Danielle Nierenberg, a former resident of Defiance, Missouri, now a project manager at the Worldwatch Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, spent the past year and a half traveling through sub-Saharan Africa as part of a project called Nourishing the Planet, learning new ways to, as she puts it "alleviate hunger and poverty."
Her findings will appear in a new book called State of the World: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, out tomorrow. "It will serve as a road map to the fundraiser/donor community," Nierenberg explains. "We have examples of money being used effectively for sustainable agriculture and mitigating climate change."
So what did Nierenberg learn on her trek?
"Farmers know best," she says. "When research is led by farmers and farmers groups, it's more effective. There's an increase in nourishment and gender equity."
In Axum, Ethiopia, Nierenberg met a group of farmers who built low-tech treadle pumps to lift more water into the fields and prevent erosion. The farmers started manufacturing and selling the pumps. "They were able to grow more with more water," Nierenberg says. "They could send their kids to school. They could diversify their crops."
Fourteen million Africans are moving from the countryside into cities every year, Nierenberg says. But even in an urban environment, they still manage to grow food and raise livestock. In Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the continent's largest slums, Nierenberg met a group of women who formed a self-help group and started growing leafy green vegetables in old rice sacks packed with soil.
"The sacks were an important source of food during times of violence," Nierenberg says. "With the leafy greens, they didn't go hungry. They had food for their families and extra they could sell."
In an empty just outside the Kibera slum, a group of twenty farmers who had been trained by an NGO used the waste-water from a nearby middle-class apartment complex to grow seeds for rural farmers who can't afford to buy the expensive hybrids produced by American agricultural companies (such as, yes, Monsanto).
Now that the Nourishing the Planet's Africa project is done, Nierenberg plans to do the same sort of work for southern Asia and Latin America. "We want to keep the momentum going," she says, noting that 25,000 people receive Nourishing the Planet's newsletter and that its blog has been translated into five languages.
"Africa is not as hopeless as we think," she says. "A lot of good is being done there. The people are resilient and smart, and they need more attention and investment."