12 October, 2014

Milk and coffee

Global Agenda: Coffee/tea break
Read here how I travelled from Tanzania to Nicaragua to find the raw inputs for my café au lait, supervising young researchers studying innovation platforms along the way.

Milk and coffee

Photo: ILRI/Susan Macmillan

01 September, 2014

I get by with a little help from my friends

Last Sunday, I travelled across France and deep into the Southern Alps mountain range to the tiny village of Glandage where I am enrolling into a social experiment.

A batch mate from my agricultural development economics MSc has settled down there with her husband and children after many years spent working in Bolivia. They have started a farm on a small plot of land in a narrow mountain valley where they grow old forgotten varieties of vegetables. They also have plans to produce lamb. However, to have a sizable flock, they need more land, which they could not afford to buy with their current capital. Rather than going to the bank to request a loan, they have decided to constitute an agricultural land group with 45 of their friends. This is a legal framework in France (Groupement foncier agricole) that is relatively rare. It allows several individuals to create a group to own agricultural land collectively and decide in a collective manner how to manage it. Co-ownership is very common for buildings in French cities; this is likewise co-ownership of agricultural land. In this case, my friends Christophe and Margot would become our farm tenants and the lease contract would specify that they are allowed to use our land to graze sheep and cut wood.

The land the group is planning to buy is currently on a very steep slope and unused. It is thus slowly and naturally becoming forested, which does not make it useful for agriculture. The plan of the co-owners and their farmer, once all the legal procedures are over, is selectively to cut trees on the land so that it opens up and becomes suitable for natural pasture grazing by the ewes and their lambs.

There is no economic incentive for the grouped land owners. On the contrary, we decided on Sunday that the contract creating the group should specify that individual investors should not expect to sell their share of the common land at market value! So what are the motivations of the land's co-owners? Among those that were voiced at the group meeting this Sunday: to help out friends who want to settle as farmers and make sustainable use of under-utilized agricultural land; to engage in a model of common ownership of land that is different from the more common individual property model; to allow Margot and Christophe to see people from time to time as they launch group activities on their very remote farm, etc.

I say it is above all a social experiment because every year, the farmers will invite the land co-owners for a lamb barbeque accompanied by the farm's vegetables. We had a wonderful communal feast last Sunday. We were invited to bring a drink or some dessert. So in addition to the lamb and vegetables, we had locally brewed beer, delicious wines, freshly plucked apples and pears, cakes galore and a selection of handicraft chocolates prepared by a local couple with cocoa beans they selected themselves in Ivory Coast. I can also tell you that the lamb meat was delicious! I have no doubt that Christophe and Margot will manage to find a good and remunerative market outlet for their naturally grazing mountain lambs.

With a little help from my friends
Beatles, Sgt Pepper's lonely hearts club band, EMI 

27 August, 2014

Auf Wiedersehen

Song farewell to Signe Nelgen When two agricultural economists bid farewell to another agricultural economist colleague, they don't write mathematical equations, they sing!
At least, that's what my colleague Nils Teufel and I did to say goodbye to our fellow colleague Signe Nelgen who left Nairobi a few weeks ago to relocate in Washington DC. We surprised her with a special farewell song I adapted from Mozart's Magic Flute and gave her husband and her some African animal mini-totems to protect them along the way.

All present contributed food and portable chairs; another colleague had even brought their BBQ! It was a great farewell party.

Drei Knäbchen trio
Zauberflöte, W.A. Mozart, RIAS Kammerchor & René Jacobs, Harmonia mundi

Photo: ILRI/Eliza Smith

03 August, 2014

When Joyce washed all our troubles away

You would imagine that the Maasai women of Olepolos village in Southeast Kenya would be blessed by living just underneath Mount Kilimanjaro.

Unfortunately, that was not the case as far as access to water was concerned. Until recently the women in the village had to hike a 30-km round trip up the mountain to the forested slopes on the Tanzanian side of the border to collect fresh water from a stream. But yesterday was a happy day in the village as it saw the inauguration of a water bore hole constructed by Water is Life Kenya thanks to co-funding from the Rotary Foundation (Rotary Clubs of Muthaiga, Kenya, and Dover Colonial, USA).

I was privileged to be invited by Joyce Tannian, Director of Water is Life Kenya, to the opening ceremony of the new bore hole. I know Joyce from singing together in the Nairobi Music Society choir, so it was very interesting to discover that water management was another important side of her life. The ceremony featured songs, dances and lots of speeches! Joyce sang and got rewarded with a complete beaded Maasai dress and numerous bead necklaces strung by the Maasai women of the village. The representative of the Muthaiga Rotary Club, Wafula Nabutola, got a live goat! After four hours' road drive from Nairobi to the town of Oloitoktok, another hour of dusty, hilly and pot-holed tracks up Kilimanjaro to reach Olepolos village, and over two hours and a half of official ceremony, it was very comforting to be served an enormous plate of simple but heartening and nutritious food: rice, braised cabbage, two pieces of goat meat, three pieces of chapati, a quarter avocado, half a banana and a slice of orange.

Water is Life Kenya has drilled a water borehole; it is connected to a cistern, which in turn feeds water into two taps. The project also delivered additional separate men's and ladies' latrines, and a livestock water trough. The villagers and Joyce told us how this infrastructure had revolutionized life in the village. Although the women are still lugging jerrycans of water on their heads and backs, they do not have to walk as far to get it as before. This frees up a lot of their time which can be put to more productive use.
Furthermore, the bore hole has now become an active community site where news is exchanged and business transactions concluded. Two women have set up stalls to sell produce there; another sells hot tea and cooked food. An entrepreneur has even erected a hut for a small grocery store next to the bore hole taps. The water bore hole has thus transformed a dry savanna spot into a vibrant community site.

However, more infrastructure development is still needed: the community still lacks electricity and a tarmac road. As we left the village, everybody told us to take the tarmac road back to Oloitoktok to avoid eating more dust. We were all surprised as we had not been told about this road to get to the site. The village chief directed us along a dirt track straight up the mountain and then announced: "We are now in Tanzania!" This is where we found a beautiful tarmac road going through the lush forested slopes of Kilimanjaro just ten kilometers away from the dry and dusty landscape we had just left in Kenya. My fellow Kenyan travelers from the Muthaiga Rotary Club were amazed by the large forest plantations and by the good quality of the road network in this remote area. When we crossed the border again, the sign "You are now entering Kenya" was followed immediately by the tarmac road's disappearance, replaced by yet another dusty and pot-holed track. It really did look greener on the other side...

Oh happy day
Edwin Hawkins Singers, Oh happy day, the power of gospel, NPL

If you invest your tuppence... you'll be part of plantations of ripening tea, tanneries!

Discover the linkages between finance and the livestock industry in developing countries by clicking here.

Fidelity Fiduciary Bank
From the original soundtrack of the film Mary Poppins, Walt Disney Video

Photo: ILRI

02 July, 2014

I'll state my case, of which I'm certain

Two weeks ago I went to a conference in Cape Town to present some of the work I do on identifying African success stories of agrifood marketing chains that are inclusive of smallholder farmers.

I was put on the spot there by an unexpected question in a plenary session of the conference. Not satisfied with the response I gave, I had the opportunity to think more about it during my solo ascension of Table Mountain: 2 hours up from the city side, 20 minutes sandwich lunch break on the summit with the two-oceans view from Maclear's Beacon and 3 hours down into the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens.

The result: read about why I have gone into agriculture and agribusiness here.

My way
Frank Sinatra, My way the best of Frank Sinatra, Reprise

18 June, 2014

Adapted to these models

Thai partners from the Humidtropics North Thailand R4D platform discuss possible sources of secondary data to help characterize the agrifood system in Naan Province, Thailand
Read how I had to adapt my scientific methods to the interest of our local partners in Thailand and Cameroon here.

The Weeknd, Kiss land, Motown Universal

Photo: ILRI/Jo Cadilhon

13 June, 2014

It's so warm here and this heat gets me down

Read here on how I nearly melted away from undertaking fieldwork in the arid drylands of North Senegal.

Something cool
Jane Monheit, The lovers, the dreamers and me, Concord Music Group

11 June, 2014

I sing like a crooked seahorse

Last week on Tuesday evening I had invited five fellow Greenwood Singers to rehearse a piece by Monteverdi where we are all soloists: Zara Benosa, Angela Muriithi, Diane Skinner, Josh Harper and Steve Machell. We started the rehearsal some time after 7pm, all sitting round my dining table. My objective was to have the singers get familiar with the whole piece and I privileged trying to run through the different sections of the piece several times. I was deliberately overlooking the still many small mistakes individual singers were doing here and there. I could tell by their looks that they were surprised by my lack of attention to detail. A bit before 8pm we moved to stand around the piano to benefit from some accompaniment played by Josh and started racing through the piece. At 8pm I had to answer a short phone call, moving out onto the balcony to hear the person on the other side. We kept on racing through the Beatus vir and were only starting the final section of the piece when the doorbell rang...

Meanwhile that same evening, veteran Greenwood Singer Jo Parson and her husband Jon had left their children under the guard of a trustful nanny to enjoy their first evening out at a friend's apartment in Westlands. Jo and Jon were still in the midst of settling all their various undertakings before moving out of Kenya. This was going to be a welcome break from the stress of closing shop after so many years spent in Nairobi. As they left home, Jo sent a text message to her host to ask for precise directions. She got no reply. So when nearing Westlands, she called her host to ask for directions. During the call she could hear music in the background. She thought: "How pleasant: he has music playing for us to enjoy when we arrive. Strange how it sounds like live music though." When Jo P rang at the door of Jo C, she could distinctly hear the singing on the other side and she told Jon: "I think we've been set up."

After the initial surprise from both sides, what followed was usual Greenwood Singers fare. I had prepared vegetable antipasti, spaghetti al pesto, a platter of Kenyan and European cheeses and a spiced pineapple. There was wine of three colours to go with the food. While we enjoyed all the food, the eight of us had hilarious conversations on three innocent ladies and an unfortunately named man in a church, breast feeding in public, Princess Lea and Yoda, inflatable boobs and Indian curries in America. At the end of the evening we still had a lot of work to do on the Monteverdi sextet, but everybody had had a wonderful time and was in an uplifted mood.

I'm surprised
Owls, Two, Polyvinyl records

Photo: Tetsumo

PS: Greenwood Singers' concert happened last night to a rapturous full house at the British Council in Nairobi.  

14 April, 2014

Nie hab ich so etwas gehört und geseh'n!

Having a week end to spend in the Netherlands between two European missions, I decided to base myself in the small city of Leiden in South Holland. It was close to Schiphol airport and there was a direct bus to the Keukenhof flower garden. It was the full blooming season at the Keukenhof and I enjoyed all the colourful tulips and other bulb flowers on display.

But I was just as pleased by my stay in Leiden, which has kept its medieval and Renaissance architecture. It is so small it can be visited comfortably on foot. The city museum had wonderful Dutch masters on display. I stayed in a delightful apartment in a quiet road in the old quarter of the city, close by to many sights and to lots of restaurants preparing delicious food. I am really impressed by how the quality of Dutch cuisine has improved in the past years. There are lots of restaurants now proposing gastronomic meals at reasonable prices, with a wine list carefully selected to go with every dish. I got to share such delicious food with Birgit Boogaard, formerly a sociologist at ILRI but now starting a new career in art!

As for the music, my host's CD collection kept me entertained all the time I was in the apartment. And one of the churches nearby had a chiming carillon every fifteen minutes. At 13.00 every day, it played a chorus from Mozart's Magic flute, which I had sung with Bangkok Opera. This stay has also brought back great memories from the past.

Das klingelt so herrlisch
Zauberflöte, W.A. Mozart, RIAS Kammerchor & René Jacobs, Harmonia mundi

13 April, 2014

The talk of the crop at every county fair

Hanging maize ears, Yunnan Province, China
Read about how I uncovered the inconvenient secrets of the maize value chains of mountainous Son La province of Northwest Vietnam here.

Corn star
Craig Morgan, This ole boy, Black river records

Photo: Michelle DeFreese/CIMMYT

24 March, 2014

Doo-doodlee-doo-doo, it's time for bacon

two pigs on a motorbike
Read about what I learned on the sustainability of pig value chains in South Vietnam by interviewing a pig farmer, a pig slaughterer and a government official here.

Hoops & Yoyo and Parry Gripp, One donut a day, Oglio

Photo: Kathryn Aaker

07 March, 2014

Working coast to coast, sleeping on a train and on the road again

River, Rocks, Moss, Mountain, Sea, Skógar to Pörsmörk, Iceland
I have travelled recently from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean to visit Postgraduate students working with smallholder dairy farmers. Read about it here.

Mountains to the sea
Mary Black, Stories from the steeples, Blix Street 

Photo: Dan Silver

17 February, 2014

When the sun is coming up and you go

I have just been travelling with my parents on a safari around Mount Kenya for eight full days. It was a great opportunity to see lots of wild animals in various natural habitats of Kenya. We went looking for the classic "big five" animals in the arid savanna of Samburu national reserve and saw three of the big fives there: lions, leopards and elephants. We stayed in the all-comfort Elephant Bedroom tented camp along the Ewaso Nyiro river which flows through the park. Apart from the delicious full-course meals served three times a day, my highlight there was watching the wild elephants going through our camp on their way to the river and this young bull who seemed to have found his home there.

During the rest of the trip we were staying in self-catering lodges inside national parks or just outside. This was an opportunity for my father and our guide-driver Douglas Nagi to test my and mother's cooking skills. We also had to plan regular supermarket and market stops along the way to stock up on food; we would then argue on what to buy given our large appetites but limited-sized cool box and the possibility of not finding a fridge or electricity at our destination. (If market sellers in Isiolo and Nanyuki seemed used to foreigners shopping for fresh produce, the small butcher on the road to Meru was quite surprised to see foreigners stop by for 1kg of beef. But he nonetheless chopped a chunk off from the half-cow carcass hanging down in his shop; it went into a bœuf bourguignon stew that evening.)

The 3000m-high Rutundu log cabin up in the moors of Mount Kenya national park had neither electricity nor fridge. But the chilly outside temperatures made a refrigerator unnecessary. Oil-fueled storm lamps and clever solar-powered stand lamps lighted our short evenings. Most of our nighttime was actually spent sleeping. This was a charming change from the usual car-bound hot and dusty African safari experience: invigorating cold mountain weather, steep mountain hiking up to 3500m, keeping warm by the fire place.

Our final stop was in the semi-arid Meru national park where we spotted the last two of our big fives this week: rhinoceroses and Cape buffaloes. Compared with Samburu, the savanna looked very much greener, denser and bushier which made it much more difficult to spot animals.

This trip also allowed me to discover the man-made agricultural landscapes of the country where I now live in. Central Kenya seen from the main road struck me as a succession of smallholder plot agriculture and large-scale farming. Enormous pineapple, coffee and timber tree plantations cover the plateau north of Thika. These are followed by a smallholder-size multi-cropping system which gives a lush green landscape from the plateau of Wamumu up to the steep hills around Nyeri. The staple crop of this system is clearly maize judging by all the maize I saw in the plots along the road. The road stalls and hawkers display the produce of associated market gardening: banana, taro, mango, papaya. Further North, large grazing fields hold dairy cows and other small livestock south of Nanyuki. The Northern slopes of Mount Kenya were the most striking to me with their immense fields of wheat, barley, sunflower and canola; it was not at all a landscape I had expected to find along the Equator in Africa. Roadside stalls and hawkers again showed off the locals' garden produce: potato, carrot, tomato, pepper and other temperate vegetables. The arid scrubland North of Isiolo can only be used as grazing for large herds of livestock tended by colourfully-clad Samburu men and boys. The half-day road trip from arid Samburu to semi-arid Meru was surprising to me because we had to pass through the lush and temperate Nyambeni Hills with more smallholder maize and very green home gardens of fruit trees and vegetables.

There was lots to see along the roads of Central Kenya.

On the road
Keane, Strangeland, Universal-Island Records Ltd

16 February, 2014

ILRI on the cover of a magazine

Dairying in Bomet District, Kenya
Well nearly...
A story on grouping smallholder farmers into dairy marketing and service hubs is featured on p100 of Kenya Airways' February Msafiri in-flight magazine.

Madonna, I'm breathless: music from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy, Sire

Photo: ILRI/Paul Karaimu

29 January, 2014

So if there's one thing that I could say

Collecting books for readers in the reserve stacks, 1964
Read about the main lesson I have learned from facilitating a writeshop to synthesize mountains of data and reports into a 50-p report involving multiple authors: identify the key messages.

One thing
Stan Walker, From the inside out, Sony music entertainment

Photo: LSE Library

'S marvelous! 'S awful nice! 'S paradise!

Hands of a harpist
The Nairobi Music Society gave its Christmas concert beginning of December with the Nairobi Orchestra. I was singing in the choir. Here are my three highlights from the concert:


In the Ceremony of carols by Britten there is an interlude for solo harp when the choir was allowed to sit down to rest. I sat in a choir pulpit right in front of the harpist and was enthralled by the graceful movement of her hands on the instrument.

Awfully nice

In the Benedicite by Carter we were all charmed by the excellent diction of the children’s choir that sang with us. Despite standing from behind, we still managed to understand the delightful story of all the terrapins, dromedaries, ferrets, squirrels, badgers and hedgehogs that bless the Lord.

Throughout most of the concert a small girl kept dancing at the other end of the church from us, framed by the main West door. It was a very poetical and danced interpretation of our live singing.

These are some of the wonderful things that can happen at a concert by the Nairobi Music Society.

'S wonderful
Sarah Vaughan, Gershwin brothers, 'S marvelous - the Gershwin songbook (Disk 2), Universal music division classics jazz

Photo: Garry Wilmore

Said goodbye, turned around, and you were gone, gone, gone

I was thrilled last Sunday when I bumped into an old friend completely by chance.

I was in Hanoi for work and my collaborator Nguyen Thi Tan Loc from the Fruit and Vegetable Research Institute took me out for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. She probably wanted to give a rest to her stomach in preparation for the straining eating bonanza of the lunar new year next week.

And there in that very small restaurant of the Vietnamese capital was Marilyn Wang, having lunch with a friend of hers. I had lost track of Marilyn four years ago.

Hugs!I had met Marilyn in 2002 when I was doing research in Ho Chi Minh City. Marilyn was a great food and music companion of mine: we regularly went out to restaurants, concerts, salsa dancing and had karaoke evenings to sing together. We used to have lots of fun. The last text message I got from her in 2010 was a bit surreal. I was on the top of a mountain peak on her family's ancestral Hainan province of China with my brother so I texted her to announce our climbing feat. She replied informing me that she was leaving Vietnam. I asked her to keep in touch but no more news since then...

So we were both overjoyed to find each other again. Unfortunately, we did not get the chance to speak much this time because we were both busy with others but I really look forward to my next trip to Hanoi for great food and music together with her.

See you again
Carrie Underwood, Blown away, Arista

Photo: Dave 77459