Food and agriculture | Blogs

  • Are we nearly there yet?

    “Are we nearly there yet?” is a thought that has cropped up in my mind on a couple of occasions these last few days as we journey around Bolivia and up into the Andes, to see some of the great work Practical Action is doing for the communities living there.  I could never have imagined the enormity of the landscape and the time it takes to get anywhere, either through distance, traffic or altitude.

    The majestic mountains and the never ending plateaus, interspersed with the odd farm, perhaps a couple of houses, or small village is a sight to behold. Women in traditional Bolivian dress, shepherding their sheep, llamas or cows, could be straight out of a story book. But life for these communities is far from easy. I have been fortunate to see for myself four very different projects that are making a difference to these communities.

    A Centre of Technology and Innovation is underway in the Jesús de Machaca Municipality, for the rearing and breeding of Alpacas for meat, leather, wool and textiles. The project will benefit 163 families and make a significant difference to both their wellbeing and incomes. The Centre will sustain and promote rural activities of the Kamayocs through information materials and communications. On our visit, the ground had been ring fenced with a solar powered electric fence. Corrals’ had been dug with the appropriate drainage and water systems were in the process of being installed. Some 140 animals were already in residence, jumping about in the Andean sunshine. The communities of the municipality could not be happier with the work in progress and gave us the warmest welcome imaginable, which included a presentation from the Mayor of the Municipality.

    Quinoa processing is a project that has reached completion of its first stage – a short project of a mere 9 months that has turned around the processing of Quinoa and other grains. The communities are now able to produce popcorn, bars and cookies from the Quinoa and are selling them at local Fayres around the municipality. Berta, one of the ladies involved in the goods production, told us what a difference the project and the opportunity has made to her life, she is now able to contribute to the family income – something she is immensely proud of. The second stage of this valuable work will look at securing contracts with schools to supply Quinoa bars for healthy breakfasts.

    A Milk Transformation Centre has literally transformed the lives of a women’s cooperative in Colquencha Municipality. Following support from Practical Action, partner Sowawi and the help of the Municipality of Colquencha, they decided they could do more than just receive milk, and are now successfully producing cheese and yoghurt, building up a profitable dairy business. Sebberine, the lady who over sees the production of the dairy products told me she is happier now as she has an income, she is able to go to La Paz and can afford a little extra for her family. However, the wonderful news Sebberine shared with our party was that she, along with her ladies, known as the Sartawi Sayari Foundation had that week, been certified, meaning they have the passport to be able to sell their products legally.

    Elena is a lady who is happier than ever as her family participated in a project that has transformed her life and that of her family. She told me how her neighbours were jealous of her now! Elena and her family, and other families have benefitted from wells, drinking fountains and shelters. Elena has also benefited from water harvesting irrigation system, allowing her to grow vegetables to support her family and to sell on. Practical Action, worked with the families and the Municipality.

    So, “Are we nearly there yet? For Elena, Sebberine and Berta, yes we are, but for the rest of the Andean communities and those living in poverty elsewhere in the world, no, we still have a way to go.

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  • News from Peru

    Margaret Gardner
    October 21st, 2013

    We may think of Peru as a holiday destination, and imagine scenes like Machu Pichu, or hiking in the Andes yet according to The World Bank 50% of people in Peru are poor and 20% extremely poor. Most poor people live in rural areas. This poverty is something we in the rest of the world rarely see as it doesn’t fit with the image travel companies want to promote – and to be honest people – poor or not – in their traditional dress can look amazing!

    Poverty in Peru may not be ‘in your face’ but it is severe and people are in need of urgent solutions which is why I loved this case study of Practical Actions work there and the pride of the women who are now able to help their families and communities.

    Doris from our Peru office writes:

    The deep sound of a horn in the highlands of Cusco, that loud sound of a conch shell across the mountains, could only be a signal of one thing: on Monday 12th November in the vicinity of the Toxaccota community, forty five women from 17 communities in the Canchis province would demonstrate to 400 guests what they had learnt during twelve months of studies in the Kamayoq school organized by Practical Action for extremely poor towns situated at altitudes of more than 4000 m.a.s.l.

    The Kamayoq school is where dozens of people have to opportunity to acquire technical expertise in what for them are common activities, like raising livestock or growing crops, among other things.

    There would be nothing new about this fair, which has been held for the last ten years every time a promotion completes the course in the school, except for the fact that this occasion could not be more special: it is the first promotion comprised exclusively of women alpaca-raisers. Although livestock-raising is considered a natural activity for these women, they are the ones with the least opportunities for broadening their knowledge beyond the popular know-how they have inherited.

    Vicentina Cahuana had arrived early from the Erca community in Sicuani to prepare the stands at the fair and provide advice to some of the nervous graduates. Her experience as one of the graduates of the very first promotion of Kamayoqs in 1997 has given her enough confidence to encourage the new students to continue practicing what they have learnt.

    Peru Women Kamayoqs

    She did not specialize in alpacas, as the first five promotions in the school were divided into workshops on horticulture, cattle-raising, forestation, small and large animal breeding and sanitation.

    There were not many women participants when she began her studies. “We were very afraid as we were learning new things and our husbands were not in agreement with that”, she acknowledged. “That is why seeing these 45 fellow alpaca-raisers here explaining their methods and talking like experts gives me great satisfaction”, said Vicentina.

    She herself remembers that she used to think she should only acquire basic knowledge. “Looking after my family was all I knew how to do”, she said. “When my husband went out to work I didn’t know how to control the flock, many animals would die and we had great losses”, she explained.

    Now she recalls that when her animals were ill she had to hire a technician who was not always able to cure them. “I had animals for the sake of it, I had no idea of their value”, she explained. Now that she can identify the symptoms of certain diseases she can prevent the adverse effects on her economy.

    Vicente continued helping the students and remembering how they must be feeling during their presentations. However, the confidence with which they speak and the way they express themselves is what makes them different from other women who are not Kamayoqs.

    She is also well aware of the fact that responsibility and example are important parts of being a community leader. Of the 150 people trained in the schools 113 are active. The previous promotion of alpaca-raisers began with 49 but only 35 remained. “This time nobody left, in fact one more even joined us on the way”, said Vicentina. “The community and the family itself are more demanding now, but they are also more confident in our skills”, she remarked. “It is a question of each one forgetting to make excuses and continuing this work for generations”, she ended.

    I think Vicente is an inspiration! I hope you do too.

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  • Can the World Bank help smallholder farmers in Africa with yet more data?

    Alison Griffith
    October 7th, 2013

    I’ll be at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank in Washington this week to talk to the team who are developing a new initiative called Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA).

    The World Bank is… well, a bank… and consequently it is ‘heavy’ on economists and statisticians who for the most part prefer to deal in quantifiable measurements. With this new initiative they are hoping to set up a process that gathers information and data that can leverage positive policy change in developing countries.

    The point of this is to better enable the emergence of a stronger commercial agricultural sector.  They want to encourage the emergence of a stronger family farming sector through improvements in key areas such as access to finance, markets, inputs (seeds and fertilisers) land, water, rural energy and infrastructure. So far so good but is this enough to enable smallholders to develop their farming ‘enterprises’ in a sustainable way? What is missing?

    Framework for an enabling environment

    Vegetables grown using improved cultivation and water harvesting techniques

    Vegetables grown using improved cultivation and water harvesting techniques

    Practical Action has been developing a framework with others* in the Africa Smallholder Farmers Group (ASFG). It is based on a thorough review of what experts and researchers are saying is critical to enable smallholders that want to  respond to the new opportunities in growing domestic markets. An important voice in the framework is our African partners’ perspectives, those who actually see and experience the effects of a ‘disabling environment’ for smallholders.

    We’re hoping that this week, as we go to meet the teams and donors (DFID, Gates, USAid and the Danish government), we can share some of these perspectives. In a panel discussion I’ll be raising our concerns that the initiative has some gaps that threaten its logic.

    The BBA hope that by fixing the regulatory and policy environment around smallholders it will create better conditions for smallholders to develop their farming enterprises. They will have better access to inputs, they will have stronger market links and they will enjoy better roads and bridges, which mean the costs of doing business will be lower. The growing urban populations get reliable supplies of food at reasonable prices and more money flows into the rural economy, to farmers and traders, rather than out of the country to foreign producers. Everyone wins.

    It sounds plausible, attractive even, but our concern is that the vast majority of small-scale farmers, who form the backbone of agricultural systems (they contribute over 90% of Africa’s agricultural production; More than ⅔ of Africans depend on small or micro-scale farming as their primary source of livelihood and in sub-Saharan Africa, women grow 80-90% of the food), will not be in a position to benefit from this new, improved enabling environment.

    We know that they need other critically important inputs which are currently not included. For example the BBA currently doesn’t include any indicators around the extension, knowledge and research that are so badly needed in farming systems. If policy makers in the agricultural ministries are getting data on almost everything but the actual position of smallholders the danger is that they will not focus their attention there. And if they leave that out then we believe it risks undermining the aims of the BBA to “improve food security, create livelihoods and raise incomes”.

    The next blog will report on the meetings we have this week and expand more on our second area of concern: that the BBA doesn’t do enough on sustainability.

    *Christian Aid, CAFOD, Self Help and Garden Africa

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  • Providing healthy school breakfasts in Bolivia

    The first meal of the day is reckoned to be the most important, especially for children, but I heard from locals in the remote, rural district of Aroma, Bolivia, that school kids are turning up for class empty and hungry. This happens because they are too poor to afford breakfast, and it makes it impossible for them to concentrate on lessons, and their grades are suffering as a result.

    However, two of Practical Action’s projects have come up with an innovative, and sustainable, solution.

    One is a women’s collective which turns milk into yoghurt and cheese, to sell within the community. Practical Action trained them in dairy work, and more importantly, provided irrigation technology so their cows are well-nourished enough to produce milk.

    The other is a social enterprise a few miles away, which makes cereal bars from quinua, a South American grain, mixed with natural ingredients like honey and raisins. Practical Action helped them establish the business, and supplied the necessary machinery.

    Together, the groups approached Aroma’s mayor, and now they have government funding to provide yoghurt and quinua bars to 2,600 school children. They are excited not only by the commercial opportunity, but also by the fact that local kids will now eat a healthy and nutritious breakfast, and their school results will improve. I was excited to know that those breakfasts would be locally produced, and would support two great community enterprises, making them more sustainable.

    And I must admit, having sampled both the yoghurt and the cereal bars, I wish my breakfast was as tasty!

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  • Saving alpacas from the snow

    Kate Mulkern
    September 11th, 2013

    DSCN0444[1]As if it isn`t tough enough being an alpaca farmer in the high plains of Peru, last week 15 cm of snow blanketed the land. It killed thousands of alpacas, which are vital for smallholder farmers, who sell the wool. They don´t make much money, but it´s enough for food, clothes, and schooling for their children.

    We drove for two hours over bumpy tracks, many miles from the nearest town, to meet a group of these farmers. They are used to harsh conditions, with scarce water and poor grazing land, but the heavy snow had added an extra burden.

    We talked to Victor Hancco, who is 46, has 5 children, and lives in a small two room house, made of mud and straw bricks, with a corrugated iron roof.

    Victor has been trained by Practical Action in irrigation, animal care, and wool classification. He uses this knowledge to tend his own herd of 150 alpacas, and shares his skills with neighbouring farmers.

    He said that the snow fell over two days, and then froze hard, down to minus 20 degrees. The alpacas became weak as they couldn’t graze through the icy snow. Eight of his animals died in just a few days, mostly the kids. For a farmer with such a small herd, that represents a huge loss. Alpacas have a gestation period of almost a year, so it will take a long time to build up the numbers again.

    The people suffered too – some roofs collapsed with the weight of the snow. The only source of fuel is alpaca dung, and there was only enough for cooking, not for heating homes too. Victor said that they all just put on all the clothes they had, and some came down with pneumonia.

    But it could have been much, much worse. Victor used his training to tend the weak alpacas, providing medicine and basic animal care for cold conditions. He visited his neighbours too, and worked with them, to save their herds. He said he felt very proud that his skills made such a difference.

    As I listened, I was incredibly proud of Victor and of hearing him say,

    “I really value working in partnership with Practical Action – my new knowledge has helped me strengthen my community, especially in these times of climate emergency.”

    Without Victor, and the training he received from Practical Action, many more alpacas would have died, especially the vulnerable young kids. It would have taken years for them to recover, financially. Victor is a local hero and if we can train more people like him, then when the next heavy snows come, more alpacas can be saved.

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  • Do you have troublesome neighbours?

    Paul Smith Lomas
    August 14th, 2013

    Living in the UK it’s not uncommon to hear of minor disputes between neighbours.  Sometimes it’s about playing loud music, or it might be because a hedge is grown too long. But what if your neighbours arearugam-bay-elephant elephants? While they don’t often play loud music, they rarely respect boundary hedges, and could easily destroy a whole year’s crop for a small scale farmer.

    This is exactly the challenge that I found on a recent trip to Batticaloa in Sri Lanka.  A number of farmers were unable to farm their land for fear that the elephants from the nearby forests would trample or eat all their crops. Practical Action had been working with these and other farmers, and when faced with this problem, they came up with an ingenious solution- live fencing made of palmyre trees.

    3 row palmyre fenceThe trees are indigenous to the region, and have traditionally been used as a decorative boundary line, but planted in three rows, the trees form a barrier that will stop elephants.

    Palmyre tress also provide a harvestable crop (nuts and palm leaves), and once mature, one row at a time can be cut for wood, while still retaining the integrity of the boundary.   It all adds up to a low cost sustainable solution far superior to an electric fence.

    I don’t anticipate planting many palmyre fences in my village in the UK, but this story was a great reminder to me how often the simplest locally developed technologies, are often the most effective.

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  • Alpaca farming in Peru

    Daniel Rodriguez
    July 23rd, 2013

    I recently watched Kate Humble’s excellent episode of Wild Shepherdess, focusing on Alpaca farming in the High Andes of Peru.

    What was most striking about the programme was the difficulty people face in maintaining their livelihoods with the spectre of modern life looming large.

    Certainly, we at Practical Action have been working with communities in the region for many years, supporting them as they try to reconcile their traditional way of life with the demands of the 21st Century.

    And while Kate certainly enjoyed, or perhaps endured, a taste of life as a shepherdess in the region, her experiences brought to mind a shepherdess I have worked with over the years.

    The story of an alpaca shepherdess

    Gabriela lives in the Peruvian Andean community of Negro Mayo, Ayacucho. She’s 27. She has one love in life – her alpacas. She loves them because they are her family, her livelihood, her reason for being.

    She said: “My dream is to improve my alpacas, which are everything to me. They clothe me and they are my livelihood. If I treat them well my life will improve even more.”

    Practical Action has been working with Gabriela to make her dream come true.

    Life in the high Andes of Peru

    It is impossible to adequately describe the environment in which Gabriela lives. The living conditions are very hard. High in the Andean mountains, some 3,500 metres above sea level, winters see temperatures drop to minus 20 degrees.

    Climate change is causing colder weather in the Andean mountains of Peru, making it difficult for the vulnerable farming communities living there to survive

    The land is barren, capable of producing little more than potatoes. Homes are made of mud with no basic services. Families struggle daily to make enough money from selling the wool from their alpacas.

    The commitment these families make to their alpaca livelihoods under such difficult circumstances is moving.

    We have supported a number of alpaca communities in Peru to improve their livelihoods and quality of life by providing appropriate technologies in the production management of alpaca breeding, improving their wool and crops, the grasslands that the alpacas graze on and improving the market access.

    We have also worked with them to introduce basic services such as dry composting toilets, bio-sand filters to provide clean water, improved stoves that don’t emit smoke which was polluting their homes and Trombe walls that can heat their homes when the cold weather strikes.

    Practical Action has been training people like Gabriela to become Kamayoqs (para-vets). Together, we have helped alpaca farmers learn how to best care for alpacas and how to earn a better living from the sale of their wool.

    Gabriela said: “People were selected and invited to join the Kamayoq School so that they could be taught various techniques to improve the food security rate of their families and transmit their knowledge to their people. My community chose me. I suppose they consider me a responsible person.

    “I did not know how to look after and maintain our pastures. We were taught to store water, taking more advantage of rain water as there is a shortage of water in this area. With good water and soil management, we Kamayoqs can set an example for our people, who are unaware that they are mistreating or abusing the countryside.

    “Part of the teachings at the Kamayoq School is related to alpaca diseases. Now I can tell why alpacas are sick and why they die so quickly and what medicines should apply.

    “We have learnt how to improve our breeding, mating white with white, brown with brown. This produces better quality wool.”

    She said: “I am very grateful for the arrival of Practical Action because it is the first time anyone has shown concern for us.”

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  • ‘Leave No One Behind’ – Appropriate Investment In Agriculture

    Chris Henderson
    June 18th, 2013

    The past week has seen heated debate over the future of investment in agriculture. At the heart of the mudslinging lies the question ‘what can the New Alliance for Security and Nutrition really offer Africa?’ As detailed in my last blog the New Alliance certainly has big aims – lifting 50 million people out of poverty no less. To do this the New Alliance is advocating partnership with the private sector, new technologies and investment. However, critics of this new development power house are drawing less than flattering comparisons between the actions of the alliance and the land grabbing/colonial ambitions of 19th century western powers. For those with little faith in alliances between government and the private sector the New Alliance brings unjustified risk to smallholder farmers and the environment generally. They fear it will lead to a decline in water resources, soil fertility, biodiversity and access by the rural poor to the natural resources on which they depend. Each camp insists that they are right and are asking or demanding that the other withdraw. Listening to the debate, there appears to be no compromise or middle ground.

    Without a more constructive discussion we will simply get more of the same, with neither side listening to the other. Opportunities for investment and expansion of large-scale external input based agriculture will inevitably continue to be explored, particularly in high-potential areas. Policy makers and governments will continue to plan for agricultural growth as a strategy for food security and development. Donor supported, and encouraged, private sector based agriculture programmes will continue – the private sector window of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), the New Alliance, etc. Multinational private sector seed suppliers will have an ever increasing market share with protected rights. There will be a continued decline in the use of local seeds and of biodiversity.

    So where does that leave us?

    The tension currently lies in the contrasting responses to a genuine problem that is recognised by both sides: How to achieve food security at all levels – of rural households, of the growing urban poor population, nationally and globally. The argument is between commercial and external input oriented approaches, versus farmer owned agro-ecological approaches that see agriculture as more than business. Both approaches exist in practice. Both can quote success stories and have advocates. Both have momentum.

    Both narratives claim to include smallholders and provide the needed food security and nutrition benefits. All the buzz words are there – women farmers, adaptation to climate change, livelihoods, income, jobs, achieving scale. With our experience to date I find the claims to be quite wondrous – like the miracle cure medicines of the past.

    And whilst it would be possible to continue with the status quo for now, the current situation is not without dangers. There is, for example, evidence that government backed external input intensive, large-scale agriculture will have a damaging impact on smallholder opportunities, the sustainability of the food system and the physical environment

    The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are likely to ask that “none are left behind” and call for the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Experience has shown that this is a tall order – a very challenging task. We should not treat it glibly and make over ambitious assumptions – like trickle down poverty reduction coming from agricultural growth and increased production by agri-business.

    Appropriate Technology

    As a technology based organisation Practical Action recognises that there can be diverse approaches to solving this problem, each with its own risks and merits and situations where it would be most appropriate, or not.

    Practical Action believes that an understanding of  ‘Appropriate Technology’ and  ‘Technology Justice’ can provide a constructive way forward that will also include and address the needs of small-scale farmers, the rural poor and people living in fragile environments.

    The objective is to achieve appropriate technology for choice, market systems that provide opportunities for small-scale farmers and the poor and a means of achieving scale, and the capacity for all farmers to adapt to climate change and develop resilient livelihoods.

    Farmers trialing adaptation in Zimbabwe.

    Farmers trialing adaptation in Zimbabwe

    A range of methods for achieving these objectives exists – i.e. to facilitate appropriate technology and development processes and achieve technology justice. Applications include:

    -          Facilitating innovation systems that build the capacity of farmers to adapt to change, such as fluctuating food prices and other markets, climate change and increasing variability, and to increase resilience to disasters

    -          Participatory Market Systems Development (PMSD) to facilitate pro-poor markets – to help small-scale farmers and other value chain stakeholders make markers work for the poor.

    With understanding and empowerment, appropriate technology can provide sustainable benefits for smallholders, the rural poor and people dependent on the natural resources in low potential areas. With appropriate technology, small-scale farmers can make a substantial contribution to national food security and nutrition. They can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and rural urban migration need not be exacerbated by rural poverty.

    Our objective should be the appropriate development of rural areas, including marginal areas, so that all people living in rural areas are able to look after themselves, have the opportunity to improve their livelihoods – in or out of agriculture. It not only makes sense, but it is our moral obligation, to assist small-scale producers maximise their contribution to national food systems – for their benefit, as well as for others.

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  • NOW is the time for Smallholder farmers

    Chris Henderson
    June 7th, 2013

    I am really pleased to see the UK Government and G8 focus on food and agriculture and to be invited by DFID to consult on the initiative. This focus is needed to strengthen the resilience and productivity of all farmers to meet the food and nutrition needs of themselves and the growing population.

    I am anxious about what the DFID event (Promoting African Agriculture – The New Alliance for Security and Nutrition) will bring.

    Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

    Vegetable garden in Zimbabwe

    • Will it motivate investment in sustainable agriculture at all levels – smallholder farmers to large-scale agri-business?
    • Will it enable smallholders to invest and grow their agricultural livelihoods, or will it just benefit the multinationals and big business?

    Smallholders are key to success
    You may ask, why the preoccupation with smallholder farmers? Simple:

    • They produce food where it is needed.
    • They depend on the natural environment for their food and income.
    • They have the potential to significantly increase their production and livelihoods using existing affordable and environmentally sound technologies – i.e. tried and tested ‘appropriate technologies’
    • They can, and should be, a major pillar of sustainable agricultural growth and global food security.

    In Africa smallholder farmers tend to comprise a very important part of the national food production system and economy in most countries. Transformation of smallholder farming should be an important part of the solution to providing food security and improved nutrition.

    Responsible Governments
    Governments are responsible for creating an enabling environment for all agri-business. Care should be taken to not increase the vulnerability of smallholders through ‘quick fix’ reforms designed to incentivise large-scale private sector investment – such as new policy, rules and systems that affect access to land, seed supply, biodiversity and the intellectual property rights. The enabling environment needs to protect and promote the ability of smallholders to develop and improve their farming through innovation and experimentation – a vital mechanism for step-wise adaptation to climate change.

    The UK and G8 should meet their commitments
    I think the UK and G8 should meet their commitment to spend 0.7% GNI on aid and this should include support for public expenditure within nationally owned agricultural investment plans. These plans should include:

    • Support for smallholder farmers for whom ‘low external input’ farming systems can produce significant improvements in food and income security.
    • Development of local markets and programmes to support smallholders and agri-business engagement with the markets.
    • Support and finance to help communities to adapt to climate change.

    So here’s hoping for some realistic commitments to support smallholder farming as part of the solution to food security, nutrition and sustainable economic growth in Africa.

    Can the UK, G8, African Governments and private sector work together to promote diverse and dynamic rural economies which enable smallholders to adapt to climate change and generate viable livelihoods from their farming? What do you think?

     

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  • Stop Press……Practical Action challenges fairy godmother’s pumpkin transformation abilities

    We all know the story of how Cinderella’s fairy godmother changed a pumpkin into a golden carriage to take Cinders to the Ball – Practical Action is turning this humble green vegetable into food, livelihoods and secure futures for thousands of families in Bangladesh.

    Practical Action’s Bangladesh team is changing the lives of some of the poorest people living on the shifting margins of Bangladesh’s great rivers, where the increasingly severe and regular floods are displacing thousands of extremely poor people each year.

    After the rainy seasons, large sand islands, deposited by the floods, appear in the main rivers of North West Bangladesh. These islands although common property had never previously been used for productive purposes until Practical Action experimented with planting pumpkins. A small hole is dug, the bottom scattered with a small amount of compost and urea, the pumpkin seed planted, and (almost!) as quick as a wave of a wand, the pumpkin plants grow, thrive are producing wonderfully large, green pumpkins.

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    Not only are the pumpkins nutritional for families who previously had neither the money or permanent land on which to grow food, but they can be stored for over a year, providing food in leaner times, and their longevity and robustness makes them ideal for transporting to distant markets.

    Since the project started in 2005, over 10,000 people, mainly women, have produced 55,000 MT of pumpkins, worth over £5m and more and more communities are taking up the technology. The project has also been recognised for its innovation and impact, having recently been shortlisted to the last three for the prestigious St Andrews Prize for the Environment.

    Move over fairy godmother!

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