Tag Archives: Agriculture

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.


Down the road to BASCO

Vida sits in a scratched wooden chair beneath the only coconut tree in a clearing. She has a series of line scars next to her eyes and mouth, three sets of four, twelve marks in all. “I got them from my mother,” she says. “When I was a baby I was sick she gave me them to keep me healthy.”

The fifteen year-old is outgoing, pretty and popular amongst her classmates at the Baptist School Complex and Orphanage (BASCO). “I was only a small girl when I came here. I don’t remember who brought me,” she says. But her eyes convey a knowing sadness as she speaks of the past. She made the trip here a decade ago, up a rugged and isolated path cut through dense jungle brush. Many children have walked the same path since.

Pastor Victor is BASCO’s director. He is tall, dressed all in white with gold trim and refers to the students as his children. He says he remembers Vida’s first day, “we didn’t even have buildings yet. Taught the classes standing under the shade of cocoa trees.” He says Vida had to overcome several challenges. “When she got here she would never talk. For two years she would never say anything. Just a sobbing little girl. She would eat sometimes but she didn’t trust anyone yet. It was so serious you could see she had been traumatized,” says the pastor.

“I wasn’t scared just sad sometimes when I would think of my mother,” says Vida. She shrinks in her chair, stares at the ground and drags lines in the sand with her feet. It is clear she is uncomfortable with the topic.

“Her father died in an accident and her mother was murdered in front of her not long after. Her family thought she was a bad omen. Strange where people find Satan,” says Pastor Victor.

The sobbing little girl is now a young woman and well adjusted survivor. Her development is paralleled by the institution’s. She is one of many success stories in a facility that now feeds and houses eighty-six children and educates more than two- hundred. The schools budget is stretched thin but the staff has developed ingenious methods of assuring students are well taken care of. The compound has evolved to include classrooms,dormitories, washroom facilities, a kitchen, health centre, computer lab and their most recent project, a snail and pig farm.
“The farm will help make us sustainable and self-sufficient,” says Pastor Victor, while examining the wooden boxes filled with snails. “We want to use the money to help our older children continue their education,” says Victor. “We plan on offering vocational training here soon, but these kids have the potential to be anything they want. All they need is funding.” Currently, BASCO is dependent on the donations of benevolent individuals and agencies. The school teaches students between the ages of four and fifteen. Vida is studying for the last round of the final exams the school has capacity for. She wants to be a medical doctor and dreams of a future unimaginable when she took her first steps under the shade of BASCO’s cocoa trees.

Linking farmers to markets one SMS at a time

For smallholder farmers across Malawi, crop production is merely half of the battle. The real challenge comes postharvest, when the race begins to access markets and secure a profit before a yield spoils. With no information, determining potential points of sale, buyers and the going rate is a game of chance.

In the past, such uncertainty left smallholders in a vulnerable position. Isolated, and often desperate to make a sale, rural farmers would unknowingly agree to sell goods at rates far below the market price. Furthermore, large portions of harvests would go to waste as smallholders struggled to locate viable markets for their goods.

Malawi’s agricultural productivity has been hampered by this clear lack of transparency. The inability of farmers and traders to access information has led to inefficient supply chains and overall market inaccessibility. Beyond the obvious issue of food security, a vibrant agriculture industry is essential to furthering economic growth, expanding trade partnerships and creating income-generating opportunities in developing countries like Malawi.

Aiming to improve the productivity of Malawi’s agribusiness sector, the Market Linkages Initiative (MLI) was launched in 2009. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Famine Prevention Fund, MLI sought to revolutionize Malawi’s agriculture sector by establishing a broad communications network to integrate isolated, rural farmers into Malawi’s regional and national markets – thereby, strengthening food security. In light of the rapid uptake in mobile phone usage across Malawi, communication via SMS text messaging was determined to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to enable access to information.

Today, MLI’s electronic market information system platform informs approximately 4,000 Malawian smallholders of price variances and trends on a weekly basis via SMS text messaging. The platform, Esoko, sends farmers and traders price updates for particular goods – maize, groundnuts, grain, etc. – in their respective marketplace directly to their mobile device. Currently, MLI offers updates from 13 key markets spanning Malawi’s northern, central and southern regions.

When Malawian farmers travel to the marketplace today, they have “a clear location and clear price because of SMS technology,” explained MLI Bridging Activity Chief of Party Rob Turner. “The important thing is that for the first time they have information to base their decision on,” he added.

Knowledge is power and according to Turner, access to information is empowering farmers to make informed decisions on when, where, and how to sell their goods. With real-time information at their fingertips, Malawian smallholders have succeeded in bargaining with traders for better deals, increasing their profits and identifying opportunities for expansion into new markets.

While “the Ministry of Agriculture also provides price information,” USAID Senior Agricultural Technical Analyst Vincent Langdon-Morris noted, “it is often criticized for being obsolete and out of date.” Furthermore, this official government data is not distributed via SMS, or used for commercial purposes. Instead, this information is released to the media who report prices for select commodities via radio broadcast.

However, USAID Communications Specialist Oris Chimenya said that if a smallholder happened to miss a particular market price announcement, there is not a secondary avenue where that information can be retrieved. “There is no website, there is no written material, and there is no other linkage between the farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture,” Chimenya explained.

“There has been discussion, because of literacy issues, that it would be more effective to use radio or send voicemail to farmers,” Turner said. Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that smallholders generally prefer to receive information via SMS. Essentially, the ability to save and refer back to information, as well as note trends over time, add to the inherent value of SMS technology. Overall, SMS remains the best method for cost effectively reinforcing a message in a timely manner.

According to Turner, “SMS is tailor made for a place like Malawi.” As “the value of SMS goes up the poorer the country,” Malawi’s underdeveloped infrastructure and communications networks create a better climate for SMS projects than countries like Kenya – where 3G networks rule. Interestingly, Turner also noted that rural Malawians have proven to be “willing to spend a very significant amount of their income in order to have a phone because it is so valuable to them.” As for the future of SMS technology in Malawi, Turner believes that this mentality is proof that “there is a lot of room for growth.”

Gutter gardens: MH-37’s toxic run-off

Accra’s Military Hospital No. 37, was built during the Second World War and it’s obsolescence is becoming evident. About a year ago, the pipe carrying raw medical waste from the mortuary, maternity and surgical theaters to the treatment tank was damaged. Unable to fix the line, the hospital began dumping bio-hazardous material into the city’s open-gutters. Now, the sewers are overflowing and downstream the stench of contamination and concern is growing thick.

Nuuna, works in one of the vegetable gardens growing in the shadow of Military Hospital No. 37. The tall, bearded, 24 year old is the eldest of five children living in his Mother’s house. He works hard to maintain a balance between family obligations, time in the field and pursuit of an education. He

and his siblings struggle together earning their pay with the cuts and callouses tempering their hands.
Each day, they pick, trim and prepare assorted greens for sale. They pluck crops from the soil, remove the small leaves, sever the stock and bind the individual sprigs together with lashings cut from the discarded end pieces. The bundles are put into corrugated boxes bound for markets both local and international. “Some stays here, but almost everything we pull up gets sent to the UK or Europe,” Nuuna explained, while slicing a fibrous strip from a handful of leaves.

The land is irrigated with water drawn from both a well and a stream fed by run-off from city sewers.He says the property is government owned, but not on the supply grid. “I went to see them (the water and housing commission) about pipes many times. They would never talk to me, always said to go andcome (back later). I think they wanted a bribe or something.” Without fresh water, farmers like Nuuna are forced to grow crops using the sources available.

In the city, clean water is a critical commodity and it doesn’t come cheap.Drinking from  faucets is rarely advised and potable sources are most likely found in a bottle or sachet. Open sewers carry liquid and solid waste material of all sort. When gutters overflow the result can  be devastating.

Last year during the rainy season, Accra was rocked by flooding and the rapid tide of a cholera epidemic. Nearly 6 thousand people fell ill with 80 eventually dying from  the disease. Cholera can be treated with rehydration fluids, but amongst infants, the elderly and the infirm death can occur  within hours. The youngest victim of the outbreak was only eight  days old when her tiny body succumbed to the bacterial infection.

At this point, no solid connection between hospital waste and the outbreak has been established. However, many living nearMH-37 have complained of general poor health and the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that epidemics become virulent when water caches are contaminated.

The Globe newspaper and CIti-fm, developed and broke the medical waste story near the end of January. The news sparked public outrage and in response the AMA (Accra Metropolitan Assembly) formed an emergency fact-finding committee. The investigation found deplorable conditions at the hospital and authored a series of recommendations.The list includes an overhaul of the drainage system, repairs to deteriorating hospital infrastructure and opened the door to charges of criminal negligence.

Hospital administrators were unavailable or unwilling to comment on the situation. The AMA’s official report states the target is to prevent future dumping and endangerment of public health. However, the committee failed to acknowledge the residual realities faced by farmers in the fields of Accra.

Nuuna says, without access to a consistent water supply he has no choice but to continue with current practices. Nearby reservoirs have a high probability of contamination, making crops suspect and continuing to place the public at-risk.

At the market, boxes overflow with produce grown locally, as well as, on farms worldwide. Vesta buys her fruit and vegetables at a well-established stand a few kilometers from MH-37. She picks through each item looking for bumps, bruises or other tell-tale signs of corruption. Her inspection is thorough, but danger is not always visible. “I think they inspect everything before it gets here. The standards boards should be held accountable. I mean, they must test for those kinds of things,right?” She asked, while market girls stayed silent and loaded bags of cabbage, tomatoes and bundled greens into the trunk of her idling jaguar.

Malawi abandons tobacco for crop diversification (and food security)

At a farm estate in Zomba District, Malawi, chickpeas now dry in the sun where previously space was only made for tobacco. Travis Lupick photo.

This past season, Henry Tambula saw his farm narrowly avoid financial ruin.

“I’ve grown tobacco for 25 years,” he said on the property he manages in Zomba District, Malawi. “And what happened this year has never happened in Malawi -It has forced us not to grow tobacco this season so we have stopped. We will never go back to tobacco.”

Strong words for a farm manager in a country that once relied on “green gold”, as the locals fondly call it, for as much as 70 percent of its exports and 15 percent of GDP. But in renouncing the crop, Tambula is in good company.

For 2011, Malawi’s tobacco earnings are down 57 percent from what they were the previous year. After five consecutive seasons of declining returns on tobacco, a combination of the global recession, oversaturated markets, and increasingly-popular anti-tobacco campaigns is forcing Malawian farmers to look to other crops.

According to Prince Kapondamgaga, executive director for the Farmers Union of Malawi, this is not bad news. “Diversification is long overdue,” he said.

A group of Canadian’s working in Malawi agrees. Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief’s Putting Farmers First program has long supported food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email sent from Toronto, Kevin O’Niell, a program officer with the group, wrote that CPAR builds on the strengths of small-scale farming communities by promoting conservation agriculture principles such as crop diversifcation.

“Crop diversification is one of a series of sustainable farming techniques at the core of CPAR’s approach that improve crop production and expand opportunities for farmers to lead competitive agricultural production efforts,” he explained. “By moving away from mono-cropping (planting only one staple crop such as maize), small-scale farmers lessen their dependency on the success of that crop.”

What’s more, he continued, this strategy also helps to improve the nutritional content of families’ household diets. As arable land previously used to grow maize and tobacco –the two most-common crops in Malawi– is cleared of those plants, more room is made available for healthier fruits and vegetables.

O’Niell maintained that for CPAR, these issues are very-much a matter of human rights.

“People’s right to food is driven by the notion that food should be accessible to all (sustained year-round access to a stable supply of food), available to all (a sufficient supply), adequate for all (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system), and acceptable to all (culturally appropriate and respectful of traditions),” he wrote. “Our work with small-scale farmers is based around these principles.”

[caption id=”attachment_5516″ align=”aligncenter” width=”675″ caption=”Not tobacco: In a country that once relied heavily on so-called "green gold", farmers are increasingly focusing on other crops, such as c

Malawi’s national addiction

No fertile ground is left unturned during Malawi’s annual maize harvest. Fields like this one are a common sight in Malawi’s cities and towns.

“There’s no food if there’s no nsima.”

Or so I learned from a former colleague as he stared disapprovingly at my grilled cheese sandwich over lunch one day. The heavy white porridge of maize flour is Malawi’s staple food and is produced and consumed across the country—uniting all income, class, religious, and tribal divides. It’s also an object of national pride; criticizing the dish is a surefire way to get on a Malawian’s bad side.

“It is part of our culture. Our parents and grandparents all ate nsima,” says Felix Minjale, Programs Officer with the Hunger Project in Malawi.

Nsima’s main ingredient is critical to the country’s food security—2.4 million tons of maize is needed every year to feed Malawi’s 15 million people.

Reaching this goal draws on the country’s collective energy. The most recent Malawi census found that 80 per cent of Malawians are subsistence farmers consumed by the yearly process of planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting and milling maize.

While visiting a rural area just outside Blantyre’s city centre, I asked resident Linnah Matanya how many people there farmed maize. She looked surprised by the apparent naiveté of the question before answering. “Everyone,” she said. “Without maize, we die. Full stop.”

And maize isn’t just a rural preoccupation; 15 per cent of urbanites are subsistence farmers. Just about everyone I talk to in the city supports their extended family’s maize field.

Jessey Kachule is a business owner in Blantyre. As a child, her parents would regularly haul her to her grandparents’ village to work in their field.

In her large office with a highway view, Kachule reminisces about those days. “The best part was when we ate the maize straight from the field . . . But the part I hated most was removing the seeds from the cob and your thumb would get all swollen,” she says with a laugh before turning serious.

“It taught us children how to be responsible,” she says, “and to appreciate what we had in town.”

While she no longer has time to work in the field, she is still expected to help her grandparents’ village by sending fertilizer and money.

Maize shortages caused famine in Malawi in 1991, 2002, and 2005, so this rural-urban collaboration seems to be an important part of fending off the too familiar spectre of hunger.

But the country is technically riding a wave of food security. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a global organization that predicts food shortages, reported that Malawi’s national grains stock is stable. Andrew Daudi, secretary for Malawi’s agriculture ministry, recently said that 3.9 million tons of maize is expected to be harvested this year.

Matanya, however, doesn’t want to feel complacent since rains have been sparse lately and harvesting season is still three months away. “We don’t know God’s mind. He can do anything to us.”

And no fertile ground is left unturned in Malawi’s yearly quest for sustenance. Maize stalks can appear anywhere—whether they’re by the side of a gas station or sandwiched between a plastics factory and a highway.

It’s a national dependence that may be hard to understand for those from industrialized countries where incomes are disposable and cheap imported foods flood the shelves.

“Countries like South Africa don’t need a staple food because they have so much,” says Matanya.

But even Kachule, who can access imported food, sticks close to corn. Before a busy workday, she’ll eat a bowl of maize porridge using cobs from her grandparent’s garden. According to her, “It just sustains you better than anything else.”