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.1 Comment » | Add your comment
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 are 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.
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.3 Comments » | Add your comment
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.
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.”No Comments » | Add your comment
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.
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.
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.3 Comments » | Add your comment
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.
- 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.
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?
1 Comment » | Add your comment
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.
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!No Comments » | Add your comment
“Women farmers produce more than half of all food worldwide and currently account for 43 percent of the global agricultural labour force.” – UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
An earlier blog highlighted the potential of smallholder producers as part of the solution to the food crisis facing the planet. A crisis that is exacerbated by inaction to reach a global deal to tackle climate change and dwindling support going to agriculture in developing countries, in spite of some ambitious but as yet unmet pledges. The IF campaign highlights this conundrum, ”that we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime, we only need the will.” (John F. Kennedy, 1963)
Changes in global climate are leading to less predictable weather patterns with increasing failure of planting season rains blamed for recurrent famines in impoverished rural areas. Around the world over 500 million people live in vulnerable rural communities, with smallholder farmers, and pastoralists supplying food to almost 2 billion of the poorest people on the planet. Supporting these small-scale producers to reach their full potential is one of the simplest strategies that could transform global food systems overnight.
Such a transformation of the role of smallholders in the global agricultural system would also deliver significant benefits to rural women; a critical area where gains are needed most. Smallholder agriculture is critically dependent on the input of women, especially for largely unrecognised labour, starkly contrasted with higher profile male dominated activities. The recent FAO study acknowledged that women comprise at least 50% of the labour force in most of Africa and Asia, with their agricultural duties undertaken alongside existing household and child care duties. By closing the gender gap in smallholder farming, crop productivity will increase, local food and nutritional security will be improved and the increase in the income of women will deliver far reaching social benefits. Women interviewed as part of Oxfam’s Researching Women’s Collective Action project regularly responded that they gain a sense of freedom from their own income, allowing them to prioritise family nutrition and even send their children to school.
To support women producers will require considerable investment, but this must be quality investment reaching the most needy. Collective approaches offer opportunities to reach scale and can empower women to participate as part of an initiative in a way that defuses social tensions with husbands and fathers, who might see their roles threatened. The Oxfam “women’s collective action” research programme, has identified some of the key challenges to women’s engagement including; access to formal groups, being overlooked by extension services and the need to provide the support women require and in a way that works for women.
By mobilising the latent potential of women smallholder farmers to transform global agriculture, global food security could be improved overnight. For example by providing equal access to existing resources and opportunities – could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million people. Such a transformation could go a long way to feeding the estimated 325 million hungry people on the planet and at the same time enable millions of smallholder producers to feed their families and escape poverty.
This BLOG is based on work undertaken while Colin worked for Oxfam and was originally published on their Policy and Practice website. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/2 Comments » | Add your comment
To find out how a very small project can show so much meaning about the real values of rural poor people, which make them happy and give meaning to their lives, read about the day I made a visit which made that day exceptional.
My visit to Silkyay village in the rural area of Kassala was a routine field visit like many others but my encounter with a woman called Nafisa changed that visit into an inspirational lesson.
Nafisa is involved in Practical Action’s “chicken for eggs” project. This aims to enhance nutrition and provide income for poor households. She has 20 hens in her small, clean den, and managed and cleaned this den every day, until she began producing 20 eggs per day. Some of these she consumes and the rest she sells. The day I met Nafisa happiness overwhelmed her and joyfully she told me that now she has work, and she owns something, she has control of her life.
In the beginning she faced difficulties marketing her produce in her village, because people weren’t used to eating eggs. The varieties of food they ate were very limited – mainly porridge and milk and this culture led them to refuse anything unfamiliar and prevented them from having a healthy and diversified diet.
Nafisa started introducing the egg as a main meal in her own house, as breakfast for her children before school. Then she began an awareness campaign about the nutritional value of eggs. Gradually the skeptical village changed to be less hesitant. In a short period the whole village began to depend on eggs for breakfast. Nafisa proudly stated that now she alone cannot supply the increasing demand and has other five women working in this project.
Nafisa said that now she feels appreciated by her family and community, and she is happy about the simple tangible change her project introduced to the life of the people in the village. The happiness of Nafisa and her pride at her achievement taught me that helping women to access and control resources, is the right approach for justice and for improving the status of women and mothers in our communities. Productive work gives women a proud feeling of ownership and control of their resources as Nafisa reflected as she enthused about her hens.
The change happened when people began buying eggs after being convinced of their nutritional value. This taught me the meaning and practicality of such small activities when they relate to people’s real needs.
Before concluding this story, I would like to tell you about my own experience when I bought some eggs from Nafisa and cooked them myself. I learned something else important – that the home-produced egg from this village is a natural egg, free of chemicals and is tastier and more beneficial than the ones we purchase from markets which are produced by companies using chemicals and hormone injections.
How inspiring are these small works when powered by a strong will and the strength of women like Nafisa!No Comments » | Add your comment
Half the world’s food goes to waste – so says a report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Yet masses of people in the UK and around the world are hungry. In the UK more than 200,000 people will use food banks this year. In the developing world 870 million people don’t have enough to eat and go to bed hungry.
What’s going wrong?
Some blame must fall on us as consumers – being seduced by BOGOF offers, or the lure of the ‘reduced about to reach sell by date’ products – we’re just buying too much of things we don’t then eat. It’s also about supermarkets – turning down wonky carrots so they are left in the field to rot – 30% of vegetables in the UK are not harvested because of their physical appearance. It’s also about overlong supply chains, sell buy dates that don’t mean anything – on malt vinegar for example.
The biggest difference between the developed and developing world is that here – in the UK – we have a choice we choose through our buying behavious and the supermarkets – interpreting our demands – to allow huge amounts of food to go to waste. We can dramatically reduce the £12 billion worth of food wasted in the UK – thats £480 per family. In the developing world poor people dont have a choice.
In the developing world food is wasted as after harvest it can’t be stored and rots – people have no fridges and no way of storing or preserving they often also have no way of getting products to market and even if they do because they are selling in a glut no one wants to buy.
The issue is not just waste – the injustice – the technology injustice is that there is so much we can do to solve this problem and the technologies people need exist.
Practical Action works with small scale farmers in the developing world to grow more food and preserve the food that’s grown – from pumpkin storage in Bangladesh to drying and pickling vegetables in Sudan. Thousands of clever, practical, simple solutions that work.
In the UK there’s loads to go at – simpler supply chains, accepting sometimes supermarket shelves will be empty, not buying foo d that we all throw away.
So my practical solution for all of us today – buy less food, grow some yourself (it’s great- you could even learn to make jams!), and if you save money and you can afford to give it to a charity you support help people struggling across the world or in the time of austerity Britain in the UK.
People struggle to grow food – I’ve met women in Sudan who have walked many miles to find water for their family and their crops – if you are doing that imagine the heartbreak when your family goes hungry and your food rots.
End food waste and end hunger – wouldn’t it be great If we could do both.
Support Practical Action – this report made me once again think its a great thing to do!1 Comment » | Add your comment
On November 22, 2012 Practical Action Consulting (PAC) Asia embarked on a three day field trip to Chitwan and Nawalparasi Districts. The objective of the field trip was to learn first-hand experiences about some of the projects undertaken by Practical Action and to see which lessons could be used in other projects in the Asian region, mainly India and Bhutan.
In three days and covering hundreds of kilometers, we were able to stuff in as many project sites as possible, learning and understanding Practical Action’s work along the way. We managed to visit the Gravity Goods Ropeway at Fisling, Climate Change Adaptation Site at Jugedi, Early Warning Site at Devghat, Market Access for Smallholder Farmers (MASF) site in Chainpur and Pithuwa, Strengthening Water, Air, Sanitation and Hygiene Treasuring Health (SWASTHA) site in Bagbazar and Renewable Energy site at Hurhure Danda.
MASF site in particular was very interesting to see. The Practical Action office in Nepal, with financial support through the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) implemented the dairy component of MASF in 30 Village Development Committees (VDCs) and two municipalities of four districts in Nepal – Chitwan, Tanahu, Gorkha and Dhading. The objective of this two-year project is to reduce poverty of smallholder farmers in Nepal through improving the incomes of 10,000 smallholder dairy farmers.
We decided to visit a few MASF project sites in Eastern Chitwan. The first site was Panchayan Dairy Cooperative in Pithuwa VDC. The team was able to interact with the cooperative members and observe their dairy resource centre, feed mill and the chilling station. At the dairy resource centre, the cooperative had kept dairy cows and calves of different breeds. The calves were bred there and cows were milked twice a day and sent to the cooperative’s own chilling station. The chilling station and milk collection centre services the surrounding villages. Not only was the cooperative able to collect and chill the milk but they had also installed a feed mill where they made high-quality feed for cows. It was really impressive to see how the project has helped the cooperative to be self-sufficient and it could be seen in the proud faces of the cooperative members. Panchayan Dairy Cooperative is truly an example-setting dairy cooperative that shows the success of MASF project in Nepal.
The second visit was to Kamdhenu Dairy Cooperative in Chainpur VDC and we observed the dairy farm operated by the cooperative. Although smaller in size as compared to Panchayan, Kamdhenu has also, in its own right, made successful gains in milk production and sales. With the help from the MASF project, they have successfully progressed towards more efficient production and effective market access. In the same VDC, the team also interacted with a few Dalit beneficiaries – traditionally regarded as ‘untouchables’. We were able to witness another extraordinary impact from the project. The project had set up a revolving fund which could be accessed by the neediest Dalit families. They would use the fund to buy cows and slowly pay back to the fund from selling the milk. The fund would then help other Dalit families to buy more cows. They were able to purchase dairy cows because of the revolving fund activity without which they would not have had the capital to invest. It was inspiring to see this socially disadvantaged group benefiting from the project and their positive attitude and eagerness to add more cows.
By visiting the field sites, the PAC Asia team has gained first-hand knowledge regarding the projects. We were all able to understand, through interactions with beneficiaries and stakeholders, the impacts made through the work of Practical Action. It was also understood that most of the beneficiaries are happy and are thankful to Practical Action and have invited to do more in their community. We were amazed to meet and interact with the communities we work with and at the same time proud to be associated with the organization that has worked with them to improve livelihoods and change lives! PAC Asia is developing new work and projects in India, Bhutan and beyond, so we need to take these lessons and grow them for an even bigger impact.
The story ends here but the journey continues for PAC Asia especially with two projects already in the pipeline: Gravity Goods Ropeway in Bhutan and Early Warning System in Afghanistan. Here’s to the future.No Comments » | Add your comment