Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The politics of global food security

Recently, Inside Story, an Aljazeera program looked into how food security will change with climate change. It discusses an UN as well as a CGIAR report that predict that staple food production will decrease in many developing countries as a result of climate change.
The discussions suggests,that politics plays a key role in promoting new more climate resistant crops could allows to slower the trend of decreasing staple food production. Also land grabbing and speculation on food could play a key role in high staple food price and should be regulated to reverse the trend.

Have a look at this interesting program, that includes an interview from my former colleague at ILRI!

Aljazeera summarize as follows the main facts about global food security :
  • According to a UN commissioned report, by 2050, the crop yields of wheat could fall by 13 per cent and rice by 15 per cent  
  • Scientists say yam, barley, millet and lentils may become new staples as these crops can withstand harsh weather conditions  
  • Scientists say adopting new crops could be a cultural challenge  
  • Agricultural systems will struggle to feed nine to10 billion people by 2050  
  • The report predicts that the cost of feeding livestock will become more expensive  
  • Climate change could also affect the intensity of crop pests and diseases  
  • Scientists are trying to develop heat and drought resistant crops  
  • The report calls for global investment in more sustainable agriculture and recommends allocating more funding for agricultural research  
Check it out yourself under

Monday, February 18, 2013

Look beyond rice : livelihoods in Ifugao region

In my previous blog posts on agriculture in the jungle and rice , we discovered that Ifugao people produce rice in the famous Banaue rice terraces to insure food security, as well as a set of rainfed vegetable which are sold and therefore are cash generating. Next to this, smallholders in the area have many different activities to insure the resilience of their livelihoods. Next to their houses they have a home garden with vegetables that can be irrigated when needed, such as cabbage, carrot or paksoi and another very common vegetable from the pumpkin family which name I could not memorize as well as fruits such as papaya. Also all the farms had in average about 20 chickens that run around freely. Both vegetables and the eggs are home consumed and sold. I have also seem many farmer keeping wild pigs for the pork meat. Fish and shells for the rice fields are mainly for home consumption.
Next to the houses one can also find nut trees, which red nuts are chewed with tobacco and shell powder. This combination has narcotic effects and is taken by almost all young people. The nuts are therefore for many people a significant source of income. 
the nut trees
The jungle also offers a whole range of benefits. The privately own forest seemed to my non-expert eyes pretty sustainably managed. Trees are cut mainly for building houses or for carving furniture and souvenirs for tourists.
The papaya trees around the houses
Off-farm options exist, mainly thank to tourism also offers a whole range of opportunities, young people become tour guides and some older wealthy people build guesthouses. Nonetheless, in the todays setting tourism only benefits a few and not really the community as a whole. An indirect effect is that the people who work in tourism will hire other smallholders to maintain their farms and harvest rice. A male daily laborer get about 500 pesos (12,5 dollars) a day for maintaining the terraces, female daily laborer get about 150 pesos a day for weeding. In comparison, a server/cleaner in a fast food chain in Manila makes about 300 pesos a day. So working on someone else’s rice field does not seem such a bad business, just very tiresome. 
I tried to understand how the community was organized, whether they had informal or formal institutions that would bind them to each other, but I could not find any, not even the Church. Definitely, I yet do not understand how these communities are organized. It is a pretty different setting that the one I am used to from Ethiopia, where smallholder live below the one dollar poverty line. I was pretty amazed to find smallholders who don’t do so bad, even without having a road.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rice, rice and more rice

In many places of the world, rice means food security, also in the Ifugao region, in the Philippines. These rice terraces are 2000 years old and are part of the UNESCO world heritage. 

The UNESCO world heritage rice terraces in Batad
Before eating rice there is a long process, starting with maintaining these terraces, a tremendously hard job usually performed by men. For the type of rice planted in Batad (irrigated rice), the field is flooded to avoid weed. Then the soil needs to be prepared and  ploughed. As crop residues are usually left on the fields, the soil preparation increases soil organic matter as well as fertility. I was told that water buffalo, small machines or manual labor are used to plough the fields. I have been looking around in the fields and in the farms, but i could not see any buffalo during my 3 day trip and i am wondering if they really exist. In revenche I have seen a women integrating the crop residues with her bare feet and a small machine on my way. 
the only machine seen during my trek
Then rice is planted and germinated into a very small fields that can be well protected from rodents and bireds. When the plant is big enough the rice in then transplanted into the fields
rice before transplantation
transplanted rice
In some place the bunds of the terraces are used to plant onions, paksoi or beans.

beans on the bunds
After the planting, the Ifugao hold a big festival where all the people from the different villages meet and enjoy the time after hard work and hoping for good harvest. Rice fields need to weeded from time to time, a typical woman's work and the irrigation well managed.
Irrigation of the rice fields is complex as it implies managing fields simultaneously
In June is harvesting time, and then several steps are needed from harvesting to our plate, namely drying, storing, milling, and processing. The riceworld museum at IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) in Los Banos, gives a nice overview of these processes as well as IRRI's webpage (Rice production and processing)

In Batad, there is one cropping season for all the fields. Certain fields, that are located within the mountain in such a way that they don't get affected by the typhoon, mainly the fields around the village (that is build in the typhoon save area) are cropped twice.
Also, no fertilizers are used. Since there is no road, fertilizer need to be carried from far away making it too expensive. Also the people i talk to did not seem to want to improve much on rice productivity, it is staple food for the home, it does not bring cash so why should you invest in fertilizer? The positive side of the lack of fertilizer use is that the fields are full of shells, and some have fish ponds. These by-product of rice helps people to diversify their diets and get sufficient proteins at low cost. Would they use fertilizer, both shells and fish would not survive.
The cercle in the fields indicate location that are much deeper than the 10 cm water, where fish is kept.

The rice production system I met around Batad, is not the most productive in terms of quantity of rice but seems to be a sustainable and well equilibrated system that support the people nutritional needs.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Working in water in Africa ? Join the competition!

By Prof. Nick van de Giesen (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands), guest writer

Building no less than 20,000 weather stations across Africa; one very 30 km. That is the aim of the ambitious Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project, a joint initiative from Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) and Oregon State University. In an earlier blog post we reported on this project from Mauritius.

Presently, the African observation network is very limited. National governments and regional planners do not have the data to make proper decisions regarding investments in water resources infrastructure. With an increase in quantity and quality of climate stations, we can move forward towards the goal of obtaining accurate climate data. This data is essential for agriculture (e.g. harvest predictions), weather predictions and climate modelling. Furthermore, the stations would be placed at schools and integrated in the educational program.

TAHMO is an ambitious and inspiring project but it still is in the initial phase; TAHMO is an  extensive project with various aspects that need to be addressed before we can start building the  observation network on the African continent. Topics that need to be considered go beyond designing and building the weather stations network. Also legal issues around the measurements, maintenance  of the stations and expertise on how to integrate TAHMO in the education curricula are of high importance.
We are aware of the fact that for these issues to be addressed adequately, local experience is essential. Therefore, we are building a community around TAHMO, consisting of (African) individuals, universities, (scientific) institutes and other relevant organisations that are supportive of our project and are willing to think along with us on the various aspects of this grand project.

In order to take the first steps in building this community, the TAHMO Sensor Design Competition is being organised (deadline 1 March 2013, extension possible upon request) among African campuses, engineering societies, research centres and technology communities. The objective of this competition is to design a sensor that measures a weather or hydrological variable and is both inexpensive and robust, but also requires zero maintenance for two years. Among parties that have shown their interest in participation are the Bahir Dar University (Ethiopia), the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), the Kenya Polytechnic University College and the Ghana Institution of Engineers.

Of course, we would like to expand the TAHMO community as vastly as possible. We therefore would like to encourage everyone who is interested to join our community and participate in discussions on or More information on the TAHMO project and the competition can be found on Together we can make TAHMO work!

Initially this blog was meant as a place to report from development in rural areas around the world. I am therefore very happy to introduce the new label "guest writer" to my blog and proudly publish this blog post contributed by Nick. I hope this will motivate other to contribute to this blog too!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Nile Goblet a new open source tool for suitability analysis applied to rainwater management in the Ethiopian Blue Nile

This is my 100st post on my blog, and I kept this magic number to introduce the Nile Goblet tool to you, an open-source GIS solution, which is also the major output my two years work in Ethiopia.

Suitability analysis is a procedure within the geographical information systems (GIS) that identifies location where a given practice or technology is suitable. It is therefore an important tool for targeting  interventions on the ground and develops context specific policies.

The Nile-Goblet tool is an open source GIS software that allows to perform suitability maps easily without any prior GIS knowledge once the database is ready. Policy maker and practitioners can input their knowledge about a given practice/technology and learn from their maps. Because the mapping procedure is very transparent, users will understand and trust the resulting maps. Hopefully this understanding will allow to policy makers to move away from blanket approaches, and practitioners involve with communities based on a set of option based on scientific knowledge that fit the context.
The user interface of the Nile Goblet tool
Databases can be create for micro watershed, basins/regions or countries. New maps can be added to the tool in ascii format with WGS84 geographic coordinate system. The manual coming with the tool show how to prepare new layers in ArcGIS software or in Grass, an open source GIS software ( . 

This tool has been developed for the Nile Basin Challenge Program ( and for the Ethiopian context, where best practices for rainwater management are well known. Nonetheless the adoption of many of these practices are still low, mainly because they have been promoted in location where they are not suitable, or have not been combined with synergistic practices that would result into real benefits for farmers. Rainwater management practices therefore need to be combined at landscape scale to form rainwater management strategies. To fit the need of integrated watershed management, the Nile Goblet tool also allows to combine practices at landscape scale.  
The suitability map for mango created in the Nile Goblet tool
The tool comes with a database, that includes all the freely available layers for the Nile relevant to water management, as well as  a sample of rainwater management practices which suitability has been based on the “integrate participatory watershed management guidelines” from the ministry of agriculture (check the guidelines and

The tool has been tested during several trainings and learning event and the major key players in water management in Ethiopia could be reached out. All trainings were overbooked, and most participants have welcomed the tool with great enthusiasm. Time will show if it will truly be taken up!