Food and agriculture | Blogs

  • Building a forest, building a future

    Liz Frost
    June 20th, 2014

    I’ve just sent the final report to the innocent foundation on Practical Action’s cloud forest project, ‘New Life to the Forests, New Life for the Amazonian People in Peru and Bolivia’. Really hope they like the report, but more importantly I’m sure they will be as proud as we are of the incredible impact that the partnership between Practical Action and the innocent foundation, together with fellow funders of the project, the Waterloo Foundation and Z Zurich Foundation, has achieved over the last three years for communities living the tropical forests of the Amazon.

    If you watched, ‘I bought a rainforest’ on the UK’s BBC tv over the last three weeks, by the film director, Gavin Searle, which follows the journey of Charlie Hamilton James when he bought 100 acres of Peruvian rainforest, you will have seen the kind of challenges he experienced if he was to preserve his purchase from being felled.   By living and working with the local people he begins to realise that the way to help protect the forest is not just to buy it, but to engage with the people living in it, and to work with them rather than against them. Just the way that Practical Action has been working with the indigenous Awajun and settler families in Bolivia and Peru – working with them to better manage the cloud forests sustainably so that they, and generations to come, can make a living without removing majestic trees such as the mahogany, without growing crops and then leaving the land degraded and without having to resort to livelihoods such as illegal logging and mining, which destroy not preserve one of the riches ecosystems in the world, home to amazing flora and fauna and to more than 3.5million native and migrant people.

    two girls holding  tree seedlings

    We set out to work directly with almost 1,500 people living and working in the forest, and to indirectly help a further 20,000 people, through sharing lessons and good practice. At the end of the three years, we have improved the livelihoods and lives of not only the families we worked directly with, but have improved the quality of life for at least a further 63,000 men, women and children. Equally importantly, the communities, with the Foundations’ and Practical Action’s support, have begun to rebuild the forest, and to build a better future for their children, by planting over 105,000 indigenous trees, trees that will bring shade to their crops and will capture over 630,000mt of CO2 . With skills and knowledge now in place, with the Government supporting the work being carried out, this not the end of the project, but the beginning of a new life for the forests, a new life for the Amazonian people in Peru and Bolivia.

    Practical Action is keen to talk to Trusts and Foundations who would like to support our work in energy, access to markets, disaster risk reduction and urban water and sanitation.  Visit our dedicated Trusts and Foundations site for more information:  http://practicalaction.org/trusts-and-foundations

    1 Comment » | Add your comment
  • Learning about climate change from trees

    Amanda Ross
    April 25th, 2014

    I love trees and we are all well aware of how important they are for the health of our planet.  So yesterday, I was fascinated to meet a dendrochronologist for the first time.  Dr Aster Gebrekirstos is a scientist at Erlanger University and the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and is a specialist at interpreting climate fluctuations of the past through tree rings.

    WP_20140423_009Dr Gebrekirstos was one of two inspiring winners of the AfriCAN climate research award, which promotes the role of women in climate change research in Africa.

    Her research involves measuring the spaces between the rings of trees (cut down after they are dead) which indicate the amount of growth each year.  These show narrower rings relating to periods of drought.  Analysis of oxygen isotopes in trees shows their different reaction to carbon when under stress.

     It is vital that we are able to make informed decisions in our efforts at adaptation and mitigation of climate change.  Currently there is little data available relating to historic climate fluctuations in Africa, but the efforts of Dr Gebrekirstos will play a key role in supplying this valuable information.

    baobab treeThis research will enable tree species that are most resilient to climate change to be identified and to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right place.  This is just one of the many aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture addressed by this week’s AfriCAN climate/FANRPAN conference in Pretoria.

    2 Comments » | Add your comment
  • Living below the line

    Helena Molyneux
    April 17th, 2014

    In less than two weeks I start living below the line for 5 days, spending £5 or less on food and drink. I made this commitment to Practical Action a couple of months ago not long after taking over as Chair of Trustees. And now I am feeling OMG, what have I let myself in for. It will be hard.

    101012 Upper Guruwe - livelihoods improvement agri processing - peanut butter making

    Making peanut butter

    Truthfully, there are aspects which will not be hard. I like rice and pasta simply flavoured. I don’t mind forgoing meat.  Porridge is a great filler in the morning. I am OK with drinking lots of water – hot or cold. I will give what I would normally have spent on food and drink as a donation to Practical Action.

    But I will miss: a morning coffee, having lots of fruit and vegetables, a glass of wine and probably most of all, spontaneous decision making about what I eat. Living on £5 for the 5 days requires planning and research about where I shop. But these limitations and frustrations are what most people live with every day of every year.

    Reflecting on my experience of the five days is one of the things I want to get out of it. And that’s apart from raising awareness of the work Practical Action does in enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty by accessing simple, useful know-how and technology and of course raising funds for that work. If I can have the optimism and lack of self pity during these 5 days that the people I met in Zimbabwe when I went to visit Practical Action’s work there have, that will be something.

    Farmers from Upper Guruwe

    Farmers from Upper Guruwe

    I took this photo in northern Zimbabwe, a place called Upper Guruwe where Practical Action has enabled local communities to improve their vegetable growing. And not just that, but also enabling people to create higher value-added food products which they can sell at market and so earn more money for themselves and their families eg. peanut butter making also pictured here. One of the things that really impressed me was how people make sure that the elderly and the sick in their communities get the benefit of these vegetables – not just keeping them all for themselves or for selling at the local markets.

    Do have a go at Living Below the Line too.  Who knows what you might learn from the experience or how much money you might raise if you get people to sponsor you. And if anyone wants to sponsor me, please do.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • Making real change in Oliver’s life

    He can hardly read or write in English. He only did a few years in primary school as his parents could not afford paying the ‘exorbitant’ school fees. He estimates his age at 31 years though not sure of the exact date of birth. He is married to Nyasha Rondozai who is 28 years old. The couple is blessed with three children, all girls named Tadiwa, Anna and Chiedza. With limited education and unemployed, Oliver Rondozai faced poverty and hopelessness in Domborutinhira, a village in the mountainous Mutasa District of Manicaland province in Zimbabwe.

    Although Mutasa District is endowed with natural resources – fertile soils, timber plantations and overflowing rivers – Oliver’s family could hardly afford three meals a day and were facing the grim prospect of failing to send their children to school. The crop yield from their fields was hardly enough to feed the family.

    Today, Oliver is one of the happiest persons in Domborutinhira. His family’s fortunes have dramatically improved. His fields are teaming up with a healthy potato crop, carrots and the staple maize crop. His family now has a source of income, access to nutritious food, health services and he boasts of having paid school fees for the whole year in advance for his two daughters in primary school. He has waved good bye to open defecation as he has built a Blair Ventilated Improved Pit toilet at his home.

    VivianAnother villager who saw a change in fortunes is 60 year old Vivian Mabika, who lives with her husband Lovemore Mabika and three grandchildren. The aging family had the extra burden of looking after their orphaned grandchildren. Vivian revealed that as a family, they used to look down upon themselves as they used to depend on food handouts from humanitarian relief agencies. Today Vivian boasts of being self-sufficent. They have managed to buy farming supplies from the proceeds of agricultural sales and send their grandchildren to school. Last year, Vivian and family did not have enough seeds or fertiliser and were only able to cultivate 0,8ha of their land, but this increased to 2ha this year as a result of profits from selling produce grown using seed supplied by the project, under the voucher system. They now plan to buy a grinding mill to augment the family income.

    The stories of Oliver and Vivian’s families are shared by many habitants in Domborutinhira Village. Like many people across the country, they had experienced hardships due to the meltdown of the Zimbabwean economy since the turn of the new millennium, mainly as a result of the prevailing political instability and the highly contested land reform programme. They had become chronically dependent on food hand-outs from donors and other humanitarian organisations.  

    Now Oliver and Vivian are some of the beneficiaries of Practical Action’s Promoting Smallholder Market Engagement (PSME) project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund.  Partners are The Farm Community Trust and Zambuko Trust and there is collaboration with the Department of Agritex under the Ministry of Agriculture and Mechanisation.  It is being implemented in the Chimanimani, Mutasa, Mutare and Nyangafour districts of Manicaland province.  As well as providing vouchers for agricultural inputs the project strengthening the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through eleven irrigation schemes, including one in Domborutinhira.

    2 Comments » | Add your comment
  • Water, water, underground, but not a drop to drink

    Grace Mukasa
    March 19th, 2014

    You may not have heard yet, but our field staff in the remote Turkana region of Northern Kenya are reporting a growing humanitarian crisis.

    Normally, the long rainy season would have been in full swing by now. But so far, not a drop of rain has fallen. Should the rains fail over the next three weeks, many thousands of people could face a slow and lingering death, unless there is action now.

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family's weak animals

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family’s weak animals

    For almost 12 months now, the region has had no rain. Rivers are dry, water tables have fallen so dramatically that some boreholes can no longer reach it. Pastureland has dried up and the grass has disappeared. Pastoralists have been forced to migrate with their livestock into neighbouring Uganda.

    The Turkana region is home to about a million people, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, raising cattle and goats. Of these over 300,000 are in dire need of food and water and the number keep swelling by the day.

    The great irony is that there are huge water supplies deep beneath the surface in Turkana. If this wasn’t enough last year oil was also discovered.

    But the situation is expected to worsen and terrifyingly, there is a forecast of poor long rains. Malnutrition levels are high among women and children and many people will die unless action is taken. Goats are already dying and livestock is growing ever weaker.

    Already, the situation in some parts of Turkana has now become so severe that I have heard reports that out of desperation people are eating tree roots and dogs.

    Practical Action has installed solar-powered water pumps to access the huge underground reservoirs in Turkana, and where we have been working the situation is not so desperate, but we cannot reach everywhere.  In addition, we have been working with the Ugandan Government since 2009 to negotiate safe passage for pastoralists desperate to access good pasture land in times of crisis and I am pleased to say our efforts are now proving vital. Already, 30,000 pastoralists have migrated with their herds over the border, saving lives and livestock worth millions of pounds in the process. Practical Action staff are continuing to work in Uganda to facilitate this process.

    This, of course, means that men of working age have been forced to leave their families and smaller livestock such as goats. In many communities in which we work only women and children remain, using the solar-powered water pumps we have installed as they battle desperately to survive as their goats die from starvation.

    The Kenyan Government is providing affected populations with some food relief and humanitarian organisations are starting to mobilise, but aside from one short online report, there has been no international reporting of the situation outside the Kenyan media.

    There shouldn’t be another famine in Turkana. The fact that one is looming should shame us all. We all need to take practical action there now.

    5 Comments » | Add your comment
  • Day 3 of Living Below the Line

    This week I am taking on Practical Action’s challenge to Live Below the Line. The World Bank defined the new international poverty line as $1.25 a day for 2005 and so Live Below the Line challenges participants to live on a food and drink budget of just £5 for 5 days. I’m taking on the challenge with my girlfriend, Lizzie, and so we have a joint budget of £10 to see us through from Monday to Friday. All of our meals have been based around a staple of chapatis as a very cheap, filling carbohydrate. Early in the week we made Split Pea Dhal which was pretty basic, but yesterday evening we realised we could make pizzas within our budget, which was a revelation.

    A big part of the challenge was to try and carry on with my life as normally as possible whilst only spending £1 a day on food and drink. So that meant 6-aside football on Monday and cricket nets Tuesday. And today (Wednesday) I am absolutely exhausted. I don’t think this is just down to how I am fuelling my body. I think it’s also how much time and effort it takes to prepare everything, when you’re starting with basic ingredients. Yesterday I was up much later than I wanted to be as I still needed to make chapatis from scratch for today’s lunch. Normally, had I got late into the evening without lunch planned for the next day, I’d know I could just leave it and pick up a £3 meal deal from the local supermarket without too much hassle, but not this week. This week, each evening we are spending about 3 hours between us in the kitchen preparing food for dinner and breakfast and lunch the following day.

    It’s not the food that I miss (I’ve been quite happy with what we’ve been eating), it’s the convenience that we enjoy when we are able to spend a bit more money.

    That got me thinking about the people I met in Turkana, Northern Kenya, last summer. Even with all the mod-cons of our kitchen and an electric oven it’s still taking most of our evening to prepare our food. But for some people in Turkana, preparing their food is a much longer process still. It can take most of the morning to collect the water needed for the day (and still there is not enough). Then if they are cooking on an inefficient three-stone stove, they will need to collect plenty of fire wood before they can even start thinking about kneading any flour for chapatis or any other food preparations. And what if the only water they have access to isn’t clean, then they have spent their day preparing a meal that could make their family very sick.

    So whilst taking part in Live Below the Line is challenging and tiring, it is also enjoyable and thought provoking. And if you’re happy to put the work in, you can create some pretty delicious meals.

    If you are interested about finding out more about Live Below the Line and seeing how you can get involved. Go to www.practicalaction.org/live-below-the-line

    Diptic

    1 Comment » | Add your comment
  • Reaching the last mile in Nepal

    Rob Cartridge
    March 6th, 2014

    So it’s nearly the end of our financial year here in Practical Action. The great thing about this time of year is the chance to look at just how far we have come. At a recent video conference for our knowledge sharing service, Practical Answers, we did just that and we discovered fantastic progress and great innovation.

    Taking our work in just one country as an example. In the last three months in Nepal alone our free of charge technical enquiries service  has handled more than 5000 enquiries per month. This is a huge step change – as only a few years ago the whole service handling only 3500 enquiries globally in a year

    Knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    knowledge broker in Nepal in action

    The key to Nepal’s success has been taking the knowledge out to the people who really need it. “Reaching the very last mile”. We have a really constructive partnership with an organisation called READ Nepal . They have established 55 community library and resource centres across the Himalayan country – all are self-sustaining. Into about 20 of these libraries we have put a knowledge service, handling technical enquiries and running training and regular “focus group discussions” to tackle current issues with the local community. If an answer is not immediately available from the library, we seek help from local and district authorities. And if a question is particularly frequent we get a Kathmandu radio station to record a programme on the subject that can be played back to the community. I saw this once when there was great interest in mushroom cultivation as a possible additional source of income for people living on the margins.  One innovation this year has been for one centre to start to provide real time weather forecast information to the local community to warn against extremes,  and help the farmers plant and harvest at optimal times.

    A further innovation in the last year has been the establishment of local knowledge management committees. These are made up of local government representatives , agriculture officers, sometimes the water authorities. Far from being bureaucratic they have helped give the service real sustainability. It’s great to bring these groups together and demonstrate how valuable simply sharing knowledge can be and what an impact it can have on people’s lives and livelihoods.

    No Comments » | Add your comment
  • On making the SDGs meaningful: Practical Action’s views on the state of play of the post-2015 development agenda

    Aaron Leopold
    March 4th, 2014

    United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Photo courtesy of IISD.UN negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda represent the follow-up process of two globally significant policy regimes: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Rio+20 conference of 2012. No small shoes to fill. On 21 February 2014, the co-Chairs of one of the key bodies in this process, the Open Working Group (OWG), released a preliminary sketch of the status of discussions on a variety of topics in their “Focus Areas Document.” Practical Action welcomes the strong and clear messages it contains. But while the document does encapsulate dozens of aspects crucial to the post-2015 development agenda, many areas key to its long terms success  are incomplete or altogether lacking.

    Focus area 7 on ENERGY, and particularly points on alleviating energy poverty, are at the core of progress in all other focal areas. We stress that the evidence on energy poverty is clear: neither energy poverty nor the litany of energy nexus issues (food security, education, health, water, gender equality, etc.) can be meaningfully addressed without emphasising deployment of decentralized (off-grid) provision of modern energy services, combined with robust indicators and monitoring systems. We strongly urge inclusion of these issues in discussions of any energy-related SDG goals to prevent energy, seen by many as the “missing MDG” from becoming a “meaningless SDG.”

    VIP-in-KenyaOn focus area 6 on WATER AND SANITATION, we welcome recognition of the need for safe drinking water and sanitation for all households, and urge that this ambition eventually be reflected in the indicators. However, we note that the bulk of issues raised in this focal area concern water and deeply lament that there is no mention of hygiene here or in focus area 3 on HEALTH.

    Considering focal area 13 on SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND HUMAN SETTLEMENTS, we note that this area must have a strong emphasis not only on poverty eradication, but critically, on promoting equality. If we cannot find a way of disaggregating indicators on the rich and poor of urban areas, the urban poor will remain among the un-counted and unreached.

    CLIMATE CHANGE is recognised throughout the document (including in the focal areas on energy, food security, infrastructure, sustainable cities) and with its own focal area 15, but it is conspicuously absent from focus area 9 on INDUSTRIALIZATION, a major contributor of continuing greenhouse gas emissions. Also absent from the document is mention of reducing risk from human-induced and natural hazards. We must ask whether the provision of social protection alone is able to reduce vulnerability and enable those currently living in poverty to fully participate in sustainable development.

    The mention of ‘inclusive’ growth in a number of focus areas is excellent but we feel strong and explicit linkages must be made between Focus Areas 8, 11, and 12 on ECONOMIC GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT AND DECENT WORK FOR ALL, and PROMOTING EQUALITY. In addition, care must be given when referring to ‘sustained’ growth as in focus area 8 and 12, which in a closed physical system such as our planet, is not a realistic or sustainable aim.

    The focus area 18 on MEANS OF IMPLEMENTATION is particularly welcome. Prioritising what will be measured in this enormous list of important issues will be hugely challenging. To transform systems most important to those living in poverty, such as agriculture, energy, water and sanitation, and the science, technology and innovation systems that support them, the ‘broad stakeholder engagement’ noted must promote the active, meaningful involvement of small and marginalised players.

    Although technology and access to technology is well represented throughout the document, globally we must look beyond transfer of technology from North to South, and recognise the potential of indigenous knowledge and local innovation to ensure a form of sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Missing from the document is reference to the desperate need to shift technology development towards those who need it rather than those who can afford it. This will require concerted investments in fostering grassroots and frugal innovation (i.e. innovation focusing on reducing the cost and complexity of goods and services), and the use and regulation of technologies that aim to deliver on sustainable development goals.

    Practical Action very much looks forward to continuing to engage with the post-2015 development process, and welcomes feedback on these issues.

     

    1 Comment » | Add your comment
  • 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.  

    2 Comments » | Add your comment
  • 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.

    No Comments » | Add your comment