Private Sector Solutions to Sustainable Food Systems
Private sector solutions to sustainable food systems
Climate is changing in unexpected ways. You’ve likely heard about the Cyclone Idai that recently hit Mozambique in 2019. It was the first cyclone on record to blow through the center of the country — an area that is historically out of the cyclone belt. Years ago, the meteorological department in Zimbabwe was able to predict first rainfall by region with 80 percent accuracy. First rains in Chimoio used to fall by the 20th of November, but this year, the rainy season only got going in the second week of January. Periods of drought are getting longer. Climate change isn’t an abstract concept in the future in Mozambique. It’s here. We must adapt. And as an NGO community, we are looking for solutions to agriculture’s toughest challenges. We must design projects that engage the private sector to find long-term solutions that are economically and environmentally sustainable.
As Chief of Party, I’m proud to be a part of one of those projects
The Resilient Agricultural Market Activity - Beira Corridor (RAMA-BC) is a USAID-funded Feed the Future project based in Mozambique. Through demonstration plots and model family farms, we support smallholder farmers in adopting the on-farm practice of intercropping their maize fields with nitrogen-fixing legumes along with minimum tillage. Low-cost perennial and annual plants replenish soil health, repel unwanted pests, like Fall Armyworm and stalk borer, and provide an additional out-of-season source of nutrition for families through beans and green leaves. Minimum tillage and intercropping restore the "soil-carbon sponge" to absorb more rainfall, reduce run-off, and erosion, which, on a macro scale, will restore the broken water cycle and cool the planet through shading and plant transpiration.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about soil health and how it relates to greenhouse gas emissions. As soil degrades, vanishing organic matter releases carbon into the air. Oceans are becoming acidic as they are saturated by carbon dioxide, but ‘hungry’ degraded soil is still the biggest and most cost-effective sink available to sequester carbon and keep it there. Practices like intercropping with legumes increase soil organic matter and carbon as the soil becomes ‘alive’ with microbial activity. No till and intercropping done together is a win-win for farmers and the planet. Farmers’ yield and dietary diversity goes up. The planet wins as carbon is taken out of the atmosphere into the soil, where it stays, as long as sustainable farming continues.
In the face of unpredictable weather, these crops can be a transformative piece in building resilience and household food security, and simultaneously reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.
Here’s where the private sector comes in: Introducing Phoenix Seeds
Phoenix Seeds is a seed producer and distributor, with 260 hectares that they manage internally and through out-growers. Phoenix produces its own seeds, employs local labor and focuses on supporting smallholder farmers, who make up 90 percent of the farmers in the country. Phoenix sells their seeds through village-level agrodealers — a model built on local demonstration plots and the trust of local community members. Phoenix understands that accessible, improved seeds and their ability to demonstrate RAMA-BC’s soil health practices in real-time helps smallholder farmers avoid risk. This is important. Farmers can’t afford trial-and-error growing or supplementary inputs. As Phoenix looks at the future of its business, they understand that climate and conservation agriculture requires changes in the way they market products and services.
Here’s how we are working together to build a more sustainable agricultural system
Phoenix does not receive financial support from RAMA-BC, but a natural partnership has developed over the past three seasons, as Phoenix’s curiosity and interest has been piqued in conservation agriculture practices. Phoenix last season planted 5 hectares of jackbean, a hardy and aggressive nitrogen fixing intercrop, and a new seed product for the cover crop market. Phoenix, also keen to see what works for themselves as a commercial enterprise, have installed a trial that will test the performance of three intercrops as research and development for further developing this new market. Phoenix has also repurposed an old building into a training center, where agrodealers will be trained in minimum till and intercrop approaches, with the intercrop trial also serving as a sounding board for farmer feedback. RAMA-BC is supporting Phoenix with the design of the trial, the production of promotional materials, signs and package inserts to support the ‘bundling’ of intercrops with hybrid or open pollinated varieties of maize seed produced on Phoenix’s farm. This emerging initiative is ahead of the curve as far as Mozambican agriculture is concerned, where there is limited knowledge of these approaches and their benefits. The vision shown by Phoenix’s investment in this technology, which is largely absent in Southern Africa but already proven in other countries around the world, is unique.
Phoenix is intentional about doing trials, learning and adapting, and then rolling out that knowledge and opportunity through their network of agrodealers. By having an integrated approach to agriculture, where improved seeds are ‘bundled’ together with a technological solution that fertilizes the soil and allows the improved seed to maximize its yield potential — without the need for expensive soil acidifying chemical fertilizers — will establish a key niche in Phoenix’s quest to differentiate themselves and insulate the risk experienced by smallholder farmers.
Climate change is here. It brings another layer of complexity to building sustainable food systems around the world. Together we can find the solutions. In this case, the solution is in the crops growing at our feet.