USAID Impact Photo Credit: USAID and Partners

Archives for Agriculture

USAID Hosts Annual Ramadan Iftar

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Last night, together with USDA, we hosted our 10th annual Iftar—a tradition also reflected in the field as Missions host dinners in recognition of this important time. As President Obama has said, Ramadan is a chance to honor a faith known for its diversity and commitment to the dignity of all human beings. A faith deeply rooted in its commitment to caring for the less fortunate and reaching out to those in greatest need.

These are values that are reflected in the founding of our own nation, the vibrancy of our diverse national community, and in the work USAID does every day across the world.

Around this time last year, we were working together to respond to devastating drought in the Horn of Africa and address the urgent needs of 13.3 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. Although the worst of this particular crisis is over, we know that 1 billion people still go to bed hungry every night across the world. And we know that there are steps we can take right now to alleviate hunger and malnutrition and lay the foundation for a safer, more prosperous future.

That is the vision of Feed the Future,  President Obama’s global food security initiative that brings together the expertise of a range of U.S. agencies. Today, we are:

  • Bridging our long-standing commitment to humanitarian assistance and food aid with increased investment in agriculture, nutrition, and governance;
  • Harnessing the power of science and technology to deliver transformational agricultural research, like drought and disease-resistant tolerant seeds;
  • Supporting safety nets and innovative insurance programs that are the backbone of farming in the United States.

We are also working to dramatically increase private sector investment in agriculture—bringing companies, local smallholder farmers, and partner governments together to lift 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty and hunger in a decade.  So far, more than 45 global and local companies have committed more than $4 billion—to expand seed production and distribution, establish small-scale irrigation systems, and source for food for global supply chains.

Our focus on strengthening food security isn’t just limited to Africa. In the Middle East, we’re working closely with smallholder famers to improve the efficiency of water and land use. This effort is especially critical in a region already classified as water scarce—which possesses less than one percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources. At the same time, population growth rates in the region are averaging over 2 percent, increasing pressure and competition for resources.

Launched in 2010, the Middle East Water and Livelihoods Initiative works across eight countries to connect American universities and their local counterparts with the smallholder farmers who need that information the most, spurring joint research on important issues like desalination, irrigation, and energy with the ultimate goal of helping farmers grow more food with less water.

Challenges like water conservation and food security are immense, but we know that we are more than equal to the task if we harness the ingenuity, passion, and commitment across the world.

That’s the idea behind open source development. Development that doesn’t dictate answers, but paves the way by bringing the creativity of the entire global development community to bear on today’s problems.

By doing so, we not only overcome the greatest challenges of our time, we continue to lift up the values that are celebrated during the month of Ramadan—and that we carry with us every day in our work.

A Lasting Impact on Food Security

I recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to visit food assistance programs implemented by USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. My first impression of the Congo was the same feeling I had in Uganda when visiting projects there last year – why in countries so lush and ripe for agriculture were people so food insecure? Food insecurity is a complex issue, and for the DRC it includes key issues such as low productivity, lack of market access and infrastructure, ongoing conflict and poor nutrition practices.

As a country struggling to pull itself out of conflict, the DRC is a challenging environment to work in. Never mind the logistical challenges for our partners and staff: little infrastructure in program areas; communities cut off by rains, conflict or other factors at certain times of year; and monitoring difficulties due to USAID staff being based on the opposite side of the country from the projects.

Despite these challenges, I was amazed at the ability of USAID’s partners to have as much positive impact as they have had on food security. This was particularly apparent in the visits where development assistance had ended the previous year, but the lasting impact of programs was still very visible.

I visited two communities previously supported by Food for the Hungry (FH) – Kamalenge and Kateba – which continue to benefit from initiatives started under FH’s previous program.

In Kamalenge, the water management committee responsibly manages the use of water from the community water pump installed by FH, by creating a fee-based system for maintenance. Under this system, households pay 100 francs a month per household and adhere to a strict usage schedule, ensuring each household has access to the water and the water source does not run dry.

Nearby, a women’s goat breeding group is still working, giving goats to households in the community and selling the extra goats.  This income is helping with children’s school fees. In the coming year, with additional proceeds, the 25 members of the goat breeding group hope to start a pharmacy in the village for community members.

In Kateba, I met a mother care group who continue to teach health and nutrition messages to new mothers and child caretakers in their community. Using songs and flipcharts to teach the messages introduced by FH, women are improving their household’s health and nutrition, all with their own food resources. They were proud to declare the village free of malnutrition as a result of these efforts.

The seed multiplication station in Emilingombre made a lasting impression on me. This station resulted directly from the difficulties they had in their first development food aid program procuring improved seeds and cuttings of disease resistant varieties of cassava, bananas, and other crops. This challenge resulted in FH creating a seed multiplication station within its new beneficiary communities so farmers had more direct access to seeds and seedlings. Using seeds and seedlings developed on demonstration plots from their previous program, they have built a 22 hectare station and nursery, which the communities will maintain with Food for Work during the life of the program. Eventually, the station will be self-sustained by the community to provide plant seeds and tree seedlings of multiple varieties. The tree seedlings will also help reforest nearby areas.

These small examples are reflective of a holistic set of activities USAID partners are implementing to address food security from all angles. I left DRC impressed by our partners’ ability to operate and communities to thrive in such a challenging environment. I am eager to see the gains they will make in the coming years.

Developers for Development: The Evolution of the Food Security Open Data Challenge

Geeks, Coders, Hackers, Developers, Computer Scientists, Technologists- whichever term you choose, people with technical acumen have proven to be some of the most prolific volunteers for social good.  It is not hyperbole to state that on any given weekend, in nearly every major city around the world, volunteers can be found gathering together to create products that benefit education, security, economic, and other social interests. Participants cobble together the vision, team, the code, and the experts over 48 hours, and present themselves for judging by Sunday evening.  These gatherings are dubbed “hackathons,” “codeathons” or “codesprints” and they have found success: out of the Disrupt Hackathon, which is hosted by TechCrunch and connects developers and entrepreneurs, the Docracy team formed to make legal and business documents more free and accessible, and went on to raise $650,000 over the next year to expand its operations.  StartupWeekend, a hackathon targeting entrepreneurs, claims hundreds of new startups including Reddit, a widely popular user-generated news aggregator.  In 2010, the State Department and iHub launched the Apps4Africa challenge  to connect local developers and global mentors to local NGOs to learn and solve local problems.  The winner, iCow,  is a successful mobile-phone application that tracks cows’ hormone cycles to inform better breeding, milk production, and nutrition information to Kenyan dairy farmers.

Indian woman arranges a display of grains and seeds at Millet Fest 2012, in Hyderabad on March 24, 2012. The three day event aims to promote use and increase knowledge of the nutritional benefits of millet seeds when used as part of a daily diet. Photo Credit: AFP

If you’re not familiar with the hackathon model, you’re not alone.  Government engagement with the tech community, though expanding, is limited.  And though hackathons bring together widely diverse communities to contribute their time and expertise to solve problems, they are not a flawless solution.  Rare is the startup that can convene and be commercially viable in 48 hours.  To increase the impact of the products of these hackathons, and ensure that those volunteering their time are doing so wisely, we have to improve on the existing model.

Enter White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and his bold concept for public sector improvement of the hackathon model to connect developers directly to the people who will ultimately use their product, and to incubate solutions to be attractive to investors.  Under his model, weekend sessions are stretched across at least ninety days and buttress the hackathon with brainstorming and planning session weeks prior and an incubation period of the successful products for weeks following.  He outlines this model as an endeavor of the White House’s “Open Data Initiative” and, following on the successful implementation at HHS, has taken it to various other agencies including the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Education, and USAID. Through his leadership, each agency has taken up the mantle of instituting their own open data initiatives.

USAID is  building its first data initiative around food security, and I encourage anyone who is curious to get involved.  All backgrounds and interests are welcome; participants need not be an expert in food security nor in software, a willingness to contribute to the efforts of innovative solutions and commercially viable products is all that’s required.  Writers, designers, networkers, and creative thinkers from all walks are welcome.  As access to information increases globally, so does the potential for innovation and great ideas to be borne and fomented across borders.  USAID is convening a global community to engage more directly with those who are willing to volunteer their time and expertise to the cause of development, and who want to work together to “hack” new and creative solutions to long-standing development priorities.  Just yesterday, Secretary Clinton observed “Data not only measures progress, it inspires it.” At USAID we want to build and support the platform for those who are inspired to create and sustain lasting progress.

For more information and to participate, visit agrilinks.org/openagdata and contact OpenAgData@USAID.Gov

Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Morrill Act

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Today we celebrate the visionary leadership of President Abraham Lincoln in signing the Morrill Act 150 years ago.  Even as our nation prepared to enter one of the most brutal and challenging periods of its existence, President Lincoln demonstrated a powerful understanding that America’s success would depend on investment in the agricultural development of its new frontier. His foresight led to the creation of the most productive science- and engineering-based agricultural economy the world has ever seen. The new U.S. land-grant system democratized American access to education, graduating young scientists and engineers who have continued to transform the American economy through generations as no other single investment has.

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Video of the Week: A Visit to Candlenut Farmers

This week’s video comes from our USAID Mission in Timor-Leste. USAID works with candlenut farmers and their communities to teach them how to increase yields and reach new markets.

Powering Energy to Face the Challenges of World Hunger

Feeding the world’s hungry and access to energy are typically viewed as separate development goals. But it is becoming abundantly clear to those of us here in Rio de Janiero at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20) that they are intertwined. The facts speak for themselves:

  • An estimated 850 million people go to bed each night hungry;
  • The world population grows by 77 million people each year, and by 2050 the population will be an estimated nine billion;
  • To meet this demand, global food production must increase by 70 percent by 2050.

PoweringAg, USAID’s new Grand Challenge, invites ideas and innovation on powering up energy in developing countries. The effort is expected to help women with 43 percent of the world’s farmers estimated to be female.

To feed nine billion people, we will need to increase food production on the land already growing today’s food supply, and access to sustainable energy is key.

The magnitude of the challenge is illustrated in Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) where only fourteen percent of people in rural areas have access to electricity.  Post-harvest losses have risen as high as fifty percent in SSA, but with the introduction of cold storage, refrigerated transport, and business models to store produce could dramatically reduce levels of hunger. 

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Video of the Week

You’re invited to join Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development, which is a multi-year initiative focused on promoting affordable, clean energy solutions for farmers and agribusinesses throughout the developing world. Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports market-driven approaches that link modern energy service providers with farmers, processors, input suppliers, and traders. These approaches aim to further integrate clean energy technologies in the agricultural sector to increase production, employ new value-added processing techniques, and reduce post-harvest loss. This Energy Grand Challenge for Development was launched last week at the Frontiers in Development conference and includes an online ideation community that you’re encouraged to join through www.PoweringAg.org– find it by clicking on “Join the Community.”

Powering Agriculture: A Grand Challenge for Development is implemented under the Grand Challenge for Development program that invites innovators everywhere to apply science, technology, and creative business models to address obstacles in the path of human development. USAID and its partners – the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Duke Energy, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) – seek to catalyze a movement of solvers to identify clean energy solutions to intensify the agriculture sector, enhance food security, and decouple food production from the use of fossil fuels. For more information on how to join the community now, share ideas, review the pre-solicitation notice, and apply for a grant starting July 12th, please visit: www.PoweringAg.org.

Photo of the Week: Spotlight on Panama

This week USAID announced that it will close its Mission to Panama in September, a reflection of Panama’s own great advances in development. Our assistance program to Panama began in 1940 with technical assistance for the establishment of a rubber plantation. Since then, we have provided $1.2 billion in economic assistance to Panama.

Our development initiatives in Panama have facilitated public-private partnerships and strategic development alliances leveraging local and external resources. As a result the sustainability of our joint activities will continue long after our Mission closes.

View the complete the photo series of our work in Panama.

Launch of New Grand Challenge – The Agriculture/Energy Nexus

Today 1.4 billion people lack access to clean energy.  The impact of this limited energy access is particularly pronounced in the agricultural sectors of developing countries, where three out of four people living in poverty have livelihoods connected to agriculture.  The lack of modern energy services impacts every aspect from farm to market – from irrigation and harvesting to processing and storage.

On June 12, 2012, USAID and its partners will launch ‘Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge‘.  This global effort will increase clean energy access and support economic growth in the developing world through finding and scaling effective, clean energy solutions for farmers and agri-businesses.  Success will result in enhanced food security and increased economic resiliency in the host communities.

Visit PoweringAg.org to learn more, join the forum, watch the launch event and ultimately, to submit proposals.

Video Workshops and Toolkit Offer Crash Course to Agriculture Projects in Sub-Saharan Africa

Inexpensive video production has become a viable way for agricultural organizations to communicate with beneficiaries, donors, and the public. And it’s not just posting on YouTube. Devices such as handheld projectors and tablet computers have come down in price, enabling practitioners to disseminate to farmers in rural areas with minimal technology. Social networks – just a few years ago only the purview of wealthy countries – are now truly global. In regions with electricity, a well-executed video can now go viral – and become more impactful than the slickest behavior change campaigns of decades past.

It is exciting, but that doesn’t make it simple. Organizations continue to make low quality videos that fail to engage their audience or reflect the core objectives of their project.

To help users learn the ropes, the Fostering Agriculture Competitiveness Employing Information Communication Technologies (FACET) project has developed an online toolkit that can help one through every stage of planning, producing, and disseminating agricultural videos. It is called “Integrating Low-Cost Video into Agricultural Development Projects: A Toolkit for Practitioners,” and is available for free download.

The toolkit is also the basis for a series of four workshops offered this month to USAID implementing partners by toolkit author Josh Woodard and myself, in Kenya, Mozambique, and Ghana. The first of the trainings was completed last week in Nairobi.

The workshop focuses on implementing your low-cost video vision, which requires skills beyond playing Spielberg: strategically thinking about message, storyboarding narrative concepts, planning dissemination, troubleshooting inevitably buggy software, and personal perseverance, all play a role in a video’s success or failure.

One participant, Victor Nzai, program assistant for USAID-funded Agricultural Market Development Trust of Kenya (AGMARK) project focused on agro-pastoral development, felt the training would improve his project’s ability to encourage farmers to efficiently integrate grazing range land and food production in Kenya.

“We have been doing dissemination via field days quite successfully, but with video, we can reach many more farmers than before,” said Nzai. “We shall shoot the videos ourselves, and edit them into comprehensive tools that can be presented by a facilitator.”

Agricultural development practitioners are looking for new ways to leverage video to circulate information and engage local farmers. Video can help them do it – but it is the holistic consideration of concept, design, and execution that will maximize chances for success.

“Not everyone will adopt our ideas,” said Nzai.  “But when we multiply the number of farmers we reach, we are able to tune our message with video to encourage farmers and pastoralists to consider better ways.”

Learn more about using information and communication technology in agriculture.

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