Looking to Agriculture to Help Rebuild in Haiti

By Abby Massey

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the critical role that agriculture will play in rebuilding Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 2010. 

Food security is not a new problem in Haiti, and development organizations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme, as well as nongovernmental organizations like Heifer International and Oxfam, have been forced to halt food programs in the country as these groups themselves attempt to recover from the disaster. 

Before the quake, FAO alone was implementing 23 food and agriculture projects in Haiti, hoping to improve access to food in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Prior to the disaster, an estimated 46 percent of Haiti’s population was undernourished, and chronic malnutrition affected 24 percent of children under five.

Right now the most urgent need is to get food and water to millions of people in the capital city of Port au Prince and elsewhere in Haiti. But as the country looks to the future, the need for sustainable sources of food, such as those we are learning about in sub-Saharan Africa, is more important than ever.

Abby Massey is a food  & agriculture intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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State of the World Travels the World

It’s been a busy week here at Worldwatch, first with launching State of the World 2010 to the media and then sharing it with the environmental community here in DC. Soon we’ll have video from the symposium, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you the link to our long listing of news clips covering the report. Great reports from all over the world. Happy reading! (And take a look at this engaging new video from Voice of America, which has some great images of consumerism, though it does somehow makes me looked obsessed with Hollywood movies, which when they draw attention to sustainability I guess is quite true!).

On Monday, the global launch begins with events in England, Finland, and Norway. Take a look at the plan here. And stay tuned for stories from the road there. I’ll have the chance to explore some pioneering projects while traveling and will report back.

A final note: a special thanks to the Transforming Cultures Project Assistants, Jana, Jonathan, Margy, and Vanessa, that have been helping to spread the word about the new report. Thank you!

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Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

Madame Helen Bahikwe received government help to purchase her biogas unit and is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Madame Helen Bahikwe received help from the Rwandan government to purchase her biogas unit. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives—smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year—it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012.  While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning.

In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here.

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Journalism’s Role in Educating Africa About What it Eats

africaharvestThis is the second in a two-part series of my visit to Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa.

 Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former journalist, says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues—let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. “No one knows who Bill [Gates] is in Africa,” lamented Kamanga. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest and most influential funders of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture).

“You can’t have a revolution in Africa if people aren’t briefed,” says Kamanga, referring to the call for a Green Revolution in Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent.

But it’s not just a question of reporters having more knowledge, according to Kamanga. It’s also a matter of compensation. African journalists are typically paid very little compared to journalists in other countries. In Burkina Faso, reporters receive just 160 dollars per month. As a result, many journalists see bribes as a way to supplement their income.

Yet with newspaper and media consolidation, fierce competition for advertisers, and lackluster economic conditions in Africa and all over the world, it’s a trend that might only get worse.

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Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa

This is the first of a two-part series to Africa Harvest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In our Nourishing the Planet project we’re looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they’re trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization’s mission is “to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development.”

And while the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development—and use— of the technology by African researchers and farmers. As a result, the organization is focusing on breeding African crops for Africans. “If you want to make a difference on this continent,” says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, “you have to look at African crops.” These include staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum, which are all important sources of nutrients for millions of Africans.

But these are also crops that are heavily impacted by diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop Tissue Culture Banana (TC banana). Banana diseases are often spread through “unclean” planting material. But TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the “rapid and large scale multiplication” of disease free bananas—a single shoot can produce 2,000 individual banana plantlets.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating “golden sorghum.” 

“But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control—among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector.” So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. “If we’re going to have GMOs on the continent,” says Kamanga, “we want scientists who know how to do it.” Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.

And how does Africa Harvest respond to criticism about the development and use of biotechnology in agriculture? According to Kamanga, it’s an “old debate” and one that takes place in 5-star hotels, not in farmers’ fields. The issue now, he says, is how we make the best use of this technology.

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Project DISC Reflects on Our Visit

Danielle and Edward Mukiibi with Project DISC students in Uganda. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Danielle with Edward Mukiibi, Project DISC project coordinator and teacher, and students show Danielle at a Project DISC school in Mukono District, Uganda . (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Last month, Danielle visited Project DISC in Uganda, an organization that partners with schools to integrate farming and local food traditions into the regular routine of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Earlier this week, Edward Mukiibi, Project DISC project coordinator and teacher, wrote about the visit on the group’s blog. Explaining that his goal is to see his work with school children “copied all over the country and the world,” Edward hopes that through sharing his work with us, he is one step closer to that goal.

Check out more of Edward’s thoughts on the visit and see some great new photos by clicking here. To read more about Danielle’s visit with Project DISC, see How to Keep Kids “Down on the Farm,” Conversations with Farmers: Discussing the School Garden with a DISC Project Student, and Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture.

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More of Your Responses Are In

Danielle visited Stacia and Kristof Nordin's permaculture project in Malawi. They shared more information about their project by filling out our survey. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

After Danielle's visit, Stacia and Kristof Nordin shared more information about their permaculture project in Malawi by filling out our survey. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

For the past few months, we’ve been collecting information about agricultural innovations from all over the world (survey in English and French). We shared the initial responses in September and even more responses in November, but continue to receive interesting information and recommendations from farmers, NGOs, research groups, and policymakers in a multitude of countries. Below are a few tidbits we’d like to share.

The following projects, already featured on the Nourishing the Planet blog, have recently provided information for our survey, further describing their agricultural innovations and helping us as we seek to define innovations that best nourish people as well as the world in our upcoming report, State of the World 2011.

From our friends at the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation project in the Mukono District, Uganda: Describing the innovation as spreading a “passion for producing local foods to the next generation,” Edward Mukiibi helped flesh out the details of his project by filling out the survey after Danielle’s visit. You can read more here: Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture, Conversations with Farmers: Discussing the School Garden with a DISC Project Student, and How to Keep Kids “Down on the Farm.”

From Never Ending Food in Lilongwe, Malawi: The Nordins are educating others about permaculture and growing indigenous crops to increase income and improve food security. You can read about Danielle’s visit to their home and farm here: Malawi’s Real “Miracle” and Sweeping Change.

Please continue to share your agriculture innovations with us. We look forward to featuring your success stories on our blog and in Nourishing the Planet. Stay tuned for more updates from the survey—maybe next time it will be your innovation we highlight!

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Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa

PICS protect cowpeas throughout the year, preventing oxygen and pests from contaminating them. (Photo credit: Purdue University)

PICS protect cowpeas throughout the year, preventing contamination from oxygen and pests. (Photo credit: Purdue University)

Cow peas are an important staple in Western Africa, providing protein to millions of people. Unlike maize, cow peas are indigenous to the region and have adapted to local growing conditions, making them an ideal source of food.

Making sure that the crops make it from the field to farmers’ bowls (or bols), however, is a real challenge in Niger and other countries (see Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste). Cow peas only grow a few months a year and storing large amounts of the crop can be difficult because of pests. But that’s changing, thanks to a storage bag developed by Purdue University. The bags, called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, or PICS, are hermetically sealed, preventing oxygen and pests from contaminating the cowpeas. According to Purdue President Martin C. Jischke, “The method is simple, safe, inexpensive and very effective, which means that getting the right information to these people will reap tremendous benefits.”

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the PICS project hopes to reach 28,000 villages in not only Niger, but Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad, and Togo by 2011. And while many farmers are at first skeptical the large storage bags will protect cow peas throughout the year, seeing is believing— in each village bags are filled with cowpeas and then 4 to 6 months later PICS has an Open-the-Bag event, allowing the farmers to see that the cowpeas are undamaged and ready-to-eat. In addition to protecting the cowpea from pests, the PICS bags also save farmers money on expensive pesticides.

Stay tuned for more on PICS bags when we head to Western Africa in a few months.

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In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve used to be known more for raising livestock than protecting wildlife. But after years of ranching degraded the land, the owner decided to devote the area to protecting elephants, giraffes, impala, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, ostrich, warthogs, and various other animals and birds. But the reserve hasn’t stopped raising food.

In addition to teaching students and the community about conserving and protecting wildlife and the environment, they’re also educating students about permaculture. By growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers—including elephant dung—the Reserve’s Education Center is demonstrating how to grow nutritious food with very little water or chemical inputs. (See Malawi’s Real “Miracle” and Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops.)

I met with Tuelo Lekgowe and his wife, Moho Sehtomo, who are managing the permaculture garden at Mokolodi. Tuelo explained that the organically grown spinach, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, green peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, coriander and other crops raised at the garden are used to feed the school groups who come regularly to learn about not only animals, but also sustainable agriculture. Tuelo and Moho use the garden as a classroom, teaching students about composting, intercropping, water harvesting, and organic agriculture practices. The garden also supplies food for the Education Center and Mokolodi’s restaurant, feeding the hundreds of students and tourists who visit the non-profit reserve each week.

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand.

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If I Were God of the Climate

Standing over a tabletop computer screen depicting a dark and stormy sky, I become the Climate God, tasked with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and saving humanity from dangerous climate changes. At my will I wield my climate-crushing powers by choosing a “solution card” and throwing it on the screen, thereby enacting policies and making the world a brighter place.

Choosing the Wind Energy card, I place it in the stormy sky, and a ray of blue light shoots from the card into the small bright spot in the corner labeled “Energy Supply.” The ray of light passes through three barriers that diminish its strength: Electric grids still can’t handle lots of wind power; energy policy still favors more carbon-intensive electricity; and the public still isn’t sold on the idea. With the mere click of a button, I resolve these barriers and watch as global greenhouse gas emissions drop from 36,284 to 34,686 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent (Gt CO2e).

100 solutions remain to be wielded, each one with its own barriers, and each reducing emissions from various sectors of the economy. But I fear I will soon grow tired from resolving the barriers – technological, political, infrastructural, and cultural – associated with each solution. I am in need of the most powerful solutions. And yet, among these 101 choices, I know there is only one that touches on every single greenhouse gas emitting sector. There is only one that can make all barriers easier to overcome.

When I place the Stop Over-Consumption card in the center of the screen, a rainbow of light shoots in all directions, to every corner of the sky. With lifestyle and political barriers resolved, every sector grows brighter and emissions drop drastically. In energy supply alone, emissions are reduced by 3,610 Gt CO2e, more than twice the reductions from Wind Energy. I have found the most powerful of climate solutions and it is the least godly of them all; a shift in the values and behaviors of everyday humans.

This scene occurred in Copenhagen, during the launch of the recent Worldwatch Report Renewable Revolution: Low Carbon Energy by 2030. The Bellona Foundation had on display their 101 Solutions table (pictured) at which anyone could play Climate God, as I did.

I was impressed at the level of detail and data communicated through the display and was encouraged to find Stop Over-Consumption such a powerful card to “wield.”

Experience the power yourself by playing the Online Version.

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