Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How bright is Africa's future?

This is the question that some young Kenyan people asked me lately at the side of one of my work events. I was surprised by the question but got exited about finally being asked a relevant question about the world I live in. It turned out that i was actually talking to two bright young Kenyans who have decided to interview people they meet to create a YouTube channel to inspire other young people and show them pathways to contribute to brighten Africa's future.

So find here the first part of the interview.


And don't forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel!


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A reflection from the Bill and Mellinda Gates Foundation

Walking out the visitors center of Bill and Melinda Gates foundation visitors center, I realized that I have not written any new blog post on my blog for more than 6 months. Sometime daily preoccupation takes over life, and without noticing one loses those spaces for refection and for sharing those reflection.


I have just spent a week in Seattle, headquarter to Microsoft but also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to join a meeting on how to make big data work the agricultural sector in the developing world. After the meeting, i spend half a day in the Gates Foundation visitors' centre, a place that has the ambition to inspire its visitors to make a difference.




The center is fully interactive, inviting the visitor to learn more about who Bill and Melinda Gates are, how they came about founding the foundation and its guiding principle. I admired the simplicity with which complex problem such health, poverty and education are addressed, without loosing its essence. 

I particularly enjoyed the intersecting wheels of agriculture that only could make turn the whole machinery if soils, water, seed, market and support comes together. I am still wondering why some of our research still does not consider theses interactions... and yes if you ask me the equation is missing livestock... (feed (water + seed), animal health, breeds, market and support).


The agricultural success machinery
Also there is a very instructive video on which Bill explains why he does not invest into climate change mitigation and why he actually does in biotechnology such as  GMOs. His reflection is quite simple, what has a market and is a business opportunity should be done by the industry, what is not is supported by Gates foundation. Drought tolerant seeds for the developing world are not sufficient commercial for the industry to develop them, yet they might play a critical role in mitigating climate change for the most vulnerable people in the world.


There are many things i did not know about Gates foundation. For example, it is behind the AGRA initiative, the initiative that among others funds many small and medium innovative enterprises in the agricultural sector in Africa. Also they run a whole program in the US to support homeless people, especially giving access to homeless children and youth to access high level education. One big effort also goes into health, among others into the eradication of polio and malaria.


As i left the visitors center, i walked to Seattle downtown realizing that already 4 times i directly or indirectly benefited from Gates Foundation money, for my multi-dimensional spatially explicit ex ante environmental trade-off model, for this conference on big data for the agricultural sector in the developing world and finally by making the new chicken breed Kuroiler available in East Africa combined with the AGRA conference on social enterprises. All four experiences have lead to radical rethinking of modelling approaches (that boldly ignore the farmer), of data collection, processing and dissemination (are our data portal really the answer?) or of sustainable business models for the poor. 


None of us has the right formula to make the world a better place for every one even those we tend to forget. We are all on a learning through trial and error journey, but some of us are radical re-thinker who challenge the status co (and have probably learned through errors). I have been deeply impressed by the strong vision that Bill and Melinda have, to question the question and invest time, money and passion to see their vision implemented on the ground both in the US and the developing world. Their objective is not only to bring change but to inspire others to bring change or to be an impatient optimist. The visit at the visitors centre has open my eyes on how much their vision and investment has given me the opportunity to re-think my work, to challenge my own small status co, how much they have actually inspired me to bring change without me noticing. 


At the end of the exhibition, the visitor is asked to come up with her/his own plan to contribute to make the world a better place... I decided to make sure that my blog becomes lively again, that it may be an (unbiased?) voice from the ground in the developing world and a space where reflection (radical rethinking?) is possible. I hope you will join the new start of this journey!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Recycling soils?

Recently, i have been looking into more soil and soil health, a quite complex topic. I have learned that soil is formed over years and needs to be managed well in terms of nutrients in order to not loose it fertility.

I have been quite fascinated by this news item on Swiss TV.



In Switzerland, when fertile land is build on, the soil has to be taken off layer by layer and brought to a location with degraded land. It is quite expensive measure to save fertile soils. Whereas some people find it a great idea, environmentalists find it an illusion. As soil is a result of a long lasting process, it will be discontinued when the soil is "moved".

For me it remains a quite amazing idea to move soils!



Monday, December 21, 2015

Biodigester at the slaughterhouse

This is my last day in office before the end of the year. It is time to post my last post about my Ugandan trip, so that my blog can also serve as report! Remember during that last trip visited the slaughterhouse of Wambizi. As part of their waste management, they recently installed a bio - digester.

A biodigester is like a mechanical stomach. It is fed with organic material, which is broken down (decomposed) by micro-organisms (bacteria) is an oxygen-free (anaerobic) environment to produce a renewable energy called biogas (methane and carbon dioxide) and other material that is mainly used as fertilizer.

What here the stories behind the Wambizi biodigester, how it has been build, how it is working, and how the resulting gas is used for boiling the water for slaughter.

















Friday, December 18, 2015

Slaugherhouse visit in Wambizzi

As part of our field trip to understand better the pig value chain in Hoima, Uganda, we also wanted to understand better waste management from the pigs. However in Hoima there is no abattoir yet, as all pigs are slaughtered in backyards (what they call slaughter places) .

 Therefore we visited the Wambizzi abattoir, in the suburb of Kampala. I alwayswonder what i need to imagine when i think of an abattoir in the developing world, and i have seen too many extremes from dirty backyard to super modern infrastructure. Wambizzi was something in between. 

the marabu
There is no asphalt in the place, and so when we arrived, the place was muddy and Marabou's were eating some left over. We first were invited to join for a discussion with the manager and some cooperative members. We learned a lot from them.

pig waiting to be slaughtered
First of all it is a farmer owned cooperative, where farmer can get their pig slaughtered for a fee. Non cooperative member can also get pig slaughtered here, but the fee is higher. If requested the cooperative does also do some marketing, linking the farmer with alive pigs with a buyer of slaughtered meat.

the room where meat is hung after slaughtering
They used to have a cold room, but it was broken during the last war, this is more than 30 years ago... and somehow they have never found the means to reconstruct it. That's why they are slaughtering only in the morning and only pig for which they already have a buyer.

tables where meat gets cuts
The location of the abattoir is quite convenient near to Kampala, but there are competing land use claims and it is now located on the trace for the new highway. The government has asked them to leave the the place and they are looking for a new location. This is also an opportunity to modernize, however the eviction compensation will not be enough to support the emergence of an new slaughterhouse.


We also went on a tour in the slaughterhouse. Lucky me, it was after lunch, so no slaughtering anymore, just cleaning.

alive pig storage
Hot water is needed to take of the hair of the pigs, that's why the room where pigs are slaughtered is next to the one where water is boiled. Up until today water is boiled with water, but they are building a bio digesters which should recycle waste and give them enough energy to replace the wood. We will look at the bio digester in a separate post. 
hot water boiler
When a pig is slaughtered the blood is collected in a pit, where it is mixed with soap that is used to keep the place safe. The combination of blood and soap is not ideal, as soap inhibits the biodigesting process, and therefore the blood is just released into the near by river. Not only this is polluting but it is also a way to spread diseases.


room where the pigs are slaughtered and blood collected


Intestines are kept separately and sold to some people who cleaning them and sell them for dog food. This is an outsourced service that is not managed by the cooperative however it is lowering the waste and provides some job opportunity.
cleaning the intestines
The slaughterhouse does not have a incinerators, so hairs are sometimes burnt but mainly piled up on what is now about a 6 meter high compact mass. Pig hair do not decompose easily.
waste pile
 We have seen that the slaughterhouse is providing good services to its farmers and offers a clean environment for slaughtering pigs. It is challenged with waste management and is going innovative way to address those and their mobile biodigerster is an example of this.
room where the meat is hanging before sales

However, i have been shocked by their begging attitude, "look we are trying our best", "we support smallholder farmers" help us to get money. I know from own experience that meat markets are growing in Africa, and that there is margin in the business to be collected. But where does it go? Why is the slaughterhouse not able to raise at least some profit to develop further? In my discussions with the manager and the head of the cooperative i tried to investigate these questions? My conclusion was, it is simply the lack of entrepreneurship. I had a longer discussion with them about the fact that the new models donors look at are models that include silent capital, meaning no donation but very fair investment capital (with low or zero interest rate). It was an interesting discussion, which led to my very personal conclusion, that the problem here is the lack of entrepreneurship. If they would develop a business plan in which they can show that they have even just a very small return on investment, I am sure that they can win donors ready to donate part and lend part of the necessary capital to develop a new smallholder based slaughterhouse.

the field team Edmund, myself, Grace, Joanne and our driver, the abattoir manager next to Edmund


Both the manager and the cooperative head listened carefully, and i have hope that some of my reflections opened there mind to new models. I still have not figured out how to really support them in their process to become entrepreneurial while remaining on their very innovative waste management approach... Any idea? Then don't hesitate to contact me!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tobacco production and its challenges for crop modelling

Before the end of the year, I also would like to finish my reporting from this years field trip to Uganda, when we were looking at the pig value chain in Hoima.

We crossed the fields with the aims to understand better how feeds and fodders are produced and try to understand how we can model this best. A first step was to understand rice which i described in an older post. But crossing the fields we discovered another dynamics : tobacco.

the sheds to dry tabbaco
In the landscape you recognize tobacco at the many sheds used for drying the tabacco, but we also saw the trucks picking the dry leaves.


We asked around and discovered that tobacco was a very good business as it would all be contracted. That means, farmers have a guaranteed market for their product and the tobacco gets picked at farm gate. Also they receive on credit all the input beginning of the season and need to pay them with the harvest.

tobacco ready to be picked
This is a very good low risk offer for the smallholder farmer, and therefore could seriously compete with feed and fodder production as the pig value chain intensives.
drying tabbaco
Tobacco only grows during the longer wet season, so the the land can be used for other crops during the short wet season.

Our model will need to reduce the amount of land available for feeds and fodder production, to account for tobacco, also we might need to allow users of our model to define this amount of land, to give opportunities to decision makers to understand trade-offs between to tobacco and the pig value chain.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How does research contribute to mitigation and adaptation in the agricultural sector?

After some break from writing on this blog, I am just in time to contribute to the climate change debate, which i hope to be able discuss it different angles in the up-coming posts. So keep following the climate change tag.

Lots of climate related research we do is sponsored by IFAD, among others the project on pig in Uganda careful reader already know of. IFAD visited the research projects they have sponsored to understand if agricultural research in the developing world does support smallholder farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Wanna know about their conclusions? Check out this movie!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Risk diversification : or how to cope with african swine fever!

During my last trip to Hoima, Uganda, we visited the farmer Paul. He was a young dynamic farmer. He had more than 100 pigs when African swine fever took them whole away. He fortunately could sell them off before they died and could at least partially recover some investments.

Paul's pig structure in the middle of the pineapple field
We visited the  empty infrastructure that he want to restart using soon but with less pigs, around 60 pieces, or 6  production units with a sow that give around 8 piglets every six months, so having 8*6=48 pigs for sale every six months. 



His major business is the sales of piglets which brings a lot of people to his farm. He is convinced that one of his clients brought him African swine fever and therefore wants to move away from the piglet sales and outgrow more and slaughter in his slaughter place on farm. 

the well
His manure management was quite minimal, he had these channel leading manure to a soaking pit in the middle of his pineapple fields. The pineapple grew better and he was very happy about that. However he is also aware this is not an optimal management, and he would need to look into that as business would become more profitable again.

At least his shallow well to access water was in the amount of the soaking pit, so at least he would not pollute his own water. He is thinking about a bio-digester, as he could get free energy to heat his chicken as well as for hot water for backyard slaughtering of his pigs.

To feed his pigs he would rely on commercial feeds. But as he own his own mill, he would buy ingredient separately and mix his own feeds. As he did not have electricity on farm, the mill was powered  with a generator. As he grows this business, he wants to feed waste from chicken slaughtering to pigs, as well as the slurry from his future from his future bio-digester.

But what impressed me most with Paul is that despite of the loss from the pigs, he would continue business. He had chicken, a 1000 broilers and a 1000 layers to learn about this market.

And his pineapple business was not affected by diseases and gave him a constant income.

the chicken business
It was a nice example of a farmer who made farming an agribusiness. Risk was nicely diversified and no branch for his business could kick him out of farming fully, always one product would work.

Before we left, i asked him where he want to be in future. He told me that the farm i see now will become a model farm, as he want to get cheaper land outside Hoima for intensifying his pig production. There no one would be allowed in, but farmers would come to the model farm to buy piglets and for training and demonstration.


Daily farm planning

Will Paul be one of the two high level fully integrated farmers, participants of the workshop were dreaming about in the their vision for Hoima 2025? The future will show, but definitely he has the vision and the capacity.

Joanne, myself and Paul
Once again, I have been deeply impressed by a young man showing the world that agriculture is not a job for losers in society but for young entrepreneurs taking up the challenge to feed Africa while being profitable.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

When economics drives the land use change

In my last trip to Uganda, we did a transect drive through Hoima district, in search of the major land dynamics and see if we can make sense of potential up-coming changes. We found three very interesting land ownership that may result in more land conflicts in the upcoming years.

The hills 

The hills are owned by the king and are to be kept as forest. Up until today the king is respected and the hills are still covered with forest. These forest play an important ecosystem function, namely for water infiltration, making sure that ground water recharges during rains and limits erorsion.

The forested hills owned by the king
During the participatory GIS it was unclear if the power of the king could maintained and therefore the forest maintained, or if with population growth the forest could be encroached.


The up-coming airport and oil industry 

In a post from my second last trip i discussed the benefits of having oil companies coming to the area. However, in this trip we came across the downside of it.
A sign claiming land rights for the local population
Smallholders have been asked to evacuate their land, for giving space to the up-coming airport and the buildings needed for the oil industry. Whereas smallholders with land rights have been compensated, there is a debate on if they have been compensated fairly and as the sign suggest on the image above, some people are not ready to leave their land...

Commercial timber production 

Forest used to be public goods, and people could make use of them, and therefore overused them. Many grazing land, former forest land, has been given to investors for timber production.
commercial forest
The forest is now back, and so the water infiltration and erosion prevention function restored, however the forest diversity is much lower, and therefore less suitable for some threatened species.
Also, poor people in the area have lost access to their cheap (free) building material as now they have to buy wood from the timber company. This is hampering development of poor household into more intensified pig keeping.

Land use is dynamic, change will happen, and there will be winners and losers. Making our ex-ante environmental assessment model spatially explicit, will allow to identify the winners and the losers, discuss trade offs and hopefully find win-win situation in an area that will inevitably change in the up-coming years.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Greenhouse gases and rice, is it always a problem : in serach of rice in Hoima

On my recent field trip to Uganda, next to a participatory GIS exercise with stakeholders, we also went for a transect drive, in order to understand the major landscape dynamics in order to model correctly possible impact from value chain intensification. 

Paddy rice is a major factor of climate change, as methane is emitted when growing on waterlogged soils. When we heart that there was rice in Hoima, we decided to focus on rice in order to understand how and where it grows and put some thoughts together on how we will model rice.

a rice field next to a groundnut field
We found a lot of upland rice, a rice that does not need irrigation and therefore does not source of greenhouse gases more than other crops. We also figure out that rice was part of a crop rotation, so one year we could find rice, the next sweet potatoes or groundnuts. Also we found rice that was inter-cropped with maize.

a rice field inter-cropped with maize

We discussed with a farmer who had one of the nicest fields. From him we learned that he is mixing his own chemicals to treat weeds. He calculated for us that treating his rice was cheaper than hiring labor to do the weeding. He also encroached on the wetland, which is humid and therefore suited to rice. The first years rice yields are high, the other fields would yield less. He also mentioned that he got the seeds for free from the cooperative. For the record, he also had two piglets , two dairy goats and some chicken. 

We concluded that rice should not be modeled separately from other crops, and that more cropland will be gained from the wetland for rice.