Thursday, February 18, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
Can you connect the Millennium Villages Project with . . .
. . . to help move these projects forward?
§ Food manufacturers and retailers (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Starbucks, etc.)
§ Fruit juice and tea companies
§ Cosmetic companies (L’Oreal, etc.)
§ Health and beauty aid companies
§ Hibiscus. Some of the villages are getting good crops (often organic) of a variety of hibiscus whose flower is used in teas and fruit juices.
§ Dried mangoes and dried pineapples. There are so many mangos - fantastic ones - that just rot on the ground for lack of markets to sell them to.
§ Shea. Used in cosmetics and soaps.
§ Market bags. Women in the villages could sew bags which would then be sold in supermarkets.
Seed companies to partner or provide product
Seeds and/or capability for seed production and dissemination. Production and dissemination of high quality seed is a major limiting factor in farmers’ being able to improve their yields. Particularly useful would be fruit and horticulture seed that is well suited to these climates.
Documentary about Dov Pasternak. His work is so amazing that the rest of the world should know about it!
People or organizations with expertise in manufacturing inexpensive solar cookers, and providing micro loans for their purchase
Solar cookers provide environmentally clean cooking and reduce deforestation.
Companies or grantor organizations interested in supporting technical/vocational education
Vocational training (examples: making clay pots, solar cookers, etc.; fence repair; irrigation pump maintenance; nurseries for seed production and propagation of trees and plants; tailoring). Build training centers, supply equipment (sewing machines, power tools, etc.), teachers and curriculum.
Companies or grantor organizations interested in funding children’s education and nutrition
§ Fortified milk. Local dairying could be expanded to supply milk to schoolchildren.
§ Dov Pasternak's Farmers of the Future. $10,000 would fund one site at the village of Sadore.
Educational institutions with business programs (Northeastern work study, MBA programs, other)
Source for design assistance (FIT, RISDE, etc.)
§ Interns to work on developing business plans for local African opportunities
§ Design market bags for sale in supermarkets. Bags should be unique, attractive and cleverly designed so they will sell well in supermarkets.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Ghana is very different from any other place we have been in Africa. To begin with, the south central region we are in is hot and humid. From the airport in Accra to the Cape Coast (where the Elmina Bay resort was) to Kumasi city to the Millennium Village cluster in Bonsaaso is incredibly lush tropical rain forest. Much of it is under cultivation, with many small family farms growing palm fruit (for palm oil), cocoa, plaintain and citrus trees. Everywhere you look, you see green. The color is such a treat for my eyes, which have been so hungry for green.
This part of Ghana is primarily Christian, while the other countries we have visited this trip are predominantly Muslim. There are many churches and only the occasional mosque. Vehicles and businesses have religious slogans. For example, one mini bus sported "psalm 23," another "psalm 91"; on a dump truck "God is one"; Christ the King Computer Services, El Shaddai Car Parts. I am not making this up.
This country has plenty of water for cash and food crops, although poor people generally don't have access to clean drinking water. The roads into the rural areas are terrible, so the rural poor have not had access to market for their valuable cocoa (or less valuable other) crops. Ghana has natural resources, including gold (near Bonsaaso) and oil recently discovered offshore. In addition, Ghana has a more progressive and stable government than we have seen elsewhere. They have held elections where power was transferred peacefully. The government has organized a system which guarantees that the Ghanaian farmer can sell every cocoa bean he can grow, at a price that can lift him out of extreme poverty.
The government is building roads and schools, and pays young people for a year of national service. It also pays for a network of community health workers. These networks exist in other countries we have visited, but have traditionally been staffed by volunteers. Ghana also has laws which empower women. Women are able to inherit land, and do not lose it to their husband when they marry.
However, the country's roads are still a major obstacle to development. Villages are spread out and the roads are terrible It takes forever to go any distance, and in the rainy season villagea can be cut off for months at a time. Now, in the dry season, roads are just dry red dust, so thick that sometimes you can't see and have to stop driving until the dust settles. Car windows are thick with dust. Many people smile and wave as we pass, but I feel bad about the enormous cloud of dust we have kicked up that they are breathing.
Our group has expanded by two: Charlotte from UBI, a potential MVP partner, and Rafael a wonderful young man (have you noticed how so many people get labeled "young" in these letters? Is it me or is it the people I'm meeting?) from Ecuador who works for MVP as agriculture and business development specialist for West and Central Africa.
We visited one of the health centers built by the Millennium Village Project. Here's an amazing statistic: there have been no maternal deaths in the cluster during childbirth since the project started 3 years ago! Paid community health workers register each pregnancy. They make sure each pregnant mother gets all prenatal care, vitamins, etc. Higher risk pregnancies are identified ahead of time and - before their due date - are sent to the clinic where the doctor is. A midwife attends the majority of women in the village clinic, but goes to the home if a woman cannot get to her. The project has brought in two ambulances, and its partnership with Ericsson and Zain (a local cell network) has made cell service generally available. So people can call or get to a clinic if there are problems. And the average birthweight is 8.4 lbs!
We visited a grain storage building built by the project and spoke with 4 women farmers. They told us the money they earn will go for their children's education. Actually, they probably meant their grandchildren's education. All are grandmothers, all in their 40's.
We met the area chief at an elaborate ceremony in his palace, a cement home built around a central courtyard. First, we went through a receiving line, shaking hands with the chief and the leaders he had assembled (they were all seated). Then we sat and they walked past us and shook our hands. After some speeches and a prayer, gifts were exchanged. Actually, they gave us 2 bottles of schnapps, and then they took them back. One of the leaders (the official taster?) opened the schnapps, poured some into a glass, and then poured it on the ground. An offering, we think. Finally, the glass was passed for us all to partake if we chose. Isn't that a nice way to start a meeting?
We saw cocoa growing - very cool. The tree is taller than I expected - about the size of a medium-sized apple tree. The cocoa pods, which look sort of like large papayas, sprout off the trunk of the tree.
Palm fruit is the other major crop here. We watched a truck being loaded with the large clusters studded with palmfruit. The project had helped the village get access to this truck, which picks up palmfruit every 2 weeks and carries it to market in Kumasi, eliminating the middlemen who would strip the farmers of nearly all their profit.
Then a dynamic village woman joined our discussion. Most people here do not seem to be uncomfortable in the very high heat and humidity. But this woman was sweating profusely. Turns out she had made two trips to her palmfruit field that morning, to pick fruit to be sent on the morning's truck. Her field is 4 miles away! She had walked 16 miles that morning, 8 with large baskets of palmfruit on her head. No wonder she was sweating.
But even though villagers pick as much as they can, at a terrible toll on their bodies, they are only able to pick half the palmfruit by hand. Half will be left in the field. Rustom suggested that the project help the village acquire carts to carry larger quantities back from the fields. The woman responded that the villagers would be quick to widen the footpaths to accommodate such carts.
Later we visited a computer lab in one of the villages. About 40 4th graders crowded into the room (two to a seat with some standing) and waited their turn to get to use the 6 computers. The computers are available to the adults at night.
Our last stop was the school feeding center. Eight thousand children have their largest meal of the day at school, which has had an enormous impact on school attendance and children's ability to learn.
In all the villages we visited, we found people's lives greatly improved by the interventions of the MVP. But the pace of change is not nearly fast enough, and often it is difficult to visualize how the gap will be bridged between what the project shows is possible and the facts on the ground.
Ghana gives me so much hope. With its plentiful water, natural resources and its responsible governance, it is so much easier to see how the achievements in the Millennium Village cluster here can show the way to real change.
The visit to the Millennium Village was inspiring, emotional, tiring, and moving. I want to focus on all that rather than on the facts and figures. So I'll remind you that the Millennium Villages website (www.millenniumpromise.org) has all such data as well as links to many other important websites.
The part of Mali we visited is blessed with the wide Niger river flowing through it. Where the river has been used for irrigation, the land is verdant. The MV cluster of villages is right on the Niger river, but they are as dry as dust.
During and after the rainy season the river overflows its banks, covering land as far as you can see, and the people plant rice. At the end of the rice harvest, water remains in depressed areas. Even during the dry season, water remains very close to the surface. A well just 30'-45' feet deep could be used to irrigate crops and provide drinking water. (For comparison, our well in NJ is at least 400' deep.) But this water generally goes unused.
One of the goals of the Millennium Villages Project is to show that with a relatively small investment - within the amount already pledged but not paid by the developed world - people in places like Tiby could have access to water.
In fact, this area could be the breadbasket of Africa. So here's something you may not know - I certainly didn't know it: Libya and Saudi Arabia are buying up huge tracts of prime land with access to the Niger River. Their own water sources will not last forever, and when they are gone, these countries will have locked up enormous areas of arable land for their own populations.
Two questions pop up: what will happen to the impoverished Malians when this happens? And why would a government allow its land to be sold off this way, rather than leased for some period. I certainly don't know, but one thing is immediately evident when you visit Bamako, the capitol city: Libya is making major investments in Mali. There are Libyan hotels (we stayed in one). We flew in on the Libyan national airline. Khaddafy is building a beautiful, expansive, modern campus for the Malian government. Draw your own conclusions.
Now for some background on our involvement in Tiby. The Tiby cluster consists of 11 villages with a total population of 55,000. One of the smaller villages, Sama, is located along the Niger River. Sama has a cooperative of 275 women who farm a 6 hectare (12 acre) vegetable
In this part of Africa there are 3 seasons - a "cool" dry season (temperatures can get well into the 90's) that runs from October to March, a hot dry season (temperatures can hit 120) From April to June, and a rainy season from July to September. Until recently, the women have been limited to growing 2 crops of shallots during the cool dry season. While theoretically the garden could support 4 cash crops per year, the lack of proper irrigation and perimeter fencing to keep out roaming herds of goats and cattle has limited its potential.
For the last several years, we have been talking to Rustom, the head of economic development for Millennium Villages, about projects that can showcase the potential of agriculture to substantially increase local income. In this case, Rustom came to us with a proposal to upgrade the garden's capabilities and operating practices with the potential to triple the income generated. We were excited by the economics and by the ability to provide income directly to the women.
(If you haven't read Nicholas Kristof's article about the many benefits of providing income-generating opportunities for women, you should check it out online. The NY Times devoted an entire Sunday magazine to it last summer. It's important reading.) So we agreed to fund the startup costs and implement the proposal.
The plan called for installing an effective irrigation system and perimeter fencing, procuring good quality seed and fertilizer, and planting off season crops so the women could grow 4 crops per year and maximize the revenues generated. We all hoped that in showcasing what can be accomplished with proper upfront investment and best practices, we could attract the attention of much larger donors, multiply the number of gardens under cultivation, and substantially raise the income generated throughout the Tiby cluster.
I did not know what to expect. I didn't know what 6 hectares looked like. I don't know how long shallots take to grow. But I have done a lot of gardening. And I lnow what hard work it is to grow vegetables, and how many things can go wrong. I would not have been surprised to see a few plots or rows of spindly sprouts struggling to thrive in the parched soil.
Imagine how overwhelmed I was when we drove up to the garden - there were shallots as far as you could see, thick tops waving in the breeze, healthy and GREEN. Women were watering their plots, many with babies on their backs. It brought me to tears that day, and it makes me cry to remember it.
The women welcomed us with songs and speeches. Mawa, the head of the women's cooperative, explained that they had planted the shallots 2 months ago and would harvest them in March. The women told us that by fencing, irrigating and fertilizing their crop, they were able to produce 500 kg on each 200 sq meter plot, where before they only produced 250-300 kg. I have no idea what that means but it's about doubled, right?
Every woman pays a small amount of money each week to pay for fuel and maintenance of the pump and fencing. When the crop is sold (hopefully at the peak of the market), they will negotiate as a cooperative so that buyers do not drive down the prices. And the money they earn is theirs alone! Each woman will use it for her own needs: paying for her daughter's wedding; buying dresses, animals, a cart; starting small businesses, or lending it to others.
You can imagine how all this made us feel. At one point, the women broke into dancing. I was so immersed in the experience that I was jumping up and down with the rest of them. (Don't tell the orthopedist!)
Before we left, I realized I wanted to make a gift to Mawa in honor of all the hard work of the women's cooperative. She is a beautiful - and forceful - woman, beautifully dressed as are all Malian women (more about this later), wearing beads, earrings, bracelets - as well as a baby on her back. It may have been a grandchild because she looked to be in her 40's.
Today's installment is being written by John (typed by Judy). But first, let me tell you why I love my husband. Not only is he solicitous about my foot, not only has he taken over today's letter, but he is such a wonderful partner in the work we are doing. He listens to my ideas, even though I often forget to "be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in motion," and even though he always expresses himself so much more effectively than I do. And it is such a joy to work together, since we are so much of the same mind on things. Just thought I'd mention it. Now here's John.