Friday, 27 June 2008

Some photos…

I’ve done a horrible job at posting regularly…I have two posts that are sitting on the backburner, but I don’t have time to polish them off before heading off to a week of EWB related meetings/trainings, so I’m just going to throw up some photos for now.

Photo 1: Learning to prepare okra with my housemates’ mum. A couple of months ago I went with my housemate Khala to visit her family an hour or so outside of Lilongwe. Khala’s mum was very excited to teach me how to properly prepare okra. Okra is generally prepared one of two ways here. There is the traditional way, where the okra is cut into thin slices and cooked with tomatoes, oil, pumpkin leaves and some baking soda – the baking soda gives the okra a rather slimy consistency. It isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea . . . it is a little snotty for me. It is also very hard to scoop using a lump of nsima! The other way is the “azungu” or “European” way. In this style, the okra is sliced lengthwise and cooked in tomatoes and onions – delicious!

Photo 2: Khala’s mum is an ophthalmic nurse at the district hospital.

Photo 3: At the end of May, we held a launch for the cassava project I’ve been working on. The launch took place at a field site just outside of Lilongwe, in one of the participating villages. Even the set up, which took place the day before, attracted quite the crowd, including this group of young girls, all diligently carrying younger siblings around.

Photo 4: I live a few minute walk away from a war memorial which opened this past November. It is a rather curious site, as there is a large 4 lane road leading up to it – what must be one of the nicest stretches of road in the country – that doesn’t continue on to anywhere else. It seems like a bit of overkill at present, as the only people that use this road are visitors to the war memorial; that is, of course, except for one day earlier this month when the 2nd annual bed race in support of the Rotary club of Lilongwe was held.

Photo 5:A census takes place once every 10 years here, and it has been going on for the past couple of weeks. This rather reflective, fluorescent fellow is a census worker out in the rural areas.

Photo 6: While tobacco is by far the major cash crop grown in Malawi, cotton is also grown in certain areas.

Photo 7: Cassava! This lovely lady was happy to show off her lovely, well fenced (to keep the pesky goats away) field of cassava.

Photo 8: A local maize mill

Photo 9:Me trying out a dug out canoes. Dug out canoes are constructed out of trunks of wood. They are pretty tippy – manageable with one person, but very difficult to operate with 2.

Photo 10:Hanging out with Megan (another EWB volunteer) in a hammock by the lake.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

The Wonderful World of Cassava…

…everyone’s favourite root vegetable!

Well, perhaps not everyone's favorite root vegetable. After all, it is quite starchy and fairly tasteless...

However, cassava is also pretty awesome for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it can be used for many purposes - it can be consumed raw or cooked, made into flour for baking, turned into starch, etc - and therefore has potential to be both consumed by farmers and their families and sold in a growing and largely untapped market for cassava and cassava products, increasing household incomes. Cassava is drought tolerant, requires no fertilizer, and the roots can be harvested years after planting (i.e. they can be stored in the ground until needed). So... all in all, pretty handy in a country of cash and resource poor small scale farmers, who are vulnerable to environmental shocks (such as droughts) which can devastate their maize harvests, lack money for fertilizer, and who lack ways of storing produce for future sale (when prices may be higher) or consumption.

Photo 1: Close up of cassava leaves
I recently started working on a project that promotes the cassava industry in Malawi. We aim to get farmers growing cassava, processors to purchase cassava from farmers and process it, and buyers (e.g. milling, confectionery, and packaging companies) to purchase cassava from the processors.

The cassava project is quite unique among TLC’s projects. While the bulk of TLC’s agricultural projects focus merely on increasing production levels of small scale farmers, this project takes a more sophisticated approach by addressing weaknesses at points throughout the cassava value chain within Malawi.

I realize that to most of you the term “value chain” may be a familiar one.

What is an agricultural value chain exactly?
Agricultural value chains encompass the full range of activities and services required to bring an agricultural product from planting to sale in final markets.
Value chains include input suppliers, producers, processors and buyers, and are supported by a range of technical, business, and financial service providers.

A “typical” value chain is presented below:
In the development, we generally aim to make sure that small scale producers are getting a fair deal out of this system.

For example, in an ideal scenario . . .
  • The input market is both accessible to small scale farmers (e.g. inputs such as seeds and fertilizer available in the rural areas) and provides the proper types of inputs (e.g. the type and quality of seeds required)
  • Purchase of produce from farmers by buyers - whether it be by traders who buy raw products, or processors who perform some kind of process which adds value to the goods - is done fairly; farmers and buyers/processors have a mutually beneficial relationship, where farmers receive a fair price for their produce, and buyer’s market demands are met.
Ideally, these types of relationships would happen naturally, but this is often not the case – this is where NGOs come in.

Looking at this model, the majority of TLC’s work has so far been focusing on the level of smallholder farmers, helping them to produce more. Our small scale irrigation programs are based on the following assumptions:
  • Access to irrigation will result in increased production levels
  • Increased production levels will lead to increased income
  • Increased income levels lead to better lives for small scale farmers
However, a major problem that we’ve encountered time and time again is that our farmers are having major problems moving from the “production” to the buyers - the processing/traders level. That is, farmers are having trouble actually selling their produce; produce often goes to waste or is sold off at low prices. The value chain for their produce is either poorly functioning or they lack access to it. What good is producing bumper crops of, say tomatoes or maize, if farmers are unable to sell it?

Why Cassava?
Cassava is a crop that has great potential in Malawi. This fact is especially true now, given some challenges that are being faced by maize, the current staple food crop. These challenges include low yields due to erratic rainfall and increasing prices of important inputs such as fertilizer and improved seed varieties. Cassava is a drought tolerant crop which not only has the potential to increase food security in many households, but also has great potential for sale – both of cassava and cassava products at the domestic and international level.

Photo 2: Walking through a big cassava field during the project launch
Several products can be processed from cassava such as cassava flour, chips, confectioneries, animal feed and starch. Cassava flour is of particular interest recently due to dramatically rising wheat flour prices – the cost of brown bread has gone up by up to 40% since I’ve been here!

At present, very little of the cassava being grown in Malawi receives any degree of processing – it is generally consumed at the household level, or is sold in raw form. Lack of processing of cassava close to the farmer level has been blamed for the poor prices that farmers receive and wastage of unsold produce.

There is a market out there for cassava, but there is a break in the chain. Farmers complain that there is no market for cassava, while potential buyers complain that no one is producing it. Farmers want to grow a crop that they can sell, and companies are looking for a supply of cassava. So, why isn't this already happening?

We're trying to kickstart this value chain by helping to link up different parts of the chain. Our job is not done once we have farmers growing cassava. If farmers don't have somewhere to sell their cassava, they'll stop growing it - they need to see the benefits of growing cassava. For these benefits to happen, we need to make sure that processors and buyers are in place. I'll try to explain a bit more, but giving a bit of an overview of what we're doing at the different levels of the value chain:

Input Market:



National Markets:

In addition, we’re tackling some of those support services I mentioned earlier: transmitting information along the chain, providing loans, setting transportation requirements for processors and buyers, etc.

We’ve got our work cut out for us.
Photo 3: Cassava fields are generally fenced because goats enjoy feasting on the leaves

This is probably a bit of information overload . . . I'll be surprised if anyone gets around to reading this whole entry! So, I'm going to cut myself off here, and perhaps elaborate on some specific elements of the work I've been doing within this project in a future entry!