A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Kigoma, Tanzania
We arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania excited to catch a flight to Kigoma, a region in the northwestern part of the country to visit a Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania project working with small farmers to promote sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately Precision Air, one of only two airlines that flies to the remote region, has suspended all flights for the next several weeks and the other airline is all booked.
No worries, we headed to Zanzibar instead....
Zanzibar is a place known for beautiful beaches, but the thing that I liked most about my visit there was the food. Everywhere you look there's a bounty of fresh vegetables, fruit, and, most importantly given the island's history, spices. Zanzibar is one of the "Spice Islands," a group of islands that supplied cloves, coriander, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and other spices to Europe in the 17th Century. Today, those spices are grown much the same way they were then-organically, without the use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers, in response to consumer demand. And they're still grown on large plantations, but instead of slaves planting and harvesting the crops, local Tanzanian farmers use intercropping to grow many of the spices along with fruit trees and vegetables. The spice farms are also benefiting from tourism-I paid a shockingly low $12 for my day long trip to the spice farm, which included a wonderful (and spicy!) vegetarian lunch and a trip to a pristine and deserted beach.
The Tanzanian government, however, controls much of the land where the spices are grown and also where they are sold. Vanilla grown in Zanzibar, for example, is not used on the island or even in mainland Tanzania, but is grown exclusively for export. And Zanzibar is also the world's third largest supplier of cloves, the main export from the island.
When we arrived back to Dar Es Salaam we did have the opportunity to meet with Pancras Ngalason who is the Executive Director of Jane Goodall Center (JGI) in Tanzania and he explained how the Institute has evolved since it began in the 1970s. They've gone, according to Ngalason, beyond research to address questions of livelihood.
JGI started as a center to research and protect wild chimpanzee populations in what is now, thanks to their efforts, Gombe National Park. But in the early 1990s JGI realized that if it didn't start addressing the needs of the communities surrounding the park, their efforts to conserve wildlife wouldn't work. JGI first started by planting trees in the region, but soon found that communities cut them down, not because they wanted to, but because they needed them for fuel and for making charcoal. It was at that time, says Ngalason, that we "thought beyond planting trees" and more about community-based conservation.
JGI started working with communities to develop government- mandated land use plans, helping them develop soil erosion prevention practices, agroforestry, and production of value-added products, such as coffee and palm oil. They like to say that their products are "Good for All"-good for farmers by providing income, good for the environment by protecting natural resources, and good for the consumer by providing a healthy product.
They're also working training community health practitioners about reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention, educating youth, establishing micro-credit programs, and working with UNICEF and USAID to supply clean water to communities.
We then hopped on a bus to Arusha, Tanzania to meet with the World Vegetable Center...
As hunger and drought spread across Africa , there's a huge focus on increasing yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice. And while these crops are important for food security, providing much needed calories, they don't provide much protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, other important vitamins and micronutrients-or much taste. "None of the staple crops," says Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, the World Vegetable Center's Regional Director for Africa, "would be palatable without vegetables." And vegetables, he says, "are less risk prone" than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods of time.
Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize often scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize which need a lot of water and fertilizer.
Unfortunately no country in Africa, according to Dr. Tenkouano, has a big focus on vegetable production. But that's where the Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Center (which is a part of the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa to breed cultivars that best suit farmers' needs.
Despite the focus on staple crops, vegetable production generates more income on and off the farm than most other agricultural enterprises, according to the Center's website. And unlike staple crops, vegetable production is something that benefits urban and rural farmers alike (See our posts on urban farmers in Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).
In addition, vegetable production is the most sustainable and affordable way of alleviating micronutrient deficiencies among the poor. Often referred to as "hidden hunger," micronutrient deficiencies-including lack of Vitamin A, iron, and iodine-affect some 1 billion people worldwide. They lead to poor mental and physical development, especially among children, and cause poor performance in work and in school, further crippling communities already facing poverty and other health problems.
But by listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, the Center is helping to alleviate these problems.