What is an OFSP??

sweet_potatoes_ciford_9-14

Women proud of their sweet potato harvest, at CIFORD Kenya.

OFSP? Orange flesh sweet potato. Or, as I call them, those vegetables that are really tasty baked and topped with butter!

While I’m used to the orange variety of sweet potatoes in North America, in Africa the white or yellow sweet potatoes are much more common. They taste similar but the white and yellow varieties are not nearly as nutritious as the vitamin A/beta-carotene-rich orange ones. It’s only in the last few years that the UN and many others have begun promoting the OFSP as a way to combat malnutrition and disease especially among women and children, who are particularly vulnerable to vitamin A deficiencies. The food we ate in Africa this summer was high in starch, with a few vegetables depending on what was in season – I could see the need for more vitamin-rich foods.

That is why I am happy to report that SIA is working with two partners who are promoting OFSP growth in their communities.

CIFORD Kenya, in Meru, Kenya, has been holding workshops to train farmers in growing, managing, and preparing OFSP. This work in their rural community is designed to both improve food security (ex. people have enough to eat all year) and reduce the environmental degradation of the soil. The CIFORD trainings are include classroom time and also get-your-hands-dirty practical time with farmers being brought to the CIFORD training garden for demonstrations. The OFSP helps protect the soil because its big leaves cover the soil, which reduces run off and erosion.

Many parts of the sweet potato can be used:

  • Vines are used as animal feed
  • The leaves can be eaten as the leafy green
  • The potato root can be boiled, roasted or made into chips, French fries, or flour
Crops planted by Bucece community members along the shores of Lake Mutanda. (Photo by Raising the Village)

Crops planted by Bucece community members along the shores of Lake Mutanda. (Photo from Raising the Village)

Also, Raising the Village has just completed a round of trainings in Bucece Village, Uganda with farmers who wanted to plant the OFSP seeds. OFSP can sell for much higher prices in the market because it is still rare to see them and because people know they provide a health benefit to their diets. The hills around Bucece are very steep and so the OFSP will be important for keeping the soil from running down into the lake.

Hopefully, next time I’m in Uganda I’ll get to try the local OFSP, eating it alongside the steamed bananas, rice, and boiled kale, and peanut sauce. Yum!

Mbwenu, Innovator

Tanya with Mbwenu, Wangwa, and one their sons. Mbwenu heard about the cooperative after moving home and immediately became an active member, including volunteering to be the group’s bookkeeper. The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative was initially started with a Spirit in Action grant in 2009 and now has over 150 members who can save and borrow within the locally-run cooperative structure.

Tanya with Mbwenu, Wangwa, and one their sons. Mbwenu heard about the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative after moving home and immediately became an active member, including volunteering to be the group’s bookkeeper. The cooperative was initially started with a Spirit in Action grant in 2009 and now has over 150 members who can save and borrow within the locally-run cooperative structure.

Sometimes it’s not easy moving home. Once you’ve been out to see the world you look at home through a different lens. “We had a shock,” was the way that Mbwenu and Wangwa described it to me when I visited their home in rural Manyamula in northern Malawi. The couple had gone away to Swaziland to study at a bible college and when they decided to move back to their home village many things were not as they had been in Swaziland. Their four sons now had to learn to live without electricity, and Mbwenu lamented how “it was hard for the boys to get used to the dark.”

Hearing this history it is not surprising that when Mbwenu and Wangwa sought their first low-interest loan from the local Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative (formerly called MAVISALO), they bought a solar-charged light battery and a full solar panel that they put on the roof.

Mbwenu stands proudly next to his solar panel charging station. This battery is charged with the solar energy and can power the lights and appliances in the evening.

Mbwenu stands proudly next to his solar panel charging station. This battery is charged with the solar energy and can power the lights and appliances in the evening.

At this moment in his testimony, Mbwenu snapped on the small battery light for effect, “ahhhh” we all marveled! He became animated as he took us around the room showing the small TV and lights they could have now with the solar panel. There was also a cell phone charging station next to the solar panel battery. I could tell he was the kind of person who liked to figure out these technologies and show off his successful installations.

I was so inspired by my visit with Mbwenu and Wangwa, and it gave me three insights about what makes SIA so great:

1. SIA’s programs are diversified

Mbwenu and Wangwa’s house was nice. It had a cement floor, stable brick walls, and tin panels on the roof. They were clearly not the poorest family in the neighborhood. And because of that they had not received a SIA Small Business Fund grant, which are reserved for the poorest. Instead, they had joined the SIA-supported Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, which gives very low-interest loans and is open to ALL community members, regardless of wealth. There are different SIA tools for each family to benefit.

2. SIA empowers rural communities to thrive

The family is developing their farm and investing in cattle and goats. “The COMSIP Cooperative is a big help,” Mbwenu explained, “we couldn’t buy the solar changing system all at once on our own.” Yet, their small farming enterprises are steady enough to be able to pay back the loan in a timely manner. A solar panel TV and light might be seen as “luxuries” in areas where there is no running water. Yet, these things made it agreeable for the family to move back to their village. And this means that the whole rural community benefits.

Mbwenu holds his son as he explains to the group how his bio-gas tank will work. Cows in the background will supply the manure.

Mbwenu holds his son as he explains to the group how his bio-gas tank will work. Cows in the background will supply the manure. Canaan (left in purple), the SIA contact for the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, was so excited by Mbwenu’s enthusiasm for rural solutions.

3. SIA partners are innovative

The solar panel was just the tip of the innovative iceberg in Mbwenu and Wangwa’s household. He also showed us a bio-gas contraption that uses cow manure to make a cooking gas, and also creates a liquid compost by-product for the farm. At the end of the visit, surrounded by 10 COMSIP Cooperative on-lookers, a little boy, a rooster, and a brood of chicks Mbwenu demonstrated his prototype drip-irrigation garden. He’d seen the technique in Swaziland and was combining new technology with local supplies to create a system that allowed you to “attend a meeting while irrigating the crops.” At the thought of such multi-tasking ability, the group laughed and then began asking questions as they inspected the tubing and bucket.

It was exciting to witness these exciting developments from Mbwenu and Wangwa and see the many ways that SIA is serving and benefiting the people of Manyamula Village.

A crowd of interested cooperative members look on in admiration at Mbwenu's irrigation system. You add water to the buckets at the top of the beds and it slowly releases (through gravity) to water the garden beds.

A crowd of interested cooperative members look on in admiration at Mbwenu’s irrigation system. You add water to the buckets at the top of the beds and it slowly releases (through gravity) to water the garden beds.

Catch a glimpse: See their TV and laugh about watching the world cup in rural Malawi:

The Parable of the Big Idea

A Parable by Tanya Cothran

Once day a young woman had a great idea. She looked out over the lawn that filled the communal space in her apartment complex and realized that the space was being wasted. “No one even uses the lawn, but if we were to use the space to grow vegetables instead of grass many people would benefit,” she thought to herself.

A well-managed farm in Malawi.

A well-managed farm in Malawi.

Her idea excited her so much that she couldn’t help but tell everyone about her vision. She told neighbors and old friends, inviting them to come along and join the movement regardless of their gardening skills.

Excitement was high as a big crowd of volunteers gathered at the first meeting. Groups of people began ripping up grass, turning the soil, and planting seedlings.

The next day people assembled expectantly, looking to the young woman for guidance about what to do next. But the woman, the unassuming leader that she was, admitted she didn’t know anything about farming. “We are all learning together,” she said.

A very small tomato garden in Kenya.

A very small tomato garden in Kenya.

“But who does know about farming?” the crowd asked, turning to look at each other, searching for where to turn next.

Finally, one man in the group came forward saying, “I know about planting and caring for a garden.” He told the people to wait while he assessed the work already done.

The evaluation took a long time. “These plants are took close together and these seedlings are placed in the middle of a creek bed,” said the man. “The ground is too wet.” “These seedlings need to be taken out but that will lead to erosion and flooding now that the grass is all gone.”

Discouraged, the woman slowly worked out a plan with the man who knew. During this time, though, the crowd began to see that the project was disorganized and they were angry and felt misled by the promise of big things to come.

By the time the woman returned, everyone except three people had left. Then slowly the small group, humbled by their experience, began the hard work of removing seedlings, replanting grass, and learning about farming. Together, they decided to start with just a small plot of land for their farm and to wait until they saw the success on the small scale before they invited more people.

Parables are an invitation to see differently. How can this story help you see things in your life and work differently? What is the value of a plan? What are the benefits of an enthusiastic crowd versus a small group of committed people? What is the role of expertise and learning? Is it necessary to start small? What else?

3 Ways SIA Partners are Celebrating Earth Day Everyday

Earth Day celebrations may last over a weekend but what about the long-term? Here are three examples of Spirit in Action partners promoting techniques that benefit the earth and their communities:

Woman in Malawi shows the bounty from her family's farm

Ester shows the bounty from her family’s farm.

1. Intercropping in Malawi

Have you heard about the Three Sisters? Beans, squash, and corn grown together get the blue ribbon in the intercropping category. Corn stalks grow tall, beans use the stalks as bean poles, and squash leaves provide shade that  stunts weeds and locks in the soil moisture. Also, the nutrients in bean plants keep the soil healthy year after year.

More and more people in Manyamula Village are adopting this beautiful combination that is good for the heavily-used farmland and reduces the amount of fertilizer needed. We visited Saul and Ester’s farm in 2011 where we saw their flourishing intercropping of beans and corn.

Saul and Ester are members of the MAVISALO Savings and Loans cooperative and they share and learn with the other 150 group members about intercropping and other sustainable farming techniques.

beans and corn

Beans planted at the base of the corn use the stalks as support.

SIA partners from 5 countries are enthusiastic to try new bio-intensive agriculture methods.

SIA partners from 5 countries are enthusiastic to try new bio-intensive agriculture methods.

2. Ukweli Training Centre in Kenya

Anyone who has met Samuel Teimuge knows his passion for simple methods and technologies that can help people produce more food and protect the environment. At his Ukweli Training Centre in Eldoret, Kenya, local experts show groups of people from all over eastern Africa a sampling of these beneficial technologies. For example:

  • The kitchen garden plots use double-digging (a method of turning the soil before planting) and composting;
  • A chicken pen extends over a fish pond and chicken droppings fall into the water to provide nutrients to the fish, increasing the size of the fish (more about chicken-fish farming);
  • An agroforestry display shows about starting seedlings, and replanting and caring for trees; trees provide shade, fruit, and fencing, and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The poultry house over the fish pond provides plenty of nutrients!

The poultry house over the fish pond provides plenty of nutrients!

Joshua shows off the great crops grown with compost and no other inputs! More food and less expensive to produce.

Joshua shows off the great crops grown with compost and no other inputs! More food and less expensive to produce.

3. Side-by-side Comparisons

With such good results from simple agricultural techniques, why doesn’t everyone take on the methods? Joshua Machinga and his team at Common Ground know that old habits die hard, so they have planted two sets of crops to convince people to change.

The 5-year experiment places crops that use conventional fertilizers next to crops that use rich, organic compost to display tangible benefits of using compost for long-term soil health. The evidence right in front of people is pretty convincing!

*Spirit in Action has a number of resources about composting, double-digging, organizing model farm days, and intercropping available for free. If you would like me to send you any of these materials, please email the SIA office.

Related Articles:

5 Cool SIA-related Things

1. Sharing the Gift: Five groups of women in Malawi received SIA grants in 2009 to start their own bakeries and grocery shops. Then in May 2011 the women chose to honor the gift they had received from SIA by SHARING THE GIFT with Ms. Mickness Msumba also from their village. They contributed flour, sugar and skills to help Mickness open a scone shop. After one year in business Mickness reports that her business is continuing and that the extra income has helped her family become food secure – with food to last through the whole year! What a blessing.

doughnut women

Women selling baked goods in the Manyamula Market.

2. Organic Agriculture in Kenya: Interesting article about the influence of corporations in defining international agricultural aid policy and then some optimism about organic agriculture in Kenya and the work of Grow Biointensive Agricultural Center of Kenya (G-BIACK). Read the article here: http://www.alternet.org/food/155559?page=entire

Faith Naswa smiles in the field of corn

Faith Naswa smiles in the field of corn at Common Group/Pathfinder Academy.

3. Grant Update from Kenya: With the part of the profit from their chicken farm, supported by a SIA Community Grant, Common Ground paid high school fees for Faith Naswa, one of the top ten students at their Pathfinder Academy. Faith is the second student on sponsorship with funding from the poultry project. Faith writes, “When I grow up, I would like to become a lecturer or a lawyer. If I become a lawyer, I will make sure high rate of corruption has reduced. I would like to be honesty, faithful and make our lives better.” Congratulations, Faith!

4. What is a CBO?: Great one-minute video describing a community-based organization (CBO). SIA supports several CBOs through our Community Grants. Watch the video here: http://blog.firelightfoundation.org/2012/06/01/what-is-a-cbo/

5. Inspiration from Del: A quote from Del from his writing Choice is Ours. For more from Del, visit a partial archive of his writings.

I am learning, “the great power of prayer is not in asking, but in learning how to receive.”  Receiving requires acceptance and willing obedience.  It requires us to fasten our gaze on the Christ and let (allow) God to re-make us in His image and perfect pattern.

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