Millennium Village

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by soilplantfood

Millenium Village 20 Feb 2010:
The driver for the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) was amazing. I had been jolted and jogged over these roads many times before, but with him driving, I hardly know we were in Malawi. At about 8:30 in the morning, the truck arrived to pick Sieg and me up at her home in Lilongwe. In the car was a female Malawian journalist and an employee of UNDP, plus the driver. We left town and headed west toward the Zambian border. We passed through the high density village suburbs near the city and came to where there was actual separation of natural space between maize fields. As we got further from the city we could see the maize begin to get shorter and less vigorously green. About an hour outside of Lilongwe, we stopped at a service station near a dirt road were 2 other UNDP trucks were sitting. A small group of people, were standing there. We were soon introduced to Pedro Sanchez, plus the local directors for this cluster. We were briefed on what we would see in this village, got back into the trucks and headed toward the village on a very rough, wet road. It had rained very hard the night before – waking me several times, and the roads showed the abuse.

The Millennium Village Project was begun in 200X as a way to show the kind of strides that can be made when intensive resources are put into the hands of villagers along with guidance and organization to allow people to decide what they themselves need. The project focuses on agriculture, education, health, connectivity and entrepreneurial development, and ____. The goals are intense – to get all children in the village a primary school education, cell phone access, and access to health care. To improve yields, and the overall goal is to help move the villages from destitute poverty to something resembling hope, opportunity and future. There are 80 Millennium Villages, situated into clusters, distributed throughout 11 African countries.

In the US, we think of a village as a small thing – a town where a couple hundred to maybe 2000 people (adults and children) live. Villages in Malawi have exploded, and the area where we visited was home to several thousand villagers. A village, I learned, is not defined by population, or by proximity to a city, but by lack of infrastructure or resources. The MVP is trying to see what happens when one changes that.

As we approached this village we immediately saw a difference in the maize. It was green, tall and had multiple ears per stalk. Sieg said that when she had visited the area last November, she had witnessed people with string making straight ridges, ox-carts hauling compost and placing both compost and fertilizer in the ridge. While compost is promoted all over Malawi, it rarely seems to be used. Excited, the three trucks stopped and people photographed the Maize. We continued to the village where the first stop was a Zain cell-phone kiosk. Before cell phones, villagers had to travel miles and miles in order to reach a phone. The infrastructure for land-lines is costly, and never arrived, but cell phones did. The kiosk had a solar cell that enabled people to charge their cell phones there, buy minutes, and use a public cell phone for money. This not only allows people to contact relatives or doctors, but to know the price of crops and commodities so they can sell things at the best rate. Several of these kiosks in the village make this connectivity possible.

We also saw a new community center built. The villagers made and provided the bricks and sand and labor to build this. The project provided doors, windows roofs and a contractor to direct the building. In it, it contains a community room, rooms for health clinic, offices for extension workers when they are in the village and storage space for agriculture inputs and seed.

New well pumps allow access to much deeper, cleaner groundwater reserves, and concrete around the well keeps water clean.

The MVP helped build 3 school classroom units, each containing 2 classrooms. The community, upon seeing the number of students who came to school built another classroom unit. A total of 1700 children attend school in these 8 classrooms. I can’t quite imagine how learning happens, but from talking to others, this isn’t unusual. Their biggest problem is that they have no housing for teachers, and no one in the community who already lives there is equipped to teach.



Rain and Music

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 by soilplantfood

So I got to see the other Lilongwe this weekend. The real Lilongwe where the majority of the people live. Sieg has told me that the city was designed by Afrikaners before the end of apartheid in South Africa, which accounts for the abundance of walls and the ability of expats to live within spitting distance of Malawians and not see them. The three guys (Names: Alan, JB and Morris) I met at the market place invited me to go to one of their homes to eat and then go to a concert, drink and dance. How could I say no?? We walked from the market through downtown, and then at a particular place, we stepped onto a footpath between two walls. 100 yards later, we came out on the other side into what seemed to be a village that had been swallowed up by the city. Alan – the guy whose house we were going to, referred to it as a ghetto, and it sort of is. There were some foul smelling piles of open compost – rotting fruit and maize husks, people packing charcoal in to sacks that they then stacked on bicycles… On the other side of this square, the neighborhood became much quieter and at a particular point, we stepped behind a wall made of woven bamboo or reeds to Alan’s fathers home. It was lovely. A concrete porch, beside a small yard area, and to the side an out-door kitchen hut, where food is cooked over a wood fire. There were two women there – and I’m not sure what the relationship was, but I greeted them – very awkwardly, with a lot of prompting from JB – in Chechewa. Alan split some wood, and made a fire on the cookstove, there was a tap near the fence for water, and within a bit of time, Alan and one of the women had made Nsima with meat (small bits of mostly cartilage) and vegetables. I actually really liked it. A little salt on the Nsima makes it pretty good, and the vegetable was very similar to thin sliced and cooked collard or mustard greens (dark and bitter). Nsima is white corn-meal starch, cooked in water and then formed into small foot-ball shaped patties, similar to thick grits, but with less “corn” flavor.

After eating, we rinsed our hands, thanked our hosts and made our way not to much further to where the concert was happening. I was delighted to see an even mix of men and women there. It was Valentine’s day so a lot of the girls were wearing red. Apparently the president got married the same day as well.

Today – Tuesday – it finally rained. It seems like I haven’t seen a good day of rain since I arrived and this is the rainy season. I have heard a lot of talk – and worry – about the erratic rain. Maize is tasseling, and without rain, there would be a much smaller harvest. In the US, this would be difficult for farmers, who would make less money, some might even go out of business – but it doesn’t portend mass starvation. In Malawi, no rain = no food. There are many different reactions to this, and it is still uncertain – especially as the dry spell broke today. On Sunday, JB and Morris were saying they wanted to go buy Maize in Zambia to sell for profit, others think that this is an overreaction – we still have two more months to see how this shakes out.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 by soilplantfood

A strange thing happened to me this morning. I had decided to try and take the bus out to the college, which is normally a 30 minute drive. Sieg had no reason to come today, so I thought this would be good. I walked to the post-office (the supposed pick-up spot for the bus) with my back pack about 30 minutes before the rumored departure time, because it seems that everything here is only rumored… The post office has a large parking lot, around the edges of which are a variety of craft stands, people selling paintings, wood carvings and cloth. This is where I had met the young man named “James Bond” this weekend. When I arrived this morning, there was very few people around, so I found a place in the shade and I waited. Soon a young woman approached me; she was thin, fairly well dressed in modern clothes – a black knee-length skirt and a white and black patterned top and flat dress shoes – and young. She greeted me, I returned the greeting, then she asked my name. I told it to her and asked hers. She told it to me but it was complicated. She then asked if I would be her friend. I said “yes” of course – even though it struck me as a rather odd exchange. She asked for my phone number and when I confessed not to know it, she took my phone, programmed her number into it and called her own phone. The name she gave herself was “Whitnes Phiri” – Whitnes being an alternate name for whites to understand (although a little less obvious than “James Bond”) We talked for a while, she said she was a student at Lilongwe Technical Institute majoring in refrigeration and air-conditioning, and that she would like to show me her campus. I told her I was working at Bunda on soybean, she asked about my email address, and I gave her my business card. She then told me I was waiting for the bus in the wrong place, and pointed to where I should be. That was the last I saw of her.
So I wonder – is it normal, in Malawi or elsewhere, for someone to see a stranger, introduce themselves and ask for a friendship? It isn’t in the United States, and from what I remember of France, it wasn’t there. It was one thing for the young guys to ask me to come back and play games and drink beer, to flirt, to want to be manly, tell me who to avoid … but for a young woman in a timid way, to do this struck me as well… odd. Of course my being white – and foreign makes me a different kind of stranger, with the assumption often being that I am wealthy. But she didn’t ask for money. If she was genuine, I think it’s wonderful. If she wasn’t, I’m not quite sure what she got out the encounter. But for the life of me, I really can’t figure it out either way!

This week I have gone both to Chitedze research station and Bunda College. I am currently writing at the Bunda College Library, but will have to wait until I get back to town in order to post. Bunda College of Agriculture is a series of low buildings interlayed in a mosaic of tropical gardens. A series of raised walkways sort-of connects most of the buildings, but by no means all of them. Rather than consolidating departments, there are many tiny departments, each with a head and a secretary. I have been given a few tours of labs, and met many of the faculty here. They all seem bright and most received their advanced degrees outside of Malawi – many in the US or Europe. I especially like Patson Nalivata, the soil biologist here. Not simply because he is a soil biologist, but he is also very kind and clear thinking. Besides this, the education level of the staff is very low. Most technicians and lab staff have nothing more than a high school degree – if that, which is difficult because it means their English is very limited (all education in Malawi – especially higher education – is in English). I made media this morning, and “assigned”? an assistant named Jones Chakaonda – difficult to work with as he speaks very little english and barely has a high school education, but educational. I become very grateful for my lab in NC. With disposable pipette tips, and paper towels and spray bottles!


Posted in Uncategorized on February 11, 2010 by soilplantfood

Here are pictures!

From Saturday –

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 8, 2010 by soilplantfood

There is much more to say – especially as it is Monday and I have just got internet access to publish this from Saturday, but will update soon.

Saturday, February 6, 2010
So, off to a bit of a slow start, but it could be good as it I am getting a chance to wrap my brain around the country itself. Yesterday I accompanied Sieg on a lunch date with a woman from the Norwegian embassy. I wasn’t exactly sure, but I think the Norweigians were interested in funding projects related to climate change mitigation. But the conversation was interesting as it turned to the economy of Malawi and the place agriculture plays. Over 85% of the population lives on farms, and of those that do live in the city, a significant portion of their living comes from farming – at least a good portion of their food. Which explains why it seems that there are few markets. In fact, because of this, there is really no money economy here. When people work, they are paid in food or in exchange for some other goods or services. One paper I came across valued labor at 53 cents/day, but Sieg thought that was high. Therefore, the money economy here in Lilongwe is really only for the very small merchant class and the expats, of which there are many. Apparently, even professors at the university have to keep a farm in order to make a decent living. The cost of living in Lilongwe is not much less than in Raleigh: rent on a small 3 bedroom house is US$1,000 a month, a restaurant meal is around 10 or 11 dollars. A Malawian working for a “decent wage” in Malawi might make 2 or 3 dollars a day – and the bus costs 2 dollars each way. So people walk. They plant maize wherever they have a spare bit of space, and they buy very little. Because they have no other economy, because everyone farms, the fate of the country year to year depends on the harvests. So food security really is a HUGE thing for Malawi. There are no real excessive slums outside the cities as there are in other developing nations, because people have not abandoned the countryside for the lure of jobs in the city. Only villages, upon villages, upon villages. I can’t wait to get out to the country side to see some of that.

The other person we met with yesterday evening was a German man working with an organization on getting better crop estimates for the government. At about this point in the year, the government will decide whether the harvest will be poor and they need to declare a famine ask for food aid, and prohibit exports, or if the harvest will be good. Of course, because this government was re-elected on its fertilizer subsidy program and its ability to increase yields, they don’t want to declare famine, so it becomes political. There is also talk of the president wanting to change the flag from a rising sun to a sun full in the sky – as if to say “we have made it, we are prosperous”. It is interesting for psychological reasons, but I believe it is risky, especially considering the conditions I mentioned above and other facts – such as that only 6% of all Malawians have access to electricity

Day 1

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 5, 2010 by soilplantfood

Thursday, February 4, 2010
I arrived today! And Malawi is beautiful. As we descended through the cloud layer and neared Lilongwe, the first thing I noticed was ho absolutely green everything was. It makes sense, we are in the rainy season and this area has been receiving regular rainfall since November, making the whole countryside lush and verdant. The second thing I noticed was that absolutely every inch of land I saw was farmed. Tiny little 1 – 2 hectare farms covered the landscape, leaving way only to homes and villages, which seem to be small and frequent. We landed early and were rushed through customs because the president was also arriving today and the police and other officials wanted to be ready for that. They had rolled red carpets along the run-way and had a small stand up waiting to greet him. He was just elected as President of the African Union, beating out Omar Kadafi He is very popular both among Malawian’s and abroad – and most of it has to do with the fertilizer subsidies.

Seig met me at the airport and we got into a British style truck (steering wheel on the right side – drive on the left), and were then detoured to avoid the presidents impending motorcade. On the way back into the city I confirmed what I had noticed from the air: Maize is planted EVERYWHERE – along roadsides, in gardens, next to grocery stores and shops. While the Midwest my get fantastic yields, it seems that Malawi is determined to make up for that on sheer persistence. Besides maize, the rest of Malawi’s agriculture is similar to that of North Carolina: tobacco, peanut (groundnut), cotton and sweet potato round out the bulk of the crops. One can also buy fresh bananas and mangoes – as we did this afternoon, but I have yet to try them to see how good they really are.

Despite these treasures, it is evident that this country is very poor. Roads are pot-holed, few people seem to have a full set of teeth, at any turn someone will approach trying to sell something and the site of someone walking 50 lb sacks on bicycle seats is common

Seig is a professor from Michigan State University – She worked and lived here in the 90’s after Banda was deposed. Sometime during here stay here she and her partner adopted 2 little girls, who have since lived in the US. She is here on a sabbatical for the year with the 2 daughters who are new 13 and 14 and in the equivalent of 8th grade. I am staying in one of their rooms so I awake in the morning to posters of Twilight and Taylor Lautner. They go to the international school and last night – though exhausted I quizzed them on their French homework.

And the new adventure begins…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 28, 2010 by soilplantfood

In 6 days I will be traveling to Malawi for research. When this opportunity first presented itself in the fall, I knew very little of the country besides the fiasco involving Madonna  trying to adopt children illegally.  So, here is a little about Malawi:  It is a small land-locked country in the southern eastern region of Africa.  Like most African nations – it was ruled by a long time “President for Life” until the mid 1990’s named Dr. Hastings Banda.  Banda was oppressive and authoritarian, however, unlike many similar African dictators – he had a very pro-western foreign policy and allowed in many missionaries, US Peace Corp and other aid agencies.  On another interesting note, was also close with the South African apartheid government, causing tensions between Malawi and other African states.  Since 1995, it has had a democratically elected government.  Yet, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries, is home to refugees from many other African nations and struggles to feed itself.

The other interesting thing I recently realized is that Malawi is a country that has inspired me for several years.  In 2007, an article appeared in the New York Times describing how Malawi had decided to ignore demands by the World Bank and USAID allowing only market forces to control the fertilizer industry.  By subsidizing small-holder farmer’s purchase of fertilizer they had reversed a growing food shortage and quadrupled yields.  I was moved by the story – not because I am a champion of the fertilizer industry, but because it reminded me how complex and urgent the issue of fertility and food security are, and of how soil fertility can have a dramatic impact on human dignity.  Sometimes the sustainable agriculture movement can be blinded by dogma, preaching that organic farming and fertilizers are good, while synthetics are bad.  But focusing on dogma alone can miss the fact that people are starving.  While this story was an inspiration for my graduate school essays, I didn’t remember exactly what country it was about.  I have to thank Dr. Kamprath, an emeritus professor in the department for bringing me a copy of the article yesterday.  I’ve included a link here for those of you who would like to read it.

But what, you ask, will I be doing in Malawi?  Well, for the past 8 or 9 years, work has been happening in a northern region of the country to introduce farmers to legume crops.  Legumes are special for a few reasons.  They include soybeans, peas, all dried beans and pulses – lentils etc., as well as forages like alfalfa and clover.  They are incredibly nutritious and most contain high amounts of protein.  They also can improve soil fertility by moving Nitrogen – one of the MOST important plant nutrients – from the atmosphere to the soil.  However, they don’t do this alone.  In order to get the nitrogen from the atmosphere they have to have a specific type of bacteria – rhizobia – infect their roots.  These bacteria naturally exist in most soils – but not all of them, and soybeans are picky about what kind of rhizobia they will allow to infect their roots.  Our project is focused on 2 crops that have proven to be the most popular with the farmers – Soybean and Pigeon pea.  By growing these crops farmers can diversify their diets, feed their children more protein, improve their soil and even sell the extras for a little money. So this is the problem I’m working on. What kinds of rhizobia exist in these soils?  Are they compatible with the varieties of soy we are planting? Can we get inoculants to add the correct bacteria, and if we do, will they survive?