Sunday, July 31, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 17 - 21 (Mozambique)

My assignment ended in a flurry. After the most intense day of training, the lab members were happy to finally relax and take pictures. The translator and I had to get back to work after the brief respite. Final revisions had to be completed so we could leave the lab with the complete documents - more than 60 pages worth for each copy.

My time with the seed lab was over but not the work. USAID volunteers prepare a detailed trip report to document their experience and observations. Some of it could have been written during the weeks with the lab. However, as training outcomes and future recommendations are a large chunk, I waited to provide the most comprehensive information. This probably sounds arrogant, but the mixture of pride and relief at finishing that slog of writing (and realizing what we had been able to accomplish) felt almost akin to turning in my graduate school thesis.

The bumpy trip back to Beira was the first time I had really been on the roads late. It was easier to understand a news piece I had seen where a single highway accident had claimed the lives of 20 people. Chapas (the local transportation) are packed tightly, bicycles and pedestrians do not keep to the shoulder (people drive on the left), and lights on vehicles or streets are pretty rare. Apparently, the general lack of bicycles I had wondered about in Chimoio were a result of road checks discouraging them because of the amount of accidents they caused. And oh, yeah, we also passed a massive wildfire in the bush, which in the States, would have had camera crews swarming, did not even register a comment from my companions in the truck!

My last morning in Mozambique was spent finishing paperwork at the CNFA office in Beira. It was a quick trip to the bank to exchange Meticais for euros and off to the airport. No one in security questioned the bottle of water in my bag, but careful examination of the two bottles of piri-piri sauce was needed. It was probably strange for them to think that something as common as salt in Mozambique would be a souvenir.

Joburg was freezing again, even armed with my coat from the Chimoio market. I did get a nice surprise (and the supreme envy of my aero-engineer-by-training dad) when I got to board my first A380. There were two jet bridges to board the two floors, so those in first and business classes did not have to mix with the riff raff of steerage, er, I mean, economy. Inside it did not look too much different, except the overhead storage bins were impressively deep, and the sides of the plane were so concave that you got a fishbowl effect with the window. Unfortunately, these observations were not detailed enough for the grilling from my Dad, who even suggested I should have lifted a safety card from the seat pocket in front of me for a souvenir!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique)

After oscillating between the inside of the lab and in front of the computer, I was really looking forward to seeing a bit more of Mozambique than just Chimoio. It was my first time in "real" Africa (everyone agreed Morocco doesn't really count). For my final weekend, I wanted to go on a safari!

In its heyday, Gorongosa National Park was the premiere safari destination in Africa. Civil war and poaching caused devastating losses in the wildlife and left the 5000+ sq km (~ 2000 sq miles) riddled with landmines. In recent years, the Carr Foundation and the government - along with other partners, like USAID also - have been working to rebuild the infrastructure and repopulate the wildlife as Africa's largest restoration project.

The public camp was fully booked for several weeks, but luckily, I squeezed into a spot with Explore Gorongosa, the first private venture. I found out why when I arrived. National Geographic was shooting a follow-up on the park after their first film, Africa's Lost Eden (see the link below for the trailer).

Also, lo and behold! E.O. Wilson - Pulitzer Prize winner, the rockstar of entomology, and god among conservationists - just happened to be visiting this remote corner of Mozambique. He and his entourage were on a biodiversity tour. As I was explaining to my physicist husband, this was a bit like having Stephen Hawking in the next camp over pop in for a cup of tea. [As a side note, our college entomology club once drove 2 hours to hear him give a lecture with the words "E.O. or Bust!" emblazoned on the side of the van.] Alas, the poor man (82 years old and going) was pretty worn out with the travel and paparazzi. His packed schedule got thrown out of whack, so in the end, I did not get to meet him or attend his talk. So close yet so far away...

While I didn't a glimpse of E.O., it was a great consolation to see some equally rare creatures! With the short time frame, our game drives were so lucky that I was seriously starting to doubt the guide's claims that some animals were difficult to find. Elephants there are particularly skittish since their interactions with humans have been through the violence of war or unrestricted hunting. We sat and watched elephants twice... even though the previous guests had gone almost a week looking for just one! Even the night viewing was good. A mother lioness and her three offspring were lounging with their bellies full at Casa dos Leões (an abandoned building), a place where they hadn't been seen for 3 years. On a walk, I got props for spotting a hefty Pel's Fishing Owl, apparently quite a feather in the cap for many serious birders. On my final drive, we came across a herd of buffalo, which even the guide hadn't seen since he had started working there.

Gorongosa also has more common creatures, which I still found thrilling. Because of the lack of big predators, the park is abundant with easily viewed smaller animals. Baboons with red bottoms and vervet monkeys scamper in and about the trees. To those fans of The Lion King, the first time one of the numerous warthogs came trotting by, it was really hard not to shout, "Pumbaa!" Gorongosa is absolutely teeming with antelope from the tiny oribi to the almost llama-like waterbuck. There were all the reedbucks, bushbucks, hartebeests, nyalas, and impalas in between.

The diversity of the 10 different biomes within the park make it an attraction for birders as well. I am not one, but I could appreciate the cougals, cranes, vultures, thrushes, and herons, too. My favorite birdy was the lilac-breasted roller. I think this is a misnomer. Ok, yeah, it has a purple chest. But it also has beautiful turquoise bands across its wings that, in flight, flash iridescently like a frickin' morpho butterfly!

After early starts and extended game drives, it was relaxing to come back to the camp. Greeted with refreshing drinks (even Pimm's!), turn-down service in your private tent, and dinner on white tablecloths under a gorgeous view of the stars would make anyone enjoy "camping." The camp was really eco-friendly - including no electricity - without sacrificing luxury. Who would really want to quibble about a bucket shower when one could have afternoon tea and cakes delivered to your hammock?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10 - 16 (Mozambique)

With most of the observations and customer interviews over, the real work began. The lab makes sure that farmers, processers, or retailers know that the seed sold in this region of Mozambique is what the label says it is. For example, the lab does testing to estimate how the seeds from a specific lot or field would germinate and produce healthy seedlings. Here are some of the things I did:

  • Made suggestions to improve the consistency and efficiency of their testing

  • Defined how each step should be done with the resources available - even down to how many times the equipment needed to be cleaned and with what

  • Checked that the testing adhered to - or at least, moved closer to - the international accreditation standards

  • Prepared documents so the lab could improve record-keeping

  • Organized a chain of command to monitor the steps, handle problems, and conduct internal audits

  • Conducted training for all the above

  • Answered questions

...and repeat. For pretty much every regular thing the lab does. Even mundane tasks like how you should handle soil. If it seems like a lot of paper shuffling, it's because the long-term goal of international accreditation requires a paper trail closer to Law & Order or CSI's chain of custody for forensic evidence.

It was a marathon of preparing training materials, working with the translator to get them into Portuguese, doing the actual training, and finishing any revisions. It didn't help that each morning, the rooster outside my room insisted that I get out of bed by 4:00 am. The training schedule became even more intense due to some final interviews with a customer and an unexpected tragedy.

A relative of the senior analyst died suddenly. Mozambicans really respect the time for mourning. Typically, a week of funeral leave is expected with up to a month or two off if the distance is far. Everyone who knows the deceased or even distant relatives go to offer their condolences. Funerals were not an uncommon site in Chimoio. I passed processions (a few open bed trucks with standing room only and a white cross at the head) for 4 different ones just going to and from the lab. It is telling that, hearing a relative of mine died recently at 51, the people in the lab considered it a ripe old age.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5 - 9 (Mozambique)

The regional seed lab in Chimoio (my host organization) is actually responsible for all testing in Manica and nearby provinces. The entire lab is just seven people, who really have their hands full trying to keep up with the analyses, certificates, and field inspections. In the past, FAO and DANIDA have provided support, but funding has come to an end. My assignment includes providing technical assistance to help them best use their limited resources and improve the quality and consistency of their results.

My first full week I was observing the lab's practices, learning about their current protocols, and generally inventorying their current situation and resources. They have been very patient with my one-on-one interrogations, which could be nerve-wracking without knowing what to expect. Later in the week, we met with some of their customers (seed companies, retailers, and growers/producers) to interview them and get feedback about the lab's services.

The lab is actually located on the grounds of one of its customers. Originally part of SEMOC (Sementes de Moçambique, the only seed company in Mozambique before 1999), the lab now operates under the Ministry of Agriculture. The perks of being at the site were SEMOC letting us tour the processing/conditioning plant (I was told over a handful of seed, “Here, you can smell the insecticide [seed treatment]!”) and use of the canteen.

The lady in the semi-outdoor kitchen prepares a couple of options everyday. Notable dishes were Zambezi-style chicken in a peanut and coconut sauce and a whole, fried mackerel with a side of pinto bean-kale stew. Accompaniments are a huge pile of rice or giant lump of nsima, the southern African version of … grits! Yes, in various states of congealment, this is a major staple in the diet. According to the translator, Mozambicans prefer a more refined version compared to more “grit”-like Zimbabwean style. It seems to go pretty well with the piri-piri sauce and stays steaming hot, an added bonus when dining al fresco on a cool day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 2-4 (Mozambique)

Bright and early we headed into the interior to Chimoio, about 205 km away from Beira. The EN6 was pretty busy - and potholed - since it links Zimbabwe to the port in Beira. Coastal plains gave way to brushy hillsides and worn mountains. Tiny stands sell hanging bunches of bananas, pyramids of oranges, stalks of sugarcane, or sacks of charcoal roadside.

Chimoio is the capital of Manica province and my base for the assignment. Arriving so close to the weekend, after introductions to my translator and my host organization, as well as a tour of the facilities, the rest of the day was spent settling into the place.

Chimoio's morning chill can sometimes threaten to merge seamlessly into the evening cool. Fighting a cold as I arrived, I finally admitted defeat for the sweater I brought. I had my eye on a used, Quicksilver jacket - which was overpriced for my foreigner looks - in the town's open market, but my translator wisely steered me to another, quite serviceable option... and really, for 50 Meticais (~1.80 USD), who can really complain?

Shoprite, located on the outskirts of town, was another shopping experience. A western-style supermarket, it is probably ten times the size of our local Dia in Barcelona. Advised to stock up on provisions there since it is cheaper than other shops, I was surprised at how expensive many of the items actually were. For example, a box of juice that normally runs me 0.80 euros is 85 Meticais (~ 3 USD).

My translator - and by extension, a couple of his friends and his son- watched out for me on the weekend. In town, we meandered through people's yards, then linking up to the path to nearby Cabeça do Velho (Old Man's Head in Portuguese, the language leftover from its colonial days). The granite mountain is like the profile of a man's face if he was lying down and looking up at the sky. In the rainy season, apparently, the water even streams from his eyes so he appears to be crying. We passed some wandering goats, women doing washing, and scraggly, greyish cacti on the way up. It was really windy at the top - probably a strain for the religious man chanting there-, but the views across the surrounding landscape were great.

Pleasing my mom and taking in the cultural experience, too, I went to church on Sunday. The small cathedral was packed with many overlapping shoulders (Mozambicans seem to worry less about maintaining personal space). I almost missed the offering, which required clambering over my neighbors to drop it in front of the altar. The music was much more enjoyable than in Spain - which leans toward a more unapproachable, operatic and organ-heavy style. The choir had a really nice call-and-response thing going, and drumming and clapping made the mass upbeat and joyous.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 0-1 (South Africa and Mozambique)

Twenty-two hours after starting my journey, I arrived... in the same time zone. This strange fact was a little difficult to wrap my head around. I almost would have preferred the jet lag. At least, it's a more plausible excuse for the weariness and disorientation of extended periods of time stowed in coach's upright and locked position.

Leaving the heat and humidity of Barcelona's summer, a southern hemisphere winter smacked me full in the face upon arrival in Johannesburg (South Africa) airport. At a nippy 34F/1C, other passengers in this way-station were bundled in blankets and an abundance of fleece. I watched a better prepared bulky woman shrink before my eyes as she shed layer after layer going through security. If you came ill-equipped, the airport had a high-end outdoor clothing and shoe company with stacks of floppy hats and zip-off trousers for those headed on safari. Other stores, like a butcher selling an assortment of bush meat jerky and a home decor shop where you could buy a real zebra skin rug, were easy reminders you were now really in Africa.

Mozambique, thankfully, is a tad bit warmer. Coming into Beira, Mozambique's largest port and second largest city, I swear I saw a crocodile in the shallows of the Pungue River. The fine folks from CNFA Mozambique came to meet me (and helped sort out getting the change back from my visa). After a briefing at the local office, there wasn't much day left to see Beira itself. I did manage to enjoy my dinner of grilled chicken with a side of piri-piri (the hot chili sauce that seems to come to tables here as regularly as salt and pepper) at a restaurant playing Mozambican music.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Introduction

A long time ago and in a city thousands of miles away... One of my professors at N.C. State related some of her work in class with berry growers in Latin America. Keen to mix my interest in agriculture and love of travel, I asked her how I could get involved in similar work. She revealed it had been as a volunteer with USAID's (U.S. Agency for International Development) Farmer-to-Farmer program.

Farmer-to-Farmer (or FTF) is not your average volunteering program and definitely not agri-tourism. A volunteer will spend upwards of two weeks in a developing country working on a specific project which has been identified to strengthen the local agriculture. The projects can be anywhere along the value chain from growers/production to post-harvest processing to the business side in finance or strategic planning.

I duly filled out profiles with the organizations who coordinate FTF - different ones for different parts of the world - and submitted my application to various postings. It never worked for me. I should mention that FTF is more targeted in that volunteers have years of experience so they can confidently consult on, say, "Vegetable Oil Expeller Design and Construction" or "Market Development and Promotion of Soy Products" - real assignments if you know anyone! Likely, being fresh out of grad school wasn't enough to make the cut.

With a few years under my belt, and the looming luxury of a European summer vacation allowance, I started trying again. Incredibly, CNFA - who coordinates FTF in Southern Africa- was looking for a Seed Lab Specialist! This, of course, was just the nice niche of agriculture I was working in previously, and therefore, a fantastic opportunity to transfer some of that knowledge. I applied and was accepted, got poked and prodded by the doctor, filled out the requisite paperwork, and tried in vain to assuage some of my parents' fears (Rich is 100% supportive as always... and Pepper doesn't know any better). I will be here nearly 3 weeks, and you can follow me in this ongoing series from my assignment in Mozambique.

To learn more about the Farmer-to-Farmer program, visit the USAID and CNFA websites: