Food and agriculture | Blogs

  • Save our soil

    Amanda Ross
    February 26th, 2014

    Last week I went to a talk at my local history society by a local (Warwickshire) farmer, Graham Robson who recently retired after 80 years in the business.  Both his film and the subsequent discussions were very thought-provoking. He took us through the dramatic changes in farming methods, crop selection, machinery and financing that had taken place in his time. It became clear to me that many of the changes he experienced also affected the small scale farmers that Practical Action works with in the developing world.

    He stressed the importance of the soil – it’s a farmer’s basic raw material and maintenance of its structure and quality is essential. Many modern farming methods combined with more severe weather conditions pose a threat to the food security of the UK and the rest of the world as Robert Palmer shows in his paper in ‘Soil use and management’.

    When Graham Robson learned to farm, he ploughed with two shire horses.  Today, even a small tractor has 50 horsepower and the weight of this machinery on the earth compacts the soil, making is less permeable to rain.  So water runs off more quickly making flooding more likely.  Coincidentally, just that morning I’d read George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian  voicing similar concerns.  And this image clearly showed just how much of our precious soil is being washed away to sea.

    Martha's early crop suffered from heat stress

    Martha’s early crop suffered from heat stress

    Such problems are not confined to the UK.  Small scale farmers around the world face suffer from soil erosion. In Zimbabwe Practical Action’s food and agriculture programme has developed some successful conservation farming techniques. These include planting in stations to enable targeted feeding and watering of crops and  inter-cropping with ground cover plants such as pumpkins and melons to protect the soil from the heat, reduce run-off and increase infiltration.

    Martha Sibanda from Gwanda in Matabeleland participated in training in these techniques and was delighted with the improvement in  her crop yields:

    “Crop cover is important for moisture conservation and reducing soil loss. What I want to do is to use a combination of practices which is why I have a dead-level contour, use basins and inter-cropping to try and maximize moisture conservation,” she said.

    Martha's crop after using planting holes

    Martha’s crop after using planting holes

    The innovative use of podcasting has enabled these agricultural techniques to be communicated more widely by extension workers

    For farmers in the UK a tractor with caterpillar tracks is available which does less damage to the soil surface.  Currently, only very large models are available but soon, Graham hoped, a similar one would be developed to suit small scale farmers.

    The UN’s food and agriculture organization have designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.   Small scale farmers around the world face similar problems, so it’s important that we work together to share information on some of the solutions.  

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  • After the dust has settled – it’s time for hard work

    Chris Henderson
    December 19th, 2013

    One month ago Warsaw was abuzz with thousands of people. Senior politicians, government representatives, development agencies, academics, civil society and the media were all engrossed in addressing what is one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change.

    Now everyone is back home and most are probably thinking more about Christmas than how the world is going to cope with an inevitable increase in temperature that will permanently change the lives of us all.

    A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

    A floating garden to grow crops when land is flooded

    Looking back, I went to COP 19  with an agriculture perspective, keen to identify hooks and partnerships that would strengthen the recent decision by our global group of agriculturalists to focus on adaptation by smallholder farmers. Practical Action’s specific aim is to improve agricultural policy and planning so that it builds the capacity of smallholder farmers to use their unique knowledge and resources to adapt to climate change through ‘Climate Resilient Agriculture’.

    It was disappointing that there was little discussion on agriculture during the days I was in Warsaw. A few things did become clear, however, from the people I met and the events I attended. Notably, that much still needs to be done on ‘adaptation’ in agriculture to understand what is really needed, and meant, by ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. Practical Action can contribute to this issue and provide grounded examples relevant to policy makers based on lessons learnt by smallholder farmers and the rural poor in developing countries. In our Country and Regional offices this will mean engaging with Government and stakeholders in the National Adaptation Planning (NAPs). In the UK we should work with partner organisations to make sure our learning influences the global debates and donor policies.

    Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

    Regular drills enable communities to respond effectively when disaster strikes

    Unexpected by me, and probably many others, was that Warsaw would be able to achieve something good on ‘Loss and Damage’. This is an important issue for us because the people we are working with are being increasingly impacted by climate change. Impacts which are becoming irreversible – ‘beyond the reach of adaptation’ – and affecting people who are least to blame for the situation: e.g. extreme droughts, ever worsening floods, sea level rise and loss of fresh water. At the beginning of week 2, I signed an NGO Global Call for Action for the establishment of an ‘International Mechanism on Loss and Damage in Warsaw’.  To cut a long story short the agreement to have a mechanism for ‘Loss and Damage’ was probably the most significant achievement of COP19.

    Life may have returned to normal for those who were in Warsaw but, I for one, am committed to keeping the buzz going and starting the New Year with a renewed commitment to our work on Climate Resilient Agriculture.

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  • Influencing agencies to adopt best practices

    Eltayeb Salih Mohammed
    December 12th, 2013

    Practical Action is implementing a food security and livelihoods project in the Blue Nile area of Sudan,  funded by the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF).

    Last September the CHF team visted our programme in the Blue Nile state to monitor the performance of the partners and strengthen relationships among the Food Security & Livelihoods actors in the region.  The CHF team held meetings with partners, followed by a field visit to Amaragrash, one of our targeted villages. Discussions were held with communities on the interventions and the way they are managing it.

    PICT0071The CHF mission’s report identified Practical Action as the best organization at delivering sustainable interventions and highlighted goat restocking as best practice.  Some practitioners such as Mercy Corps-Scotland (MCS) and FPOD (a local NGO)  approached us to learn about Practical Action’s approach to restocking.

    The CHF team advised Mercy Corps to conduct a workshop to explore Practical Action’s experience and their sustainable approach to livelihoods.   This workshop was attended by representatives of Mercy Corps, FPOD, CHF, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),  Labena (our national partner) and Practical Action staff from Khartoum and Blue Nile. A good presentation about Practical Action’s work in Sudan focused on restocking activities under this food security CHF funded project.

    Discussions were held about goats restocking practice and the audience engaged with and understood the approach. Recommendations were made to adopt the approach in their work.  In addition FAO/FSL adopted the contract made by Practical Action with the  beneficiaries of the goat programme. This contract will become standard for all FAO partners working in food security.

    Practical Action Blue Nile communicated our best practice which will lead to changes in the practices of other development actors.  FAO’s adoption of our approach to restocking will be used by all partners and we expect to be nominated by FAO as a leading agency in Food Security and Livelihoods, demonstrating significant impact at scale.

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  • The long and winding road to Apurimac

    Catherine Duffield-Smith
    November 28th, 2013

    The long and winding road to Apurimac

    “There’s a line in a famous song, ‘The long and winding road…leads me to your door. ‘   On Tuesday, we travelled down to Apurimac to meet a community that don’t actually have a door – because they don’t have a permanent home.  Their homes consist of shelters made from plastic bags.

    The community of Bachaura live high up in the Peruvian Andean Mountains and unfortunately, they are the victims of a landslide that took place in 2011. What remains of their ‘old’ houses beggars belief, huge cracks if they are lucky, half or all the house missing if not.

    This is a community living quite literally on the edge, not only in terms of desperate need but also thousands of metres above sea level. They are at the mercy of the elements and experiencing extreme temperatures. In the heat of the day, the plastic houses are roasting them alive and in the extreme cold, they have no way of heating their homes, or keeping warm.  Problems with mining on the other side of the mountain, is only exacerbating the situation; they are desperate and live in fear for their lives and that of their children.

    Deisi, one of the ladies who seemed keen to speak up told us that they are increasingly afraid of more landslides and explained that they had tried to re-route the water coming down from the mountain away from their community and makeshift homes. The heat is more intense than ever before and the water levels are rising, increasing the risk of more landslides. The river running through the mountains divides the communities but Deisi is afraid for everyone.

    If a landslide wasn’t enough, a drought in 2011, inevitably led to food shortages. The communities improvised by making soups with the leaves from the trees, collecting and cooking algae from the river, eating the fruit of the cactus plants and bugs from the bamboo – using the resources they had available to them. They also set up an exchange scheme with other communities across the river. However, this in itself has highlighted problems as the Elder of the community was keen to tell us.

    “Diseases are staring here, worms and ants that are eating our crops”. He went on to say that in previous days, good practices were passed down from generation to generation. His father and forefathers used to read the sun and the stars, as well as the weather to know if it was going to be a fruitful year. “This is all gone now; this knowledge has been forgotten by the new generation”.

    There is a huge amount of work to do with this community and Practical Action is involved in the first phase of a project – that of collating the old knowledge and cataloguing it for generations to come. Looking at seed recovery and seed knowledge, so that for generations to come they can adapt to the changing climate and not go short of food.

    Deisi is part of that younger generation, who at the age of 25 has three children depending on her.  What she wants most of all is support to rebuild their homes away from danger, so that she can live without fear.  I sincerely hope that one day, she will get that wish and that the long and winding road will indeed lead to her door.

     

     

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  • 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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