Friday, May 31, 2013

In The Middle

A general update:

Mid-Service, in reality, is not for another month or two.. but here in Benin we are already feeling it full force.

The old volunteers are buying their plane tickets home and we are questioning whether we really have the knowledge to guide in a new generation of Benin PCVs. Of course we will find that we do, but that doesn't mean that we know it yet.

Some of us are feeling overwhelmed that there is a whole year left.. overwhelmed that a whole year has already passed.. and overwhelmed by the amount of work we feel like we have yet to do.

A really great time travel to the middle of the country for some really productive conversation.


This week I am up in Parakou for a gardening workshop. This workshop was organized by another volunteer -- in order to assist with network and communication between actors at all levels of the market gardening process. Seed production/distribution to garden production to markets and restaurants.

As most of you know I work with market gardeners in Akpro-Misserete (the Porto Novo region of Benin). Since I live close to the cities there is access to a good diversity of seeds in my area, as well as access to information, but this does not mean that the farmers know this, or have the means to access it. On the other hand.. there is often a problem with accessing markets willing to pay a good price for produce, especially when experimenting with something not previously grown at said farm in the past.

Benin has lots of resources but there is a lack when it comes to communicating and network, which is what I believe was the purpose of this workshop.


Right now, in Misserete, I am working on a project to diversify the crops grown by my farming groups. For the past few months we have been working with seed samples of different varieties to grow crops such as tomatoes, hot peppers, cucumbers, okra, carrots and radishes – and this week I received a whole new batch of samples seeds from East-West Seeds . I am excited to try watermelon, onions, lettuce and beets with the farm ladies!!

All of these crops can easily be grown in my region of Benin, once the farmer knows the process, and most of them can be grown year round. Some of these crops (such as tomatoes and hot peppers) the farmers have tried in the past, but perhaps couldn't find an opening in the market, or just didn't succeed due to insects, or water access. All of these crops are sold in Benin, and the majority of them are imported from neighboring countries to be sold in our local markets. In the mean time the local farmers (all) grow fields and fields of the same African legumes, corn, and manioc. By teaching the farmers to grow these new crops we are increasing the local access, and potentially lowering their prices, making it so that vegetables that aren't bought by your average family because of the cost might be able to be more widely eaten enriching diets of families. Also, if farmers grow the crops that are currently imported, they should be able to make more money per area of land then they currently do.

The problem with this.. is that people are creatures of habit. People like to eat the foods that they are familiar with.. and they like to buy from sources that they know and are comfortable with. Its just little steps. So for now, we will continue working with these seed samples, raising the farmers confidence in the new crops and trying to build vending connections.

Earlier this week,  before I came up to Parakou, we had “a rose and a thorn” (as Erik's mom likes to put it) in this project...

One of the crops, that is definitely gaining popularity at least in my region of Benin, that we were hoping to have success with is cucumbers. Unfortunately, in the first farm where we planted our trial plots, all the cucumbers (3 different varieties!) have died. – Luckily (and completely unexpectedly) I received a second batch of cucumber samples today.. so we will try again. I just worry about people becoming discouraged or thinking a crop is too hard to grow. For this specific “harvest” of cucumbers I had been traveling a lot, so I will monitor our new batch more closely, hopefully they take this time... and I really hope we have better luck with cucumbers at the other farms where I work.

Radishes, on the other hand turned out to be a more positive, and very interesting experience. One of the seed samples was for large white daikon style radishes. Not a crop you normally see here in Benin, but we had the seeds so it couldn't hurt to try and see what happened. These radishes grew amazingly well.. and we had beautiful large radishes in just 3 weeks. The women were visibly very happy with them, they enjoyed growing them, they especially loved the large green leaves that they immediately removed and used as a sort of mulch for the tomatoes (not sure why but hey whatever). The problem, we thought, was not even the “exotic” vegetable vendors in Cotonou wanted to take them off their hand. - - That being said I made a show about calling a volunteer I know who works with some restaurants, and acted very confident that we could sell them. This apparently motivated the women, because they called the next morning to say that they found a vendor and sold the radishes. – And WE LEARNED that the reason we couldn't sell the radishes, is because they are considered a fete food, and are generally sold during the months of December and January. Its interesting to think that while in this country most things can be grown and potentially sold year round, people have preset ideas about when they will buy them.. and therefore the market is still “seasonal” in a sense.

It is really exciting to me that this project seems to be moving forward. I was also really happy that the radishes worked out, and hopefully counteracted the disappointment over the cucumbers.

This is what I've been up to recently.

I'd love to get some updates from home!


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