June 1, 2017

On Many Fronts: A Global Battle Against Hunger

From The 2017 mAGazine
By Carol Lea Spence

Reading, writing and... rice. The young girl in the blue cotton dress, her feet clad in dusty sandals, has come to school for all three. At the Kentucky Academy in Ghana, students have learned an important equation: education=food.

Around the globe, hunger is the enemy–of health, of achievement, of development. Without a secure, sustainable food supply that cannot be sundered by an earthquake or a hurricane or social upheaval, without secure ways to store and distribute the food that is grown, and without a steady, healthy diet for its citizens, the future of developing countries is grim.

The solution doesn't lie on one front, nor is there a single answer. Consequently, when University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment faculty and students spread across the globe, they go to tackle one dilemma, hoping that many small actions will add up to solve an overwhelming global hunger crisis.


GHANA: Feeding the Future

Though one of the more developed countries in Africa, Ghana struggles to feed its people. A CAFE team made up of Janet Mullins and Amanda Hege in Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Mark Williams in Horticulture, and Mike Reed and Yoko Kusunose in Agricultural Economics, is addressing part of that problem through a three-year U.S. Department of Agricultural Service grant, Feed the Future.

The 80-student Kentucky Academy, a kindergarten founded by former Dietetics and Human Nutrition Professor Kwaku Addo and his wife Esther in her hometown of Adjeikrom, is ground zero for the plan.

The team is focused on expanding the reach of the school feeding program the college established at the kindergarten, a program aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition while increasing enrollment, attendance, and retention. The grant goals also attempt to increase domestic food production by providing women farmers with production expertise and introducing them to potential markets.

The USDA grant has provided an opportunity for the UK team to broaden the program into schools in Tamale (pronounced TAH-mah-lay) in the northern region. By leveraging existing relationships and assets they've already developed through the academy, the team hopes to create more opportunities for women farmers to raise crops like legumes and maize.

Children line up for mealtime at the Kentucky Academy
in Adjeikrom, Ghana.
Photo provided by Janet Mullins
Local partnerships are vital for long-term success. The CAFE team has joined with Vivian Tackie-Ofosu, an extension child development specialist at the University of Ghana, who has been working with UK in Adjeikrom since 2008 helping to build important relationships and provide training for school cooks, food buyers, teachers, and students. The project director in Ghana is Nashiru Sulemana, a doctoral student at the University for Development Studies, brings to the project a knowledge of the barriers women farmers face in Ghana, as well as a deep understanding of production and post-harvest practices.

Nashiru and another graduate student collected information in Tamale about what kinds of food school caterers use and what kinds of local food they're able to procure.

With the data collected, the team is now concentrating on encouraging food buyers to buy more locally produced foods.

"If you really want to fight hunger, you have to make a difference in poverty," Mullins said. "The focus of the Foreign Ag Service is trying to develop in-country capacity for people to grow their own, so that we don't end up shipping commodities around the world."

HAITI: A Model for Success

Haiti has no barriers to trade. On the surface, that sounds like it would be a good thing for an island nation that regularly faces more than its share of natural disasters. With no tariffs, Haiti is free to, and does, import food from other countries. Neighboring Dominican Republic pours products across the border. The United States also funnels food products into the country. Reed, who aside from his work in Ghana is also involved in Haiti in his capacity as am agricultural economist, said he was surprised when he learned how open the borders are.

"They probably need some protections, some way to stimulate their economy. The policies are not there," Reed said, explaining that when exports pour into a country, there is little incentive or ability to develop a strong domestic agricultural base.

Haiti's farms are small–anywhere from one to five acres. Such small-capacity farming doesn't provide much of a buffer, so exports, hurricanes, earthquakes can all spell disaster to the farmer trying to support a family and put a little money aside for the inevitable rainy day.

When the Foreign Agricultural Service sent out a request for a proposal to build a policy analysis matrix model to help the Haitian agriculture ministry make policy decisions, Reed and agriculture economics doctoral candidates Sheila Sagbo and Didier Alia responded. Though its name sounds complex, the model is a simple one that uses data on production systems and analyzes how inputs transform into outputs.

"In economies like Haiti's, there are always distortions that change things. There might be a tax on fuel that causes a distortion that carries forward, and so that affects agricultural production and the margins that people have in the system," Reed said. "This simple model incorporates those things, so the government can do 'what if' situations. What if we had to change this policy? Or what if we had a construction project that put a road in here? What would be the impacts of those decisions?"

The team focused on four of Haiti's key agricultural commodities: rice, plantain, sweet potatoes, and beans.
Alia, in dark suit, training Haitians on using the model.
Photo provided by Didier Alia.

Sagbo, who came to UK with a Fulbright scholarship, had done similar work in her native Benin. She spent a total of four months in Haiti, working with government officials and training enumerators to collect data on production, profitability, and how current government policy affects profitability in five of Haiti's 10 departments (political divisions much like a province). Overall, the enumerators interviewed 500  producers and 100 transporters, as well as wholesalers, retailers, and processors. They collected data on the costs they incurred, their profits, and the innovations or policies that affected them. The data showed that each department was implementing its own policies, which might differ from those of other departments.

Alia is also from Benin. He has bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physics and a master's in statistics. It was his task to create the model.

"I use metrics as a tool to make informed decisions," Alia said. He explains the process easily, as if it's no harder than adding two plus two.

"With this model, we can assess whether the sectors are profitable, whether it is efficiently managed, where are the bottlenecks and what action can the government take to improve the profitability of any given sector?" he said.

The second component of the project is to build the capacity of Haitians to continue to collect this type of data and to build and update the model on their own. The third component is to raise policymakers' awareness on the importance of using this type of model to base their decisions on scientific analysis.

Using the model, the team found there is strong competition between local and imported rice. The lack of a high tariff on imported rice hurts local farmers trying to make a living. And the problem with plantain, a rising export, often lies with the middleman, who buys from the farmer at a fairly low price, then sells it to European buyers at two or four times what he paid the producer.

Unloading corn from bags into a dump pit at one of the
government silo facilities in Akure, Nigeria, where
McNeill's team had their second training workshop
in March 2010.
Photo provided by Sam McNeill
The UK team presented the completed model and the initial findings to the Haitian government at the end of November.

"We wanted to leave them something they could use forever," Alia said.

NIGERIA: Safe Storage

When Sam McNeill was in high school, the Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation sent his father to work in Thailand for two years.

"I remember seeing all the harvest losses in mangos, papayas, all that wonderful fruit, and they couldn't really preserve it," said the associate extension professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. "That's when I really saw firsthand how extensive food loss can be and the impact it had on local economies."

That early experience formed much of what McNeill has focused on in his career. Since 2009, he, Klein Ileleji, an agricultural engineer from Purdue University, and George Opit, a stored-products entomologist handling and storage methods in Nigeria.

On their first trip, under the auspices of the Foreign Agricultural Service, the team traveled into the northern reaches of Nigeria, passing small holdings of no more than five acres of grain sorghum, maize, millet, soybeans, or cowpea. Maize yields are fairly low, averaging less than 60 bushels an acre.

"They could be a real bread basket, if they could ramp up their production," McNeill said. "And some NGOs are making strides in that direction."

The men toured many of the existing storage complexes where the Nigerian government stockpiles surplus grain with the intent of releasing it during times of insufficient production.

"They had 11 or so at the time. Now they have 33. They have a lot of capacity, but they have not utilized all of those facilities to the fullest extent," McNeill said.

The team determined that training was needed to improve hygiene practices, to eliminate the need for many chemical fumigants, and to reduce worker exposure to pesticides–insects are a problem in equatorial Nigeria's warm climate.

Backed by funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the men develop training materials and have returned 11 times to conduct training sessions.

"They have some challenges in basic handling, because despite the fact that these are modern facilities like you would see in the U.S., grain comes to the facilities in bags," McNeill said.

It puts a lot of responsibility on farmers to dry everything properly before it's bagged. At the storage facilities, workers open the sacks and empty them individually onto conveyors.

"Typically they have 10 100,000-bushel bins. It's a well-laid out plan, buy they haven't grown into the bulk handling system as quickly as they thought they might," he said.

In the past, farmers brought in maize at a higher moisture level than the government-recommended 12 percent, which is safe for proper storage.

Sam McNeill ties a bag of corn. The PICS bags have two plastic liners,
which have to be tied separately to provide an airtight seal. PICS bags
were evaluated with four other treatments to compare their performance
with untreated corn in a 12-month study. Photo provided by Sam McNeill.
"High moisture levels have been one of the problems that has caused spoilage and losses during storage," McNeill said.

Each facility has a dryer, but the dryers aren't used, because they can't be trickle-fed from bags.

Loss is considerable, up to 25 or 35 percent of production. Determined to help Nigerians reduce that figure, the men have trained more than 400 farmers, grain merchants, warehouse managers, extension educators, and processors. They've also held four training workshops in neighboring Ghana, where bags are stored intact in warehouses.

McNeill and Opit's work continues. They are now part of a project led by Kansas State University in Ghana, Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. McNeill and Opit are leading an 11-member team in Ghana. There, they have been testing a team member's low-cost moisture meter, something McNeill said has great potential around the world.

McNeill returned to Ghana in January to conduct another training, this time with the intent of reaching the people who do most of the harvesting of the crops–women.

He has been in Africa so often, the Nigerians he works with kidded him during his last trip, saying they should give him an honorary chieftancy.

"I don't know if I need that, but I never thought I'd hear it," he laughed.

Grain by grain, school by school, farm by farm, CAFE faculty and students are inching the world out of hunger and toward a brighter, more sustainable future.

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