Sunday, February 14, 2010

1/27: Meeting ICRISAT and Niger poverty

Dear Friends,
Dinner with the participants in the ICRISAT strategic planning conference was much better than I expected. There was not much standing, which helped. People came to our table and introduced themselves. Also, I'm trying to carefully follow Cookie Neil's advice: wine is very good therapy for whining.

The people were all very interesting. They come from at least 20 countries (Afghanistan, India, Holland, Israel, Japan, Germany, Mali, Niger, Ghana, etc.) And thank heavens the official language is English. In spite of Becca Samuels Nelson's coaching, mon francais est tres mauvais.

ICRISAT, one of the 16 research organizations that make up the agricultural science network called CGIAR, is shifting its mission from its original focus on rain-dependant production of 5 traditional grains for food security to cash crops (fruits and vegetables) suported by drip irrigation. The focus is shifting from subsistence agriculture to agribusiness.

People are passionate about their research, and dinner conversation, while certainly sociable, dealt largely with the work these scientists are doing. In no particular order, some of the topics were:

- concern over the consolidation of the world food business, crowding out any place for the smallholder farmer;

-significant progress being made in implementing Dov's African Market Garden concept - Dov will send us his economic analysis which shows that drip irrigation is actually cheaper than hand watering!

- the importance of clustering gardens to consolidate the fixed costs of training, tech support, perimeter fencing, purchasing of agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizer, pesticide);

- seed propagation is a major issue, with lack of access to quality seed a major obstacle; leading to a discussion of

- tissue culture, in which date palms are being grown under very sophisticated laboratory conditions (seemed sort of like cloning). But the process produces such an enormous quantity of high quality seedlings that it turns out to be less expensive than traditional propagation methods;

- an analysis of the pet food market, with an eye toward marketing Niger seed for use in finch food. And did you know about the trend toward sharable treats? Or that 30% of pet owners send their pets birthday cards?

- it is faster and cheaper to fly from Nairobi (east coast) to Bamako (west coast) by way of Paris! and we will pay about $600 each to fly the approx 500 miles from Niamey to Bamako, nearly half the cost of round trip airfare from Newark to Africa.

The dinner itself was delicious. We ate outside (after slathering on the deet) at the ICRISAT training center, while fruit bats about the size of hawks swooped around enjoying their dinner.

It is hard to go from describing our good meal to describing how terribly poor Niger is. At first, it didn't seem that much worse than what we saw in eastern Kenya. As an example, the Grand Hotel du Niger is comparable to (maybe just a tad nicer than) the Nomad Palace in Garissa, the town nearest Dertu village in eastern Kenya. But then John pointed out that this is the best hotel in the country. This is as good as it gets.

Niger is among the poorest - if not the poorest country on the planet. They have the highest birthrate in the world - 8 children per woman. The population jas grown from 6 million in 1985 to 13 million in 2007 and will reach over 20 million by 2025, "a time bomb in a country already hopelessly ill-equipped to look after its citizens." (Lonely Planet) The literacy rate is only 21% of men and 7% of women. While there is a public school system, only 35% of boys and 21% of girls attend primary school. We see much begging in Niamey and see many children not in school. Most shocking: slavery was only outlawed in 2003 and there is a de facto slave caste even today.

So far, we find Niger interesting and the people pleasant but overall it's pretty sad.

Love, Judy

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