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Celebrating Peace Corps Week: Those Extraordinary Ordinary Volunteers!

This post originally appeared on Feed the Future.

This week, we’re celebrating our partner agency the Peace Corps during its annual Peace Corps Week. Today marks the anniversary of when John F. Kennedy signed the executive order to establish the Peace Corps. The following is a guest blog post by Jean Harman of the Peace Corps, highlighting Peace Corps volunteers’ contributions to Feed the Future’s goal to reduce global hunger, poverty and undernutrition.

Ever since John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver created the Peace Corps in 1962, it had been my dream to be a volunteer. But by the 1980s, having finally completed my undergraduate degree at 29, I thought I was too old. Turns out, I wasn’t too old for two years of volunteer service and I began my Peace Corps experience as an agriculture volunteer, helping villagers in Zaire (what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), raise sheep, goats, rabbits, and other small animals.

Peace Corps launched my career in food security. When I returned to the States, I went to graduate school and began a 25-year career as a resource and agricultural economist. Over the course of these years, I learned how many different facets there are to sustainable food security; a variety of issues help create or foster food security in households and communities. I’ve worked in trade, agriculture, natural resource management, and development, to name a few.

A Peace Corps volunteer trains his local community in Malawi on the nutritional benefits of growing soy. Photo credit: Peace Corps

Volunteers are never called ex-volunteers, but rather returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). And we’re a diverse lot, with more than 200,000 RPCVs today. We often hear about RPCVs of note—a former Cabinet member, the president of a university, members of Congress—but there are a lot of extraordinary ordinary volunteers as well.

Take for instance, Elaine Bellezza, who served as a Peace Corps teacher in Cameroon. She ended up helping her community develop an artisanal cooperative, which made bowls, bags, tools and other items out of leather, gourds and other local agricultural products. Through this cooperative, women in the community went from earning about $2 a month to between $60 and $100. Yes, this is food security! Increased income means more money to spend on quality foods. And women’s income is more likely to be spent on food and children’s goods, so increased women’s income can significantly impact food security and improve nutrition.

Elaine returned to the United States in the mid-1990s but was soon overseas again, this time working in Mali. She eventually opened a high-end boutique of household articles and furniture. As a part of the private sector, Elaine worked with a range of women’s cooperatives in Mali. She developed a staff capable of taking over the business for her and running it as a cooperative-owned, woman-led business in Mali—even to this day!

Elaine never left Africa or economic development for long. She now works as a consultant in a variety of countries. An extraordinary ordinary volunteer.

There’s also Gordon Hentze, who served as a “fish” volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was my mentor when I started my Peace Corps assignment, even as his own service was drawing to an end. We quickly discovered when I arrived at my village that we had both attended the same college and lived close to each other in Oregon. Gordon worked with farmers to build fish ponds for raising fish to eat at home and sell for income. Another facet of food security: sufficient food to eat at home and income to purchase additional foods, pay school fees, or buy medicine when it’s needed.

Gordon returned to Oregon after the Peace Corps. He owns a family farm in Junction City where he grows fruit, vegetables and nuts. He also caters to people who want to process their own fresh food: He developed small-scale processing equipment so a family can process its own fruits, vegetables and nuts in household-sized quantities. Innovation—a skill Gordon developed as a volunteer and now uses to foster food security through his business as a farmer in the private sector. Another extraordinary ordinary volunteer.

While many Peace Corps volunteers are extraordinary ordinary people, the same could be said of their service. Helping start a local cooperative. Training business owners. Teaching people to fish. These tasks are ordinary when taken at face value. But when you see each as a contributor to global food security, they take on an extraordinary quality. A local cooperative in a developing country that raises incomes of women so they can invest more in their children and families, sending both their sons and daughters to school. A business owner whose business sells nutritious foods and supplements in a community that sorely needed jobs and access to these items. A family that improves its diet with fish and is able to sell extra fish on the local market, sharing the nutritious value of the fish with the community and making extra money to invest in the family business, children’s education, and healthcare for all family members.

All this is happening thanks to the extraordinary ordinary work of Peace Corps volunteers at the grassroots level of agriculture and economic development. Seemingly ordinary tasks, carried out by individuals in partnership with developing communities, that are helping lift communities out of chronic hunger and poverty and into sustainable food security.

Peace Corps volunteers have been working on food security issues in their host countries for decades. Recently, Peace Corps teamed up with the U.S. Agency for International Development to work on food security issues under Feed the Future. In name, this designates the volunteers as Feed the Future Peace Corps Volunteers. In action, it provides better coordination between USAID and Peace Corps’ agriculture and economic development efforts and enables Feed the Future to benefit from one of Peace Corps’ major competitive advantages: grassroots development activities that support global food security.  

Meeting the President’s Challenge to End Extreme Poverty

This originally appeared on the Feed the Future Blog.

“We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all—not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve, and helping communities to feed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” – President Obama, 2013 State of the Union address 

In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama laid out a challenge for our generation to eradicate the scourge of extreme poverty. We are advancing this critical agenda through Feed the Future, the President’s signature global hunger and food security initiative. Here, we examine how.

Progress in the most impoverished parts of our world creates new markets and stability. Photo credit: USAID

“A little more than a dollar a day…” By standard definition, this means less than $1.25 a day. That won’t buy a latte, let alone a healthy lunch here in the United States. Hunger and poverty are inextricably linked. Through Feed the Future, we’re working to achieve the President’s vision to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger in our lifetime. This is our generation’s legacy to leave. And reducing poverty is more than just a goal: It’s achievable, and we are already seeing results.

Since 2009, Feed the Future has supported agriculture-led growth in 19 focus countries, with investments that will lift 20 percent of the people in our targeted areas out of poverty in three years. Agricultural growth is an incredibly effective way to fight poverty – 75 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas in developing countries, where most people’s livelihoods rely directly on agriculture, and studies show that growth in the agricultural sector has up to three times greater impact on poverty reduction than growth in other sectors.

And Feed the Future is showing results.  We have improved farmers’ access to key technologies that we know transform their lives, increasing yields and incomes. In 2011 alone, we helped nearly 2 million food producers adopt improved technologies and practices to improve their yields, and our efforts to integrate agriculture and nutrition mean that healthier harvests can also mean better market opportunities.

We’re strategically targeting our investments in countries where our support can have the greatest impact. We’re aligning our investments behind food security and nutrition priorities our partner countries have identified, and we’re helping foster the growth and accountability required to ensure that this impact lasts. And because we know we don’t have all the answers to reducing global poverty, we’re taking a rigorous approach to figuring out what works best, so we can do more of it. We’re identifying gaps in evidence and working to fill them. We’re engaging with global leaders, top scientists, business leaders, and communities to share what we learn so that we can beat hunger and poverty together.

“By connecting more people to the global economy…” Feed the Future supports countries in developing their own agriculture sectors to generate opportunities for economic growth and trade. We place particular emphasis on empowering smallholder farmers with the tools and technologies they need to produce more robust harvests and have better opportunities to participate in markets and earn better incomes.

Smallholder farmers are the key to unlocking agricultural growth and transforming economies. In supporting them, we’re also helping build tomorrow’s markets and trade partners, connecting smallholder farmers in rural areas to local, regional and global markets.

“By empowering women…” At the heart of our strategy is an understanding that investments in women reduce poverty and promote global stability. Take for example our horticulture project in Kenya, which is working with smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, to not only grow more nutritious crops to eat and sell, but to also diversify into growing higher value crops, like flowers. Higher value crops help these farmers increase their income, which in turn provides them with more money to pay for school fees for their children, medicine, and quality food. We’re also tracking women’s empowerment in agriculture and the impact our programs have on increasing it… [continued]

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USAID Promotes Good Farming Practices in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is proud of its exotic fruits, and the pomegranate is definitely one of them. Pomegranate production has strategic importance for domestic trade and exports.

Azerbaijan’s Pomegranate Festival is a great way for growers to learn new techniques, showcase their products, and build sales networks. Since 2006 it has been a popular autumn festival held in November in the Goychay region of Azerbaijan.

This year, USAID’s Azerbaijan Competitiveness and Trade (ACT) Project set up its own stand at the Festival to provide information about ACT project activities and achievements in the pomegranate sector. The Project’s stand offered training materials on 25 agriculture topics and displayed 100 kgs. of the seven different varieties of pomegranates produced by the farmers who received USAID assistance. Training materials were particularly in demand by Festival attendees. The Project distributed over 2,000 pamphlets and booklets.

A local TV channel interviews USAID’s pomegranate expert at the USAID stand during the annual Pomegranate Festival in Goychay. Photo credit: Anar Azimzade/ACT

For the last couple of years, USAID has been supporting pomegranate farmers and processors with technical assistance and training. The ACT Project has provided training on good agricultural practices to approximately 2,250 farmers who have subsequently rehabilitated about 200 hectares of pomegranate orchards in the Kurdemir, Goychay and Sabirabad regions. This support has resulted in a 33% increase in productivity, a 28% increase in overall production and a 21% increase in farmer profit in the three regions. Azerbaijan’s pomegranates do not compete with U.S. agriculture.

National and local media covering the Festival expressed strong interest in the ACT Project. ELTV, a local TV channel, interviewed the experts, guests and exhibitors for a TV program dedicated specifically to the development of the pomegranate sector in Azerbaijan.

Two farmers from the Goychay region praised the Project’s technical assistance and training in an interview with ELTV. They expressed their gratitude to USAID and proudly displayed high-quality pomegranates at the Festival as fruits of this cooperation.

Video of the Week: Mile the Corn Farmer

In Macedonia, the USAID Small Business Expansion Project is working with corn farmers on growing their businesses through increasing corn yields and connecting them with regional dairy industry leaders, who have agreed to buy livestock feed locally. The project is introducing drip irrigation on several demonstration farms as tried and tested methods of increasing production, and is also providing farmers with seeds that will produce a corn/silage ratio that both meets the needs of the dairy industry and maximize the profits of the farmers.

The Small Business Expansion Project will use these demonstration farms in its campaign to assist and encourage other corn growers in Macedonia to invest in new technology to double or triple their yields, and by doing so, grow their businesses and create new jobs.
Learn more about the Small Business Expansion Project.

FrontLines Year in Review: A Right to Land

This is part of our FrontLines Year in Review series. This originally appeared in FrontLines July/August 2012 issue.

Property rights are proving to be a solid foundation for economic empowerment for individuals, corporations and nations, and a potential solution to shore up food security in developing countries. International guidelines adopted earlier this year address this issue.

New international guidelines adopted earlier this year are expected to pave the way for “landowners” to establish clearer rights to land and other resources in developing countries. That seemingly simple act—multiplied many times over in countries across the globe—could have profound consequences for the economies of developing countries, and reverse the trend of speculators snatching land without permission from the people who have historically considered it their own.

Asilya Gemmal, 14, of Gure Tebeno Union, proudly displays her land certificate obtained from the Ethiopian Government with USAID assistance. Photo credit: Links Media

Land grabbing, as it is often called, happens every day in the developing world where weak laws and policies allow businesses and governments—through naiveté or outright greed—to latch on to property that belongs to someone else, and to sell or lease it to the highest bidder.

Adopted in May by the U.N. Committee on World Food Security, the 35-page document (PDF) sets out principles to guide countries in designing and implementing laws that govern property rights over land, fisheries and forests for agricultural and other uses.

As it is officially known, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security is designed “so that both investors can invest with some kind of certainty that their investments will be secure and, at the same time, those people who hold the resources or the assets—the people who have the land in the countries where we work—will also have some certainty that they will be able to benefit from the investments that are made,” says Gregory Myers, USAID’s division chief for land tenure and property rights and chair of the negotiations for the guidelines.

USAID is keenly interested in the guidelines, not only because of the inherent economic benefits of secure property rights for individuals and communities, but because of what that can mean for the Feed the Future initiative, the U.S. Government’s effort to ramp up agricultural development in food-insecure countries.

“In many ways, that’s really at the heart of our (Feed the Future) strategy—on one hand encouraging the private sector, and on the other hand supporting smallholder farmers,” Myers said.

“Between 800 million and a billion people go to bed hungry at night, and the number is growing,” he explained. “Clearly, we need to do something to promote agriculture … but that means there has to be investment in agriculture. So the bottom line is that we have to find a way to bring private-sector investment into this equation. And the only way that’s going to happen sustainably and in a way that’s not going to lead to a lot of violence or conflict is that we’re going to have to address the issue of property rights.”

Read the rest of the article in FrontLines.

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Photo of the Week: Farming Grapes in Afghanistan

Two farmers in Afghanistan. Photo Credit: USAID/Afghanistan

Over 22 varieties of grapes were planted on the Afghan’s Ministry of Agriculture’s research farm to establish a grape foundation nursery. USAID-funded projects introduced trellising, a practice that increases the quality of grapes and overall yields.

Video of the Week: A New Kind of Development

In 2011, USAID, JP Morgan, and the Gates, Gatsby, and Rockefeller Foundations announced a first-of-its-kind effort to invest $25 million in the African Agricultural Capital Fund, which delivers much needed growth capital to boost the productivity and profitability of Africa‘s undercapitalized agriculture sector. NUAC Farm in Northern Uganda is one of the first agribusinesses to receive financing from this fund.

 

Interagency Panel on Economic Statecraft to Create Competitive Foreign Markets

Eric Postel is assistant administrator for the Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment.

Last Monday, December 10, I had the opportunity to speak at an interagency panel on the topic of Economic Statecraft and Developing Partnerships with the Private Sector.

Spearheaded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Economic Statecraft is a positioning of economics and market forces at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. The Secretary has stressed that emerging nations are increasingly dealing in economic power rather than military might as their primary means of exercising influence, and the U.S. must be at the forefront, or risk being left behind.

Our USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, opened the event at the Woodrow Wilson Center, with remarks emphasizing the innovative work of USAID in this area – work which may not be as well-known as those in the areas of Global Health, Education and Food Security.

The panelists speak at the Economic Statecraft event. Photo Credit: Pat Adams, USAID.

USAID plays a central role in helping to create foreign markets that are competitive, transparent and integrated into the rules-based global trading system. The Agency has been successful in spearheading pro-business reforms in the last decade in six of the top 10 performers in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index. Technical assistance and support has been provided to numerous countries including Georgia, Columbia and Vietnam with reforming their laws and regulations. While a direct correlation is perhaps not possible to make, imports increased four-fold in Vietnam following the course of six years of U.S. assistance with business climate reforms.

In the last 10 years, USAID has formed more than 1,600 partnerships with over 3,000 private sector players, leveraging approximately $19 billion in public and private resources, expertise and technologies. In 2012, USAID’s Development Credit Authority was designed to use loan guarantees to unlock large sources of local capital, and approved 38 new partial credit guarantees to mobilize a record $700 million in commercial capital in 23 countries. In practice, this means that 140,000 small scale businesses will be able to access local finance – impacting more than a million people.

One of USAID’s goals is to create opportunities and economic expansion in developing countries. This approach is increasingly becoming a new model for the Obama Administration, and is one that engages far more broadly with the private sector, delivers more dividends after foreign aid is removed, and demands more transparency and good practices overall.

Our work in this area demonstrates the need to work closer than ever with our interagency partners, several of whom were also my co-panelists at the Economic Statecraft event: the Department of State, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). As one example of our interagency coordination, this past Fall, USAID entered into a new global agreement with USTDA. The agreement will enable our missions around the world to perform feasibility studies of energy, transportation, and information and technology projects. Mission Columbia is the first buy-in under the agreement, supporting a feasibility study focusing on smart-grid technologies for large power systems. I anticipate many more partnerships between both the private sector and government, as well as within the government itself in moving forward in this undertaking.

More information can be found on the Wilson Center’s website.

 

Albanian Farmers Weather Changing Economic Environment

A view of greenhouses upon entering Goriçan, Albania. Photo Credit: Clare Masson, USAID Albania.

Just after arriving in Albania, I accompanied Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs,Phil Reeker, on a visit to Goriçan, a small village tucked in the lush, green hills of central Albania, to meet with a group of farmers assisted by USAID. Upon entering the village, it was evident that agriculture is important to this community. Nestled in Goriçan’s rolling hills and valleys are dozens upon dozens of greenhouses dotting almost every corner of the landscape. In the last 10 years, a group of enterprising farmers have invested heavily in greenhouses, making it possible to harvest year-round production of high-value vegetables. The result has been a transformation of not only the village landscape but also the economic livelihoods of the community.

Unforeseen by Albanian farmers 10 years ago, but increasingly apparent today, their investments have created an important buffer for the community now faced with a return of guest-workers, primarily from Greece, and other consequences of the economic crisis impacting Albania and the region.

Two members of the Hortigor Farmers Association who recently returned from Greece in Goriçan. Photo Credit: Clare Masson, USAID Albania.

Like many rural communities in Albania since the 1990s, Goriçan lost many young workers who migrated as guest workers to Greece and neighboring countries to escape the widespread poverty and instability that characterized Albania’s post-Communist transition. While many left, some farmers remained, and with the early support of USAID, helped lay the foundation for transformational and sustainable development in the community. Starting in 2003, USAID sent two farmers from Goriçan (along with others from other parts of Albania) to specialized training in Croatia and Hungary, and helped the community establish Albania’s first farmer’s association named “Hortigor”, and provided grants to rehabilitate roads and build a consolidation warehouse.

Today, Hortigor members from Goriçan and 10 surrounding villages own 45 “hectares” of greenhouses. These have become major producers of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants in Albania. In fact, I learned that Hortigor member greenhouses represent one-third of all greenhouse area operating in the village and 15 percent of all greenhouses in Albania!

USAID Albania Mission Director Jim Barnhart and others at the DCA Signing Ceremony. Photo Credit: Clare Masson, USAID Albania.

USAID assistance, in recent seasons, has reached more than $2.8 million dollars in export sales from Goriçan and the surrounding areas, but future developments and investments will depend on the availability and access that many farmers have to commercial credit. To date, there has been little lending in Albania. I was very pleased to sign, as my first official duty as Albanian Mission Director, a Development Credit Authority agreement with two local banks. It is our hope that our $15 million dollar loan guarantee will help to lower barriers to credit, and encourage banks to offer appropriate loan products to enterprising farmers in communities like Goriçan. This marks a logical transition for USAID Albania to move from traditional technical assistance towards sustainable, private-sector led growth in the sector.

As a leader in agriculture development, and as a result of USAID’s smart and targeted development assistance, Goriçan is well-positioned to absorb the skills and know-how of returned migrants from Greece, and implement them at home. I look forward to following the community’s progress as it seeks to expand into large-scale commercial farming that will be able to supply large, reliable and high quality agricultural produce throughout the Balkan region. I am proud of the work that USAID Albania has done to support the agriculture sector and I look forward to future engagement.

Still, I am mindful of the continued need and the pressures that the Eurozone crisis is putting on Albania, particularly its rural areas. Approximately 50 percent of the Albanian workforce is active in agriculture, and despite progress in developing the sector in recent years, Albania still has a 9:1 import to export ratio for agriculture. Small landholdings, weak property rights and rule of law concerns have also inhibited growth. Clearly, there is still room for improvement.

Coding for Hunger: Not Development as Usual

Dr. Maura O'Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. Photo Credit: USAID

This post originally appeared on Global Food for Thought.

Barbara’s mother was desperate – there was nothing in the house to feed her children or herself.  All that remained was a bag of seed that she’d been planning to sow on her small plot of land.  Could the seeds be eaten as food?  She could no longer look at her children whose bodies were aching from hunger.

There was one huge risk: the seeds contained potentially lethal pesticides intended to encourage higher yields. As countless mothers have done, she tested the seeds on herself.  Barbara and her siblings watched fearfully as their mother ate a handful.  Would she die, become ill, or just be fine?

Even if eating the seeds led to survival, there would be no crops to harvest in six months.  Would they starve later?  Years after this harrowing experience, Barbara palpably captured this moment in her book, Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter.

In Alabama that night, nobody got sick.  But we must do better by our neighbors in the U.S. and globally.

One billion people suffer from chronic hunger and face terrible choices daily.  A billion is a hard word to grasp, but imagine if every man, woman, and child in the largest cities in the U.S. – including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta – would never get enough to eat or had a chance to thrive.

Technology and business have recently brought dramatic global improvements in areas like health, agricultural productivity.  Through social media, we can harness crowd-sourced wisdom and rapid diffusion networks to imagine a day in our lifetime where families everywhere can take pride in the accomplishments of their healthy children.

What are we seeing in this tech cauldron that’s knocking our socks off?  Kat Townsend, a Special Assistant for Engagement at USAID, worked with The Chicago Council to choose six examples using big data, videos, and randomized control trials to reduce hunger.  USAID showcased these examples at a Council event on food security at the G8 to demonstrate how low-cost technologies can accelerate and scale food security.

I’m especially excited about Digital Green, founded by young Indian entrepreneur Rikin Gandhi.  Digital Green enables local farmers make short videos giving specific advice on many topics, with viewers rating videos just as we push ‘Like’ on Facebook. Farmers now watch nearly 2,500 relevant videos- which average 11,000 viewers per video- on their cellphones. Talk about a social diffusion network!

In September, USAID together with Nathaniel Manning – a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow from technology superstar Ushahidi - ran a weekend Hackathon for Hunger. Global teams of brilliant data geeks pounded out code on big data sets to solve hunger challenges.  Palantir used data compiled by the Grameen Foundation on crop blights, soil, and farmer feedback to generate a real-time heat map that helps farmers identify where crop infestations are happening.  Farmers also receive warning messages about looming crop diseases and where they may strike, giving farmers the chance to harvest early. PinApple’s website helps farmers can input their location for suggestions on the best crops to plant based on elevation, soil PH and annual rainfall.

We can’t solve food security by the mere push of a button from a programmer in Maputo or a policymaker in Bangladesh. What technology can do is bring information and tools to farmers, processors, and consumers in remote corners of the world. Data point by data point, we’re reaching those who need it most…one video and SMS at a time.

Tell us what other technologies or social media techniques you’re seeing that could defeat hunger. Disagree if you have your reasons.  We all have much to learn from one another.

Leave your thoughts here or continue the conversation on Twitter. Join me @MauraAtUSAID and follow Bertini and Glickman @GlobalAgDev; USAID @usaid; USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative @FeedtheFuture; Ushahidi @Ushahidi; Project Open Data @ProjectOpenData; Palantir Technologies @palantirTech; PinApple @PinApple, Kat Townsend @DiploKat; and Nat Manning @NatPManning.

Maura O’Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. In the public, private and academic sectors, she has created entrepreneurial and public policy solutions for some of the toughest problems in the fields of energy, education, infrastructure financing and business development. She earned her PhD at the University of Washington, where her research focused on narrowmindedness and the errors it leads to in science, medicine, business and political decision making.

 

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