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Connected to the world May 21st, 2017 by

A few weeks ago in this blog, Paul told how he was pleasantly surprised to see village farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, sharing videos on their smart phones. At the time I thought that India might be an exceptional case, being the technological giant of the Global South. However, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are catching up fast, as I learned recently. I was completely taken aback on a visit to Awasi, a small, unremarkable town close to Kisumu in western Kenya, to find that many farmers are linked to the Internet.

I visited the home of Esther Atieno Okello, a smallholder farmer. She explained that her extensionist had been by two weeks earlier to show some of the women videos about striga (a weed) on his tablet.

“Will you ever be able to watch the videos on your own?” I asked.

She thought that might be possible. “My son has a tablet,” she said offhandedly. And then she called him in to come and talk to us.

Cal, Esther, Evans with smart phonesEdwin Ochieng Okello was a vibrant youngster of about 20, who played football with the local club and helped his mom on her farm. He watches sports and news on his tablet, has an email account and sends photos on Instagram. Edwin’s brother Calrina has a smart phone which he uses to “stay connected to the world,” via the BBC News, Facebook and a radio-based platform called WeFarm, where callers can phone in with agricultural questions.

The brothers have a slightly older relative, Evans Owuor Omondi, an independent commercial farmer growing maize, cassava and with his own poultry farm. He uses a tablet to get online. All three young men were more interested in news, social media and information than in entertainment.

Awasi is only 40 km from Kisumu city, but the town is a distinct, bona fide farm community, with scattered houses surrounded by corn fields. The generation just reaching adulthood wants to be plugged in to the rest of the world. These young people can read and write, speak English as a third language, and are actively surfing the web for information.  They buy their electronic gear in town, with their own money, earned by working in agriculture.

Six years ago, when Access Agriculture started to host videos for farmers, the idea seemed wildly ahead of its time. But since last year, farmers have become the largest group of people registering on the Access Agriculture website.

Related blog

Village smart phones

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On the road May 14th, 2017 by

View to Rwenzori from Beni roundabout copyEven a dangerous, war-torn province may be on the road to economic recovery, as I saw last week when I was driven from Beni to Komanda. The two hour, 120 km journey was part of my on-going involvement with cocoa growing here in North Kivu, DR Congo.

North Kivu has a bad reputation. The British Government map shows the province in blood red and “advises against all travel”. The capital, Goma, is associated with chaos and on-going conflict. North Kivu is at the heart of internecine battles involving countless, shifting factions, watched closely by neighbouring countries with their own interests to safeguard. Beni is a long way from Goma, yet it also has periodic outbursts of violence.

Our journey started and ended peacefully. We passed more motorbikes than cars. The motorcyclists drove cautiously, partly because they were loaded up with people, produce and belongings. Bunches of bananas, bags of leeks, cassava and charcoal – lots of charcoal. A few wore helmets. Traffic is increasing year on year, but it’s all remarkably peaceful compared to the heaving roads of Kenya. We moved smoothly along.

But still we had an early reminder of the dangers of driving. A truck driver had ploughed off the road the previous evening and one person had died. A UN armoured car was parked at the side of the road, one of several that we’d seen on the outskirts of Beni. People walk pass the white UN behemoths, ignoring the blue helmets that protrude from the turrets.

Brasimba adverts on walls copyThe roadside houses had walls made of mud plaster over wooden slats and corrugated roofs. We went through many small towns. There were more shops than I remembered from last year’s journey to Komanda. The local Beni brewery, Brasimba, advertises its various brands of beer by painting buildings in yellows and reds, both bright, optimistic colours. Mobile phone companies do the same all over Africa, a sure-fire way to be noticed. Beer and phones: signs that investment and businesses are growing, part of an increasing prosperity in Beni that is closely linked to cocoa.

We stopped in Oisha at a cocoa depot. Outside, a farmer was carefully tending his cocoa beans, which he had brought a bit too wet to sell. A motorbike was refuelling from a mini-depot, small stands stacked with plastic bottles of petrol. The vendor poured the fuel through a funnel while the passengers remained in place. They looked cramped but soon they were on their way.

Mini-depot and fill motorbike copyWe passed through areas of tall eucalypts, a tree maligned by some ecologists but hugely popular with farmers. The tree grows fast and straight; producing light but strong timber for construction and fences. Oil palm groves flashed by, the seeds crushed in simple presses to produce a viscous, orange cooking oil. More bags of charcoal by the road as we headed north, a sign that were getting close to forested areas. But the most surprising part of the journey so far was that we were on a tarred road, a real luxury in North Kivu: 60 km of smooth highway, courtesy of China – another investment in the future.

Just after Eringeti we stopped at a local government checkpoint marking the boundary with Orientale province. My colleague went to report my presence, clutching my passport. Such checkpoints are of dubious legality, a way to exact tolls and exercise notional authority. Haggling over payments can be protracted, but Patrick returned after 10 minutes: “all he wanted was a bottle of water”.

Shortly afterwards the tarred road ended. There were bumps and lurches but the graded road was well maintained and surprisingly smooth as we made good progress. My mobile phone signal stayed strong throughout the journey. Many more mobile phone masts have been erected in recent years, another tick on my mental list of improvements that makes peoples’ lives easier.

Komanda is an important but nondescript town, strategically positioned at the crossroads of three major roads: Beni to the south, Bunia to the east and Kisangani to the West. All of us gave a little gasp at the brand new hotel in the centre of town, with modern façade, multi-storied and all gleaming blue windows (de rigeur in North Kivu).

Oxygen hotel frontA modern hotel in Komanda? We entered the Oxygen Hotel and looked around. The owner from Butembo had invested a lot: proper beds and en suite bathrooms, a big improvement on the decrepit but serviceable hotel where we stayed last year. Here was another sign of confidence in the future, and in the most unlikely of places. I don’t pretend that one hotel in the back of beyond is a harbinger of economic prosperity, but it is a significant step forward.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish writer, said that the journey was as important as the destination. The view from the car paints only a partial picture, yet it is still an important window on other people’s worlds and backs up what I’ve seen in the wider countryside. My journey gave me hope, reinforcing improvements I’ve seen over the last 13 years, powered by a steady increase in cocoa production. Decline and disarray is not inevitable nor irretrievable, especially if the agricultural economy is thriving. There is still violence and civil society struggles to flourish in North Kivu, but there are plenty of people who are optimistically investing in their future.

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Are you poor? May 7th, 2017 by

Big smile with banana bunch on head copyWhen Jeff, Paul and I write these blogs we chose our words carefully. We want to paint a positive yet realistic picture of development, reflecting an optimism founded on first-hand experiences. Yet it can be difficult when writing about the poorer regions of the world to avoid emphasising poverty and creating a spiral of despair, however unintentional.

The recent vogue in development is to classify countries by income, the latest in a long list of attempts to find a neutral way to describe poor countries. We have come a long way since Henry Kissinger’s crude and infamous description of Bangladesh as a “basket case”, back in the 1970s. “Third World” countries prevailed for a while, but its use faded as political divisions between East and West began to disappear.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development proposed the use of North and South to distinguish rich and developed nations from their impoverished counterparts. This has never quite caught on, though “the global South” is still in current use. “Under-developed” countries had a patronising ring to it and though “developing countries” has a more positive connotation it has never really conveyed a strong sense of transition out of poverty.

Now we have low, middle and high income countries, with rankings monitored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Donors find this classification a convenient way to separate countries in terms of needs and to target funds at the most deserving. Ranking by income matters a lot because it determines where projects will be funded and allowed to work.

Caravan at petrol staton copyBut there are still anomalies, particularly in large countries such as Brazil and South Africa, where regional disparities in income and life prospects are particularly marked. Even low income countries have wealthy people, and middle income countries have pockets of poverty. When I drove from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape, in 2000, it was like entering a different country. The landscape became bleaker, towns more ramshackle and the mobile phone signal disappeared.

The OECD list classifies South Africa as “upper middle income”, so there are drawbacks to this method of deciding which countries do and don’t deserve donor support. Fortunately, South Africa is able to fund its own development projects and I was intrigued to experience a few years ago  an initiative that used the expertise and knowledge of white farmers to train black farmers in maize production. Maize has been a popular smallholder crop for many years, but on a small scale and with poor yields.

Hat lady with samples and Richard copyI got to know the white farmers, mostly Afrikaans-speaking, when I ran a course on plant clinics in Drankensville. I assumed that most of them belonged to the rich world, yet although they had undoubtedly benefited from apartheid-era privilege, there was no simple division between them and the black farmers they worked with. At a plant clinic, I watched in admiration as the Afrikaaners gave advice on maize problems in fluent Zulu. Many of the (white) people on the course had been given additional Zulu names, probably by domestic staff. I saw a genuine rapport between the two groups of farmers and an obvious mutual respect. It made me think hard about the way we decide who is poor and who is not.

Later I learned that some of the Afrikaaners had left school with minimal qualifications. They’d been in the army and then worked the land. Yes, they clearly had more material wealth, but to label them rich and the black farmers they worked with poor seemed wrong. This bleak division did little to emphasise the dignified way in which the white and black farmers treated each other.

Remo consultation copyAid agencies and international NGOs learnt long ago that pictures of suffering children attract funds, but they over-emphasise misery at the cost of hope for a better future. A poor country is a poor country, whichever way you look at it. But we should think carefully about how we describe their farmers, people who strive hard to do better. Their ambitions, perseverance and creativity deserve respect, hence the importance of choosing the right labels for the countries where they live.  Our blog stories will continue to feature the successes of farmers and entrepreneurs in poor countries. Publicising their achievements is the simplest way to enrich the lives of everyone.

Acknowledgements

I’m grateful for the support of the Agriculture Research Council of South Africa and for the support of my colleagues at the Plant Protection Research Institute.

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An illusion in the Andes April 30th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación.

When five, roughly rectangular blocks appeared on the mountainside high above Cochabamba, I assumed they were just fields of oats. The pale green shade seemed about right for the feathery grain, and the cool climate was ideal for oats.

oat fieldsHowever, social media soon turned the checkered slope into a mystery.  Cochabambinos began writing into a popular website to ask about the odd shapes. Some rushed in with answers. There was even one far-fetched suggestion that the blocks were fields of ripening coca, even though this narcotic shrub only grows in much lower and wetter country. Some thought the patches were just oats.

Others said they were wild flowers, sprouting where fields had been left fallow. My wife Ana wrote to say that the patches were so light that they could only be the brilliant white flower, known as ilusiĂłn in Spanish. Her suggestion was ignored, so one sunny afternoon, Ana and I decided to check out the fields first hand.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónAlthough the fields with the mysterious blocks are as visible as a beacon, the Bolivian bourgeoisie are not avid hikers, and few of the city dwellers know how to get up onto the slope. We drove up one of the steep, narrow roads, peeked over a few ridges, and finally spotted the ivory-colored fields up close. It wasn’t quite like finding Machu Picchu, but it was delightful to see five little plots of ilusión.

Called “baby’s breath” in English, this hardy flower (Gypsophila muralis) is a native of northern Europe and Siberia, but has adapted well to the Andes, where it has become a poor person’s commercial crop. Baby’s breath has few pests and thrives on poor, stony soil. It is a low-input, low profit crop: a cheap flower that is complements and enhances bouquets of roses. A mourner with just a few spare pesos can buy a handful baby’s breath to take to a funeral.

The fields were surprisingly small, each just a few meters wide. They made up no more than a hectare all together. There were no houses near the fields, which were being tended by some absentee, peri-urban farmer, who trusted the isolated spot to keep his or her flowers hidden in plain sight, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk below.  Every crop whether food, fiber or flower has its own signature color. A person who knows and loves plants can spot the difference between illusion and reality from miles away.

CUANDO LA ILUSIĂ“N SE VUELVE REALIDAD

Por Jeff Bentley

30 de abril del 2017

Cuando aparecieron cinco bloques, más o menos rectangulares en el cerro arriba de Cochabamba, me supuse que eran parcelas de avena. El tono verde claro parecía más o menos el del grano plumoso, y el clima fresco era ideal para la avena.

oat fieldsGracias a los medios sociales, los cuadraditos en la ladera pronto se volvieron un misterio. Los cochabambinos empezaron a escribir a una página web popular para preguntar qué eran las formas extrañas. Algunos se apuraron con respuestas. Había hasta una solución equivocadísima que los bloques eran parcelas de coca, a pesar de que el arbusto narcótico solo crece en zonas mucho más bajas y húmedas. Algunos sí pensaron que las pequeñas mantas eran avena.

Otros dijeron que eran flores silvestres, que nacieron donde las chacras se habían dejado en descanso. Mi esposa Ana escribió diciendo que las formas eran tan pálidas que solo podrían ser la brillante flor blanca, conocida como ilusión. Nadie hizo caso a su sugerencia; así que una tarde asoleada, con Ana decidimos descubrir las chacras de cerca.

Ana con las parcelas de ilusiónA pesar de que los bloques misteriosos son tan visibles como un faro, la burguesía boliviana no es muy fanática de las caminatas en el monte, y pocos de los citadinos sabían llegar a la falda de la serranía. En el auto subimos unos caminos angostos e inclinados, echamos un vistazo sobre algunos filos y al fin vimos de cerca los campos color de marfil. No era exactamente como encontrar Machu Picchu, pero nos encantó ver a las cinco parcelitas de ilusión.

La ilusiĂłn (Gypsophila muralis) parece delicada, pero en realidad, es un robusto nativo del norte de Europa y de Siberia, que se ha adaptado bien a los Andes, donde se ha convertido en un cultivo comercial de los pobres. La ilusiĂłn tiene pocas plagas y prospera en el suelo pobre y rocoso. Es un cultivo de baja inversiĂłn y baja rentabilidad: una flor barata que complementa y enriquece hasta a un ramo de rosas. Una persona que solo tiene dos o tres pesos en el bolsillo puede mostrar su respeto al muerto, llevando un ramito de ilusiĂłn al entierro.

Nos sorprendió que las chacras fueran tan pequeñas, unos pocos metros de ancho cada una. Las cinco no sumaron a más de una hectárea. No había ninguna casa cerca de las parcelas, que eran cultivadas por algún agricultor peri-urbano pero ausente, que confiaba en el lugar aislado para proteger a sus flores, escondidas en plena vista, desconcertando a los vecinos de la ciudad en el piso del valle. Cada cultivo, bien sea alimento, fibra o flor tiene su propio color único. Una persona que conoce y ama las plantas puede ver la diferencia entre ilusión y realidad a kilómetros de distancia.

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The ice harvest April 23rd, 2017 by

Ice was once a natural resource of some value, harvested, processed and sold on international markets. The ice harvest has vanished, but not before evolving into our modern food chain.

In 1805, the 21-year-old Frederic Tudor was at a party in Boston, when his brother William playfully suggested that ice from nearby ponds could be cut and sold to wealthy customers in the Caribbean. Frederic, later to be known as the “Ice King”, seized on the idea, and the following year took a ship loaded with ice to sunny Martinique, where he taught the owners of the finer hotels how to make and sell ice cream.

The ice cream sold for a hefty price, but the ice itself soon melted, leaving Frederic with a staggering loss of $4000. Not one to be easily discouraged, he learned from his expensive lesson by experimenting with different ways to make the ice last longer. He compared types of insulation, including straw, wood shavings, and blankets, and designs for storage facilities until he had perfected an ice depot that could keep 92% of its inventory frozen for a summer season. Once he had succeeded, Frederic’s business and reputation soared.

Ice mover NSmallFor years, ice harvesters improvised techniques with pickaxes and chisels, aided by horses wearing spiked shoes, to avoid slipping on the frozen lakes. This was usually good enough to gather enough ice to be stored for sale in the summer in northern cities. Then in 1824, another Massachusetts man, Nathaniel Jarvis, invented a horse-drawn ice cutter, with parallel blades that would cut ice from frozen ponds into blocks of standard sizes, such as 22 by 22 inches (56 centimeters). This innovation allowed blocks of ice that could be loaded tightly onto a ship, without spaces in between. The ice was less likely to melt or shift in transit, and the ice trade took on a new life.

Ice began to be shipped to Charleston, New Orleans and other southern cities (especially to chill beer and preserve fish during the long, hot summers), but in one bold experiment in 1833, Tudor shipped 180 tons of ice to Calcutta, where he built a large ice depot to house his product. Residents of India could now buy an insulated box, and stock it with a block of Yankee ice that would keep food and drinks cold for days.

4380 keeping the fridge cool with iceBy 1856 over 130,000 tons of ice were being cut from ponds around Boston and shipped not just to India, but also to Latin America, the Caribbean, China and the Philippines.  But that same year, spurred by the profits to be made from ice, a British journalist, James Harrison, invented a practical, coal-powered ice compressor in Australia. “Natural ice” (cut in the wild) and “plant ice” (from factories) competed with each other in an expanding market. In the 1800s, some railroad cars and ships were fitted with ice-holding compartments that allowed fresh meat and other perishable produce to be shipped long distances.

At first, consumers preferred natural ice, believing it was cleaner and longer lasting, and it wasn’t until 1914 that plant ice in the USA gained dominance. Relatively inexpensive electrical refrigerators came onto the market in 1923. Once consumers had refrigerators, they no longer had to buy ice.

ice bhanAfter a century of lively commerce, the spectacular long-distance and large-scale trade of natural ice finally began to decline and eventually collapsed in the 1930s. However, the ice trade has left the modern economy with a legacy: the commerce in fresh food which continues to this day, although it is now based on refrigeration, not natural ice. And of course there is still a niche market for factory-made ice, sold for picnics, and (especially in developing countries) to fishmongers and other small-scale food dealers.
The ice trade also led to another innovation, the ice box, which allowed homeowners to keep food fresh, stimulating the trade in produce from countryside to town. Modern supermarkets with ice cream, frozen fish and fresh meat presuppose that the consumers have a refrigerator at home. Today, tropical countries like Ghana export mangos and papayas to Europe and North America. Because of refrigeration in Central America, more farmers are able to sell fresh produce to large, new supermarkets in cities like Tegucigalpa and San Salvador.

You can now find tropical produce in refrigerators around the world, and in a sense it started when a student at Harvard joked with his brother about shipping frozen pond water to the Caribbean.

Further reading

Boorstin, Daniel J. 1965 The Americans: The National Experience. New York: Vintage Books. 517 pp.

Cummings, Richard O. 1949 The American Ice Harvests: A Historical Study in Technology, 1800–1918. Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press.

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