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Archive for May 21st, 2012

Convincing farmers to grow drought-resistant small grains in favour of maize is a difficult task

Posted by African Press International on May 21, 2012

Convincing farmers to grow drought-resistant small grains in favour of maize is a difficult task

HARARE,  – Bright Makakai, 41, is constantly advised by a farming programme he listens to on his solar-powered radio to “plant small grains” in the drought-prone area of Shurugwi, about 200km southeast of Gweru, the capital of Midlands Province in Zimbabwe. But he chooses to cultivate mainly maize, even though the crop generally fails because of poor rains.

He allocates less than an acre to rapoko, a small reddish grain also known as finger millet, which can be milled into flour and used for brewing beer, mostly for traditional rituals, or cooked into a thick porridge for meals. The rest of his five-acre plot is dedicated to maize, Zimbabwe’s staple food.

“Most members of my family don’t like eating meals prepared using rapoko, preferring the sadza [thick porridge] from maize meal. Every farming season I plant maize because, just like other people in this area, I keep hoping that the rains will be better,” Makakai, a father of five, told IRIN by phone.

Only two of the about 100 households in his village plant sorghum and millet, he said, although over the years several households have been setting aside small plots for rapoko.

”Many people don’t want to plant millet and rapoko because the crops can easily be wiped out by the [quelea] birds. You need to constantly monitor the fields, but who can afford the manpower to do that when there are so many other chores to do?” said Makakai.

Erratic weather patterns in recent years and the disruptions caused by the 2000 fast-track land reform programme, which redistributed more than 4,000 white commercial farms to landless blacks, have combined to transform previously food secure Zimbabwe into a food insecure country in the past decade.

Poor rainfall during the 2011/12 season is expected to bring lower yields from the previous year, but the exact extent of any food insecurity is difficult to gauge. UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which used to assess and report on crops to assist food security, have again been barred – as they were in 2011 – on the grounds of “national security”.

The agricultural ministry said the 2010/11 season recorded a 1,6 million ton harvest, leaving a national cereal deficit of about 70,000 tons.

Small grains are being promoted as a crop better equipped to handle adverse weather conditions and more suitable for long-term storage, but they remain unpopular with most communal farmers in arid areas.

Leornard Unganai, an agro-climatologist coordinating a climate adaptation project in Chiredzi in Masvingo Province, said small grain seeds were generally not available in Zimbabwe.

''There is no comprehensive national policy regarding small grains, despite the fact that some communal farmers have expressed eagerness to venture into them''

“There is no comprehensive national policy regarding small grains,” Unganai told IRIN, “despite the fact that some communal farmers have expressed eagerness to venture into them.”

Agriculture minister Joseph Made said during a field trip with delegates from several African countries in March 2012 that it was “time the country adopts crop diversification and accommodates small grains on a very serious note”, because the government is forced to make up crop shortfalls with cereal imports.

”A lot needs to be done to convince communal farmers to grow small grains. Even in the most arid regions like Matabeleland [in southern Zimbabwe], farmers are still stuck with maize as a staple crop,” Denford Chimbwanda, the former president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GCPA), told IRIN.

”Despite the poor uptake of small grains by smallholder farmers, there have been efforts to promote these drought-resistant crops since the 1950s,” Sam Moyo, an agriculture expert and director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies (AIAS), told IRIN. ”Calls to convert to small grains are not a new phenomenon – there are complex issues to address, though.”

He said lifestyles, tastes and traditions partly explained the reluctance to adopt small grains, but pointed out that there were also no clearly defined policies and strategies to market small grains to growers or consumers.

Lack of marketing

”There is clearly a lack of infrastructure to market the buying and processing of small grains, especially in dry areas. When you visit the areas, you easily recognize that there are no shops selling small grain seed; neither are there efforts to… [promote] the buying of small grains.”

Moyo said there was also a need to boost the availability of specialised equipment for processing the harvest in outlying communities as a way of encouraging farmers to plant small grains on a larger scale. The lack of incentives, subsidies, storage facilities and effective transport arrangements also discouraged farmers from adopting these drought-resistant cereal varieties.

”Even if farmers wanted to plant sorghum, for example, for commercial purposes, they lack knowledge of how they can do this, and many are convinced that there is no market for it. There is need to promote awareness around the value that small grains bring, and the private sector should play an increased role,” Moyo said.

Local commercial beer brewers buy red sorghum as an ingredient, but only from farmers they have contracted as suppliers, leaving smallholder and communal farmers in the cold, an employee at Harare-based Chibuku Breweries, who refused to be named, told IRIN.

fm/go/he source

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Aid agencies are seeing the reading on the wall

Posted by African Press International on May 21, 2012

Aid agencies are seeing the reading on the wall

KABUL,  – With the clock ticking down to Afghanistan’s transition in 2014, including the withdrawal of most foreign military forces, humanitarians have said it is time to consider post-transition scenarios and how that will impact aid delivery and operations.

“We are reviewing our activities and going through a lot of assessments right now, both from a reduction in funds perspective but also in a potential deterioration of security,” said an aid worker who preferred anonymity.

The transition will see the Afghan military take control of the country’s security from the International Security Assistance Force. But according to a statement by a group of NGOs, it is taking place in a context of rising violence against civilians, growing internal displacement, and increasing protection concerns.

“Potentially we see a civil war, a lot of political trouble, with riots, demonstrations and attacks,” said a Western analyst who preferred anonymity. Observers agree some places, like Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, will maintain some continuity, but what could unfold in other areas across the country is “anybody’s guess”.

Some organizations say they are already experiencing large cuts in foreign aid – and are anticipating and planning for more – and are relying more heavily on strategies such as community based approaches and subsistence planning. The former aims to ensure continued work in insecure areas in case international staff leave and the latter to make sure communities are focusing on basic foods for subsistence and not dependent on imported goods.

“It’s quite hard to know where that might happen, because that internal conflict can break out in many places, so doing contingency planning on that basis is quite difficult,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said during a recent visit to Kabul.

''Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN – not only to them but also their families''

“As for the longer term political process in terms of the drawdown of forces, everyone right now is focusing on how we can make sure that happens as efficiently and effectively as possible,” she added. “There is a process with ongoing conferences, and countries in the region are talking about how to offer support. The more you are able to have stability and security, the more the other elements of human development and livelihood support [the transition].”


Observers say a number of scenarios could play out ahead of the transition. The most desired, yet least expected, is to have all political parties sitting together at the negotiating table. However, increasing political and ethnic fragmentation in cities across the country, declining property markets, an imposed cash cap on money leaving Kabul airport, and re-armament in the north, are indicators of a possible breakdown in security and continued fighting.

“Usually plan A does not work here, so we plan B, C, D, all the way down to Z,” said one Western observer, who was commenting on ongoing contingency planning. The challenge, from an operational perspective, was how to keep up with the changes and continue operations on the ground when the situation is constantly shifting.

Challenges highlighted by aid workers include the negative effect on aid operations caused by the decline in aid money, the departure from the country of qualified Afghans, and a growing number of internally displaced people, especially those returning from Iran and Pakistan.

“It is about the reality of transition, that you have international forces that have brought with them development resources and aid into different parts of the country,” Amos said. “So if you have a wind-down of that development, the potential exists for greater humanitarian needs because people are dropping over the edge into greater vulnerability.”

Many observers are not convinced that less military presence will change anything in Afghans’ lives, though one of the main challenges for the international community is how to pay the civil service and maintain the level of effort put in by police, army and civil servants, especially if security continues to deteriorate.

“For the people in need and all the people on the cusp that are getting by, their situation can only get worse,” said a Western analyst. “These organizations can’t deal with the load they have now because they constantly have to re-look at strategies with constant emergencies coming along.”

Low morale

International humanitarian workers say working atmospheres are tense and staff morale is down due to staff cuts. One of their biggest concerns, as part of a larger humanitarian crisis, is their Afghan counterparts desire to leave the country.

Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN – not only to them but also their families. Should international staff be forced to leave the country or relocate, many fear there will be fewer national aid workers on the ground, which means less access to local communities and people in need, making it harder to ensure key services and basic needs continue to be met.

Amos, who visited an informal settlement and met some 80 families in Parwan e Se, just outside central Kabul, said that while figures demonstrate that the overall security situation in the country has improved, over the past year there were some places where internal displacement had increased because of ongoing conflict.

The UN estimates there are half a million internally displaced people across the country. Amnesty International says displacement is on the rise: In the first half of 2011, 91,000 people fled their homes due to internal conflict – up by 46 percent on the first half of 2010.

Political tensions with Iran and Pakistan over Kabul’s strategic partnership with Washington have also resulted in threats to expel Afghan refugees residing in the two countries.

“The proposed plan to rapidly increase the [Afghan national forces] to 350,000 by the end of 2014 only to cut it to 250,000 within two or three years is greatly concerning,” the NGO consortium statement said.

“Such a push is not only a waste of resources that otherwise could have been focused on training and equipping a smaller [Afghan force], but also may contribute to the proliferation of arms and armed groups, thus increasing the risks to civilians.”

td/eo/cb/oa source

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Pockets of cream-yellow coloured bacterial ooze in a BXW affected banana plant

Posted by African Press International on May 21, 2012

Photo: BSPP
Pockets of cream-yellow coloured bacterial ooze in a BXW affected banana plant (file photo)

IDJWI ,  – More than half of mountainous South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is infected by banana xanthomonas wilt (BXW), often referred to by farmers as “Banana AIDS”. The incurable disease is wiping out bananas and plantains grown at high altitudes and spreads easily. IRIN looked at the disease and how people are being affected on the island of Idjwi (population 230,000) in Lake Kivu.

“Malnutrition is increasing: in the last half of 2011, the Idjwi Centre for Rural Promotion (CPR) recorded 48 new cases of malnourished children in the north of the island against 21 in the first half the same year,” said Euphraim Kivayaga, the director of CPR, a local development organization which has been active on the island for over 20 years. 

The socio-economic consequences of the epidemic are strongly felt as the inhabitants live almost exclusively from farming, and population pressure is a growing source of poverty.

“It’s all of social life which deconstructs: we are seeing an increase in theft and conflict in communities, and instances of mob justice are increasing and are particularly violent. Illiteracy and migration away from rural areas is growing… People are helpless. In addition, false rumours are circulating and we need to combat them,” said Kivayaga. 

Banana plantations play a central role in local communities in eastern DRC. Besides being a staple food, bananas are used for their juice and to make beer – the juice may be given to children as a substitute for milk, while beer is a drink that plays a crucial social role, especially at weddings.

Julie Van Damme, a researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), also emphasizes “the economic role of bananas which serve as farmers’ `bank accounts’ for unexpected or major expenses (such as payment of school fees) and their role in agriculture: bananas aid soil fertility and help prevent soil erosion.”

A regional epidemic

BXW began in Ethiopia on Ensete crops (related to bananas), where it had a relatively minor effect. It was during its spread to Uganda that farmers realized the epidemic nature of the bacterium. Present in North Kivu since 2001, the bacterium has spread to both Kivus today. In 2011, it was reported in five provinces of nearby Burundi.

Banana plantations occupy 30 percent of the cultivated area in South Kivu and generate nearly 60 percent of household income. Four territories of South Kivu Province saw their banana production decline 20-100 percent, resulting in some places in a loss of 35 tons per hectare per year, a US$1,600 per hectare per year loss for the farmer.

The rapid spread of BXW has devastating consequences for all farmers. The symptoms of BXW are dry banana leaves, early ripening of bananas, a yellowish fluid in the trunk of banana trees, and a hardening and darkening of bananas making them inedible. “Even the animals are refusing this food,” said one farmer in Idjwi North.

Disease control measures

Although “there is no magic bullet solution, it is possible to control the spread of disease by strict but practicable techniques,” said Grant Bulangashane, an assistant at the Catholic University of Bukavu and a PhD student at UCL.

“Farmers must get used to disinfecting their tools – by using a chemical disinfectant or exposing them to fire – as they move from an infected plant to a healthy plant. Farmers must also, using a stick, remove the male bud of the diseased plant, which attracts insects and becomes, due to foraging animals, a vector of disease. They must also cut the plant and bury or dispose of waste bananas and ensure that animals do not spread the disease as they move from infected plants to healthy plants.”

To combat this latest threat, some farmers have had the idea of placing hot ashes on infected banana plants, to prevent contact.

Photo: David Gough/IRIN
Besides being a staple food, bananas are used for their juice and to make beer (file photo)

Educate and legislate

In Uganda, the government has set up a Task Force to develop a plan to fight the disease. W.K. Tushemereirwe, in a collective work edited by an international network promoting bananas and plantains, believed “Uganda was losing $360 million each year because of the disease.” The plan has had an impact and DRC is seeking to follow suit, despite the lack of resources, and red tape.

Currently a provincial order is under review at the office of governor of South Kivu and is about to be signed. “To stop the spread, everyone should apply the same rules. If your neighbour does not respect them, your work is useless,” said an angry farmer who lost a significant portion of his crop. Indeed, political action is important to ensure that healthy seeds and agricultural equipment are controlled and distributed to enforce basic practices.

Awareness is a key step. CPR is using its meagre resources to broadcast about the disease on its community radio station. After awareness-raising and “the phase without bananas” which should last 6-8 months – extremely difficult for a farmer who has a substantial portion of his crop infected – we must consider planting afresh.

Looking ahead

The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-Based Livelihoods in Central Africa  , in partnership with the provincial inspectors and Louvain Development, has set up a system of “macro-propagation” of healthy plants. It should strive to produce a variety bananas appreciated by the people and supplied by a source that has not been in contact with the disease. 

“Some universities, including the UCL, hold the complete collection of varieties of bananas,” said Julie Van Damme. “The Phytolab in Burundi can also provide `healthy vitroplants’. But all this has a cost.”

Faced with this alarming situation, extensive action is vital: In Idjwi the population is desperate and the humanitarian challenge daunting.

cm/cb source

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