FTF Innovation Lab Field Trips Day 2: Integrating Nutrition into Agricultural Projects
The second day of our field trip exploring USAID’s Knowledge-based Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture & Nutrition (KISAN) Project began with a long bus ride into the foothills of the Himalayas. As our bus weaved higher and higher, the flat, neat rows of the Terai lowlands gave way to terraced hillsides and steep drop-offs. Nepalese living in the hills are at great risk for nutrition-related stunting. Nepalese are traditionally quite short (one of the signs greeting you at the airport proclaims Nepal as home of the world’s tallest mountains and the world’s shortest person), but nutrition-related stunting occurs when children do not receive adequate nutrients, and their height falls more than two standard deviations below the mean height for age. Stunting rates are one of many food security indicators and can be associated with all sorts of nutrition-related illnesses, including reduced cognitive development and a greater risk of infection and illness. One of the main goals of the Feed the Future initiative in Nepal is to reduce the rate of stunting by improving nutrition countrywide. The sites we visited on the second day of our field trip showed what this looks like in practice—smallholder farmers growing crops that they could sell to improve their livelihoods, but also to feed their own families and live healthier, happier lives.
Just like on Day 1, we visited sites associated with the KISAN project. The IPM Innovation Lab runs demonstration sites in the region, and works in partnership with iDE and Winrock International to scale up technologies and practices across the Hill districts of Nepal.
Our first stop brought us to the remote mountain village of Sano Harre where we met with members of the Markets and Planning Commission (MPC) in the Surkha district of Nepal. This particular MPC was named for Kalika, the Hindu goddess of time and change and also associated with empowerment. The name was particularly appropriate since (like the majority of sites we visited on Day 1) all the farms we saw were run by women. This MPC disseminates agricultural information and sells seeds, inputs, and fertilizers to 6 farmers groups, representing 270 women. It also acts as a market hub; around 150 farmers sell their vegetables to a middle-man who resells them in other villages. There were four MPCs all run by the IPM Innovation Lab like this in Surkhet. Before USAID’s intervention and the construction of the MPC, the majority of these farmers grew grains, but now the increased earning potential associated with these new technologies has encouraged them to shift to growing vegetables. The primary horticultural crops farmers sell in this region are tomatoes, cauliflower, and bitter gourd.
After listening to the MPC representatives at their roadside stand, we walked down a narrow mountain path to visit some of the farms themselves. Prior to USAID’s involvement, farmers would grow rice during the rainy season and wheat during the dry. Part of the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab’s agricultural training was to teach farmers how to use drip irrigation. This enabled the women to complement a monsoon season tomato crop with a dry season crop of bitter gourd and cucumber. For a small investment of roughly US$30, women were able to dramatically increase their productive potential. However, they had not yet invested in hoses that could reach all the way to the water source, so the farmers we met had to make due by trucking up to fetch water to fill their reservoirs every other day. One farmer also showed us the modern brick house she was building with her increased earnings—marked change from the mud and thatch home she currently lives in.
Our next and final destination was a KISAN test plot, where women were cultivating both cucumbers and bitter gourd underneath low tunnels. The women proudly told us about the success they’d had with the low tunnels so far, but also provided us with a lot of feedback on aspects of the agricultural system that still needed improvement. They described that in the past they had purchased seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides that are often mislabeled or ineffective. For example, a seed package labelled as chard ended up sprouting spinach, if it sprouted at all. Germination rates are not guaranteed as they are in other parts of the world, and there is little regulation on input quality in general. USAID staff on hand listened attentively and promised to try and do a better job at making sure that quality seed is always available. This face-to-face interaction was an excellent way to close out the trip—recognition that USAID’s interventions are indeed improving the lot of smallholder women farmers and additional insight on how much further there is to go on the path towards a food secure Nepal.
Throughout both days, children in school uniforms curiously followed us about, and some of the farmers held their babies on their hips as they spoke to us. It was a very real reminder of the intended beneficiaries of these agricultural technologies: women and children. Each technology and test plot we saw was implemented with smallholder women farmers and their families squarely in mind. Although all of these projects are relatively young, it was clear that they are already bringing in additional farm income and diversifying families’ diets, according to the anecdotal evidence we heard. And although there are no silver bullets to eradicate food insecurity and stunting, agricultural technology innovations that specifically target women farmers, while considering the nutritional makeup of the crops they produce, is certainly a step in the right direction.