Hope in Africa

June 5, 2010

Often what we hear about Africa from the media is about conflict, HIV-AIDS, famine, and disease. As a result most of us are aware of the problems, but feel powerless to do anything about them. We are made to feel that Africa is a lost cause, a place that will always be the way it is. Worse yet, many of us don’t travel there, worried about their safety, scared of what we might see.

While some of us will travel here to see the World Cup or head on a safari, a lot of these packaged vacations are tightly controlled, bringing you a very sanitized experience. So we embarked on a journey to visit nearly every country on the continent because we wanted to see it for ourselves. We also want to write about things going right, or so called “good news,” stories about hope and success, visiting projects led by Africans working to alleviate hunger, poverty, and protecting the environment. We are meeting with farmers, workers, organizations, NGO’s, media and even governments wherever we go, learning as much as we can, and sharing what we see.

After seventeen countries and one hundred and thirty projects so far, here are five people and organizations we thought are doing incredible work in the field.

1. Project DISC (Slow Food International), Kampala, Uganda:

We visited the Mukono District, about an hour outside of Kampala, Uganda, where we met up with Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project. Edward, 23, and Roger, 22 started the project in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture in Mukono by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools. And over the last year, DISC has received global attention for its work—DISC is now partly funded by Slow Food International.

They started with Sunrise School, a preschool taking care of children between the ages of 3 and 6. By teaching these kids early about growing, preparing, and eating food they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda’s culinary traditions. In addition to teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, DISC puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing. “If a person doesn’t know how to cook or prepare food, they don’t know how to eat,” says Edward. The kids at Sunrise—and the other schools working with DISC—know how to grow, how to prepare, and how to eat food, as well as its nutritional content.

As a result, these students grow up with more respect—and excitement—about farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School, we met 19 year-old Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from DISC. This was her school’s first year with the project and Mary has gained leadership and farming skills. “As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables,” she says, “to support our lives.”

Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities, and preserve biodiversity.

2. Heifer International, Kigali, Rwanda:

Traveling in the countryside we saw many success stories, including the work of Heifer International Rwanda who are training farmers and increasing food security. “Heifer is helping a recovery process,” explained Dr. Dennis Karamuzi, a veterinarian and the Programs Manager for Heifer. Heifer started its projects in Rwanda in 2000 in a community in Gicumbi District, about an hour outside of Kigali, the capital. This community was especially hard hit by the genocide because it’s close to the border with Uganda. Residents who weren’t killed fled to Kigali for safety.

In the years following the genocide, Gicumbi District is making a comeback thanks, in part, to Heifer International. Heifer International works with farmers all over the world, helping them develop sustainable agriculture practices, including providing livestock and training farmers how raise them.

Heifer began working in Rwanda in 2000, but their start was a little rocky. At first the community was suspicious of the group—because they were giving farmers “very expensive cows,” says Holimdintwoli Cyprien, one of the farmers trained by Heifer to raise dairy cows; they didn’t understand how the group could just give them away. Many community members thought that it was a plot by the government to have them raise livestock and then take them away, a remnant of the ethnic rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis that started the conflict there in the 1990s. And Heifer has certain conditions for receiving cows—including that farmers build a pen and dedicate part of their land to growing pasture—which made people skeptical, especially when they were used to letting animals roam freely to graze on grass. But as people began seeing the results of Heifer’s training, they become less suspicious and more interested in working with the group.

Heifer introduced a South African dairy breed, known for its high milk production, because, according to Dr. Karamuzi, “no stock of good [dairy cow] genes” was left in the country after the genocide. And he says that these animals help prove “that even poor farmers can take care of high producing cows.”

And these animals don’t only provide milk—which can be an important source of protein for the hungry—and income to families. They also provide manure, which provides not only fertilizer for crops, but also is now helping provide biogas for cooking to households raising cows in the country as part of a the National Biogas Program.

We were very inspired as we met with several farmers all over the countryside, who were lifting themselves out of poverty using help provided to them by Heifer.

Several of the farmers became teachers in their own communities, helping their neighbors learn new skills and techniques that they were benefiting from, and working with them to implement them.

3. Nairobi, Kenya; Urban Harvest:

Nowhere is it more apparent that women feed the world than in the largest slum in Kenya. Packed full of people, Kibera slum in Nairobi is populated by anywhere from 700,000 to a million people. In an area of of about 225 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan, the women we met are growing food not just to feed their families, but to also to generate income.

Some of the women we met earlier this month are raising vegetables on what they call “vertical farms.” Instead of skyscrapers, however, these farms are contained in tall sacks, filled with dirt. The women received training from the French NGO Soladarites to start their sack gardens and now grow a variety of vegetables, including greens like spinach and kale.

And more than 1,000 of their neighbors are doing the same thing. A skill that came in handy over the last few years as election violence spread through the slum in 2007 and 2008 when there was conflict in the slums of Nairobi. No food could come into these areas, but most residents didn’t go hungry because so many of them were growing crops—in sacks, vacant land, or elsewhere.

With the help of the organization, Urban Harvest, the farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, perhaps surprisingly, becoming a source of seed for rural farmers. Kibera’s farmers have always grown fodder for livestock feed for both urban and rural farmers, but by establishing a continual source of seed for traditional African vegetables, they’re helping dispel the myth that urban agriculture only benefits poor people living in cities.

4. Accra, Ghana: Ecasard

In Abokobi, just outside of Accra, traveling with the Ecumenical Association for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (ECASARD), we met with women who are using dairy cows donated to make yogurt to sell to local businesses and schools. These woman are working collaboratively on diary cow rearing, honey processing, and in milk processing. In the village of Akimoda, we met the “King” of the village who is working with farmers to grow and market moringa, a plant known as the green gold of Ghana because of its health benefits for people and livestock.

In Kasoa we met small-scale livestock farmers who are helping prevent slash-and-burn agriculture by raising grasscutters – large rodents which, to the locals at least, are considered a delicacy. And in Cape Coast we met with a group of women fishmongers who are working together to process and sell fish. There we also met Mr. Emmanuel Akai-Taylor who is a farmer-innovator that developed a local vaccine distribution program for poultry.

Ecasard is helping to train, connect, and support farmers in practicing more sustainable agriculture.

5. Arusha, Tanzania: World Vegetable Center

As hunger and drought spread across Africa, there’s a huge focus on increasing yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice. And while these crops are important for food security, providing much needed calories, they don’t provide much protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, other important vitamins and micronutrients—or much taste. “None of the staple crops,” says Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center’s Regional Director for Africa, “would be palatable without vegetables.” And vegetables, he says, “are less risk prone” than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods of time.

Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize often scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

Unfortunately no country in Africa, according to Dr. Tenkouano, has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where the Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Center (which is a part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs.

Despite the focus on staple crops, vegetable production generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises, according to the Center’s website. And unlike staple crops, vegetable production is something that benefits urban and rural farmers alike (See our posts on urban farmers in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).

In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor. Often referred to as “hidden hunger,” micronutrient deficiencies—including lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine—affect some 1 billion people worldwide. They lead to poor mental and physical development, especially among children, and cause poor performance in work and in school, further crippling communities already facing poverty and other health problems.

But by listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, the Center is helping to alleviate these problems.

About the Author

Contributed by: Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack, who are currently travelling across Africa. Nierenberg is co-director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project (http://www.nourishingtheplanet.org). Pollack is an expert on local labor movements and in communications, and his travel writing has also been featured in several newspapers. You can learn more about the pair and their adventures and work in Africa on their own blog, Border Jumpers (http://borderjumpers.org).

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2 Responses to Hope in Africa

  1. Alison Bridges on April 16, 2011 at 1:14 AM

    My daughter’s school in the UK has ongoing links with Africa and each year sends a group of senior girls to live and work alongside villagers and their families. By doing this, they gain a real understanding of the culture, problems, joys and triumphs of the people and the country. Too often we only see the poverty and despair and miss out on the understanding that comes from knowing the truth of the situation.

    Thanks for going some way towards redressing the balance.

  2. Sam on April 13, 2011 at 10:20 PM

    You are quite right in saying that all too often Africa is portrayed as a continent of strife and conflict and it is all to easy to overlook the fact that this is just one part of a very complex story. This is a wonderful post which I know I myself and I’m sure others will find inspirational. Thank you.

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