Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project [ESFP] attracts attention at 2013 “Peace Corps Connect” event
By Joe Bell (Alamata, Wello 69–71)
Peace Corps Connect, hosted by the National Peace Corps Associan and held June 28-29, 2013 in Boston, was far more than speeches and seminars, valuable as those events were. The event also provided exhibit space and the opportunity for country groups of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to recruit, reconnect, and educate to promote their projects.
Boston Area RPCVs, Friends of Niger and of Lesotho, the Peace Corps Iran Association, RPCVs of Madison, the Fallen PC Volunteers Memorial Project, the Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project and others were among the more than twenty Peace Corps related exhibitors present at the event.
PC Connect attendees showed not only commitment to the Third Goal of promoting American understanding of other people, they also showed how some RPCVs are providing direct assistance to current development projects in their former host countries. For some RPCVs, “the hardest job you will ever love” has not ended with their return home.
The Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project [ESFP] is just one example of how former Volunteers are using their skills to create, support and assist current development projects. Here is a description of the ESFP which was on display at Peace Corps Connect:
Half a dozen years ago, Charlie Higgins, an Ethiopia XII Volunteer (1969-71), potato farmer, university professor and founder of the ESFP, was driving through an Ethiopian village while participating in a USAID “Farmer to Farmer” project. An Ethiopia farmer knocked on the side of the old Toyota with his walking stick, and then pleaded for some disease tolerant potato seed that he had heard about. Charlie knew that all of the available potato seed was contaminated with every disease ever found in potatoes and the Ethiopian Ministry of Agricultural had no means to provide clean seed. Despite that, Charlie knew that “potatoes produce more nutritional food than any other crop that can be grown in the Ethiopian highlands.”
USAID had built a beautiful lab facility near Bahar Dar in north-western Ethiopia that had the potential to supply disease-free potato seed to the entire Amhara region of Ethiopia, but the facility was sitting empty, unused. Farmers in the Amhara region grow potatoes on about 80,000 hectares of land, but the yields have been extremely low due to the diseased seed. Over the past decades, the population has become quite dependent upon potatoes to supplement grain in the national diet. Between 1969 and today, Ethiopia’s population has increased from 20 to about 84 million people.
After USAID withdrew all support for potato projects, a group of Returned Ethiopian Peace Corps XII [69–71] Volunteers and US potato growers lead by Charlie Higgins took the initiative in 2007 to help get the lab functioning and provide training for Ethiopian technicians to produce disease-free seed.
Six years on, Ethiopians working at the lab are now able to supply clean seed potatoes to five to ten farmer’s groups (averaging 25 farmers per group) in the area around Gondar. The clean seed successfully increases the yield of disease-free tubers those farmers can sell to other potato growers. One hundred kilos of clean seed potatoes from the lab will produce 1,000 kilos during the first year and up to 10,000 kilos of potatoes in the second year.
Since potatoes are quickly re-infected with ubiquitous potato diseases in Ethiopia, growers must depend upon clean seed coming from the lab every three years to keep their yields up. The clean seed of these improved potato varieties yields three times more than the disease-infested seed commonly used.
The ESFP could achieve sustainability for this project in the future because farmers are now aware of and anxious to buy clean potato seed from the lab, to grow better potatoes, and to store, market and use them.
The next phase of the project concerns what to do with the extra potatoes now being produced. The past practice has been to leave the potato crop in the ground and dig potatoes as they are needed for food. But insects and diseases destroy 50% of the crop left in the soil. With increased production, participating farmers realize that they are able to market part of their crop after feeding their immediate families. However, the market price for potatoes is extremely depressed during the harvest period, and then several months after the harvest, the price for potatoes rises.
The ESFP, with the help of Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture Engineers, has now developed a potato storage method and structure the farmers can easily build on their farms with local materials to protect the crop from field losses.
Also, workshops showing farmers and their wives how to dehydrate potatoes and other vegetables using solar power have attracted over 250 participants. A solar dehydrator can be built with 50 US cents worth of plastic and locally grown bamboo. The dehydrated vegetables can be used to stretch expensive flour supplies, and they can be stored for many years. Farmers’ wives who have participated in these workshops have also helped develop culturally acceptable recipes for the dehydrated vegetables.
As is well known, Ethiopia has had severe famines during years when the rains do not come. If sufficient potatoes and other vegetables are dehydrated at harvest time they can provide a reserve source of nutrition for the farming families during times of failed crops.
Charlie Higgins and a few other former Ethiopian Peace Corps Volunteers continue support and return to visit the farms each year to oversee and audit the progress of the ESFP. So far, the group has raised and distributed about $90,000 to support the production and distribution of clean potato seed over the past six years. Three large US potato growers have been providing funding for the project.
Now, more Ethiopian Group XII Volunteers and families are providing funding and serving as financial, legal and funding advisors for this growing project. So far, the administrative costs have been minimal, less than 1% of the gross donations, which are tax deductible through the Community Foundation of Central Washington. If more funds become available more farmers in other potato growing areas could be helped become not only producers, but also sellers of clean seed. The ESFP is seeking new sources of funding and looking for ideas to help publicize and support the ESFP. For more information, click Ethiopian Sustainable Food Project.