Listening to Farmers

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Tomatoes growing at the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Tomatoes growing at the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

This is the second blog in a series about Danielle’s visit to the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

The World Vegetable Center is focusing on “building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa.” What does that mean? According to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, Director of the Regional Center for Africa, it requires “bringing farmers voices into the choices of materials they are using.”

The Center does this not only by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits—including resistance to disease and longer shelf life—but also by bringing farmers from all over eastern, western, and southern Africa to the Regional Center in Arusha, Tanzania, to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market. Mr. Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, was at the Center when I visited, advising staff about which tomato varieties would be best suited for his particular needs—including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

The Center works with farmers not only to grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Dr. Mel Oluoch, a Liason Officer with the Center’s Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (VBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times. “Eating is believing,” says Dr. Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes—and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook—they don’t need much convincing about the alternative methods.

Dr. Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. In fact, one of the women farmers we met in Kibera slum in Nairobi had been trained at the Center and is selling seeds to rural farmers, increasing her income. “The sustainability of seed,” says Dr. Oluoch, “is not yet there in Africa.” In other words, farmers don’t have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops. As a result, the Center is working—partly with CNFA, an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) grantee—to link farmers to input or “agro-” dealers who can help ensure a steady supply of seed.

In addition, the Center is providing how-to brochures to farmers in Swahili and other languages to help them better understand how to grow vegetables in different regions.

Stay tuned for more about our visit to the World Vegetable Center later this week.

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