Tag Archives: innovation

Strangely Delicious Avocado Concoctions

It is undeniably avocado season here; I am the happiest girl alive. Any initial disappointment and skepticism resulting from a couple of bad avocado experiences has completely dissipated. Far too much time has been spent dreaming up different and bizarre avocado recipes, but the results have been excellent. Don’t judge it before you try it.

destined for greatness.

1. Avocado (roughly mashed), cucumber (diced), curry powder, salt and pepper. Mix, enjoy.

2. Mango (cubed), avocado, a dollop of the hottest hot sauce you can get your hands on, feta cheese. (I think this is my favorite.)

3. Avocado mashed up with some creamy cheese (goats cheese, laughing cow cheese, whatever you have) and some hot sauce; about 1/2 cup of rehydrated hijiki or wakame seaweed; pasta. Mix it all together. Trust me on this one.

4. Avocado, yogurt (or ricotta cheese to make it thicker/richer), a little lime juice, a little honey. (Which, if you are in Mali, is about as dark and intense as molasses.) Maple syrup would also be delish, and dried or fresh coconut is an excellent addition if you happen to have it on hand. Blend everything together. Best. Smoothie. Ever.

5. One red onion, caramelized; one giant ripe avocado, sliced; a few pieces of whole grain bread, toasted. Stack as high as possible; salt and pepper to taste; try not to make a mess all over your face.

Avocado is one of those things that doesn’t need much help to be delicious, but that doesn’t stop me from experimenting. The fruit is wonderful on it’s own, and in any number of savory, salty, and sugary iterations… all I know is that my intake exceeds anything that the FDA would put on a pyramid. I am ok with that.

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Fields around the City: Urban Ag in Bamako

sweet potato sunset

I have been sitting on this post for a while now; it was three months ago, to be exact, when I started writing it. Part of it is guilt about not having made much progress with my supposed ‘research project’ on urban ag. Part of it is a genuine lack of certainty about what exactly my thoughts are on urban ag, and what I could possibly write to contribute to the discussion. Which is why I am going back to school. For a long-ass time.

Starting in April, I spent a few weeks working with an urban ag co-op in Bamako. We sat under a mango tree for several hours a day talking about their issues and problems – illiteracy, c0-op organization, lobbying power and lack of agency concerning legislation about agriculture practices in Bamako, land tenure and insecurity, water issues, lack of resources, lack of NGO presence. The list goes on. I met with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Regional Direction of Agriculture, and talked with researchers, ministers, officials, attachés, ad nauseum. The particular co-op we were working with is extraordinarily well organized, has a clear vision of where they want to go, and has some pretty significant connections within Bamako (their former president is now the president of the Chamber of Agriculture in the District of Bamako). But that doesn’t get them far when the system is not built to support them.

diagramming different organizational strategies

Bamako is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa; construction of offices and hotels and apartments takes precedent over land used to grow lettuce or beets, and farmers (who don’t, incidentally, pay income tax) don’t really have much power in the face of huge Libyan or Chinese companies that come in to build their massive complexes; the government doesn’t give weight enough to the potential problems with relegating producers to the periphery (or farther) of the city (i.e. how will the food be transported in to the city because what good does a vegetable market do 35 km from Bamako if the food is needed in Bamako?); a co-op expect is not really well positioned to move forward if out of 40 members, only 2 are somewhat literate; technical assistance and extension agents are there, but have only a vague sense of what is really needed and don’t work on an individual level with the producers. To further render difficult the task, the individualist mentality, built from the scarcity paradigm, tends to reign supreme: people group together not for the benefit of the group, but for the gains they can get, as an individual, by aligning themselves with other people. In other words, each member of the co-op is acting as a single unit that happens to be loosely associated with the larger group; land is cultivated individually, resources are owned individually, inputs are acquired individually – the only thing cooperative about the co-op, is their capacity to access things like NGO financing and trainings.

urban compost - the potential is huge.

All of this is quite daunting, and has caused me more than one existential crisis of the ‘what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here-anyway’ persuasion. The co-op I was working with in April, when it came right down to it, really just wanted resources. Someone to landscape new farming plots they had bought outside of the city; an organization to finance a tractor; organized transportation in and out of Bamako once they are inevitably kicked out of the city. And who am I to judge them for wanting these things? The problem becomes creating a sustainable development model from these things. Getting an NGO to buy you a tractor does not automatically teach you how to operate said piece of machinery, and said NGO will not help you when it falls into disrepair. There are organizations doing literacy trainings and capacity building work  but the problem is that the linkages don’t exist between the organizations in place and the co-ops that could really benefit from their services. State budgets are not constructed in a way to support long term growth, but look to shorter solutions to ‘reduce hunger’ or ‘increase productivity’. It’s a systemic problem that runs the length of the development chain – there are gaps and shortages and breaks in communication and mismanagement of funds and the list goes on.

But back to urban agriculture itself. Until the governments of cities realize how vital it is to the survival of ever-expanding urban populations, it will not be prioritized amongst city planners and zoning officials. If a city doesn’t demands that it be able to feed itself, it will constantly be relying on resources from an ever-more-scarce population of rural producers that often don’t have the means to produce even enough for themselves. Until we put a heavy enough emphasis on sustainable and safe food systems, come up with the innovations need to create these systems, are empowered enough to become a part of what we’ve created, we will forever rely on the currently negligent systems in places that have repeatedly and consistently failed.

So there’s my diatribe. (Excuse me while I step off my soap box and regain some composure.)

There is a way that this can work, and there are places and people and cities putting the process is in motion. The world is not an impossible puzzle to figure out; it’s just a complicated one. The fundamental need to feed ourselves – while slowly being moved to the top of the priority list of policymakers and other key people in the mix – is a need that will not go away. Cities cannot rely on rural areas to provide for them while continuously grow bigger and bigger and leaving behind a shrinking population of farmers. So abandoned lots in Detroit and Baltimore will become food gardens, and plots not yet turned into apartments or offices in Bamako will produce onions and carrots and sweet potatoes. Chickens and goats will be raised next to kindergartens, and it’ll all be cobbled together somehow. Eventually, though, the green space in cities will hopefully be fruit trees and cabbage patches rather than decorative ivy; city zoning will take agricultural production into consideration; and the concept of eating locally will be supported by governments and states, not just NYTimes op-ed columnists and CSA members.

gardens and football games

They Call Me Sarata: Visiting the Field

We sat three across in the back seat of the pickup truck, seven men perched behind us in the cab holding on to the rails as we drove about 25 kilometers into the bush. The sun seemed to be playing games, positioning itself at exactly the right angle to make me sweat to the maximum, and the air conditioning was completely ineffective more than a foot away from the vent. Tom, an American consultant who is here until March, Mme. Berthé, and I all silently pondered the same thing: how much farther do we have to go, and I really hope this place is worth seeing.

25km on this road in 95 degree weather

In Bougouni, (maybe 100 or 150 km from Bamako) a cooperative of farmers and fishers has decided that they want to expand their enterprise into fish farming. That is, creating and maintaining fishponds in order to raise cultivated varieties of fish (carp, tilapia) to sell on the market. Inland fish breeding has become a quite popular – and at times quite lucrative – source of economic activity in several places across Africa. Fish accounts for a significant percentage of the protein intake for many people, and local production makes a lot of sense, both economically and ecologically.

Right after lunch we saw two attempts at the creation of a fishpond on one man’s farm bordering the river, an estuary of a river originating in Côte d’Ivoire that pours into the Niger. Both ponds that he had dug were completely parched, as the water had quickly infiltrated back into the surrounding soil. Despite their attempts to compact the earth around the pond to make it hold water, a combination of a low water table and lack of étanchéité made the one pond look more like a strange crater in the middle of a cracked and dry field. Not to be flippant, but it looked like a really determined attempt at digging a hole to China. Deeper than I ever got as a kid, but it’s safe to say this is not the objective here.

a really big, really dry hole

The dichotomy is huge between that which is irrigated – either naturally or by hand – and land with no source of water. The occasional shrub or small tree will grow in dry dirt, but a fishpond, even dug right next to the river, has little chance unless the conditions are just right.

no water equals no growth

After a good forty-five minutes crammed into the truck, bouncing over rock hard uneven dirt roads, we finally stopped. Everyone got out, and we proceeded to walk another 500 meters or so to the second fishpond site through the grassy bush of the Sahel. When we finally reached the site, it was like a man-made oasis, except it wasn’t actually a figment of my imagination. Different sized ponds separated by dykes, lush green grass growing on all sides, rich dark brown mud where the water met these man-made walls. (Complemented by the setting sun and a cool breeze for the first time in almost an hour, I actually had to convince myself it was real.)

fish ponds as far as the eye can see

Barry Sidibé’s land is situated in the flood zone of the river, which means that he benefits from the yearly supply of water (and fish) to populate the fishponds. During the rainy season when the water from the river covers the entirety of his farm – all the land we were standing on – the wild fish from the river reach just as far. When the water recedes back to the banks of the river, the fish are trapped in the ponds by the dykes, and can be cultivated, harvested, and sold. In a community where the price of fish imported from north of Bamako has risen from 75CFA ($0.15) to 2500CFA ($5.00) over the past ten years, the economic incentives to partake in local pisciculture are quite high. And for good reason. But the practicality of the venture is unclear.

pisciculture (fish culture)

On the road to M. Sidibé’s farm, we saw several dozen men and women panning for gold, and on our drive back to Bougouni, they were making the long trek home on foot. I asked Mme. Berthé how much gold they actually find out here. She laughed a little ruefully and commented that maybe they wouldn’t be walking to and from work every day if they had enough money to afford a ride on a motorcycle or the back of a cart.

Without the natural flooding of the river, and unless the situation is exactly right, digging these fishponds made me think about panning for gold where there really is none. I wonder how far a strong brew of hope and desperation will drive people, and how long it will last until a good dose of practicality sets in. That’s not to say that the situation is impossible; it just needs to be done in the right context, with the right information and training. Agriculture accounts for over 80 percent of the economic activity of Mali. A combination of an already harsh climate and climate change that is only making things worse has led to some of the most difficult growing seasons in history, and the need for a lot of really innovative thinking.

I’m here for six months, living in one of the poorest countries in Africa, which makes it one of the poorest in the world, too. Mme. Berthé gave me a Malien name, Sarata – incidentally also her own first name – which means that I’m part of this place now. Questions of agricultural development and creating sustainable food systems, writ large, make my head spin they seem so insurmountable. The willingness to be open to new ideas and to innovate is the only way to get anywhere. To dig what might look like holes to China, for a small group of people in Bougouni, just south of Bamako, might just be the way through.

(For more pictures of Bougouni, of a dairy production center at Ouellessebougou and of Kafara where we’ll be working on agribusiness and input/output marketing.)