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Organic agriculture and mice December 9th, 2018 by

Some practices are harder to introduce to farmers than others. In Europe, environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture has given rise to new forms of subsidies for farmers to provide specific environmental services, such as planting hedgerows or keeping wild flower strips around their fields. In developing countries, however, environmental subsidies are non-existent and hence curbing environmental degradation can be extra challenging.

Recent developments in the global quinoa trade have devastated the fragile ecosystem of the Bolivian Altiplano. As quinoa production intensified, farmers ploughed up large sections of native vegetation, which left the soil prone to wind erosion. With the thin fertile top soil being blown away and young quinoa plants being covered with sand, many farmers abandonned their land and moved to the cities. The loss of native vegetation also limited the forage available for the llamas and vicuñas.

To address this problem, the research organisation Proinpa is trying hard to re-introduce native plants. If native plants could be grown as live barriers around quinoa fields, they would provide fodder and at the same time reduce wind erosion. But some farmers are reluctant to adopt this technology. Planting live barriers costs money, labour and takes up part of their land.

Many of the farmers who plant barriers belong to associations that market organic quinoa. Organic certification ensures that farmers get higher prices, as long as they follow certain practices (such as planting hedges) that contribute to a better social and natural environment. Subsidies for organic farming are rare in developing countries, premiums from certification schemes can partly make up for missing government subsidies, unless pests also like organic crops.

Farmers who grow live barriers told Proinpa that the hedges attract mice who can destroy young quinoa seedlings. Mice are also attracted to the harvested grain as it dries in the field, before threshing. If the quinoa is not stored properly, mice often get into the warehouses. When droppings foul the grain, the crop is rejected for organic trade.

Organic agriculture can be a blessing to boost the income of smallholder farmers and to protect the environment. But as this example shows, organic farmers are prone to additional challenges. Farmers on the Bolivian Altiplano set traps by burying cans partly filled with water to drown the mice. Frustrated quinoa growers also stomp on mice burrows in thie fields or leave quinoa chaffe at the entrance of mice holes, so they eat this and leave the young quinoa untouched.

Every new technology has unintended consequences. Perhaps no one anticipated that live barriers would protect mice, and the soil. Yet farmers who have planted the barriers see their benefit and are willing to find new ways to take on the mice.

Watch and download videos

The video from Bolivia on live barriers against wind erosion will be published early next year on the Access Agriculture video platform .

The video on Grass strips against soil erosion made in Thailand and Vietnam is available in 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ayamara and Quechua

The many farmer training videos on organic agriculture

Related blogs

Waiting for rats

Quinoa, lost and found

Acknowledgement

The video on live barriers in Bolivia is developed with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). Thanks to Milton Villca, Eliseo Mamani and colleagues at Proinpa for background on this story.

Feeding the cities December 2nd, 2018 by

Last week, Jeff, Marcella and I explored the Teleférico in La Paz, an innovative public transport system that works like a metro with stops for people to get in and out. Using Swiss and Austrian technology developed to transport alpine skiers, the cable cars are the perfect solution to move people around in the Bolivian capital that has sprawled along the steep slopes of the canyon where the city is built, and onto the Altiplano at altitudes ranging from about 3400 meters to above 4000.

La Paz sits in a deep canyon, while its twin city, called El Alto, sprawls over the plains above La Paz. The two cities, side by side, make up the highest major metropolis in the world. One of the Teleférico lines takes us from La Paz to El Alto. I was amazed at the sheer number of people that have been attracted to the cities, perhaps two million, while El Alto was just farm land until the 1940s and may now be home to half of the population of the Altiplano.

Looking down from our cable car onto the rooftops and small courtyards, it seems that nobody is actually growing anything in El Alto. Only once we hear a cock crow. Supplying these fast growing cities with healthy food that is localy produced will be a challenge for the years to come.

Urban gardening is gaining popularity across the globe and smart innovations like the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables in people’s courtyards offer a great opportunity to make the most of limited space and limited fertile soil and organic material.

The recently released farmer training video produced in Kampala, Uganda, on growing vegetables in sack mounds is a practical example of how farmers and urban gardeners can grow tomatoes and greens in a sack, in a very small space. As countries like Bolivia and Uganda urbanize rapidly, they can learn from each other’s experience.

Through its specialised video platform and translation services, Access Agriculture strives to make this happen. As the Teleférrico moves people across places, so does Access Agriculture move farmer training videos across the globe.

Eating and talking about it November 25th, 2018 by

Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist, explains in a recent book about food that people perceive just a handful of basic tastes with our tongues: bitter, sweet, salt and sour. But our nose can sense many thousands of distinct scents. When we exhale, our nose smells the food in our mouths. Taste in the mouth and aroma in the nose combine to form the endless variety of flavor.

Other creatures cannot savor their food this way, because only humans have a glottis (vocal chords), covered by a flap that opens and closes to let air pass between our throats and our windpipe. This allows only humans to breathe in and out of our mouths, which is why we can speak (and unfortunately, why we can choke to death as well).

In all fairness, animals seem to enjoy their food, too. A dog will beg for a pancake and chickens get excited when they find a fat grub in the moist earth, but people go much further. As Richard Wrangham explains, humans have been adapting to cooked food at least since Homo erectus times. Cooking allowed us to evolve smaller guts and larger brains, which made speech possible.

And of course, one of the favorite topics of conversation is food. Whether it is fish curry in Bangladesh, millet and groundnut sauce in Uganda or chicken and tortillas in Guatemala, humans will sit down together to eat and talk, and sometimes to laugh.

Animals communicate, but only humans speak, compulsively spinning little stories for each other. Certainly discussing food is at the heart of the human experience. Whether eating, cooking or producing food, there is always something to say about it.

Further reading

Herz, Rachel 2018 Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science behind Our Relationship with Food. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 352 pp.

Wrangham, Richard 2009 Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books. 309 pp.

Making a slow buck November 18th, 2018 by

Agro-input dealers are often thought to be only interested in making money any way that is possible, otherwise known as “making a fast buck.” But enlightened dealers can combine the profit motive with a concern for customers’ well-being to earn their trust and make a business that lasts.

Richard Businge has a small shop in Fort Portal, Uganda, selling farm tools, seeds and other inputs. In 2016 Richard discovered that he could use farmer training videos to attract and keep customers.

At university, Richard studied computer science and monitoring-&-evaluation. His first job, as part of a donor-funded project, taught him how hard it was for farmers to find quality inputs, so when the project ended, Richard started his own business. But competition was stiff.

One day Richard mentioned this to his mother, who had educated her children by selling in the market. At one point, she had taken second-hand clothing from market to market. So she suggested “taking your products to the farmers in the market, rather than having them come to you.”

So once a month on market day Richard takes his two helpers and some goods in a taxi to one of six nearby towns, going every six months to each market. Small towns in Uganda always have at least one video hall, called a chivanda or bibanda, made of black plastic sheeting and light wood. Customers pay a few coins to watch a commercial movie, often an action film. Once everyone is seated, the chivanda door is closed and holes are patched to keep young boys from peeping in for free.

Richard pays 100,000 Ugandan Shillings ($26) to get the sole use of the chivanda for three hours. First, he hires a person to stroll around the market with a loudspeaker, announcing when and where shoppers can go to see free videos. “Farmers don’t miss this opportunity!”

Richard plays popular music for half an hour as people drift in, allowing them to take their places and not get too bored. He then plays a video which he has previously downloaded from Access Agriculture and stored on a USB stick. He simply plugs the memory stick into the chivanda’s movie player or laptop.

After the first video, Richard takes questions from the audience before moving on to a second and finally, a third video. The videos only last about 15 minutes each, but with the question and answer sessions (and the music) Richard makes full use of the chivanda for three hours.

Because Richard shows the videos for free, the chivanda door stays open all the time, and farmers come and go constantly. Just outside the chivanda door, Richard has a stall set up where his assistants sell goods, including some the farmers have seen in the videos, such as PICS bags (plastic bags for keeping insects out of stored beans and grain). Sometimes Richard shows videos on how to grow onions, which helps him to sell onion seed.

A veterinarian colleague sets up a stand nearby and sells animal health products; having two allied businesses helps to attract more customers.

Richard is not an agriculturalist, but he reads a lot and he looks for information on the Internet so he can answer farmers’ questions during the video show. When he doesn’t know an answer, he says: “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you.”

Fielding questions gives Richard ideas for new topics that interest farmers. He then discusses these on a talk show he does on the radio every Saturday morning in the local language, Lutoro.

Sometimes farmers who have seen the videos in the market come into the shop (Kiyombya Agro Enterprises) in Fort Portal and ask to watch a specific video again. “Show me the one on onions!” Richard or an assistant is happy to play the video. He says “Videos also helped to bring more customers into my shop. They trust more what we are selling because we have the videos and because of the videos the customers know that I have more information than some other dealers. So they come to find out more.”

Building a clientele gradually, sharing ideas and earning trust, may not be the fastest way to make a buck, but a business that serves the community and supports a family can be built on enlightened self-interest, sometimes with a little help from farmer learning videos.

Related blogs

Families, land and videos in Northern Uganda

Drip irrigation saves water in South Sudan

The power of radio

Winning the peace, with chilli and videos

Late night learning

Watch the videos mentioned in this story

You can see the PICS bags in two videos:

Harvesting and storing soya bean seed

Good storing and conserving maize grain

You can also watch the onion videos:

Harvesting and storing onions

Managing onion diseases

How to make a fertile soil for onions

Installing an onion field

The onion nursery

Making more money from onions

 

Feeding the Inca Empire November 11th, 2018 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

The Inca Empire depended on a road system, called the Qhapaq Ă‘an, that linked its four regions from Ecuador to Chile, moving armies, laborers and food. Like beads on a necklace, the Qhapaq Ă‘an was studded with grain silos, called qollqas, where food could be stored.

The largest set of these qollqas is at Cotapachi, near Cochabamba in Bolivia, 1000 km from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, Peru. Between 1450 AD and 1500 AD, the Inca Empire built 2500 granaries at Cotapachi, on a dry ridge overlooking a small lake in the Cochabamba Valley. According to David Pereira, archaeologist and expert on the qollqas, this site was part of a vast complex, with about 1500 more qollqas on other, nearby hilltops.

Each qollqa is about 2.5 meters in diameter at its stone base and could hold perhaps 4 tons of maize. They were originally about 3 meters tall, with gently tapered cylindrical walls woven from the stems of the ch’illka plant and plastered with mud and roofed with straw of the needle grass.

In 2007, 27 of the qollqas of Cotapachi were reconstructed, so to speak. They were designed by the architect Jorge Obando Stemberg and built by soldiers from the nearby Tumusla Regiment of the Bolivian Army.  These replicas are made from adobe (mud) bricks, but they are kind of graceful in the afternoon sunlight, with the backdrop of the mountains.

Nothing is left of the other silos, except for rows and rows of stone bases.

From Cusco, the Inca could command the granary silos to be filled with maize grown in the green, irrigated fields of Cochabamba. The grain was carried to the garrison that guarded the southeast frontier at Inka Llajta, or it was sent to Cusco via the administrative settlement of Paria, in Oruro, Bolivia. A royal army passing through Cochabamba could provision its soldiers directly with the grain stored in the silos.

The grain was transported on llamas, which thrive on native Andean vegetation, but their slender backs can only carry a light pack of some 25 kg. You would need 160 llamas to haul the grain from one silo. It must have been a marvelous sight when thousands of pack llamas flowed like a river, up the stone slope to Inka Raqay, their first stop on the way to Cusco.

Like the Inka, all ancient states were built on the food and labor wrested from farmers. Some of the arrangements for commandeering and transporting that grain were as impressive as the cities they fed. The bases of grain silos may be humbler than ruined palaces, but it’s important to recognize that civilization is based on agriculture, and that farming does leave its mark on the archaeological record.

Notes

Thanks to David Pereira for sharing his insights about the Inca grain silos at Cotapachi.

The “-s” ending from Spanish is used today for Quechua plurals. In classical Quechua the qollqas would have been called “qollqakuna”.

The Inca, or Inka, was the supreme ruler of a state that was called “Tawantinsuyu,” meaning “all four quarters”.

There were actually more qollqas in the Mantaro Valley, in Peru, than in the Cochabamba Valley, but the silos in Mantaro were spread out over several sites.

Needle grass includes Stipa ichu and related species. It is called paja brava in Spanish, and ichhu in Quechua.

Ch’illka is Baccharis salicifolia.

Further reading

Eeckhout, Peter 2012 “Inca Storage and Accounting Facilities at Pachacamac.” Andean Past 10(1):12.

Gyarmati, János and Carola Condarco CastellĂłn. Circa 2012 “Las ocupaciones prehispánicas tardĂ­as y el centro administrativo inkaico en la Cuenca de Paria, Altiplano de Oruro.”

Earlier blog stories

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Making new ruins

The tyrant of the Andes

Related videos

The grain kept at Cotapachi may have been stored for a while, or sent soon after harvest to Cusco. Weevils, moulds and other post-harvest problems have always been a challenge, and still are. For videos on handling the maize harvest on a small farm see:

Managing aflatoxins in maize during drying and storage

Managing aflatoxins in maize before and during harvest

Storing and managing maize in a warehouse

Good storing and conserving maize grain

Good shelling, sorting and drying of maize

Harvesting maize in a good way

ALIMENTANDO AL IMPERIO INCAICO

El Imperio Incaico dependía de un sistema de caminos, llamado el Qhapaq Ñan, que unía sus cuatro regiones desde Ecuador hasta Chile, moviendo ejércitos, trabajadores y alimentos. Como cuentas en un collar, el Qhapaq Ñan estaba tachonado de silos de grano, llamados qollqas, donde se podían almacenar los alimentos.

El conjunto más grande de estas qollqas está en Cotapachi, cerca de Cochabamba en Bolivia, a 1000 km de la antigua capital incaica de Cusco, Perú. Entre 1450 y 1500 AD, el Imperio Incaico construyó 2.500 graneros en Cotapachi, en una cresta seca con vista a un pequeño lago en el Valle de Cochabamba. Según David Pereira, arqueólogo y experto en las qollqas, este sitio formaba parte de un vasto complejo, con cerca de 1500 qollqas más en las otras cimas cercanas.

Cada qollqa medĂ­a unos 2,5 metros de diámetro en su base de piedra y podrĂ­a almacenar unas 4 toneladas de maĂ­z. Originalmente tenĂ­an unos 3 metros de altura, con paredes cilĂ­ndricas suavemente cĂłnicas tejidas a partir de los tallos de la planta ch’illka y estucados con barro y techadas con paja brava.

En el 2007, 27 de los qollqas de Cotapachi fueron reconstruidos. Fueron diseñados por el arquitecto Jorge Obando Stemberg y construidos por soldados del cercano Regimiento de Tumusla del Ejército Boliviano.  Estas réplicas están hechas de adobes, pero son elegantes a la luz de la tarde, con el fondo de la cordillera.

No queda nada de los otros silos, excepto filas y filas de bases de piedra.

Desde Cusco, los incas podían ordenar que los silos se llenaran de maíz cultivado en los verdes campos irrigados de Cochabamba. El grano fue llevado a la guarnición que vigilaba la frontera sureste en Inka Llajta, o fue enviado a Cusco a través del asentamiento administrativo de Paria, en Oruro, Bolivia. Un ejército real que pasaba por Cochabamba podía abastecer directamente a sus soldados con el grano almacenado en los silos.

El grano fue transportado en llamas, que prosperan en la vegetación nativa andina, pero sus esbeltos lomos sólo pueden llevar una mochila ligera de unos 25 kg. Se necesitarían 160 llamas para llevar el grano de un silo. Habrá sido una vista todo un espectáculo ver a los miles de llamas cuando fluyeron como un río, por la ladera de piedra hasta Inka Raqay, su primera parada en el camino a Cusco.

Al igual que el Inka, todos los estados antiguos fueron construidos sobre los alimentos y la mano de obra arrebatada a los agricultores. Algunos de los arreglos para requisar y transportar ese grano eran tan impresionantes como las ciudades a las que alimentaban. Las bases de los silos de granos pueden ser más humildes que los palacios en ruinas, pero es importante reconocer que la civilización se basa en la agricultura, y que la agricultura deja su huella en el registro arqueológico.

Notes

Gracias David Pereira por compartir sus ideas sobre las qollqas de Cotapachi.

El sufijo “-s” del español se usa hoy en día para plurales en quechua. En el quechua clásico las qollqas se habrán llamado “qollqakuna”.

El Inca, o Inka, era el gobernante supremo de un estado que se llamaba “Tawantinsuyu”, que significa “los cuatro cuartos”.

Hay más qollqas en el Valle de Mantaro, en el Perú, que en el Valle de Cochabamba Valley, pero los silos en Mantaro estaban dispersos en varios sitios.

La paja brava incluye Stipa ichu y especies relacionadas. Se llama ichhu en quechua y needle grass en inglés.

Ch’illka es Baccharis salicifolia.

Lectura

Eeckhout, Peter 2012 “Inca Storage and Accounting Facilities at Pachacamac.” Andean Past 10(1):12.

Gyarmati, János y Carola Condarco CastellĂłn. Circa 2012 “Las ocupaciones prehispánicas tardĂ­as y el centro administrativo inkaico en la Cuenca de Paria, Altiplano de Oruro.”

Earlier blog stories

Inka Raqay, up to the underworld

Making new ruins

The tyrant of the Andes

Related videos

El grano guardado en Cotapachi pudo haber sido almacenado por un tiempo, o enviado a Cusco poco después de la cosecha. Los gorgojos, mohos y otros problemas de pos-cosecha siempre han sido un desafío, y lo siguen siendo. Para ver videos sobre el manejo de la cosecha de maíz en una pequeña granja, vea:

Manejo de aflatoxinas en maĂ­z durante el secado y almacenamiento

Manejo de aflatoxinas en el maĂ­z antes y durante la cosecha

Almacenar y manejar el maĂ­z en bodega

Almacenando bien el maĂ­z

Desgranando, seleccionando y secando bien el maĂ­z

Cosechando el maĂ­z bien

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