Food and agriculture | Blogs

  • Resilience v efficiency: a systems thinking heavyweight bout

    September 3rd, 2014

    Sometimes, Practical Action can really get absorbed in systems thinking. We’ve been working in this space since about 2003, and some of its principles have served as the foundation of some great successes we have had. For an oversimplified approach, think of a terrarium. You have soil, plants water and air all living inside a closed pot (it isn’t considered a true closed system, because sunlight gets in, but you get the idea). If you were to adjust different segments of the system, you might see different developments: more water might mean more growth, or more growth might also mean the system burns out.

    So what happens when this system shifts, and you start looking at populations? Plants become people, soil becomes the economy, maybe even water stays the same, and you consider the impacts of clean water in a community. That evaluation is a key part of how Practical Action often engages with communities. Two key features of systems are resilience, which often shows up in our climate adaption work, and efficiency, which is often considered key to creating transformative impact in the lives of the poor—because if something isn’t efficient, it will probably not be as replicable, and you lose that whole transformative impact component.

    Is a treadle pump resilient, or efficient?

    Is a treadle pump resilient, or efficient?

    These two systems characteristics are inversely related: resilience is a trade-off for efficiency.

    What does that mean? When we talk about resilience in relation to the extreme poor, we are often talking about those who are able to bounce back when they face a system shock. That could be a drought, a flood, or an economic collapse. If you think about it, resilience gets built up by being able to quickly adapt to a change in a system, and that often means there are multiple support systems created that can create the flexibility needed for that change. In the case of drought, that might mean there are several different kinds of crops that are raised, some that work better in wet seasons and some that work better in dry seasons. This could also mean there exists a knowledge base that allows for more resilience as well—you become a generalist as opposed to a specialist so you can perform multiple tasks.

    Then there is efficiency. However you achieve it, be it economies of scale, or through specialization, efficiency is important, because it means you are completing a task more effectively. If you can increase efficiency, you will be able to replicate that task. So when people talk about creating transformative change in a community, efficiency is often necessary for that change to take root. Think of a treadle pump. The first time someone built one, it probably didn’t work very well, but over thousands of years, the design has been improved upon, to the point where many look very similar: they are cheap to build, easy to replicate, and in a word, efficient, given their circumstances.

    These days, efficiency is a major focus in many drives to end poverty. You have limited resources, and efficiency allows for expansion that maximizes those resources. But it also means that you are developing systems that require many of your “resources” (READ: people) to specialize in a given approach. As a result, you aren’t as flexible, and your trade-off is resilience. Think of GMO super crops—they are efficient, because they can be made to resist certain pesticides, and can grow bountifully. But they aren’t resilient, because once an infestation comes along that is particularly brutal to that crop, there is no other crop there to create resilience—food prices go up, and people go hungry.

    So does this mean that the world should be extremely resilient? Or should we focus our efforts wholeheartedly on efficiency, hoping to create economies of scale that are extremely good at overcoming system shocks? Ultimately, this conversation starts sounding more like one with a personal finance advisor. If you are preparing for the future, you need a diversified portfolio. Like in that terrarium, finding the appropriate balance is key, and it will rarely be wholly efficient or wholly resilient.

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  • Sheep rearing – a livelihood option in salinity affected coastal areas

    S M Alauddin
    August 30th, 2014

    Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Because of increased salinity, the absence of agricultural practices (other than shrimp culture), a lack of grazing land and acute fodder problems cattle resources have been reduced seriously in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. However, there is much scope of rearing small domestic animals like sheep, goats and pigeons there instead of big animals (cows, buffalo etc.). Further, the area lacks sufficient employment opportunities since shrimp cultivation in gher is the major and dominant livelihoods option in the coastal area. But, most poor and marginal people don’t own land for shrimp cultivation.

    sheepSalinity, being the major dominant feature, crops and vegetables, other than saline tolerant variety, don’t grow in this area. However, people are not well aware of saline tolerant crops and vegetable varieties. So, sheep rearing, considering the salinity and climatic variability context has been considered to be an important adaptive livelihood option in the area, although, there is lack of grazing land and fodder. Sheep is highly salinity and temperature tolerant.

    The rearing of sheep has been increasing gradually in coastal areas as a household based adaptation and alternative income option. A 5´x 8´ house is required for 5/6 sheep. Sama a local grass is the major feed for sheep and this grass grows well in saline soil.  Cultivation of this grass is often done on land adjacent to the homestead.

    Monsoon is the best season for producing this grass since there is sufficient rain and no need for irrigation. Besides sama grass, kura (waste from rice husking), different other grasses whatever available in the locality and leaves from trees are also fed to the sheep. Sheep eat almost everything.

    Sheep require regular vaccination and de-worming to avoid diseases and unexpected death. A sheep of 5/6 months can be sold for Tk.1500-2000. Besides this the income from sheep-dung can’t be understated. Sheep-dung is used as saar (compost) for vegetable production and as fuel. One can get fuel of Tk.450/monthly from 5/6 sheep for cooking.

    This clearly shows that sheep rearing is an important adaptive livelihood option in the increased salinity context for poor, marginal and small farmers. Sheep rearing can contribute to employment creation and eradication of poverty of the poor and marginal, specially, as household based income generation option, where, employment scope is a major problem.

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  • Dyke cropping: the successful case of Md. Zillur Rahman

    S M Alauddin
    August 28th, 2014

    Cultivation of crops is almost absent in the South Western coastal region of Bangladesh, where shrimp farming has been dominant since the mid-eighties. Salinity intrusion into agricultural land is increasing because of sea level rise due to climate change. Thus the practice of agriculture has been almost stopped in the coastal areas except for shrimp farming.

    The introduction of cropping on the dyke of shrimp gher has been an important innovation by Practical Action, although it was practiced a while back. However, dyke cropping was neither very common, nor systematic. Practical Action, Bangladesh, under its Climate Change Programme in the South Western Coastal District Satkhira demonstrated some livelihoods technologies including Dyke Cropping following an improved method.

    Mr. Zillur Rahman (35) of Kalikapur village, a small holder demonstrated vegetable cultivation on the dyke of his shrimp farm. He had prior experiences of dyke cropping. In October-December 2011, he did ‘dyke cropping’ with Practical Action’s technical support on 4 dykes of different lengths (25-30 to 130 feet). The dyke’s width was 3 feet and height above the flood water level.

    dyke cultivationRahman cultivated vegetables on the dykes in winter (October-December 2011) and during the monsoon (May-September 2012). The vegetables he grew included pumpkin, water gourd, chalkumra, cumcumber and carrala in the winter season and pumpkin, water gourd, chalkumra, cumcumber, carrala along with jhinge, chichinga, dhundal, papaw, ladies fingers, brinjal and puishak in the monsoon. Monsoon cropping required no irrigation as there was sufficient rain, while, drip irrigation technology was used for winter cropping in the pits made on dykes. The size of pit differed for each vegetable (50x50x50 to 80x80x80 centimeter). Both organic and inorganic fertilizer in appropriate doses was used in the pits for vegetable cultivation. The dyke cropping helps to maximise land use, promoting food security and reducing dependency on shrimp farming.

    Technological differences were significant between the earlier and later project. Better dyke design was introduced with adequate height and width than earlier. In the improved system, organic fertilizer use was predominant, however, in-organic fertilizer use was also used  in appropriate doses; machan on dyke prepared with branches of trees earlier, but, bamboo/wooden pole and net were used in the improved system. The cost of machan more than doubled and survived 4 years instead of 1 year for the conventional one.  

    Rahman harvested a total of 182kgs of vegetables in winter and sold at an average market price Tk.15/kg. He harvested a good amount of vegetables (181 Kgs.) by mid-September 2012 and sold at a market price of Tk.16/kg in the monsoon. He expected further 111kgs (approx) up to December 2012 and could sell thse at Tk.15/kg.

    In the improved system, he harvested 2.5 times more compared to earlier practice. The dyke cropping could suitably be expanded and replicated, where vegetable production is almost absent or very poor due to salinity increase, which, could benefit the shrimp farmers by bringing extra income along with household consumption.

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  • Webinar: push-pull strategies in Bangladesh market development

    August 22nd, 2014

    Marketing and logistics types in the private sector will often refer to how they get concepts or products through a supply chain as a push or pull strategy. In Practical Action’s space, when we are trying do develop market systems to move people out of poverty, this is often used to refer to how we engage actors in that market system. A push strategy is building capacity for growth, perhaps through access to finance and pull is facilitating access to opportunitities, such as developing demand for a product. Usually, projects favor one strategy over another, but we have found there are times where they both can be useful in an intervention.

    Abdur Rob, from our Bangladesh office, recently presented on one such case during a webinar for the SEEP Network and USAID. He presented with Andy Medlicott from Fintrac, who also has some interesting insights (though his audio failed at times).

    If you would like to see the recorded presentation, click here.

    This market map shows flows inside the beef market in Bangladesh. Push engagement was predominantly facilitated through input supply and services, and Pabna meat served as the main lead firm on the pull side.

    This market map shows flows inside the beef market in Bangladesh. Push engagement was predominantly facilitated through input supply and services, and Pabna meat served as the main lead firm on the pull side.


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  • Insects for food – yuk or maybe not?

    Margaret Gardner
    August 19th, 2014

    Last week I read an article in the Guardian which argued that as we head for 9 million people on our planet we need to find a new approach to food. One of the ideas mooted alongside reducing waste and 3D printed food, was the widespread consumption of insects. My immediate reaction was ‘hurray for waste reduction’,  deep distrust of printed foods (why distance ourselves even further from nature) and ‘yuk!’ to insects.

    While I’ve been offered Mopane Worms in South Africa and a much recommended snack of fried Locusts in The Philippines, I’ve never been tempted – I don’t even like prawns. But maybe on reflection I’m just not open-minded enough in my choice of food.

    Food chainThe latest edition of Practical Action Publishing’s journal ‘Food Chain’  focuses on insects for food and feed. It points out that

    • Insects are traditionally consumed by more than 2 billion people worldwide;
    • There’s great diversity – about 2,000 species known to be edible;
    • Environmentally there are significant benefits over eating meat (lower emissions of greenhouse gases, low requirement for land and water etc.);
    • There is a huge opportunity for insects as animal and poultry feed (In the EU this is currently hindered by legislation);
    • They are good for you – termites for example are particularly rich in oleic acids, the same type of fat found in olive oil
    • The ‘Yuk’ factor is possible to overcome – think of worms’ lava in Tequila and Beer.

    Turns out Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, is a big fan! “When you consider the imprint of cattle and other stock on the environment you are better off with insects. Insects have a very good conversion rate from feed to meat. There is no way that we can sustain conventional livestock production environmentally if we want to meet the needs of the growing human population”.

    Today is Earth Overshoot Day – we’ve used up all of the resources available on our planet for this year and are now on overdraft.   As our population grows to 9 billion and as demand for protein goes up we will have to think about things including food differently. Rather than encouraging the unsustainable growth of a Western type diet shouldnt we be looking at more traditional foods. If 2 billion people around the world eat insects – and appear to like them – they are good for our planet, and can be good for us – Surely the question is why wouldnt we try them?

    So if you have a taste for insects I recommend ‘The Insect Cookbook – Food for a Sustainable Planet’ published by Columbia. Great recipes including Bitterbug Bites, Bugitos and Buffalo Worm Chocolate Cupcakes.

    I don’t think I’m ready for a cricket lollipop yet but if the rather indistinct protein in say my occasional ready meal was made of insect – maybe I wouldn’t mind (or more likely I wouldn’t think about it). Good for people and the environment – what is there to dislike?     insect lolipop

    Insects could be the food of the future.

    PS In Zimbabwe Practical Action are working on insects as food as part of our work on non-timber forestry production. Watch this space for more news.


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  • A step too many?

    As someone who hasn’t been near lycra or a gym for many years the idea of paying good money to pound away on a cross trainer is totally alien. And yet for many thousands, their Saturday morning would not be complete without an hour in the gym treading sweatily away, shedding, hopefully, the pounds.

    woman on treadle pump For thousands of farmers across Asia and Africa, they have their own cross trainers – the treadle pump.   For them it’s not about losing the pounds but gaining the taka, the rupee or shilling. The treadle pump, developed in the 1980s, has been a life saver for many poor farmers, enabling them to pump water from underground, providing irrigation in areas far from a river, or in drought prone regions. The only power needed is a pair of strong legs.

    This is a fantastic invention which Practical Action has been including for many years in its work with poor farmers, helping them to improve their produce and increase their production and incomes. But it’s not for everyone (like me and the gym!). In some areas, the water has to be drawn up from significant depths – because the treadle pump provides vacuum suction to raise the water, the deeper the depth, the less the flow of water, the longer the time spent on the treadle pump, or it’s not possible to use the treadle pump at all. So what is normally a benefit, can become a burden, often to women and children who are the ones who generally operate the treadle pumps.

    solar powered pumpWith funding from the European Commission, our energy team in Zimbabwe is introducing solar powered irrigation to farming areas which are remote from the national electricity grid and unlikely to ever be connected. Even if they were, the cost of the electricity would be prohibitive and possibly unreliable. However, using the abundant, free resource of the sun for solar voltaic panels to power pumps, water can be drawn from significantly deeper depths than a treadle pump. Instead of spending up to 6-7 hours continuous pumping to irrigate 0.5 hectares of land per day, women can be using this valuable time to set up small enterprises, and children can attend school, and the farmers can be sure of a sustainable and reliable supply of water for their crops. A definite step in the right direction.

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  • Time and distance will not matter now….

    Shivani Jha
    August 11th, 2014

    In a diverse and vast nation like India, 68.7%of the population inhabits rural areas (Source World Bank 2011). There is still a high dependence on agriculture. Between 1980 and 2011 agriculture dependent population in India grew by 50%, which was the highest for any country in world (Source ToI). There is an increased demand for better technology, infrastructure and relevant accessible information to support agriculture and livelihood sector owing to high dependence.

    Soil Desalination for Vegetable CultivationHowever, despite the heavy requirement there exists systemic weaknesses,  complicated by low awareness about services, diversity (Soil, water availability and irrigation, climate) and climate change.

    Responding to this urgent requirement for practical answers to the complicated issues, an initiative has been taken in which time and distance will not be barriers any more for farmers at village level.

    This is a pilot initiative in of Practical Answers in 2 states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan in partnership with READ India. Under the pilot project, the queries of farmers are collected by field based coordinators through individual and group interaction and the farmers can also post their queries through mobile phone on a toll free number. The queries are responded to by an agricultural expert based in Delhi. The answers are posted back through mobile technology within 72 hours which can then be  accessed by farmers.

    A very early reaction to the pilot initiative by Practical Answers has been welcomed by farmers in Geejgarh village in Rajasthan by saying “ time and distance will not matter for us now for obtaining practical advice on agriculture ……..”

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  • The only boss that I have – “The DONOR”

    July 30th, 2014

    Is your boss not satisfied with our work? What do you expect then? A pink slip? – It makes sense and is perfectly logical!  After all, you are hired to meet the expectations of the organisation.  However, as a fundraising professional, I have realised that– at the end of the day, there is the only one boss – “The DONOR”!.

    I recently participated in a week-long certificate course in fundraising and communications in New Delhi, India. I have always been keen on tapping funds from institutions, trusts, foundations and corporate houses. I was quite determined that my efforts/interactions/discussions during the training will mainly be in this line.

    Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

    Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

    On the very first day, the resource person somehow tried to give us an impression – “fundraising is all about individuals”. I had a reservation, and I was rather convinced that funding has to do a lot more than an individual. As the days passed, we discussed differently on direct mails, cold calls, donor acquisition and retention, and so on.  At times, I felt that it was a complete waste of time; the whole discussion each day ended with a conclusion – “It is actually about an individual”.

    During a practical session on telefacing, a pretty lady was on the phone talking to a stranger. She talked for about four minutes including her introduction, the cause for the call and the conclusion. I had an impression that the person on the other side gave her an appointment for the meeting. She put down the phone with a cheerful smile on her face. At the end, it is the impression you leave on a stranger. I thought about it over the night and was convinced that fundraising is not possible in isolation. First, it was a cold call that ended up with an appointment, which could turn into a request for a concept note and subsequently a full proposal. No matter how big or small the amount we are proposing, this is exactly the way it works. So, is it all about an individual?

    I wrote a case for support, a capacity statement, appeals and many more. I featured Practical Action’s energy and DRR works, because then I could showcase my project to be the most urgent of all. The question was again, why the projects should be considered urgent to receive funding? I remember many projects I have been involved in which were not as urgent as the others, but they were funded. The answer is – the case I proposed was actually URGENT for somebody at the donor organisation. I again took my stand, it is not about “Somebody” who decides; It is about the whole organisation! But remember, evaluation committee in each donor organisation is comprised of a group of individuals. We need to win their heart, soul and mind! It is them who make decision on whether or not to support our project – be it a 2000 worth activity or a multi-million multifaceted project. So, am I convinced that it is all about an individual?  Somehow, yes!

    Each evening, I analysed what I am doing, and what is my job. I assure quality of donor reports, communicate with them, accompany them to the project sites and make sure they are HAPPY! I swallow all the guidelines on donor call for proposals, and make sure that our proposals meet their needs and criteria. I follow my donors on Twitter, regularly check their sites and update myself on recent happenings. I greet them on their special days, I participate in events/functions mainly because I could talk to them. Every second, I am trying to be nice with them, become conscious on what I communicate, and gently/visibly/widely acknowledge them in every possible activity. What for? Because, I want them to be happy with my organisation and its works. And always, a donor is an individual – to impress whom, we put all our efforts. Having realised all these, what do you think? I strongly believe – “Fundraising is all about an individual”, and a donor in whatever form, ultimately is an individual!

    I don’t want to get fired and become unwanted;  each moment I have this strong desire to please  my boss;  Yes, the only boss that I have – “The DONOR”!

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  • The Tao of #Feedingdev

    Andrew Clenaghan
    July 25th, 2014

    How Energy, Water, and Agriculture all need each other

    watering vegetable in Turkana

    Practical Action (@Practicalaction) and Devex (@Devex) are holding a Twitter Chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST.   By following the hashtag #feedingdev you can join the discussion about how the different components of the development arena – energy, water and agriculture – are inter-related within a well-functioning agricultural value chain.  Water is needed to produce food and energy, energy is needed to move and treat water and to produce food, and often food is used as a source of energy.

    In implementing our four key thematic programmes in Agriculture, Energy, Urban WASH and Disaster Risk Reduction, @Practical Action have come to realise that these systems are becoming increasingly more complex and dependent upon one another.  A change in one system can cause significant impacts in another. The systemic approaches we are now implementing and advocating for support the #feedingdev initiative to reimagine solutions for food security.

    These and are based on four main principles

    • The supply of food, energy and water is irrelevant if it remains inaccessible to the poor.
    • The supply of food, energy and water should be adaptable to climate change and protect the world’s resources for future generations.
    • People do not need any technology, they need the appropriate technology.
    • Women and men have different needs and are impacted differently by the agriculture-energy-water nexus.

    Key questions to address during TwitterChat:

    At a recent virtual workshop, attended by Practical Action staff from our seven country offices around the world, a list of key questions emerged.  The answers to these will help us better address the challenges of implementing a nexus approach’ for food security. We’d like to raise these questions with the larger twitter community:

    • Q1: Does a ‘nexus approach’ require complex, high-cost program design & implementation, or can it be simple and low-cost?
    • Q2: What are the major ‘trade-offs’ for smallholder farmers in the agriculture-energy-water nexus?
    • Q3: How can a robust evidence base be established to measure the impact of a ‘nexus approach – what indicators are useful and appropriate?
    • Q4: How can civil society effectively work with the private sector to take appropriate technologies to scale?
    • Q5: How can gender considerations best be included in the agriculture-energy-water nexus approach?

    “Economic development is something much wider and deeper than economics…Its’ roots lie outside the economic sphere…in political independence and a national consciousness of self-reliance.” (E.F. Schumacher)

    Join the Twitter chat on Monday, July 28 at 3PM BST/10AM EST using #feedingdev

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  • Rice duck farming – an early adopter’s story

    July 21st, 2014

    Last month, during my field visit, I met with a farmer and an early adopter.

    Rice Duck Farming Beneficiary

    Rice Duck Farming beneficiary in Nepal

    Raj Mani Chaudhary, a resident of Khaireni-7, Chitwan in Nepal is all smiles when asked about Rice Duck Farming. Before, he did not have any idea about rice duck farming. He used to plant paddy in his field in a traditional way like he always used to do. But it was not until last year when he found out about Practical Action’s Rice Duck Farming Pilot Project. He was really curious, so he attended the training. He says, “I found the concept of rice duck farming very fascinating, you not only benefit from the duck meat but also the droppings which is used as organic fertilizers, and at the same time the ducks in the field save your time and labour for weeding and manuring.”

    The rice duck method for growing rice involves releasing ducklings into paddy fields about one or two weeks after the seedlings have been transplanted. The ducklings help rice grow by eating insects and weeds. It eliminates the use of pesticide and the farmer saves his time by avoiding the manual work of pulling out the weeds from the field. The ducks also stir up the soil in the paddy fields with their feet and bills which creases the oxygen content of the soil, making it more nutritious for the rice seedlings.

    In April 2013, Mr. Chaudhary attended training on rice duck farming, where he learned about raising the ducklings, space transplanting the rice, integrating duck in the rice field, fencing and so on. As an initiation, Practical Action provided him with 81 ducklings for his 4.5 Kattha land (1 Kattha= 0.33 Hectare).

    He recalls the very first day of releasing the 15 days old ducklings to his paddy field, “I was very anxious and curious, I did not know how the combination of rice duck farming work. I used to watch the ducklings play around in the paddy field for hours.” After exactly 5 months, his patience paid off. The yield rose by 20 percent and he was able to make extra money by selling the duck meat.

    Being an early adopter, Mr Chaudhary cannot stop sharing the benefits of rice duck farming – higher yield, organic rice that can be sold at a higher price, the duck meat which fetches extra income, the droppings which act as fertilisers and the ducks which assist by pulling out the weeds and eating the insects.

    He is a role model for fellow farmers in his village and urges them to adapt rice duck farming in their land. “I cannot wait for this year to start my rice duck farming,” he chuckles.

    Although Practical Action’s innovative rice duck farming is in its early days, we believe the innovation will benefit more farmers financially in the future.

    Rice Duck Farming

    Rice Duck Farming

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