Update on Rotary's Million Dollar Dream

A year into the project, Rotary and World Vision had so far established 31 irrigation projects and 33 seed banks versus goals of 50 each, and work continues. The initial rounds targeted 1,350 smallholder farming families, with 1,375 actually enrolled and work continuing to reach the ultimate goal of 4,000 families. Annual family income was raised from $250 to $1,600 in just the first year, with the final goal of $3,500 appearing to be achievable. The full, final report submitted to the Rotary Foundation can be downloaded here.

Four of the twenty-five smallholder associations receiving Rotary seed and fertilizer are located near the village of Cantao 4. When we visted on 18 June 2009, we saw one of these groups planting seed potatoes that are intended to produce even more seed. The process is called seed multiplication, and requires a higher degree of technical skill and resources than producing and selling potatoes for human consumption.

Women working the fields with infants tied to their backs are a very common sight in Angola

One plot had already been planted during the previous season, and was nearly ready for harvest. That plot belonged to the leader farmer for the village, who had gone through World Vision's training program. Using other seed and fertilizer, he had run tests, determined which seed variety and fertilizer application level was optimal, and demonstrated proper cultivation techniques to others in his group.

Gravity-driven irrigation is essential to dry season potato cultivation in Huambo. Only villages located near a year-round source of water -- usually groundwater from a natual spring -- can participate in the Rotary program.

Now, it was time for the rest of the group – 24 smallholders in all – to plant their crops. The ground on the first plot was already prepared, neatly furrowed by smallholders working mostly with sharpened bamboo sticks. There's no money yet for steel hoes or other basic farming implements.

All 24 smallholders work as a team at planting and harvest time. About half the group moves through the plot, applying fertilizer. In the dry season, when the fields are irrigated, fertilizer is applied once. But when they plant in the rainy season, additional applications are sometimes necessary.

The men of the association move through the first 10 meter by 10 meter plot, spreading Rotary fertilizer

Then the rest of the group lays the potato seeds and closes the furrows. Working together, it takes them about half an hour to finish the first plot. Then, they move on the second, and third, an so on until everyone's plot has been planted.

The women follow up, carefully placing the potato seed, and later closing the furrows

Each smallholder recieves 100 kilograms of potato seed and 50 kilograms of fertilzer from Rotary. That's one sack of fertilizer and about four milk crate-sized containers of seed. Logistics are daunting in Huambo, where only major highways are paved and few secondary roads are even properly graded or maintained. World Vision used SUVs – Toyota Land Cruisers, mostly – to bring in the seed and fertilizer. It's not the most efficient way to do it, but sometimes it's the only way available.

There are three limiting factors to development work generally, and to our ongoing joint project in Huambo in particular: transport, trained personnel and resources. The Rotary Club of Luanda (District 9350) and 34 clubs from Rotary District 5230 in California are providing some of the necessary resources. The European Union and World Vision are providing training and a core team of expert staff. Transportation to and from the villages is managed by the associations where they can and by World Vision staff where they can't.

The plots in this village are ten meters by ten meters, something like the size of a tennis court. In other villages, the typical smallholding might be twice as big. Size depends on soil fertility: the more fertile and productive the soil, the smaller the plots and the more people can make a living at farming in a given village. In Cantao 4, the soil is more fertile than usual, so more smallholder associations can be supported.

The first village association in Cantao 4 to receive seed and fertilizer from the Rotary Club of Luanda (D-9350) and clubs from District 5230 in California

For the next few months, each association member tends to his or, more commonly, her plot. Come harvest time, they'll work more as a team again, both for harvesting and marketing the produce. Although Rotary is providing the potato seed for free, the fertilizer is a loan. Half the yield from this first round of planting in Cantao 4 will be paid into a community seed bank. Each smallholder, on average, will produce enough seed to fund two more new farmers in the next planting season. The other half of the crop belongs to each smallholder individually, with most of it sold for cash, but some held back for their own use.

Rotary potato seed and fertilizer means cash crops for sustainable commercial farming

Smallholders who have generated some cash will be able to buy more fertilizer the next time around. Others will have to depend on microfinance projects backed by the Angolan government, the European Union and World Vision. The objective is to make commercial farming sustainable for the 75 village associations (25 in the first round, and 50 more in the second) that Rotary is backing.

The Rotary Club of Luanda (District 9350) and the clubs of District 5230 in California are literally providing seed money for more than 4,000 families in Huambo. They can now begin to produce potatoes on a commercial basis, and lift themselves and their villages out of extreme poverty. The objective is to create a self-sustaining agricultural economy by offering training, technical assistance, access to markets and two essential and basic inputs: seed and fertilizer.

Potatoes are grown and sold in Huambo, but production and quality levels are low. A primary reason is that the local variety of potatoes -- Boa Nova -- works well enough for subsistence farming, but is ill-suited for commercial production. Endemic plant disease has decimated local stocks as well. As a result, most of the harvest is too small for market. In field trials, with no added fertilizer, the local Boa Nova variety yielded only 400 kilograms of marketable potatoes per hectare, compared to 1,890 kilograms per hectare for the improved Romano variety.

Locally grown Romano potato seed from the Chilela warehouse

Another reason for low yields is the lack of fertilizer. We were told many times that fertilizer is gold in Angola. The field trial results tell why: with fertilizer, local variety production increased to 3,190 kg of marketable potatoes per hectare, while the marketable yield of the improved variety jumped to an amazing 9,360 kg per hectare.

Planting the local variety of potato without fertilizer produces poor results

Rotary is providing Romano seed and that of a second improved variety, Fontane. Both varieties have been tested in Huambo, and are open source. In other words, the varieties are not owned by any particular company, and can be re-grown and multiplied freely.

World Vision has selected 25 local agricultural associations to receive it. To qualify, association land had to be suitable for gravity-fed irrigation, members had to complete training in planting, growing and storage techniques, and storage facilities had to be available or built.

A total of 1,350 smallholder farmers were selected from these 25 communities. Each are now receiving 100 kg of the improved seed and 50 kg of fertilizer on average, with harvests expected to begin in October. The seed is provided free, but the fertilizer is technically a loan. Come harvest time, these smallholders will repay the loan by giving half of their crop to their association's seed bank. Of the remaining half, they'll keep some for their own use and sell the rest, generating money that can be used to support their families and buy more fertilizer.

Fertilizer is good as gold, and more needful, in Angola

World Vision purchased the seed and fertilizer locally, through the "Club of Potato Seed Multiplies of Ekunha." These are farmers who were trained in an earlier program in potato seed multiplication techniques. They receive certified seed from Europe, multiply it on a commercial scale on their local farms, and store it in purpose-built warehouses. The Ekunha club was the winning bidder for a seed and fertilizer contract that World Vision advertised competitively in the Huambo area. The club sourced the fertilizer from an Angolan manufacturer on a wholesale basis, and re-sold it to World Vision.

On Wednesday, 17 June 2009, we visited the fertilizer warehouse in Caala, and one of the club's seed storage facilities in Chilela. The fertilizer is neatly stacked in a separate, locked area. It is controlled, distributed and tracked using inventory control procedures required by the European Union and the U.S. government for their aid programs.

Rosalino Neto (RC Luanda, D-9350) reviews fertilizer inventory control with Horacio Sicola, warehouse owner and member of the seed multipliers "club" which was contracted to provide the fertilizer and seed for Rotary's Million Dollar Dream

Rotary purchased 61 metric tons of fertilizer for $87,027. Half was paid up front, and the other half was paid when World Vision accepted delivery at the warehouse. About five tons have already been distributed to smallholders in two project villages. We did not do an item by item hand count, but with the fertilizer stored in 50 kg bags, and the bags stacked, on average, seven high, thirteen across and thirteen deep, the inventory checks out in rough terms.

PDG Nina Clancy and Steve Koobatian (RC Visalia County Center, D-5230), and Steve Blum (RC Monterey Pacific, D-5230) check the fertilizer in the warehouse at Caala

We then moved on to the seed storage facility in Chilela. It is located in the nearby hills, where the climate is a little cooler and better suited to maturing and storing potato seed. It's also a good distance away from any potato farms, to prevent contamination of the seed by mold, disease or other pests. To get there, we had to drive several kilometers over extremely rough roads, crossing a couple of log bridges in the process.

The road to the potato seed storage facility in the hills of Chilela

The seed multiplier club is providing Rotary with 124.4 tons of seed for $155,500. That seed is stored in a total of 4 warehouses, which also contain seed grown for other customers. The warehouse we visited had what appeared to be more than 70 tons of seed all together, of which 47.5 tons are earmarked for Rotary. Unlike the fertilizer, World Vision doesn't accept delivery of the seed until it is actually drawn for distribution to a village association. Half of the money was paid up front to the seed multiplier club, the other half will be paid on completion of the contract.

The leadership of the seed multipliers club tell us how they store potato seed, and show us their stock

The books don't quite balance. World Vision has accounted for the $242,527 spent on seed and fertilizer. The balance of the $250,000 (about $7,500) was apparently eaten up in money transfer costs. The biggest cost was for bank transfer fees. Banks in Angola charge a 1% fee to put money into a dollar account and another 1% to take it out again, which likely accounts for most, if not all, of the difference. The final accounting will detail those charges.

When the next planting season comes around in March 2010, 2,700 more smallholders in these village associations will be selected, and provided with seed for free from their local seed bank. However, they will have to purchase their own fertilizer. At this point, the details of how that's supposed to happen haven't been worked out. The fertilizer that Rotary has purchased will all be used in the current round of planting. One possibility is to access cash loans through a microcredit program that World Vision already runs in several communities.

In total, our Million Dollar Dream project will give 4,050 families a chance to start a self-sustaining commercial farming operation, and begin to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. More than 22,000 people in 25 villages in Huambo province will benefit directly, with tens of thousands more benefiting as their money is spent in a growing local economy.
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