture, the processing of value-added products, and marketing has helped strengthen the community. In fact, the project has resulted in more than 30 “measurable positive impacts.” Now, for example,young men are no longer leaving the farms to find jobs in towns, because they can make a good living by continuing to farm. (See “A Pathway out of Poverty. Good News from Africa.")

The Centre is hoping to help farmers respond to the many challenges they face—low use of agricultural inputs, degraded soils, and food insecurity among them—through what they call "Evergreen Agriculture." Both conservation agriculture with trees—a system that uses minimal tillage practices to increase soil fertility—and maize agroforestry (the practice of growing leguminous trees along with maize that replace the need for inorganic fertilizers) have been successful in terms of raising productivity and reducing costs for farmers, but they also have their limitations.

Maize agroforestry, according to the Centre report “Creating an Evergreen Agriculture in Africa,” has improved soil health and allowed farmers to double or even triple their yields, but it’s also extremely labor intensive. Conservation agriculture, on the other hand, can reduce labor requirements and costs of preparing the land initially, but can require more time later on for weeding crops.

Evergreen agriculture would combine the best of both these approaches. Its intention, according to the Centre, “is to dramatically improve soil conditions and crop yields, while keeping labor requirements to a minimum.” Garrity acknowledges that the system is still under development and needs much more investigation, but, he says, “Our hypothesis, however,. . . is that it will increase maize yields and provide greater household food security, while significantly reducing the smallholders labor and lowering overall investment in maize production. We also have evidence that it will improve drought resilience and increase above and below ground carbon sequestration as well”– An increasingly important component of any agricultural system as the impacts of agriculture on greenhouse gases becomes more evident.

I’ll be writing more about our visit to the Centre—stay tuned for blogs about their work on rainwater harvesting, Land Care International, and more about fertilizer trees.

You can view this blog and others at Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet blog.