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Why Open Data Matters: G-8 and African Nations Increase Open Data for Food Security

Jimmy Wambua, a social justice worker and young entrepreneur in Nairobi, Kenya, saw a problem. In a country where smallholder farmers grow the food that feeds the Kenyan people, crop yields were not reaching their full potential and growers were not getting a fair price. Decisions about what crops to plant and when were made on speculation and instinct, and farmers sold their crops based on prices offered by middlemen and traders. A solution seemed evident: increase access and sharing of information that already exists and is public, but is not in-use by the farmers. Jimmy joined the M-Farm organization that set up a text-message based mobile phone application for farmers to gain a better price by accessing market price for their crops- rather than relying on the word of the buyer- and provide a platform for farmers to sell their goods online. USAID contributed to the work of M-Farm- not through a grant or loan or other financial capital- but with information capital. With the release of an open data set from the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNet) M-Farm now has access to ten years of historic data about market prices of crops, which show trends in crop price fluctuation, and enables better decision making on which crops to plant to yield the highest income.

Kenyan farmer shows her crops. Photo credit: Jimmy Wambua

M-Farm’s story was just one of dozens that took the stage April 29 & 30 at the G-8 International Open Agriculture Data Conference and showcased innovative organizations that use open data to support global food security. Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro of Mars Global shared progress on mapping the genomes of over 100 crops that are vital to food security, but are overlooked because they are not commercially viable. Palantir Technologies and Grameen Foundation displayed their open data app that they developed at USAID’s Hack for Hunger,which uses community knowledge worker-collected data and Palantir analytics to build a crop-specific food security early warning system for farmers in Uganda.

The concept of open agriculture data fuses transparency and technology to improve food security worldwide; farmers, entrepreneurs, and researchers recognize the impact and potential of increasing access to information and are increasingly receiving high-level support. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack touted the U.S. Government’s leadership role in increasing open data for development impact and for global growth. Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted the use of open genomic data to leapfrog development of new agricultural products. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, acting NOAA Administrator and the first American woman to walk in space, delivered an inspiring perspective of the role that data can play in transcending and unifying an Earth without country borders or sector divisions. Four hundred food security specialists, data scientists, and technology experts gathered with policy makers from G-8 and the six African New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition countries to work together to increase available information and launch G-8 country action plans to get more data open from both the public and private sector. U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Special Assistant to the President Todd Park cheered the work of the conference stating that, “by liberating data from the vaults of government and the private sector, we can accelerate the use of open agriculture and nutrition data to advance global food security while also fueling the growth of new businesses and jobs.”

The G-8 Heads of Delegation Valery Khromchenkov (Russia), Robert Turnock (Canada), Hideaki Chotoku (Japan), Tim Wheeler (United Kingdom), Guillou Marion (France), Martin Koehler (Germany), and Giulio Menato (European Union) listen to Agriculture Under Secretary Research, Education and Economics (REE) Dr. Catherine Woteki (U.S.) announce the action plans developed at the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture 2013. Photo Credit: USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

USAID has been consistently demonstrating its role as a leader in increasing open data. Multiple G-8 conference speakers joined because of products they had made as a result of the December 2012 Development DataJam that USAID’s Innovation & Development Alliances (IDEA) office co-hosted with the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. At the DataJam, USAID leadership joined with other issue experts, innovators, data scientists, and entrepreneurs to commit to developing prototypes that use open data to improve international. Continuing the support of these and other data innovators and social entrepreneurs, last week USAID launched www.usaid.gov/developer with new datasets and tools that had previously not been available to the public, including some we support through Feed the Future the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Each of these datasets are useful on their own, and when compared and applied with other datasets from USAID and other organizations, they have the growing potential to dramatically increase the impact and efficiency of international assistance.

In an increasingly networked and tech-savvy world, open data has the potential for more people to use information for social good, and USAID and global development goals directly benefit from increasing access to information.Like any technological tool, open data is useless without the people applying and engaging with it. Only through active and consistent participation can we ensure that information is timely, useful, and used. We can expect that these changes will come. Let’s get that information online and useable. Let’s get data open. Food security data is just the beginning.

For more information on USAID’s open data work, visit www.usaid.gov/developer or email OpenAgData@usaid.gov.

Katherine Townsend serves as Special Assistant for Engagement in USAID’s office of Innovation & Development Alliances. Follow her on Twitter @DiploKat.

Full Speed Ahead for Open Ag Data

This originally appeared on White House Office on Science & Technology Blog.

Last week, hundreds of innovators gathered at the World Bank IFC Center to brainstorm about how Open Data can be harnessed to help meet the challenge of sustainably feeding nine billion people by 2050.  The group included delegates from the G-8 group of nations, U.S. Government officials, private sector partners, Open Data advocates, technology experts, and nonprofit leaders – all participants in the first-of-its-kind G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture.

Participants in the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture, including US Chief Technology Todd Park, listen to opening remarks by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington, D.C. on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013. Photo Credit: Bob Nichols/USDA

The foundation for such collaboration was set by President Obama’s first ever global development policy which emphasizes broad-based economic growth, innovation, and partnership; and the President’s leadership on food security through the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative and Feed the Future.  Then, at the 2012 G-8 Camp David Summit, the G-8 nations, African partners, the private sector and civil society launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition and committed to host a conference focused on sharing relevant data to help advance agriculture and ensure food security for people around the world. At the end of the year, the White House hosted a Global Development Data Jam—the first high-level U.S. Government event to feature the potential of Open Data to address global challenges.

Last week’s G-8 “Open Ag Data” conference hosted by the USDA, built on this important groundwork by focusing on ways to ensure that Open Data about agriculture are not only available, but also put to good use. It also highlighted some excellent work that’s already underway and making positive change in the Open Ag Data arena, including:

  • MFarm has built a mobile application that allows farmers to receive accurate, real-time crop-price information from five major markets in Kenya, via daily text message, six days per week. The service helps farmers to make informed decisions on what to plant when, how to price produce, and where to sell to the largest profit.  MFarm is currently refining their service and will soon begin integrating USAID data into their product to help deliver more accurate price information to users.
  • INSEAD has introduced Toto Agriculture, a smartphone interface fueled by USAID data that provides village-specific agricultural data. Users can use this free application to access localized information on soil, pests, climate, and planting tips in over 100 languages.
  • iPlant: A community driven collaborative of researchers, educators, and students working to enrich all plant sciences through the development of the cyberinfrastructure essential for modern biology. The collaborative can sequence the genome of an individual cow in 3 hours, taking the time of sequencing from months down to hours.

But this is just the beginning. At last week’s conference, USDA, USAID, and a number of other entities—both domestic and international—unleashed a host of new datasets, tools, and platforms—with more to come in the weeks and months ahead. For our part, the U.S. Government:

  • Launched The Food, Agriculture, and Rural “data community” on Data.gov, which offers more than 300 datasets (and growing!) that relate to the social, economic, and environmental aspects of agriculture. For example, the new community offers Quick Stats—a comprehensive tool for accessing agricultural data profiles by subject area or commodity, such as crops and plants, or livestock. Over the next few months, USDA will make these data available in a robust Application Programming Interface (API) to enable easier sharing of data by third party applications and services.
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation released an open evaluation data catalog that contains household survey metadata from food security programs in Armenia, El Salvador, Ghana, and the Philippines, and more data is coming soon.
  • Launched USAID.gov/Developer, a page that curates APIs and datasets specifically for developers looking to scrub in and work with open global development data. APIs include the U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants, or Greenbook, which encompasses all international aid funding allocations.  This data will help developers and researchers more dynamically parse these data, that goes all the way back to the Marshall Plan.

We can’t wait to see what entrepreneurs, nonprofits, researchers, scientists and others around the world do with these new resources, and what exciting innovations emerge. We’re also excited to strengthen our partnership with other countries and the private sector to further liberate data and improve global food security.

The G-8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference was a great start.  We look forward to seeing the Open Ag Data movement continue—leveraging data, collaboration, and innovation to accelerate progress toward our food security goals.

There are steps you can take right now to get involved in the Open Ag Data movement:

Todd Park is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Who Stole My Cow? Open Data and Praedial Larceny

On December 23, 2012, thirty-two cows were stolen from a farm in Trelawny, Jamaica. By the time the story was picked up by a national newspaper three months later, the farm had been practically shut down, with only six of the original twenty-two workers still employed. Praedial larceny — the theft of agricultural produce and livestock — is widely acknowledged as a major threat to agricultural production and food security in developing countries. It robs legitimate producers, stifles incentives for farming entrepreneurs and adversely affects the poor. In Jamaica, this scourge deprives farmers of more than JA$5 billion (US$52 million) each year. The Rural Area Development Authority (RADA), an agency of Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture, has demonstrated a strong commitment to using open data to combat this economic drain and improve the resilience of the island’s agricultural industry.

Stanford Political science professor talking with farmer in Cornation Market in Kingston, Jamaica about praedial larceny. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

At its core, praedial larceny thrives on information asymmetries that limit coordination between stakeholders, such as farmers, law enforcement, and buyers of produce. The free flow and accessibility of information about registered farmers, their production, incidences of theft and linkages between production and market are all a part of the information ecosystem that is needed to combat this challenge.

It is within this context that I am excited by the G-8 International Open Agriculture Data Conference and the U.S. Government and USAID’s commitment to supporting agriculture open data. While the value of data is derived from its usage, the principle of ‘openness’ is founded on access and participation. Having more relevant and timely access to data for not only policy makers and data scientists, but also farmers, innovators and other intermediaries, will help to create the solutions needed to prevent threats to food security.

Over the last three years RADA has collaborated with universities, NGOs, and entrepreneurs, including the Mona School of Business & Management, the Caribbean Open Institute, and the SlashRoots Foundation, to publish agriculture open data through APIs and develop a number of proof of concept applications and visualizations to improve extension services and policy making. They partnered in Developing The Caribbean, a regional open data conference and code sprint that spanned six islands this year, where they released data and helped define problem statements to development challenges, along with government agencies from across the Caribbean. The event attracted over 200 volunteers software developers and domain experts in agriculture, tourism and data journalism, who generated over twenty-five prototypes in response to thirty problem statements.

Testing low tech prototypes in largest market in Jamaica after two day workshop to collaborative build solutions with users. Photo credit: Matthew McNaughton

Looking forward to further collaboration with RADA focused on specific development challenges, such as praedial larceny, one thing is clear: open government data in agriculture will be critical to breaking down the silos that typically create governance bottlenecks. This requires focusing not aggregate macro datasets, but instead opening small, service level indicators, originating from any development partner, that can provide “just in time” data to inform decision making. Early program prototypes include employment opportunities as data collectors for at-risk youth, and mobile farmer ID verification for law enforcement and buyers of produce.

To this end, we’re embracing open data that not only helps to catalyze innovation outside of government, but also lowers the barriers for RADA and the farmers they serve, to explore new ways of collaborate to solve the problems that impact them both.

Matthew McNaughton (@mamcnaughton) is an Open Innovation & Development Consultant at the World Bank, and Director of the SlashRoots Foundation, a Caribbean Civic tech non-profit, aiming to accelerate the evolution of the technology ecosystem in the region. SlashRoots is collaborating with the Caribbean Open Institute to launch the Code For The Caribbean Fellowship program. CftC is a member of the Code For All Network, Code For America’s International Program.

Shared Ag Data is a Secured Future for Vulnerable Populations

In Kahuho village, up on the foot of the Aberdare Ranges, is a potato farmer, Loise Mugure. Loise owns a two-and-a-half acre piece of land but while she could plant it all at once, she only cultivates a quarter an acre each season. She is among the 87 farmers from her village who approached M-Farm for help.

The price uncertainty on agricultural commodities has forced farmers to gamble on how much to plant each season.

Yes, these farmers had learned and embraced good agricultural practices. They have adopted new climate resilient crop varieties, even improved the health of their soils but their problems persisted. They needed information on how the markets behaved.

Local farmer sells potatoes. Photo credit: USAID

At M-Farm, we set out to five markets in Kenya to provide them with real-time agricultural price information. We went a step further and made this information readily available through SMS platform. We thought this was the ultimate solution the farmers needed. There still existed a gap. The farmers wanted to be shown the future of markets. It needed data. The data was scarce. We could only do much with the few months’ data we had gathered.

Working with farmers on a daily basis, I became frustrated too. I could not provide them with the outlooks they needed because I did not have the agricultural data to analyse and present to them.

It is exciting to have the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) dataset on Agriculture available to M-Farm. As a software solution and Agribusiness company focused on connecting farmers, we intend to integrate this dataset into our SMS information platform for our farmers.

We are processing the data to more meaningful information to farmers, then package it to suit their needs. This will help the farmers take important decisions on agricultural productivity.

What is beautiful about the FEWSNET data that the USAID has provided to our farmers is that it is from markets we know and on crops that are our staples. Finding local interpretation of the FEWSNET dataset gives us control of our situation. We can help protect food insecure populations from hunger with this data that has been made open to us.

Agricultural productivity creates benefits for everyone in the community. Photo credit: USAID

With access to the FEWSNET market price data, our farmers are richer with more useful information on the market behavior. The more the data, the more sophisticated the analysis and the presentation tool.

Connecting farmers with the right information and at the right time levels the playing field for them, creates transparency and improves their livelihoods.

At M-Farm the FEWSNET database is not just data, it is critical information that is finding its way into the lives of the primary producers who feed the nation.

NEWEST Rice Marks Latest Milestone

This post originally appeared on the Feed the Future Blog

“Today, we have new tools and approaches that enable us to achieve progress that was simply unimaginable in the past: the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries, including widespread hunger and preventable child death.” – Administrator Shah in his 2013 Annual Letter

One such tool is genetic engineering.

To help leverage this and other advanced molecular tools for food security, Feed the Future partners from U.S. and international research communities and the private sector have teamed up to apply these tools to common challenges faced by millions of rice farmers throughout Africa.

Researchers in Uganda plant seeds in the first ever confined field trials of genetically engineered rice in Africa. Photo Credit: Jimmy Lamo, NACRRI

Their efforts are paying off. This month, for the first time in Africa, researchers in Ghana and Uganda planted confined field trials of genetically engineered rice.

The new variety includes a trait for increased nitrogen use efficiency, which helps the plant take better advantage of the scant nitrogen found in Africa’s often nutrient-poor soils. Soil nitrogen deficiencies limit yields on roughly 90 percent of the lands African farmers use for growing rice. The engineered variety could also promote responsible fertilizer use by improving the crop’s responsiveness to smaller doses of fertilizer.

The field trials are a major scientific milestone and mark the latest success in a vibrant partnership between USAID, international and national agricultural research institutions, private-sector biotechnology firms, and non-governmental organizations—a partnership that is not only generating improved rice varieties, but also enhancing African researchers’ capacity to regulate and execute advanced agricultural research.

The partnership coalesces around the NEWEST rice project, which aims to improve the productivity and sustainability of rice production across Sub-Saharan Africa by relieving key production constraints for African rice farmers. In addition to the soil nitrogen deficiencies that inspired the current field trials, saline soils also reduce rice productivity in Africa. Meanwhile, climate change is elevating drought risk across the continent.

Rice varieties that are nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient, and salt-tolerant (NEWEST) could therefore boost yields by up to 30 percent in many regions, increasing farmers’ climate resilience while also minimizing their use of fertilizer and water, reducing deforestation, and slowing expansion of cultivated lands.

As a complement to traditional breeding programs, biotechnology has developed powerful tools that could help meet these ambitious agricultural and environmental goals. To harness these tools and spur agricultural innovation, Feed the Future relies on an international, multi-sector approach:

    • As part of the NEWEST rice project, California-based Arcadia Biosciences donated the intellectual property to generate improved varieties and introduced the new traits into NERICA rice, an important African variety.
    • The biotechnology firm then transferred these initial lines to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, which worked with Arcadia to conduct preliminary field evaluations and generate seed stocks of the most promising varieties.
    • Arcadia and CIAT then shipped the seed to research partners in Ghana and Uganda’s Agricultural Research Systems, who planted their confined field trials over the past month.
    • Throughout this process, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation coordinated activities across the partnership, helping to navigate intellectual property and biosafety regulations in the two countries and ensuring that the confined field trials adhered to legal and environmental standards.

As the field trials progress, Ghanaian and Ugandan researchers will identify which of the new, nitrogen-use-efficient rice lines perform best under local conditions. Water-efficient, salt-tolerant, and triple-stack rice varieties (which combine all three traits) are still under evaluation in California and Colombia and will be tested in subsequent field trials in Africa. The researchers then plan to optimize the best-performing lines through conventional breeding and introduce the improved traits into locally adapted, farmer-preferred rice varieties.

As part of a broad portfolio of agricultural research investments, this partnership highlights Feed the Future’s strategy to harness agricultural innovation to reduce global hunger, poverty, and undernutrition, while meeting the global challenges of food security in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.

Working Together to Feed the World and Protect the Planet

This originally appeared on the Feed the Future Blog.

Today, nearly one in eight people in the world do not have enough food to eat.

And studies predict that as diets change and the world’s population grows to 9 billion people by 2050, we will need to increase food production by at least 60 percent to meet the global demand for food, all in the face of increasing pressures on natural resources.

Forty-three years ago, the first Earth Day celebration began a movement to create awareness about the need to protect the world’s natural resources so they can be enjoyed by generations to come. Since then, governments and civil society have worked together to address environmental challenges and improve our understanding of how we can help protect the world’s natural resources.

Farmers in Boti, a small community in the Eastern region of Ghana, take small tree seedlings to their farm to plant. The trees will provide soil stability, increase water quality, and provide a habitat for beekeeping. Photo credit: Kyndra Eide, Peace Corps

Today’s celebration of Earth Day is an opportunity to remind ourselves and our partners of the connection between our environment, agriculture, and food and nutrition security and how we can work together to end world hunger and undernutrition. Although we still face environmental challenges, our ability to apply scientific innovation and technology in agriculture and work in partnership across different sectors can help us protect our planet and end hunger and undernutrition at the same time.

Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, is working with a variety of partners to meet the dual challenges of growing more while conserving natural resources.

  • We help smallholder farmers adopt improved technologies and management practices that can lead to more resilient crops, higher yields, and increased incomes while encouraging sustainable and equitable access to and use of natural resources like land and water.
  • We support scientific innovation and technology in agriculture and nutrition to help meet the challenge of growing more food with less water while helping farmers adapt to changes in climate and rainfall. As Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “We know that when managed well, water allows economies to thrive and children to grow up healthy.”
  • We also support partner governments to implement policy reforms and establish regulatory systems that promote open markets and science-based regulations, helping to increase agricultural productivity and reduce poverty.
  • We actively support policy coordination among major donors, strategic partners, and multilateral organizations through our food and nutrition security diplomacy efforts. For example, the U.S. Government helped guide the United Nations Committee on World Food Security process to develop and adopt Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests. And we are participating in the follow-on effort to develop voluntary principles of responsible agricultural investment. The U.S. Government is also the largest contributor to organizations like the UN World Food Program, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which each work to combat food insecurity and undernutrition.

Feed the Future is doing all this in partnership with private sector, civil society, strategic partners and other U.S. Government initiatives that are working to build the resilience of communities vulnerable to hunger and the impacts of climate change.

Through our collaboration with Feed the Future strategic partners, like Brazil, India and South Africa, we leverage the expertise of emerging economic leaders and scale up joint efforts to achieve food and nutrition security goals. Our partnership with Brazil is helping increase the income of small holder farmers in rural areas of Honduras and providing renewable energy to 10,000 families in remote areas of the country…[continued]

Read the rest of this post.

Mozambique Turns Potential into Progress through Leadership and Partnership

This originally appeared on Feed the Future.

You’ve heard me say it before: African nations have great potential, particularly for food security. And Mozambique is no exception. Through leadership and partnership, it’s turning that potential into real progress and opportunity.

Last week, I was honored to witness history when Mozambican leaders came together with more than 150 representatives from donor countries, civil society and the private sector to chart a bold path forward to achieve sustainable food security and nutrition.

This boy from rural Senegal isn’t old enough to go to class yet, but he can still enjoy a healthy meal of daharine, a nutritious porridge of rice, chickpeas, and peanut sauce, at a USAID-supported Community Meals program based at the local school. Photo credit: USAID

This two-day official launch of Mozambique’s  New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Maputo provided an important opportunity for participants to have an open dialogue and outline concrete next steps for ensuring mutual accountability and tracking progress at the country level over time. It also enabled discussions around reforming policies that have stifled agricultural innovation, development and growth in Mozambique. Such reforms are the key to unlocking private investment, which is critical to sustainable development.

In his opening remarks, Minister of Agriculture Jose Pacheco quoted a conversation he once had with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug, who said, “Sure, Mozambique has huge potential, but you can’t eat potential.” Pacheco went on to say that Mozambicans need to transform that potential into something useful. While the country’s poverty and undernutrition rates remain high, Mozambique has the potential to grow into a breadbasket for the region. In addition to its vast amounts of fertile land and ideal location along major trade corridors and ports, Mozambique has some of the best records of economic growth in Africa, averaging eight percent per year over the last decade.

Recognizing that donor funding is ultimately finite, the Government of Mozambique has committed to take the necessary steps to create a policy environment that fosters private sector investment in agriculture, which will help ensure the economic, social and environmental sustainability of public sector efforts. Development partners within the G8 and other countries stand ready to assist and support this policy transformation, knowing that if we want our collective efforts to truly reach scale, ensure farmers (especially women) have improved access to markets, and encourage creativity that drives innovation, we need the private sector as a full partner —not just an investor—to contribute energy and expertise to help build and extend value chains and markets across Mozambique.

The second day of the event drew strong participation from the private sector.  One local Mozambican company shared how they provided nearly $1 million in credit for inputs to smallholder farmers who saw their production increase by $10 million as a result. Through the company’s efforts, almost 43,000 smallholder farmers now receive inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizers; have access to improved production technologies; and are selling to a guaranteed market, providing the company with a constant supply of high-quality products for its processing unit.

This was just one example of the positive impact the private sector is having by collaborating with smallholder farmers in Mozambique. In 2012 alone, the private sector invested $7 million worth of agricultural inputs in smallholder farmers. As a result, these farmers received $60 million from purchases of their products, providing them with opportunity, access and incomes that will transform their lives.

In addition to bringing together representatives from diverse sectors and perspectives, the New Alliance launch event illustrated the dynamic transformation that can happen with Mozambique’s demonstrated leadership modeled on the type of country ownership envisioned in the Rome Principles for Sustainable Global Food Security and carried forth through platforms like the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). In fact, Mozambique officially launched its CAADP agricultural development investment plan last Friday.

Through Feed the Future, the United States looks forward to continuing our close collaboration with the many partners who attended the meeting as we grow and develop together through the New Alliance.

Read more about Africa’s potential in a blog about my previous trip to Ethiopia for the annual CAADP Partnership Platform meeting last month.

The Moment is Now: Modernizing Food Assistance

Nancy Lindborg is the Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. 

I just came back from hearing Administrator Shah’s speech at  Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he outlined the bold vision for Food Aid Reform that was included in President Obama’s 2014 Budget Proposal. I sat  next to the Director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, Dina Esposito. We were both seized by the historic opportunity this proposal presents to upgrade, streamline, and recommit to our global food assistance programs—a goal that that has dangled before many of us for the last decade.

As noted by Senator Lugar, who opened today’s event, the current food aid system was created at a time of significant food surplus; at a time when shipping food around the globe made sense as a means of manifesting American generosity. But that was 60 years ago. Since then, surplus has turned to shortages, and the costs of shipping have risen exponentially. The time has come to shift our practices so we can reach four million additional children in need of food and eliminate the inefficient workaround of monetization that is currently used to convert our agricultural commodities into cash for development programs.

In President Barack Obama’s Budget, the food aid reform proposal envisions a more efficient, effective, and timely program that will reach 4 million more hungry people each year. Photo Credit: USAID

Having spent many years as part of the NGO community, I am keenly aware of the challenges presented by the monetization of Food for Peace commodities and am particularly energized by the potential to eliminate this practice.

Currently, it works like this: USAID purchases and ships Title II in-kind food aid commodities to our NGO partners overseas, who then sell them in local markets to earn the cash needed to support some of our most important development and resilience programs. Unfortunately, as Government Accountability Office studies have shown, this process on average results in a loss of 25 cents to the dollar. Moreover, it requires NGO partners to spend precious time and energy on navigating local commodity markets and negotiating sales, often in very tough environments like the DRC or Mozambique. Too often, market uncertainty leads to diminished returns, requiring additional resources to meet program goals.

The new budget reform will create a dedicated Community Development and Resilience Fund (PDF) within our Development Assistance account that will provide cash directly to our PVO/NGO partners, so they can focus instead on doing the multi-year, multi-sector development programs that are so critical to reaching and helping the most vulnerable.

In the last two years I have had a chance to visit a number of these programs, implemented by partners such as CRS, World Vision, ADRA, and Mercy Corps. In fact I visited one of these programs by CRS two years after the funding ended. In an affirming validation of the power of Food for Peace programs to transform lives, I saw firsthand how it enabled Safieta, a widow in Burkina Faso with seven children, to thrive during yet another tough dry season in the Sahel.

Above all, the Food Aid Reform proposal (PDF) is a re-commitment to USAID food assistance with greater efficiency and effectiveness. In addition to eliminating monetization, the proposal also moves Title II emergency food aid funds into the United States’ International Disaster Assistance cash account. While this change still includes an initial 55% floor for purchasing U.S. commodities, it also gives us the flexibility we need to use the right tools for the emergency at hand, whether cash, vouchers, or critically needed American food.

For full details on the U.S. government’s food aid reform, visit http://www.usaid.gov/foodaidreform.

Outcomes are Nice, But What About Measuring Them?

This originally appeared on Agrilinks.

This post, written by Alain Vidal, is cross-posted from the CGIAR Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog and the Challenge Program on Water and Food’s (CPWF) Director’s Blog.

This week we are publishing thirteen CPWF outcome stories. Just a few days after the groundbreaking ceremony of the CGIAR Headquarters in Montpellier, where French authorities were told how the new CGIAR was “big, bold and beautiful,” these outcome stories may look small, even tiny. “Islands of success” in the middle of an ambitious “ocean of change.”

What we in CPWF have learnt over the last ten years is that it is not so easy to “get people to do things differently.”  We cannot just provide ‘evidence.’ Science lays the foundation by providing deeper understanding of the problems, better ways to target interventions or new solutions (also called “innovations,” “interventions,” “strategies” or “alternatives”).  But in order to influence stakeholder behavior and achieve outcomes we need to go one step further and engage stakeholders in the process of research itself. It is through their own learning processes that people begin to change or alter how they make decisions.

But let’s consider them more carefully, because outcomes – the new paradigm for the whole CGIAR, which our program was entrusted to test at its creation ten years ago – come in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, outcomes can be defined as changes in stakeholders’ behaviors through shifts in their practice, investments or decision-making processes. They are more about change than about size.

Cambodian woman and man with irrigation drip-kits. Photo credit: WLE

For instance, in Cambodia, the story of drip irrigation farming linked to market opportunities demonstrates how improved water efficiency, primarily in the form of irrigation drip-kits, resulted in water savings, lower labor requirements and improved yields. Income of the target farmers more than doubled.

Another outcome, related to benefit sharing mechanisms in the Rio Ubate / Fuquene lake watershed in Colombia, shows how different stakeholders changed their attitudes towards one another. Combining conservation agriculture with Payment for Environmental Services, partners set up a revolving fund program managed by farmers’ associations. The fund provided smallholder farmers with credit to make an initial investment in conservation agriculture. So far, 100% of the first round of loans have been recovered. From 2006 to 2009, more than 180 hectares of land were brought under conservation agriculture, which in turn increased farmers income by 17%.

These outcomes are not the end of the road. In both instances, the initiatives further innovated and led to new outcomes. In Cambodia IDE is continuing to improve service delivery and diversify markets. The work in Colombia has continued under the guidance of CIAT in the Andes.

The main lesson that we have learned is that outcomes take time to generate, are iterative and not linear. There are not magic bullet solutions in getting to outcomes.

Over the coming months CPWF will be capitalizing on its ten-year research for development experience. Identifying ways to achieve ‘islands of success’, in all their shapes and sizes, is just one way CPWF can contribute to CGIAR’s envisioned ‘ocean of change.’  In its quest to reach millions, CGIAR must focus on the essentials: working through partnershipsengaging with development actors, building trust and listening to the problems at hand rather than just identifying big science-based solutions. What other lessons can we offer to help contribute to this change?

Read the outcome stories…

Learn more about what USAID is doing to meet CGIAR objectives.

African Nations Lead the Way on Country-owned Development

This originally appeared on the Feed the Future Blog.

Forty years ago, Africa was exporting food. Today, it is a net food importer. But there’s no reason African countries can’t achieve greater growth in the agriculture sector to lift their people out of poverty and contribute to global food security.

By 2050, it is projected that we’ll need to increase food production by up to 60 percent to meet the growing world population’s demand for food. And we’ll have to do so with less water and potentially less land than we have now. Enter Africa—with 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, largely farming-based economies, and vast natural resource endowments, Africa has the potential to feed not only itself, but the world.

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

In 2003, African nations came together under a common vision to increase Africa’s growth, development, and participation in the global economy through agriculture-led development. The African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program was born out of this vision—a program aimed at improving economic growth and food security by addressing key policy and capacity issues affecting the agricultural sector and by increasing government spending on agriculture by 10 percent and agricultural productivity by six percent in each country. CAADP, as it is called, would reverse underinvestment in agriculture and put Africa on a new course toward sustainable development and a greater role in the global economy.

The world followed suit in 2009, urged on by food price spikes in 2007 and 2008 that threatened global gains in poverty reduction. Recognizing the urgency of food security, G8 leaders, led by U.S. President Barack Obama, committed to increasing investments in agriculture, which had steadily dropped in past years.

What followed was a new way of doing development, driven by countries themselves rather than donors, and embodied in the Rome Principles for Sustainable Development. CAADP itself is a country-led and country-owned process. Donor commitments, such as ours, follow the lead of African countries and the priorities they’ve set for achieving their own agricultural development and food security.

So far, more than 20 countries in Africa have developed country-owned investment plans that involve not just government ministries but a broad collection of local stakeholders including the private sector and civil society. One of the tremendous innovations of CAADP, as a regional platform, is the process of peer review of these plans, encouraging learning across the continent that ultimately improves the quality of the plans.

We’ve seen tremendous advances in the way development is being done through CAADP, such that other regions outside of Africa have taken up the process. And we’re thrilled to have been a part of a broader donor network supporting the growth of CAADP and building our own plans for investment around strategic priorities outlined by the countries, both through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative and the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The sustainability of our programs depends on having country ownership so we’ve built our approach to food security in Africa around CAADP.

This week, I traveled to Ethiopia for the annual CAADP Partnership Platform meeting. This year’s meeting emphasized a number of the themes we stressed last year in the New Alliance: policy actions to stimulate greater private investment in agriculture and mutual accountability for results. [continued]

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