Shedding Light

An Interview with the Bureau of Food Security’s Greg Gottlieb and Moffat Ngugi

BFS’ Greg Gottlieb observes the quality of US provided grain.
BFS’ Greg Gottlieb observes the quality of US provided grain.

In his 2012 annual letter, which serves as a sort of progress report for the agency, USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, said: “We must seize pivotal opportunities that we know can leave behind generational legacies of success: building resilience to disasters, increasing global agricultural productivity to fight hunger and malnutrition and helping countries reap what is known as a demographic dividend.” Perhaps nowhere is progress towards that goal clearer than in the Bureau of food Security’s (BFS) current water-related programs.

A recent interview with the Bureau’s Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, Greg Gottlieb and Program Analyst for Climate Change, Moffatt Ngugi, revealed a substantial slate of projects at work around the globe to help achieve the administrator’s objectives.

Global Waters: What are the top priorities for the BFS as related to water?

Greg Gottlieb: We’re addressing water’s role in food security from several perspectives: WASH, multiple use systems (for example, for irrigation, drinking water, and livestock), adaptation to climate change, and conflict management. These are all critical components of our water strategy.

We need to improve access to water, make communities more resilient to drought, improve irrigation, maintain infrastructure even in its most rudimentary forms, like repairing borehole wells and funneling water from springs, etc. The list of priorities is long. We’re taking a three-pronged approach to them: developing field programs, partnering with the private sector, and conducting research.

GW: Can you outline some of the specific programs that are addressing food security as it pertains to water?

GG: Feed the Future, a presidential Initiative, targets 20 countries, 12 of which are in Africa and were chosen from criteria based on opportunity and need. The horn of Africa, which has suffered from severe drought for well over a year now, is certainly at the top of the list. One of our key objectives is to make communities more resilient to drought before it happens, not after it becomes a crisis. We’re trying to bring together our relief work with our development work.

Moffatt Ngugi: We are taking a value chain approach to food security – from the type of crops we select to determining how to fill the gap of productivity, to maximizing returns by getting more food with less water.

A large part of our focus with regard to water is developing ‘multiple use systems’ that can provide water for home use, cropping, and horticulture.

GG: We also work with universities in the collaborative research Support program, or CRSP community to provide research that helps solve agricultural problems like developing drought-resistant crops.

GW: Can you give an example of one type of crop that is considered drought resistant?

MN: Upland rice is one crop we expect great success with for drought resistance. Traditional paddy rice farming requires a substantial amount of water. But upland rice requires less water. For paddy rice, approaches like the System of rice Intensification (SRI) irrigation, requiring only a minimal amount of moisture, are being tried out in places like Mali. It requires more labor in weeding and more manure, but in some cases we’ve seen double the yields with far less water than traditional rice farming requires.

GW: What are some of the other drought resistant techniques you’re having success with in the field?

MN: We are advancing sustainable intensification of agricultural production, for example, conservation agriculture among other climate-smart approaches. conservation agriculture uses minimum or no tillage, which means keeping plant cover on the ground, and manipulating the soil as little as possible while rotating crops with a diverse set of crop choices that enrich the soil, especially nitrogen fixing legumes.

GG: We’ve also found success with sand dams, which involves constructing a wall of sand that traps and preserves water longer and works well in areas that are most vulnerable to the unpredictability of climate change.

In Ethiopia, we’ve used terracing to catch water from rainfall and stabilize hillsides. Trapping the water prevents erosion and helps farmers retain topsoil, which becomes richer as a result.

GW: How are the farmers responding to the new methods?

MN: In some instances it means they have to change their ways after generations of using more traditional techniques, and that can be hard. Some of the new farming methodologies require fencing in farmland, which is rare in places like Namibia, where livestock needs to be mobile to graze, and that can cause conflict.

GG: Our Farmer-to-Farmer mentoring program has proven very successful in helping communities adjust to changes, though. The program pairs farmers in the developing world with volunteer farmers from America who help them with everything from implementing new techniques to organizational development to marketing. It’s been a huge success. They send out hundreds of volunteers every year.

GW: What impact are these programs having? FWD is a media campaign that USAID initiated to bring awareness to the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. Has it proven successful so far?

GG: FWD—which stands for Famine, War, and Drought—has been an incredibly successful awareness and fundraising campaign. We were able to enlist the help of celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Geena Davis and Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers, to help spread the word about the crisis in the horn through social media. That’s something we never could have done through traditional channels. We may use that concept once a year to address other important causes of that kind.

GW: You mentioned partnering with the private sector. Can you give an example of a public-private partnership that is specifically related to food security?

GG: USAID has a partnership with Pepsico in Ethiopia, which is working with smallholder chickpea farmers to increase the productivity and value of their crops and grow the domestic and export markets for chickpeas, which are high in nutritional value. By supporting farmers in growing higher yield and better quality crops, the partnership is also helping address famine and chronic malnutrition in the region. It’s a win-win and only one example of how we’re working with the private sector. We have an entire unit focused on developing programs with the private sector called the Markets, partnerships, and Innovations office to promote new approaches to food security through new and innovative partnerships, tools, and methodologies that improve market access for food insecure households in Feed the Future countries.

For instance, the MPI office is responsible for USAID’s partnership with the World cocoa Foundation and the Sustainable Trade Initiative, which is working to overcome the productivity gap between cocoa supply and demand in Africa. The partnership will foster investments in cocoa and agriculture, improve the quality and productivity of cocoa crops in the region, expand farmer education, and improve the agriculture supply chains that serve the farmers.

GW: What does the future look like for the BFS?

GG: It’s important to integrate with other agencies. There’s no question that the work we do is cross-cutting. Nutrition is a fundamental part of the Global health Initiative so that’s a very important partnership. Feed the Future is a whole of government program that involves cross-pollination with other teams such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade representative, and the Millennium challenge corporation, among others.

MN: One of our big goals is addressing food security through Inclusive Agricultural Sector Growth – to broaden our beneficiaries to the most vulnerable populations.

GW: Who are the most vulnerable?

GG: Communities that have been left out. Folks who have been overlooked in the past. Women-headed households.

MN: A lot of effort has gone into engaging women in the process, for example, through kitchen gardens that bring water closer to the house. Working with individuals and communities allows us to meet their staple needs. It’s not enough to just meet their caloric needs. The nutritional component is critical and often there is not enough access to nutritious foods in the market. By improving home gardens, we help strengthen the household’s access to good nutrition. And it doesn’t stop there. The women can grow veggies, eat veggies, and then sell those veggies in the marketplace. Those are interventions that can help with personal development.

We need to involve all stakeholders in the process. everybody has a role to play in achieving the goals of food security.

S. Galler, Editor, Global Waters

More Information:

USAID | Agriculture and Food Security

Feed the Future

USAID Farmer-to-Farmer (FTF) Program

Last updated: September 20, 2013

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