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Homegrown seed can be good July 23rd, 2017 by

African leafy vegetables are important for nutrition, and increasingly for sale. Shops in Africa are now starting to sell packets of seeds to farmers and gardeners. But seed produced by farmers is also sold informally, in small town markets.

Sophina Tembo and her vegetablesA recent study in Kenya suggested that this informal seed could be fairly good. Marcia Croft and colleagues compared 24 lots of seed for two kinds of African leafy vegetables: amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and nightshade (Solanum spp.). For each kind of seed, the study compared six lots of informal seed with six lots of formal seed. Since few companies in Kenya sell vegetable seed, the six lots of formal seed were made up of one lot from a Kenyan seed company, and five lots from an international research agency (AVRDC) in Tanzania.  The germination rates for the informal seed were acceptable: 59% for amaranth and 84% for nightshade, while less than 30% of the formal seed sprouted. The article does not explain why the formal seed had such an abysmal germination rate. Perhaps in future studies the formal seed will perform better.

Man and woman harvest vegetablesThe study raises questions: How good is vegetable seed in other African countries? And, how fresh was the seed in the shop and in the AVRDC collection? (Perhaps the formal seed had sat on the shop shelf for a long time). And future studies should clearly separate commercial seed from the collection of a research center.

The Kenyan seed customers themselves form two distinct groups. The study showed that the customers of  African leafy vegetable seed include poorer farmers (who have less land to grow their own seed) and men with full time jobs, weekend gardeners who don’t have time to produce seed.

Smallholders and gardeners could demand more seed in the future. To supply them, the study concludes that the informal seed markets should be strengthened, rather than supporting formal market development for African leafy vegetable seed. Good seed will benefit the poor, and gardeners trying to grow healthy food for their families.

Read the article

Croft, Marcia M., Maria I. Marshall, Martins Odendo, Christine Ndinya, Naman N. Ondego, Pamela Obura & Steven G. Hallett 2017 ‚ÄúFormal and Informal Seed Systems in Kenya: Supporting Indigenous Vegetable Seed Quality.‚ÄĚ The Journal of Development Studies. DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2017.1308487.

Further reading on seed in Africa

Andrade-Piedra Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p. http://www.rtb.cgiar.org/blog/publication/case-studies-root-tuber-banana-seed-systems/

Van Mele, Paul, Jeffery W. Bentley and Robert Guéi (eds.) 2011 African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp. http://www.agroinsight.com/books.php

Further viewing

The onion nursery. https://www.accessagriculture.org/onion-nursery

Making a chilli seedbed. https://www.accessagriculture.org/making-chilli-seedbed

Managing vegetable nematodes. https://www.accessagriculture.org/managing-vegetable-nematodes

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The joy of business July 16th, 2017 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

On the 29th of June in Cochabamba, I watched as 39 farmers’ associations met with 183 businesses, in a large, rented ballroom, where tables just big enough for four were covered in white tablecloths and arranged in a systematic grid pattern.

cacao y árbolesAll day long the farmers and entrepreneurs huddled together, in 25-minute meetings, scheduled one after the other, for as many as 15 meetings during the day, as the farmers explained the virtues of products like aged cheeses, shade-grown cacao, and bottled mango sweetened with yacón (an Andean tuber). Some businesses had come to buy these products, but others were there to sell the farmers two-wheeled tractors and other small machines.

mango en alímbar de yacónEach association or business had filled out a sheet listing their interests and products. The organizer used computerized software to match up groups by interest, and set a time for the meetings. The time was tracked by a large, computerized clock, projected onto the wall.

At the end of each of the 25 minute meetings, each table filled out a one-page form stating if they had agreed to meet for another business deal (yes, no, maybe), and if so when (within three months, or later), and the amount of the probable deal. By the end of the day, the farmers and the business people had agreed to do business worth 56 million bolivianos, equivalent to $8.2 million.

Business representatives came from five foreign countries: Belgium, Peru, the Netherlands, Spain, and Argentina, to buy peanuts and other commodities. But most of the buyers and sellers were from Bolivia and only 6% of the trade was for export.

The meeting was self-financed. Each farmer’s group paid $45 to attend and each entrepreneur paid $50. This is the ninth annual agro-business roundtable, so it looks like an institution that may last.

Business is a two-way street. For example, one innovative producer of fish sausages made deals to sell his fine products to hotels and supermarkets, but he also agreed to buy a machine to vacuum pack smoked fish, and another deal to buy trout from a farmers’ association.

la boletaWith over 400 people lost in happy conversation on the ballroom floor, I barely noticed the three staff-members on the side, sitting quietly at a table, typing up each sheet from each deal, using special software which allows the statistics to be compiled in real time. This will also help with follow-up. Two months after the roundtable, professionals from Fundaci√≥n Valles will ring up the group representatives with a friendly reminder: ‚ÄúYou are near the three month mark when you agreed to meet and buy or sell (a given product). How is that coming?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitator, explained that in previous years the roundtable brought in $14 million in business, but that was mostly with banks and insurance companies, signing big credit deals, or insurance policies. Now the money amount has dropped a bit, but people are buying and selling tangible, local products, which is what the farmers want. It can be difficult and time-consuming for smallholders and entrepreneurs to meet each other, but with imaginative solutions buyers and sellers can connect.

Acknowledgment: this roundtable was organized by Fundación Valles and Fundesnap.

LA ALEGR√ćA DEL NEGOCIO

El 29 de junio en Cochabamba, observ√© mientras 39 asociaciones de agricultores se reunieron con 183 empresas en un sal√≥n de eventos, lleno de mesas que eran el tama√Īo perfecto para cuatro personas.

cacao y √°rbolesTodo el d√≠a los agricultores y empresarios se juntaron, en reuniones de 25 minutos, hasta 15 reuniones durante el d√≠a, donde los productores explicaban las bondades de productos como quesos a√Īejos, cacao producido bajo sombra, y frascos de mango endulzados con yac√≥n (un tub√©rculo andino). Algunas empresas vinieron para comprar esos productos, mientras otros estaban en plan de vender motocultores y otras peque√Īas m√°quinas a los agricultores.

mango en al√≠mbar de yac√≥nCada asociaci√≥n o empresa hab√≠a llenado una hoja detallando sus intereses y sus productos. El organizador us√≥ software computarizado para juntar los grupos seg√ļn sus intereses y fijar una hora para sus reuniones. La hora se controlaba con un reloj grande y computarizado que se proyectaba a la pared.

Al final de cada una de las reuniones de 25 minutos, cada mesa llenaba un formulario indicando si habían quedado en volver a reunirse para hacer negocios (sí, no, tal vez), y cuándo (dentro de tres meses, o más tarde), y el monto probable del trato. Al fin del día, salió que los agricultores y las empresas habían fijado tratos por un valor de 56 millones bolivianos, equivalente a $8.2 millones.

Asistieron empresas de cinco pa√≠ses extranjeros: B√©lgica, Per√ļ, Holanda, Espa√Īa, y la Argentina, para comprar man√≠ y otros productos. Pero la mayor√≠a de los vendedores y compradores eran bolivianos y solo 6% de la venta era para exportar.

La reunión era auto-financiada. Cada asociación de agricultores pagó $45 para asistir y cada empresa pagó $50. Esta es la novena rueda anual de agro-negocios, así que parece que es una institución duradera.

El negocio es una calle de dos sentidos. Por ejemplo, un productor innovador de chorizos de pescado quedó en vender sus finos productos a hoteles y supermercados, pero también compró una máquina para embalar su pescado ahumado al vacío, e hizo un acuerdo para comprar trucha de una asociación de productores.

la boletaCon m√°s de 400 personas felices, bien metidas en charlas en el sal√≥n, pasan desapercibidos tres miembros del equipo a un lado, sentados en una mesa, pasando a m√°quina las hojas escritas a mano en cada una de las reuniones. Las tres personas usan un software especial que permite compilar las estad√≠sticas ese rato. Los datos ayudar√°n con el seguimiento. Dos meses despu√©s de la rueda, profesionales de Fundaci√≥n Valles llamar√°n a los representantes de los grupos para hacerles recuerdo: ‚ÄúYa casi son tres meses desde que quedaron en volver a reunirse para comprar (o vender) su producto ¬Ņc√≥mo van con eso?‚ÄĚ

Miguel Florido, facilitador, explica que en los a√Īos previos, la rueda trajo hasta $14 millones en negocios, pero mayormente con bancos y aseguradoras, firmando contratos para cr√©ditos o seguros. Actualmente se mueve un poco menos de dinero, pero la gente vende y compra productos tangibles, locales, que es lo que los agricultores quieren.

Agradecimiento: La rueda de agro-negocios se organizó por Fundación Valles y Fundesnap.

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Five heads think better than one July 9th, 2017 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

Innovation fairs are becoming a popular way to showcase agricultural invention, and to link some original thinkers with a wider community.

On the 28th of June I was at an innovation fair in Cochabamba, held in a ballroom that is usually rented for weddings and big parties, but with some tweaking it was a fine space for farmers and researchers to meet. Each organization had a table where they could set out products or samples, with their posters displayed behind the presenters.

For example, at one table, I met a dignified, white-haired agronomist, Gonzalo Zalles who explained his work with ‚Äúdeep beds‚ÄĚ for raising healthy, odorless pigs. I told Mr. Zalles about some pigs I had seen in Uganda (Smelling is believing), but Eng. Zalles explained that he makes a slightly more sophisticated bed. He starts by digging a pit, then adding a thin layer of lime to the base, followed by a layer of sand. In Uganda, some innovative farmers raise pigs on wood shavings, but Zalles uses rice husks as the final layer. He says they are more absorbent than wood shavings.

I asked if he added Effective Microorganisms (a trademarked brand of yeast and other microbes that are used widely, not just in Uganda, but also to make bokashi fertilizer in Nepal, see The bokashi factory). But no, in Bolivia, swine farmers are using a mix of bacteria and yeast called BioBull, which is made by Biotop, a subsidiary of the Proinpa Foundation in Cochabamba.

José Olivera CamachoAt a nearby stall I caught up with José Olivera of Biotop who was displaying not just BioBull, but other biological products as well, including insecticides and fungicides for organic agriculture. José travels all over the Bolivian Altiplano selling these novel inputs to farmers. He may soon have another product to sell, if research goes to plan at the Panaseri Company, in Cochabamba. Panaseri collaborates with Proinpa to produce food products from the lupine bean, packaged for supermarkets under the brand Tarwix.  At the Panaseri stand, Norka Ojeda, a Proinpa communicator, explained that the Tarwix factory buys lupine beans (tarwi) from farmers and washes out the poisonous alkaloids, rendering the nutritious tarwi safe to eat. (Read more about lupines at Crop with an attitude).

tarwixThe people at Panaseri originally disposed of the alkaloids without any treatment. But they became concerned about the environmental impact, so they installed filters at their plant to remove the toxins from the water. Now researchers at Biotop are studying the possibility of using the alkaloids as ingredients in new botanical insecticides.

Linking researchers to farmers’ associations and companies seems to be bearing fruit. Raising swine without the bad smell is crucial for keeping livestock near cities, where it is easy to get supplies and the market for the final product is nearby. Inventing new bio-pesticides is key to keeping chemical poisons out of our food.  Many heads think better than one.

Acknowledgements

The innovation fair was hosted by Fundación Valles, Fundesnap and other partners of the Fondo de Innovación on 28 June 2017, with funding from Danida (Danish Aid).

Further viewing

Watch a video on tarwi here.

CINCO CABEZAS PIENSAN MEJOR QUE UNA

Las ferias de innovación se están volviendo una manera popular de mostrar la invención agrícola, y para organizar a algunas personas creativas en una comunidad mayor.

El 28 de junio asist√≠ a una feria de innovaci√≥n en Cochabamba, en un sal√≥n de eventos que normalmente se alquila para bodas y quincea√Īeras, pero con algunos ajustes sirvi√≥ perfectamente para el encuentro de agricultores e investigadores. Cada organizaci√≥n ten√≠a una mesa donde pod√≠an mostrar sus productos o muestras, con sus p√≥steres a la vista detr√°s de los interesados.

Por ejemplo, en una mesa conoc√≠ a un destacado agr√≥nomo con una cabellera blanca, Gonzalo Zalles quien explic√≥ su trabajo con ‚Äúcamas profundas‚ÄĚ para criar a chanchos sanos sin olores. Le cont√© al Ing. Zalles de los cerdos que yo hab√≠a visto en Uganda (Smelling is believing), pero √©l explic√≥ que √©l hace una cama un poco m√°s sofisticada. Empieza cavando una fosa, agregando una capa de cal y una de arena. En Uganda, Algunos agricultores innovadores cr√≠an a los cerdos en aserr√≠n, pero el Ing. Zalles usa c√°scara de arroz como la √ļltima capa. √Čl dice que es m√°s absorbente que el aserr√≠n.

Le pregunté si él agregaba los Microorganismos Efectivos (una marca registrada de levadura con otros microbios que se usa ampliamente, no solo en Uganda, sino también para hacer fertilizante tipo bokashi en Nepal, vea The bokashi factory). Pero no, en Bolivia, los porcicultores usan una mezcla de bacteria con levadura llamada BioBull, un producto de Biotop, que es un subsidiario de la Fundación Proinpa en José Olivera CamachoCochabamba.

En otra mesa encontr√© a Jos√© Olivera de Biotop quien mostraba no solo el BioBull, sino otros productos biol√≥gicos, incluso insecticidas y fungicidas para la agricultura org√°nica. Jos√© viaja por todo el Altiplano boliviano vendiendo esos insumos novedosos a los agricultores. √Čl pronto tendr√° otro producto para vender, si la investigaci√≥n va bien con la compa√Ī√≠a Panaseri, en Cochabamba. Panaseri colabora con Proinpa para producir empaquetar tarwi (lupino) para supermercados, bajo la marca Tarwix.¬† En el stand de Panaseri, Norka Ojeda, comunicadora de Proinpa, explic√≥ que la f√°brica de Tarwix compra tarwi de los productores y lava los venenosos alcaloides, para que el nutritivo tarwi sea sano para comer. (Lea m√°s sobre el tarwi aqu√≠: Cultivo con car√°cter fuerte).

tarwixLa fábrica de Panaseri tiene que descartar los alcaloides, pero la empresa se cuestionó del impacto ambiental, así que instalaron filtros en su planta para quitar las toxinas del agua. Ahora los investigadores de Biotop están estudiando la posibilidad de usar los alcaloides como ingredientes en nuevos insecticidas botánicos.

Vincular los investigadores con asociaciones de productores y empresas parece dar fruto. Criar cerdos sin malos olores es crucial para la porcicultura cerca de las ciudades, donde es conveniente comprar la comida de los cerdos y vender los productos finales. El invento de nuevos bio-plaguicidas es clave para evitar de envenenar nuestra comida. Sí parece que varias cabezas piensan mejor que una sola.

Agradecimientos

La Feria de Innovación fue auspiciada por la Fundación Valles, Fundesnap y otros socios del Fondo de Innovación el 28 de junio del 2017, con financiamiento de Danida (Ayuda Danesa).

Para ver m√°s

Vea el video sobre tarwi aquí.

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Tuta on the move July 2nd, 2017 by

The tomato is a remarkably versatile plant, with a huge number of different varieties, most of which are easy to grow. It is a popular crop with many farmers, a reflection of the strong demand from consumers in many countries. But the tomato is also prone to many pests and diseases and physiological disorders. The tomato plant is closely related to the potato and both suffer from similar diseases, including late blight, bacterial wilt and a host of viruses.

Twine for tomatoes copyTomatoes tend to be grown in small plots or in polytunnels and glasshouses, so I still recall my surprise a few years ago when I saw my largest tomato field ever in Mato Grasso state in Brazil. Double rows of tomatoes several hundred metres long were planted on a gentle downward slope. A team of workers were tying the plants to twine stretched between large poles of eucalyptus set about five metres apart. A tractor stood by, ready to carry new poles along the rows

It was an impressive operation, though I worried about the efficiency of large scale production as I watched the workers working hard to remove vigorous weeds. I also saw a number of serious diseases when I walked a short distance along the rows. More recently, I came across more large fields of tomatoes in Kyrgyzstan, during a series of visits in Chuy district with Alieve Nur and colleagues. Alieve works for Ailana, a local food processing company that produces tomato purée and tomato juice and cans vegetables and fruit.

P1040311 copyAilana have 126 contracted out-growers, most of whom have started to grow tomatoes in the last few years. The fields were set up in a different way to those in Mato Grosso. The tomatoes were direct-drilled by tractor, rather than being planted out as seedlings. The method appears to work, though there were a few gaps where no seeds had been apparently sown ‚Äď or had failed to grow. They were bushy tomatoes so didn‚Äôt need staking. Which is just as well, since the largest field I saw was 52 ha. Imagine a rough square with each side 700 metres long. It would take over 30 minutes to walk around all four sides.

The other unusual thing I noticed was the absence of any major pests and diseases and weeds. The tomato plants were only a month old so maybe this was too early in the season for infections and infestations to develop. Or maybe the crop had been treated with pesticides, though there was no direct evidence of this taking place. During my day out I was presented with odd bits of leaves that were drying out or showing minor damage. Nothing to worry about, I said. But when you have a large area of a valuable crop any sign of disease can cause anxiety and precipitate hasty spraying.

Damaged fruit cut open 3 copySo far Tuta has only been found in glasshouses around Bishkek. It is unclear whether it will cause as much damage in open fields as it does in enclosed spaces, where favourable conditions lead to rapid spread of the highly damaging caterpillars. Nor is it clear how a farmer with a 52 ha field is going to control Tuta. This is a huge area for putting out pheromone traps, for example, and an expensive task as well.

There is some hope that the long, cold winters may wipe out Tuta every year, though continuous production in heated glasshouses will provide a refuge and the insect has an uncanny ability to survive hard times and re-emerge to attack afresh. In the UK my colleague Martin McPherson suggested to me that the high risk of late blight in open fields discourages farmers from this method of production.

Demand for tomatoes is growing in Kyrgyzstan and the season is short, so it makes sense to maximize production from fertile soils in open fields. Water is freely available. Farmers will now be closely monitoring the current tomato harvest for Tuta damage. Fortunately, wholesale buyers of tomatoes, such as Ailana, are already thinking about how to help farmers cope with this new threat. For the many people with a small garden plot of tomatoes it’s less clear who will be giving them advice.

Reference

Esenali Uulu T, Ulusoy MR, Çaliskan AF, 2017. First record of tomato leafminer Tuta absoluta in Kyrygyzstan. EPPO Bulletin. doi: 10.1111/epp.12390

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A farm in the city June 25th, 2017 by

Orchard and fields copyAerial views of the fertile plains of Kyrgyzstan reveal a dominant pattern of long, narrow fields, endlessly repeated into the distance. The colours of the fields give some indication of what’s being grown. In early June the wheat is almost ready to harvest and the green swathes are starting to go yellow. Maize fields are lush, the plants growing vigorously. Cotton, another popular field crop, is still establishing and cover is more patchy.

Large-scale farming in Kyrgyzstan is no longer the centrally-planned, target-driven model of the Soviet era. Farmers may be free to plant what they want, but market forces still determine the range of crops that are economically viable. The demand for wheat is steadily increasing and cotton has ready markets in Turkey, a close partner of Kyrgyzstan.

P1040244 copyBut there’s much more to agriculture in Kyrgyzstan than field crops. One gets a view of a more diverse production as the plane descends to land at major cities such as Bishkek and Osh. The irregular spaces between the long, narrow fields are filled with mostly fruit trees. Orchards can occupy up to several hectares, particularly in Osh district and in the southwest of the country generally, but many are relatively small. A smattering of polytunnels (small greenhouses) around the outskirts of Bishkek points to a year-round capacity to produce vegetables, meeting some of the local demand during the long, cold winter.

Then, just before the wheels touch the tarmac, small plots of vegetables and fruit can be seen around many houses. One of the privileges of the work Jeff, Paul and I regularly experience is to meet small-scale farmers, but this is usually in a rural setting and not in cities. A quick glance at Google Maps shows that while the centres of Bishkek and Osh are densely packed, gardens are still a prominent feature in the spreading suburbs.

P1120610 copyMr Orunbai Dosmatov, senior entomologist at the phytosanitary laboratory for Osh province and guide for my three-day visits to the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, invited me to stay at the family home in Osh city. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was looking forward to learning more about urban agriculture. The family home was fronted by a vegetable plot about 25 metres by 25 metres, complete with tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins and maize.

Just beyond this was an orchard of cherries, the trees laden with juicy and flavoursome fruit. Orunbai told me that a local trader would organise the harvesting for an agreed price. Running your own farm in addition to a full-time job requires careful management. Cherry picking is a time-consuming task, even with family members to hand. At the back of the house, lucerne (alfalfa) was being grown to feed the three goats held in a covered area attached to the side of the house. Hay was stored in an open loft for the winter months.

There were more fruit trees in a separate field on the other side of the short track up to the main house. Orunbai had one cow on a summer pasture. Water flowed freely through the garden, diverted from a natural stream that flowed from the hills behind Osh. Ironically, despite the natural abundance of water, the supply to the house was restricted and unreliable.

P1120626 copyA grapevine wove in and out of a high metal frame outside the upper floor rooms which I occupied during my stay. A tandoor oven below my bedroom window was used for baking delicious bread. Yet it takes a lot of hard work to make good, local food. The crops have to be planted, weeded and tended. The goats need to be fed and looked after regularly. The garden may produce 30 cabbages in one go and so the family has to sell them or preserve them for later. Fruit can be turned into jam, though there’s a limit on how much of this you need throughout the year.

Later I was invited to Orunbai’s brother’s house in Kyzl Kiya, the main city in Batken region and around two hours from Osh. I saw another intriguing mix of vegetables and fruits, with large baskets of cherries ready to sell.

P1040433 copySalaries are low so city farming helps salaried people, even highly educated ones, to feed their families, save money and perhaps even earn a bit of extra income. Some years ago, I watched people sell berries, mushrooms and home-grown vegetables outside Tallinn railway station in Estonia. The value of each vendor’s produce was little more than 30 euros (around $34), a small sum but clearly valuable enough to warrant the cost of setting up the stall and hanging around all day for customers.

Field crops dominate agriculture in Kyrgyzstan but there’s also a strong tradition of growing your own food. The shops may be full of fresh produce, a welcome change from limited choice and uncertain availability during Soviet times, but it is expensive. Producing your own food is a way to eat well and cheaply and to combine the benefits of city and rural life. Orunbai is rightly proud of his urban farm and is showing the way for his sons and daughters to grow their own.

Related blogs

To drip or not to drip (peri-urban agriculture)

Things ain’t what they used to be¬†(Kyrgyzstan)

Smelling is believing (peri-urban agriculture)

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Nurgazy and Akmaral for assistance with translation. And of course to all the Dosmatov family who made my stay so memorable.

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