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Against the backdrop of the African Green Revolution Forum 2012 in September, Farm Concern International (FCI) was privileged to host two eminent guests in Mbuguni, Tanzania, a Cassava Village Processing Programme (CVPP) site which is implemented with the support of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
FCI Director for Strategy and Innovations, Mumbi Kimathi shares her insights into the encounter with Kofi Annan, the Chair of AGRA and Melinda Gates, Co –Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Kofi Annan and Melinda Gates have a deep and genuine interest in the status of the poor, in particular the smallholder farmer who is the key focus of FCI's commercialization and market development interventions in Africa.
Annan and Gates showed a keen interest in the lifestyles, livelihoods and the status of children among the villagers of Mbuguni, Arusha Region located on the leeward side of Mount Meru in Northern Tanzania. This is a semi-arid area characterized by fertile sandy soils and erratic rainfall, posing immense challenges to farmers who site rain and water scarcity as impediments to their agricultural activities. The visit to Mbuguni presented an opportunity to interact with ordinary farmers and find out from them first hand: What are their lives like in general? Are there significant improvements they can testify to in their homesteads and on their farms? What do the children eat on a given day? Do they go to school? Are parents' incomes sufficient to support investments in better education for children? Do families have sufficient food?
These are deep issues at the heart of Africa's smallholders, the majority of them impoverished. Considering there has been a lot of recent focus on food security issues and the growing attention to the importance of inclusion of the nutrition component in the various interventions, Kofi Annan repeatedly said: "Lately I have learned not to say 'food', but to say 'food and nutrition' always because food does not always mean that the nutrition needs have been met."
On her part, Melinda Gates' interest was deeply focused on the holistic household: For instance, is household nutrition improving? When agricultural systems are linked to nutrition, is there room for improved quality of life? She was keen to see firsthand how nutrition is integrated at the household level and if these practical approaches confirm the current thinking matched by research that linking agriculture to nutrition is a beneficial strategy. What are those small approaches on the ground that has been applied to ensure that nutrition security is part of family and community strategy?
The other aspect the visitors were keen to learn was if the farmers were registering improved productivity and once it had improved for them, did they now have better access to reliable markets. They were also eager to know if the farm gate prices were better and if farmers encountered better and fairer business partnerships?
At FCI, village business forums are an innovation that provides an appropriate platform for the farmers, traders and various categories of buyers to consult and understand one another. The forums are designed to generate viable trade and business within value chains. Farmers and traders alike agree on the production plans of a particular commercial village allowing for forward negotiations and planning for the purchase of commodities on pre-agreed terms.
Both Kofi Annan and Melinda were interested in how the issues at village level link up to the current global issues, especially how villagers were coping with and adapting to the realities of climate change. They were engrossed as the farmers articulated how the integrated systems arrived at by themselves and FCI were making a positive impact in their lives. For instance, the focus on traditional food crops such as cassava that is resilient and best suited for arid regions such as Mbuguni.
In 2011, when the rains failed, Elias Meena, like his peers in the village lost an entire maize crop on 3 acres. However, his saving grace was that he had planted 4 acres of cassava which was highly successful. From the proceeds of the cassava sales, he was able to increase his acreage to 12 acres in 2012, including leased land in anticipation of yet another bumper harvest. However, since cassava is a pure energy food, it poses a nutrition risk to households when consumed alone.
FCI has been instrumental in advising farmers like Elias and his peers to integrate hardy pulses suited to the region such as pigeon peas, green grams and introducing traditional African vegetables to ensure that family meals are wholesome. In addition, it is important to note that while it is possible to meet the intention of providing wholesome meals, if they are not prepared in a palatable way, the whole purpose can be frustrated.
This calls for detailed attention to innovative methods of preparation. In the nutrition campaigns, FCI has introduced highly simplified processes for traditional African vegetables that enable a short cooking time, creation of tasty meals made more palatable by mixing the sweet varieties and bitter varieties to come up with something more neutral so that everybody in the household, including children, will enjoy the meal. For instance we have the amaranth leaves which children consume without too much fuss because it is soft and sweet and the immediate benefit in these interventions is that faring households get to address the preservation and inclusion of important micro-nutrients and protein obtained from their own farms (including use of chicken eggs and milk to fortify family meals).
These are simple, empowering and locally available approaches that communities are encouraged to adopt without spending a fortune.
Annan and Gates also posed this question: How does FCI influence communities to appreciate nutrition as an integral part of ongoing interventions? The approach FCI takes is that nutrition is a household issue and not necessarily a women's issue as is commonly believed. We ensure that we deliver a household package that raises the profile of nutrition as a critical issue besides incomes. The whole package includes household and group savings; household nutrition, incomes, issues to do with commercialization and the adoption of simple household and village-level technologies and innovations. We promote a holistic household package delivered through a commercial village model.
The main thing is to create awareness to the entire village that nutrition is a critical component because a household which is made up of men, women and children and youth cannot dedicate land to some of the nutrition-friendly commodities if they are not convinced that it is a viable proposition. If they are driven only by pure commerce or just by sales what the temptation is to take an entire farm and dedicate it to a commercial crop. In a place like Mbuguni, the inherent risk is to dedicate the entire farm to cassava commercialization so we must also ensure that men, who control family decisions on land utilization, understand why we are introducing legumes and traditional African vegetables so that a certain portion of that land is allocated for women to actually plant those food crops for their household consumption. The added value of such a proposition is the knowledge imparted on how to prepare palatable and nutritious traditional staples.
Kijiji products is a flagship FCI brand catering for a variety of commodities produced by the smallholder farmers we work with. The brand provides an opportunity for farmers' high quality produce to access formal markets.
At FCI we recognize that value addition of farm produce enables the farmers to generate a higher return for their produce. FCI supports the small holder farmers through training to ensure that the products meet stringent market requirements, enabling farmers access markets they would otherwise not be able to access individually. Kofi Annan and Melinda Gates were particularly impressed on their visit to Mbuguni Cassava Village Processing unit, which serves as a model community factory where farmers demonstrated to them that it is possible for village-level communities to meet high level market standards and create employment opportunities for themselves. Villagers are confident of the unit's capacity to absorb their key commodity; they own it, run it and realize its value.
They are also confident in being able to command the fresh cassava roots market which absorbs the first grade produce at a premium but 2nd and 3rd grade quality no longer goes to waste as it is processed into dry chips for onward processing into milled flour either as pure cassava or as composites with millet or sorghum. Not long ago, frustrated farmers were forced to sell 2nd and 3rd grade cassava at unacceptably low farm gate prices. But village processing and value addition creates value, which Annan and Gates found fascinating.
They admired the products on display which they observed could compete favourably with any other international brand in terms of quality, packaging and presentation. It is also bar-coded and has a nice brand name and is of great interest within and beyond the village of its origin. It is worth noting that this is the same commodity that was supplied to feed the African Green Revolution Forum 2012 delegates at the Ngurdoto Conference Centre in Arusha!
FCI VISION :Commercialized smallholder communities with increased incomes for improved, stabilized & sustainable livelihoods in Africa and beyond.