November 30, 2017
Robyn FernandoPeace Corps Volunteer Robyn Fernando’s counterparts, Annie and Masofa, checking the sweet potato leaves for damage.

Robyn Fernando, a native of Seattle, Washington, is a Peace Corps health volunteer in rural Malawi. Her community, and others like it, struggled under the strain of extended drought followed by devastating floods last year. These weather extremes decimated their maize yields, leaving communities without their primary source of food and income.

As a health volunteer working to improve nutrition in her community, Fernando faced a particularly vexing dilemma. Without adequate food or income, her community would have no way of nourishing itself. She turned to vitamin A-rich sweet potato as a solution.

By the time the village’s maize reserves had begun to dwindle, farmers were ready to harvest the 600 sweet potato plots Fernando helped them plant. 

“Luckily, the district had something else they would be able to depend on. Even though the rain was lacking and not sufficient enough for maize to grow, the sweet potato was able to thrive. At the handful of gardens I visited, we were able to harvest kilogram after kilogram of delicious orange goodness. The harvests were bountiful, which created a much-needed relief for many families,” Fernando said.

Getting people to accept this orange-fleshed sweet potato wasn’t easy at first. It wasn’t a familiar plant nor food to her community members, and Fernando first had to teach them how to properly cultivate the vegetable. After the harvests began, she and a local counterpart conducted numerous cooking demonstrations to show people the many ways they could prepare and eat orange-fleshed sweet potato.

They taught people to dry and mill the sweet potatoes into a fine flour that they could use to make a nutritious version of nsima, a popular local dish made from corn flour. 

“Many were unsure of it at first, thinking their beloved maize nsima was being threatened, but after trying it and learning of its nutritious value, they were willing to let something new into their lives,” Fernando said. 

She also taught community members how to prepare a nutritious porridge called mphala for school children in the morning using sweet potatoes, as well as how to combine the sweet potatoes with other locally available foods to make improved versions of other common Malawian dishes. 

Like many of her fellow Peace Corps volunteers across Sub-Saharan Africa, Fernando’s efforts are helping address “hidden hunger” (or micronutrient deficiency) in her community, a major public health problem in developing countries where one out of three people lack essential vitamins and minerals. This has a lifelong negative effect on young children as vitamin deficiencies between pregnancy and a child’s second birthday can have severe physical and mental repercussions, especially on vision and immune system strength. 

Easy to grow, nutritious and full of vitamin A, sweet potatoes are a staple solution for volunteers like Fernando in the fight against hidden hunger.  

“One of the things I love about the Peace Corps is that their mission is to create sustainable and lasting change in the countries they’re in, not just make quick fixes,” she said. “It takes a while to introduce something new to a community and have them wholeheartedly accept it, but with patience and perseverance, they can benefit from the results for a lifetime.”

“I believe there’s an old saying that perfectly epitomizes the Peace Corps’ and my goals in Malawi: Give a man a sweet potato, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to grow sweet potatoes, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Peace Corps is one of a number of U.S. government agencies and departments working together under Feed the Future to combat global hunger and poverty. Peace Corps is contributing on a global scale to mitigating food insecurity, improving nutrition outcomes for mothers and children, addressing climate change and resiliency, and reducing poverty. Peace Corps Volunteers, in collaboration with their host country national community counterparts, implement activities that will help the communities in which they serve have greater food security. You can read Robyn Fernando's complete blog here.

November 30, 2017
Mark ManaryMothers and children test out legume-based flour for the cowpea research study.

Aisha was worried about her one-year-old son Chisomo. Although he was eating normally, Chisomo was sleepier than usual and wasn’t spending as much time playing with his siblings. She didn’t understand why.

What Aisha didn’t know was that Chisomo was lacking the nutrients needed to support his rapid growth. The traditional nsima – a dense, corn-based porridge – she was feeding him wasn’t enough.

A year-long study by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes, led by Michigan State University, is offering new hope to researchers, and mothers like Aisha, looking to tackle the problem of malnutrition before it has a lifelong negative effect on young children. Chisomo was asked to participate, as were all other children over 6 months in the villages selected for the study.

In rural Malawi, children between the ages of 6 and 12 months normally transition from exclusive breastfeeding to mixed feeding with complementary foods. In traditional Sub-Saharan African societies, monotonous, protein-poor and micronutrient-poor starches, such as maize, cassava and sorghum, dominate these complementary foods. Many transitioning babies struggle to get the proper protein and nutrients they need to grow, right at a time in their life when good nutrition matters more than any other.

Physicians and scientists have noted that stunting – a condition that results from undernutrition early in life – begins to occur shortly after the transition away from exclusive breastfeeding and increases progressively during the first several years of life, which led them to question whether a more nutrient-dense complementary food might help reduce it. They initiated a research project with the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab to learn what foods already available in Malawi may help families improve the nutrition of their young children. For the past year, the project has explored the potential of cowpea, which has three to four times more protein than corn and is rich in dietary fiber, starch, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Cowpea grows well in Malawi and is a hardy, drought-tolerant crop.

Project researchers first tested cowpea flour-based recipes to ensure they not only met World Health Organization guidelines, but also appealed to infants and young children. The final recipe, taste-tested by more than 100 infants, used roasted cowpeas that were milled into flour that the infants loved.

Researchers then studied whether infants in 17 villages across Southern Malawi who were fed the cowpea-based formula grew better than others who were fed the more traditional formula. They measured the children at regular intervals over six months.

The results of the trial showed that cowpea – when used as a complementary food – reduced stunting from 35 percent to 30 percent among the children that ate it. 

Mark Manary, a researcher involved with the study, said they are publishing and sharing the results within the academic field.

“I am truly delighted to see the results from the legume intervention study showing improved growth,” he said. “Many studies have been done [to try to] reduce stunting and [have] shown no effect. [But] here we have a simple food [that] is part of a simple fix for stunting.”

After the study concluded, participating villages were taught how to incorporate cowpea into infant foods. Because cowpea is locally recognized and roasting it is common practice, researchers are optimistic that families will use more of it to boost nutrition among kids.

For families like Aisha’s in Malawi who are concerned about the health of their children, cowpea flour porridge could be a key piece of the nutrition puzzle. As researchers continue to evaluate the potential role of cowpeas and other grain legumes in other aspects of infant health, hope for a healthier future is rising.

As for Aisha, she can attest that her son loves the cowpeas.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes, led by Michigan State University, contributes to food security and economic growth in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America through knowledge and technology generation that strengthens grain legume (beans, cowpeas, tepary beans, etc.) productivity and value chains.

May 18, 2017
Fintrac Inc.Rab Processors' new rural commodity marketing and storage facilities for smallholders help farmers get better prices for their harvests and access to finance.

Last October, smallholder farmer Luke Khuluza stored 3 metric tons of maize in a warehouse in Dezda, Malawi. He could have sold the grain then, but he didn’t. It was harvest time: The supply of maize in the market was at its peak, so the price offered by buyers was low. Instead, he took a receipt for the maize, which was issued by the warehouse and waited a few months for the grain’s price to go up. Only then did he sell it, gaining a profit of $252. “Had it been earlier,” he said, “I would have made a loss.”

Not long ago, Khuluza and many other smallholder farmers in Malawi didn’t have the option of waiting to sell their grain. That’s because the system which now enables them to do so (a warehouse receipts program) was not available to them.

In a warehouse receipt system, a farmer deposits his harvested maize or other commodity in a registered warehouse, which issues a receipt with the amount and quality of the stored product. The receipt is an asset that the farmer can use as collateral or keep and wait on grain prices to potentially increase. When the farmer decides to sell, he or she receives the current market price for stored grain, with a fee subtracted for storage costs. Typically, prices increase the further away from harvest that sales are made. By giving farmers greater flexibility in selecting the time of their sales, it enables them to sell when they can make a better profit.

Farmers can also use the receipts as collateral—which is one of the primary barriers smallholders face in obtaining credit. Currently, First Merchant Bank Malawi accepts these receipts, with others opting to see how the program works before committing to also participate. Farmers are hopeful that by improving their ability to get credit, they can boost their cash flows and ability to invest. 

Malawi has been at the forefront in sub-Saharan Africa in introducing a warehouse receipts system due to strong private trader commitment and the establishment of an independent commodity exchange, the Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE), which serves as an intermediary and broker for these transactions. 

With support from Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and funding from USAID, Rab Processors, a Malawi-based commodities trader, is expanding its reach to smallholder farmers by building three new agricultural-commodity marketing and warehouse facilities for smallholders in rural areas that previously lacked bulk storage options. 

As a result of this Feed the Future partnership, Rab Processors will purchase an additional 10,000 metric tons of corn, soy and peanuts from 9,000 smallholder farmers like Khuluza, demonstrating that private companies can implement successful warehouse receipt systems that boost farmer incomes and increase farmers’ access to credit.

February 22, 2017

The Feed the Future Malawi Mobile Project is promoting financial inclusion among the unbanked and underbanked smallholder farmers in rural Malawi.

November 30, 2016
Fintrac Inc.Universal Industries is commercializing orange-fleshed sweet potato products like chips, biscuits, and bread in Malawi.

“This is a good one,” said Ned Konala as he picked up one of the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that he grows on his farm in Malawi and tossed it onto a pile. “There was no incentive for me to produce a lot of orange-fleshed sweet potato in the past. I used to have to sell to traders at low prices because no one else was buying.” Today, however, because the market demand for the vegetable has grown, he can sell his potatoes for higher prices, so he grows a lot more of them. 

One result of the higher demand is an opportunity for Konala and 8,500 other smallholders to earn higher incomes. But a second and potentially farther-reaching benefit is improved nutrition for many of Malawi’s consumers, urban as well as rural, because sweet potatoes are so rich in vitamin A. For the 60 percent of Malawian children under 5 who suffer from vitamin-A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and vulnerability to diseases such as measles and pneumonia, this could be life-changing.

Universal Industries, a leading snack and beverage producer in Malawi, is partnering with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and the International Potato Center to develop a value-added strategy in Malawi. Through the partnership, Universal Industries is testing and commercially launching four sweet potato-based products to the market. It is also building a sustainable supply chain by providing sweet potato farmers with training in proper production and storage, improved sweet potato vines, and a formal sweet potato market.

So far, Universal has introduced two orange sweet potato-based products—chips and bread—to the consumer market in Malawi. It’s also seeing high demand from other food processors, such as bakeries, for sweet potato flour and puree—products that can be used as a partial substitute for imported wheat flour, which is more expensive. One of Malawi’s largest bakeries, Sun Bakery, expressed interest in purchasing 20 metric tons of sweet potato puree per week from Universal in order to produce bread.

Malawi stands to benefit from a robust market for orange-fleshed sweet potato products in many ways. Replacing imported, less nutritious wheat flour with sweet potato flour improves nutrition. Increasing the availability of vitamin A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potato products in both rural and urban markets helps address a major nutritional challenge. Sweet potato farmers also reap income gains from higher prices, as well as stability from selling in large quantities.

As Universal Industries expands the market for value-added orange-fleshed sweet potato products, more people can access this nutrient-rich food, and fewer children will suffer from the health problems associated with lack of vitamin A. Higher farmer incomes will also improve household nutrition, as farmers buy more nutritious food for their families.

By expanding market solutions to development challenges, Universal Industries addresses both a market gap and a development gap while growing a sustainable business.

April 28, 2016
Zilani KhonjeMs. Annie works in her seedling nursery in the Upper Rivrivi sub-catchment area of the Shire River in Malawi. The nursery replaced her charcoal business, which was causing soil erosion and harming agricultural production.

Annie Kaunda* lives in Malawi’s Shire River watershed, where limited economic opportunities and arable land force families to consider unsustainable farming practices. Her story is like that of many other women who live in the area.

For 10 years, Kaunda ran a charcoal business, hiring young men to cut down trees and prepare them for charcoal production. Though charcoal production was her livelihood, it leads to deforestation, which can cause soil erosion and land degradation—and Kaunda knew it.

“When I moved into this area in 1999, I swore I would never cut down any tree for survival,” she recalled. “But in 2005, I found myself being pressured to do so. I looked at the trees in my field and the natural forest around me and I got so tempted.”

Before long, Kaunda was producing more than 15 bags of charcoal each month, without ever replanting a tree. But when practices such as this become common, the environmental costs are high. In Malawi, these costs include heavy sedimentation loads in the Shire River.

The 250-mile-long Shire River is critical in this southern African nation. The vast majority of Malawi’s electricity is generated from three hydroelectric plants at the river’s upper and middle sections. The river’s vibrant watershed is a source of drinking water, crop irrigation, transport and recreation for the communities that thrive in the area, and most rely on farming and the surrounding natural resources for their livelihoods.

But high rates of deforestation and river bank cultivation, largely from charcoal production and agriculture in Malawi, have resulted in serious river bank erosion, which contributes to heavy sedimentation that flows into the river. As it does, the sediment clogs turbines at the hydroelectric plants, frequently knocking them offline. The impact of increasing soil and land degradation has also begun to threaten agricultural production and availability of clean water.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a Feed the Future partner agency, is helping to limit erosion and increase yields in Malawi by funding technical support and training on sustainable land management and conservation agricultural practices. In this way, MCC also helps to advance the goals of Feed the Future, which include women’s empowerment.

In Malawi, most agricultural production, disposition of earnings and land management decisions are made by men, who are considered the heads of household. To support women’s empowerment, the MCC Malawi Compact emphasizes full participation of women in training opportunities and technical assistance programs.

MCC also supports educational sessions that include dialogue between men and women. Participants discuss one another’s roles, women’s rights, domestic violence, family planning, HIV/AIDS, responsible fatherhood and the importance of allowing girls to go to school before marriage. The dialogues promote a better understanding of roles and responsibilities and of equitable decision-making on land use and natural resource management.

Women farmers who have participated in MCC-supported activities have adopted conservation agricultural practices and are now producing enough maize to meet their families’ needs without exacerbating soil erosion. They are also able to sell surplus maize at local markets. Some women, like Kaunda, have abandoned their charcoal production businesses and switched to growing and selling tree seedlings.

Kaunda said she doesn’t earn as much from selling trees as she did from selling charcoal, but she sees the switch as an investment in both her and her family’s future.

“So far, I have planted 155 trees, and I will continue to do so as a way of paying back what I have destroyed,” she said.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

April 28, 2016
Opportunity InternationalHanna farming soy using good agricultural rractices she learned from Training through Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and Opportunity International.

Hanna Ayesu’s* soybean yields were low. Despite her seven years of experience growing soy, she was rarely able to grow enough to sell and wasn’t able to access inputs that would improve her crop’s yield.

The Ayesu family’s story is not unique. Of the five million people in Malawi’s Feed the Future target regions, more than two-thirds are poor. Many households, including those headed by women, till small plots for subsistence. For these farmers, hunger and undernutrition are no strangers.

The life-threatening combination of poverty and food insecurity is partly due to farmers’ limited access to financial products and services. Without these resources, they are unable to invest in high-quality agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, which can increase their productivity and earnings.

To address this challenge, Opportunity Bank of Malawi (OBM) has partnered with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation since 2015 to provide smallholder farmers with OBM financial and banking products and services as well as training on good agricultural practices. The trainings are held at local organizations such as clubs, and at least one-third of the 10,000 training participants are women. By 2017, 9,000 of the trained farmers will have used at least one OBM product or service, such as a loan, savings account or mobile money.

After seeing publicity for this financial resource and training opportunity, Ayesu joined a club where, as a member, she was able to receive training. She has learned about topics ranging from conservation farming to water management and irrigation to pest and disease control, including instruction on integrated pest management and safe handling and usage of pesticides.

Following the recommended agricultural practices, Ayesu planted her acre with soybeans and now expects to harvest more than 20 bags of soybean—more than enough to feed her family and to sell at market.

Ayesu also opened her first bank account with OBM and qualified for a K50,000 ($75) agriculture loan. She is now investing the borrowed money to pay for extra farm labor to weed and maintain her field which helps ensure a quality harvest. Her ongoing participation in trainings is providing her with mentors, technical assistance, and a new confidence that she can grow her business. “I see a bright future,” Ayesu said. “I will produce more soybeans and expect to borrow again next year because I will have saved money for collateral.”

With better farm management and agronomic skills, farmers, especially women, are less likely to default on loans, and by grouping farmers, OBM can reduce its operating costs.

Partnerships with extension service providers, training in good agricultural practices, and ongoing technical assistance are critical to smallholder farmer success. In Malawi, this unprecedented effort to reach women farmers with financial services is an important opportunity for both women and the local bankers who will benefit from their business.

*Last name has been changed to protect privacy.

June 18, 2015
MCCHigh-value crops like strawberries are helping farmers in Moldova increase their incomes.

Feed the Future focuses efforts in 19 countries, selected not only based on level of need, but also opportunity for partnership and potential for agricultural growth, among other criteria. That approach mirrors the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s model of smart, rigorous development driven by countries’ own priorities for economic growth and poverty reduction. Read on to learn how this model is contributing to better food security in countries that share the United States’ commitment to democracy and mutual prosperity.

On the banks of the Shire River in Malawi, a towering hydrodam hums along, supplying clean energy to thousands of rural communities. Just months ago, the dam experienced frequent outages due to aquatic weed infestation and dense sediment in the river, a result of severe upstream erosion. But support from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is helping address the immediate causes of the power outages while promoting sustainable management of natural resources to prevent recurring problems. An environmental trust between local watershed communities, utilities and private companies is working to reduce factors like soil erosion and sedimentation that threaten Malawi’s power infrastructure as well as agriculture and food security.

The Shire River dam, part of MCC’s five-year, $350.7 million compact with Malawi, is just one example of how MCC strengthens agricultural and rural economies in some of the world’s poorest countries. In many cases, the agreements MCC signs with host country governments promote reliable access to sufficient, safe and affordable food, contributing to Feed the Future’s goals of reducing hunger, poverty and undernutrition. In fact, $4.5 billion – almost half of MCC’s obligated investments – are related to improving food security, much of it going toward infrastructure that improves conditions for agricultural growth and connects small-scale farming communities to markets so they can earn more income.

The MCC development model is unique in that good governance, economic freedom and investing in citizens are all prerequisites for receiving grants that fund country-led solutions to poverty and its related challenges. Like Feed the Future’s, MCC’s approach is rooted in country ownership, and almost all MCC partner countries have prioritized investments related to food security as part of their compact programs.

Just last year, MCC completed two compacts in Burkina Faso and Namibia with large food security investments, including water management, livestock, land tenure, rural finance and rural road components. Two more compacts with Senegal and Moldova will end this year, which have already resulted in significant irrigation improvements in Senegal and the completion of a 93 kilometer road in Moldova.

Some MCC food security investments also align with those of other development organizations. In Moldova, for instance, MCC and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have pooled resources to carry out a coordinated strategy to grow and trade high-value crops among rural farming households, which have struggled during the transition from a centrally-planned to a market economy over the past 20 years. This co-investment aims to revitalize Moldova’s agriculture sector, once a pillar of the economy and a major regional supplier of food products. By improving irrigation, unlocking critical new markets and increasing access to technology and financing, MCC and USAID will help farmers grow more high-value crops like tomatoes, table grapes, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

And in El Salvador, where cocoa is a major cash crop well-suited to small-scale farmers, MCC is partnering with USAID, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to improve cocoa production in coordination with the Salvadoran government. The partnership is stimulating niche markets for “fino de aroma,” specialty chocolates based on cocoa plants native to Central America and the Caribbean, and buyers are already starting to take notice as this supply chain re-emerges in El Salvador.

With an emphasis on rigorous assessment tools, MCC also invests in independent impact evaluations that help show whether positive changes – such as increases in farmer income – are caused specifically by U.S. assistance or are the result of external factors like a national policy change or weather conditions. These evaluations help ensure evidence and data guide future programming and answer important questions about what is effective and what can be done better in development, supporting a Feed the Future Learning Agenda that aims to build the evidence base for what works in food security.

Learn more about the Millennium Challenge Corporation or read more blogs in this series.

April 30, 2015
Mario TelloAgronomist Gabriela Mishel Villatoro Fuentes with Carlos Carmelino Dominguez González and son.

“Grain legumes” is the technical way to describe some of the most basic foods available: beans, lentils, and peas all fall under this category. These nutrient-dense staple crops have historically been cultivated for their protein and are considered “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against undernutrition, since they are already familiar in many diets around the world.

The Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab, led by Michigan State University, is undertaking a number of projects to maximize the potential of these common food staples to combat undernutrition and food insecurity.

In Guatemala, for example, the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab is supporting a project to promote protein-packed black beans among smallholder farmers, distributing disease-resistant bean varieties adapted for high elevations. Carlos Dominguez, a smallholder coffee farmer in the western highlands of Guatemala, recently harvested 200 pounds of black beans as a result of the seed allocation and training he received on improved soil fertility and pest management practices. This means he will be able to provide 100 pounds of food for his family and retain enough seed for the next planting season. The remaining profits will help Dominguez’s family stay food-secure in a region where climate change and plant diseases have made it increasingly difficult to grow crops including grain legumes.

In conjunction with these efforts to increase bean production, Feed the Future is supporting nutrition educators who visit remote villages to educate women and men about the importance of greater dietary diversity and how eating more beans can help improve children’s growth and long-term health. At nutrition fairs, the educators share easy recipes for a bean-fortified maize porridge for infants to replace their traditional diet of atole, a maize-sugar beverage high in calories but low in nutrients.  

On the other side of the globe, the Grain Legumes Innovation Lab is bringing physicians and scientists together to combat child undernutrition in Malawi, where nearly half of children under the age of five are stunted. One of the pervasive causes of undernutrition among children is an asymptomatic chronic inflammatory gut condition called environmental enteropathy, which occurs when young children are exposed long-term to an unsanitary environment, including unhygienically prepared complementary foods. The project’s researchers are investigating whether easily digestible grain legumes – in lieu of more traditional staples like maize, cassava and sorghum – can help reduce environmental enteropathy in young children by improving gut health. Cowpea, for example, has three to four times more protein per gram than corn and may have anti-inflammatory effects.

To test this theory, researchers are conducting two trials among different age groups to investigate the effect of common bean and cowpea consumption on infant and toddler gut health and growth. These experiments will contribute to a clearer understanding of whether a grain legume supplement can contribute to children’s increased growth and reduced risk of environmental enteropathy compared to children who receive standard food supplements. If so, grain legumes will represent an exciting new front in the battle to end millions of child deaths resulting from undernutrition and improve the long-term potential for children and economies to grow strong and healthy.

April 20, 2015
Mark LundyAs a graduate student, Mark Lundy (far left) worked with Chimwemwe (second from right) and colleagues in Malawi on a tomato production project in 2012.

The United States has always been a world leader in the fight to end hunger and poverty. This spring, our partners share how recent efforts embody the best of the United States and why this leadership matters. The following is a guest post authored by Mark Lundy, who traveled to Malawi as a graduate student to work on an agricultural development project. Mark is now a cooperative extension farm advisor in California.

Having grown up in a city, my interest in agriculture was largely something that developed after I left home. As an undergraduate student and in the years afterward, I was lucky to have the opportunity to study and work in China, Ireland and Mexico.

As diverse as these locations were geographically, culturally and linguistically, something that unified these experiences for me was that in each place I ended up working and interacting with farmers in rural areas. In the process, I became increasingly interested in learning about rural livelihoods and how they were changing in a rapidly globalizing world economy. Eventually, this motivated me to dive into the agricultural sciences. I began working on farms and ultimately earned a master’s degree in international agricultural development and a doctorate in agronomy from the University of California, Davis.

It was during the course of my graduate work at UC Davis that I participated in the Trellis program, which partners graduate students in the United States with agricultural research and outreach organizations in the developing world. Run by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Horticulture, the Trellis program’s objective is to share expertise and foster cross-cultural collaborations in agricultural development.

When I applied to participate in Trellis, I was mid-stream in my graduate work and eager to put my “book learning” to some practical use. I was also curious to see how the more detailed understanding of agricultural production I had been gaining largely in the context of Californian agriculture would apply to a rural, developing world setting more similar to those that had initiated my vocation.

Collaborating in Malawi

I was partnered with the Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station outside of Blantyre, Malawi, whose Trellis project focus was to disseminate improved production practices for small-scale farmers growing fresh-market tomatoes. Our collaboration consisted of compiling region-specific best practices with visual aids into poster handouts and organizing on-farm field demonstrations of best management practices. Trellis provided part of the funding for me to travel to Malawi to participate in some of the field demonstrations.

One of my colleagues during the project was an agronomist named Chimwemwe, who had been educated in the area and possessed both fundamental agronomic knowledge and a nuanced understanding of agricultural production in his region. He had good relationships with leaders in the farming communities we visited and he was well respected among his colleagues at the research station. During my time in Malawi, he and I discussed cropping system innovations such as conservation agriculture, the feasibility and constraints of organic production systems, and possibilities for tomato processing and composting operations.

I was impressed with Chimwemwe’s know-how and, simultaneously, frustrated by the resource constraints that confined the possibility of his impact.

Even though we successfully accomplished the Trellis project objectives, I remember thinking that as much as I valued what I was learning from the experience, the money invested in my plane ticket might have been better spent directly on Chimwemwe’s programs. How much more might he have accomplished beyond the objectives of the project with those resources in hand?

Getting Sharper

In the years following my participation in Trellis, I finished my graduate work and became an agronomy advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, part of the Agriculture and Natural Resources division. In that role, I provide agronomic expertise to farmers and lead applied research and extension programs for a wide range of crops (including tomatoes!) in the lower Sacramento Valley. My decision to work in this role was partly informed by my participation in Trellis and my interactions with Chimwemwe.

Seeing Chimwemwe’s extension program in action underscored to me that agriculture is simultaneously (even paradoxically) a global and a local enterprise. Many of the fundamentals of cropping systems do apply broadly across diverse agricultural landscapes, which is what permitted the productive conversations and collaboration between us.

There is no substitute for a nuanced understanding of the particular contours and constraints of any given region or farm. 

Nevertheless, there is no substitute for a nuanced understanding of the particular contours and constraints of any given region or farm. Despite my broad knowledge of cropping systems, Chimwemwe’s relationships with individuals in his region and his understanding of the particular constraints to production on the farms he was serving made him a sharper tool for the job we set out to do together.

With a few years’ perspective, I can now see that the project was successful beyond its immediate goal of extending best management practices to small-scale tomato growers in Malawi. Observing Chimwemwe in action inspired me to leverage the regionally specific knowledge I had gained about California agriculture during my graduate education and try to become a similarly sharp tool in my own backyard.

As a result, my Trellis experience continues to bear fruit in my day-to-day work right here in California.

Editor’s Note: Fourteen graduate students from UC Davis, North Carolina State University and the University of Florida are currently working on new Trellis Fund projects in nine countries as part of Feed the Future.  Follow their work by visiting the Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab’s website

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