Saturday, February 23, 2013

Just A Little Market Stand?

So what am I actually doing with my host organization?

The Maraichers and also my Bureau at CeCPA requested me here for two main reasons. They had irrigation problems, and they have a desire to diversify the crops that they are growing.

The volunteer who I replaced here in Misserete did a great job getting Irrigation Systems installed in two of the farms where I work. I might eventually work on getting Irrigation to one or two other groups.. but in the mean time we are focusing in on crop diversification.

The BIGGEST problem with crop diversification has not proven to be getting the seeds or teaching the farmers how to grow these new crops.. the biggest problem has been what to do with these crops once they are grown. People are creatures of habit, and the women who work in the farms are more interested in selling these new crops to the posh city people then actually eating them themselves. AND right now the vendors in the markets in Porto Novo get their carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, cabbages.... etc. imported in from Cotonou (and where ever they come from before that). Or you can go to Songhai to buy the more “exotic” vegetables. So how do we get people to know that the farmers in the area are now growing these things too?

Currently the women are known for growing almost entirely legumes (assorted African leafy greens) and the vendors in the market will send a zemi or another person out to the farm to pick up a plonch worth for them to sell that day.. that is the extent of communication between the farmers and the vendors. So last year.. when they tried some new crops.. they weren't able to sell them.

After throwing some various ideas around what it seems that the maricheres group really wants is a place to advertise and a place not too far from the farms (as in not in Porto Novo or in an actual market) where they can sell some of the new vegetables themselves. So we are talking about building a small market stand on the CeCPA office property.. right next to the ONASA (where people already come to buy (and store) their grains in bulk through out certain parts of the year).. where the women can advertise and vend some of their new produce. The agreement is that if we do this project for them than the office (because it is on CeCPA property) will be in charge of the security and upkeep of the “barrack” and the woman’s farming groupement organization will be in charge of keeping it manned.

I really hope that I am able to get the logistics of this project sorted out soon.. I am very hesitant to have the women start growing these crops again.. when they still don't have a plan for selling them. I don't want them to become overly discouraged and am worried about their capacity to want to try again if it fails.. when they could be using that same land to grow their legumes.

Aside from allowing the farmers to be able to diversity their goods.. in turn making them more marketable to the outside vendors.. and eventually more financially secure. This food stand will also help by providing more a more varied diet to the local communities. Right now the families who know how to cook these “newer” vegetables go to Porto Novo to buy them. It is my hope that with these vegetables available locally a greater variety of local Beninese people will start to eat them as well.

Like I said, the planning for this is still in the preliminary stages so it will be interesting to see how it progresses.. things move very slow in this country and the project keeps getting larger in ways that I don't completely understand (I just wish I actually felt like I was helping the women that I came here to work with).

I will be going to a training in March on Nutrition Education, and I have hope that [aside from Moringa] getting locals to eat a more varied diet will be something that we cover.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gardening With Children

One of the suggested projects for environment volunteers is working on a garden with local school children. What better way to help with the food security of a country then to teach the children how to grow nutritious fruits and vegetables?

Ready... Set.. Hoe!
This month I was finally able to start working with a school. I am not sure if I really got into it here on the blog (I don't know that I mentioned it much) but I was having A LOT of trouble finding a school that was interested in working with me. Some volunteers are partnered with schools as their host structures.. but that isn't the case for me.

As we know, things happen for a reason.. and while all my truly local school have been putting me off and brushing me aside.. I found a primary school that is very motivated and very excited about me working with them. This school is not in my village it is another village over, but I am very happy to be working with them. I don't mind traveling to them if it means I get to work with people who actually want me there.

I originally went to visit their school thinking (and only thinking) that it was an opportunity to do a forestry project. I was told that this school had a small man-made forest stand, and that they had contacted my office about wanting to protect this small forest. Unfortunately, by the time this message reached me.. and we made our way over to check it out.. a good portion of the trees had already been taken down. :-/ Seeing as the school had reached out, my supervisor and I took advantage of the opportunity and asked them if they would be interested in my help with creating a school garden.

Interestingly enough, the school had real interest, but not really in the garden. In a much bigger project. They want a garden, WITH ANIMALS (rabbits and maybe some chickens and goats as well). I am not going to say that I don't have any reservations over a primary school running a small farm, and to that point I told them that we are going to just start with the Garden and move forward from there. I figure if they are able to be motivated and work hard, and the garden is a success and the children show real interest... then we can talk about adding animals into the equation after their summer break. Luckily the school's Directors thought this was fair and agreed to my idea to start small and work towards the bigger project.

Building A Fence 
Things are just getting started, so there are no pretty greens growing yet. The location to for the garden is great, there is a close by water pump and plenty of space to expand if things go well this school year. For now are going to grow legumes, tomatoes, lettuce and hot peppers.. I am going to try to sneak in a little more variation if the Directors are ok with it. This week we cleared the field where we are placing the garden (there was a lot of trash and some big tree stumps).. and we built a fence to keep the goats out! FYI this group of 5 elementary school students cleared a big tree stump in less time than it would take most adult Americans.. using machetes and small hoes. Just saying.

Tree Stump Removal
I am looking forward to talking to the Directors about some other small projects I can do with them. I would love to do a tree planting for National Tree Day and maybe an environmentally conscious mural. (Since their original interest was of course protecting their trees.)


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Some Things Grow On Trees

Known to some as “The Miracle Tree”
Known to skeptics as “too good to be true” -- Time will be the judge. 

Moringa is a tree that grows easily in the tropics.. and surprisingly.. in all parts of the world where malnutrition is a real issue. AND the reason this tree is known as the miracle tree is that has the potential ability to combat and eventually rid the world of malnutrition. Native to the Himilayas.. Moringa Oleifera can now be found growing throughout most of the developing world. Trees for Life, a non-profit that works with Moringa has a map on their website (here) showing how closely the places where Moringa grows and the countries that are malnourished coincide.

The leaves, seeds, seed oil, and roots can all be eaten and all have high nutritional value. While the leaves can be eaten raw or lightly cooked, most often I see leaves sold in a powdered form here in Benin. Moringa is known to be rich in A, B, and C Vitamins, Calcium, Protein, and Potassium as well as providing other vitamins and minerals (depending on what part of the plant you are eating). 

image from
Aside from just being a food source, the cultivation of Moringa can aid the economy, the trees are grow very fast, they have been noted to (however it is not yet proven) enrich the soil, and also show potential in water purification as well. They are not the greatest shade trees.. but they are great for making living fences (especially for protecting gardens from roaming goats and cows).

Most of the locals that I am currently working with are aware of, and have access to Moringa already. However, within the next few months I am looking forward to receiving training on both the cultivating of Moringa, and on how to teach the nutritional benefits more effectively (especially in a country where most leafy greens get cooked until there is no nutritional benefit at all). I am also looking forward to learning more about building living fences (I think that would be really great for a school garden where the Moringa leaves could then be used by the women who make lunch!).


Completely Unrelated to Moringa :

While we are on the subject of things that grow in Africa.. there is this fruit. This strange orange fruit with big black seeds. That my close-mate and I have dubbed sticky fruit. I would love to tell you what it is called. BUT quite frankly I don't know.

A few weeks ago my close-mate showed up one afternoon on her way home from the market. With these weird fruits that we had been seeing everywhere and decided it was time for us to try them. (I had already tried them once and found them somewhat frightening but figured I would give it a second go) Anyway this fruit basically tastes like a warhead... if there was an apricot flavored warhead. By the way.. I mean the warheads from when I was a kid.. not the tamed downed ones that you buy in the candy stores these days. THE REALLY SOUR ONES. When you are finished eating said fruit, your lips feel like you just had a bubble gum mishap (there really is no other way to describe it). We joked over the way they made our mouth feel.. and compared our facial expressions to the babies eating lemons video that was big on youtube a few years back.

Yesterday, I was visiting the host fam, and my mama gave me one of these fruits to eat. Apparently if you know how to pick out a ripe one they are actually a little bit sweet. She showed me the proper way to eat them.. but she only knew what they were called in local language not in french. I now know however that the best part of the fruit is stuck to the seed (something we had previously been discarding). After eating the fruit she made a point to tell me that the final step in properly eating this weird African fruit -- is washing your lips.. since it makes your lips feel funny. Glad to know that wasn't just an American thing.

Later my close-mate informed me that the local language name for this fruit translates to “Hurt-Baby” – so basically we were spot on with our description -- and I have decided the local villagers would probably get a kick out of watching babies eat lemons.

Love and Sticky Lips

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Is Food Security?

Food Security is a global issue AND along with Malaria prevention, it is one of the primary global issues that Peace Corps in currently focusing on. The projects that I am working on and the post that I was given are meant to be closely intertwined with the Benin Food Security program. I decided to make this month Food Security Month on my blog. This will give me a chance to talk about some of the projects I am trying to start up.. and explain to you what I am doing here (if I can figure that out myself...) ha..

What is Food Security?
In general terms, Food Security is the access and availability of balanced and nutritious food sources.

In the United States food security is often a concern in low income urban areas where we have what we call “Food Deserts” or areas where low income families have little to no access to acceptable healthy food.. (sometimes no grocery stores at all) and are in that sense forced to eat unhealthy foods (most often from fast food chains) in order to survive. In West Africa food security is different.

In West Africa it becomes an issue of not just where the food is coming from and if it is nutritious but really whether there is any food at all. For the people who live in small villages, if there is no food growing.. and no food in storage.. then there is no food. Plain and Simple. Many farmers can't farm year round because there isn't water available year round (which is an issue in and of itself)... and some seasons just aren't great for farming.. which is becoming an issue as we see the seasons shift due to climate change.

Peace Corps Benin has partnered with USAID West Africa and with a group of other West African countries (many of whom have or recently had very strong Peace Corps presence) in order to better West Africa's food security. This partnership has become known as the West African Food Security Partnership.

Our environment program here in Benin has an agricultural focus, making it easy to focus our work on food security -- we work on access and availability. However, volunteers in all sectors contribute to the food security project . Health volunteers often deal directly with nutrition by teaching mothers ways to enrich the food that children are eating, and teaching about the importance of a diverse diet – they work directly with food utilization. Any volunteer who works with a school can make a school garden, or teach lessons that contain nutritional information. Business volunteers are great for marketing fortified foods and also Moringa leaves which are highly nutritious.

The projects that volunteers area currently working on in Benin include; food diversification, food preservation (drying and/or bottling), fortified foods, irrigation, animal raising, school gardens, and nutritional education.

For the people in my commune, because of my proximity to the city, access to nutritional foods is not as big of an issue as it is in other parts of the country. However, much of the food is imported, when it could easily be grown right here. Often the local Beninese (even if they can afford it which they often can't) will not know how to cook or prepare the vegetables that are not traditionally in their diets, making their potential nutritional values irrelevant. A woman isn't going to spend the money, for example, on the expensive eggplant.. that she doesn't really know what to do with in the first place. However, if she learned to grow her own eggplant, or the eggplant didn't have to travel quite as far to the market (thus lowering the price) she might be more willing to experiment and add new additions to a diet based almost entirely around corn, fish, and tomatoes.

The current focus at the office where I work is how to market new vegetables so that it is cost effective for the women I work with to grow them AND (from my end) hopefully teach the women to eat their new products as well (baby steps). I am also working hard to start a school club and school gardens that will allow me a chance to work directly with youth and help them provide a greater variety of food to their school cafeterias. 

For most of you reading this at home, the access and availability aspects of food security are far from a problem. What does apply to you – is the utilization of these resources. Make sure you are using your knowledge, eating right, and preparing your foods with your health in mind. In the end food security falls on you, as the consumer, to feed yourself properly. Don't take for granted your ability to do so.