Helping others through community, soil and classes

SoilDoc provides a portable way to test soil, which can help farmers better manage their land. Photo by Teresa Avila

SoilDoc provides a portable way to test soil, which can help farmers better manage their land. Photo by Teresa Avila

By Teresa Avila

DES MOINES, Iowa – The third floor of the Borlaug Dialogue is quieter than the two below. It doesn’t have the flux of security needed for a panel involving world leaders, nor the bustling crowds of the main lobby.

Instead, the space is filled with 35 exhibits, showcasing programs and organizations addressing food issues. Many are non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.

In discussions about world hunger and poverty, NGOs are a major player. These organizations provide supplemental assistance in terms of food, money, health care and basic supplies. The challenge is to make the assistance relevant and sustainable.

Representatives for three NGOs discussed how they’re working towards this.

Take the imperfect shot

Sara Jane Baublitz works for Lutheran World Relief, which works with farmers to increase agricultural yield, connect them to fair trade and organic certification and overall increase income so they can invest in the community. They reach 7.5 million people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, Baublitz said.

Baublitz and Senior Advisor Krista Zimmerman discussed the realities of trying to provide the right assistance.

“Organizations that work overseas get in trouble if they’re not willing to take imperfect shots,” Zimmerman said. She used a soccer analogy to explain that sometimes NGOs want to line up a “perfect shot.” But like in soccer, sometimes they need to “just take the shot.” Lutheran World Relief has had a lot of partial successes and partial failures, she said. The goal is to learn from both to improve programs.

“You have to be willing to work with that sense of ambiguity,” Zimmerman said. “If they [other organizations] act like they have it all figured out, I’m not interested.”

Lutheran World Relief’s successes come from working through the community, designing projects based on what the people need and monitoring and evaluating their programs, Baublitz said. Zimmerman said they want their volunteers to be of service as long as needed and not to create dependency.

Learning from other NGOs with similar questions is also useful, Baublitz said.

Bring the lab to the farmers

SoilDoc, under the Agriculture and Food Security Center from Columbia University, has a more economic approach to aid.

When farmers test their soil, they can make informed decisions on what to plant, SoilDoc representative and industrial designer Diana Sierra said. The problem comes from access.

If a country has a soil laboratory at all, it can take three months to send a sample and receive results. By then, the crop is gone, Sierra said.

SoilDoc’s solution is a backpack shaped kit that holds the chemicals, filters and sensors for basic soil diagnosis. The data is sent wirelessly to extension agents who can to advise the farmer on how to manage their soil.

“The technology works,” Sierra said. The question is “how to make it accessible.”

SoilDoc, still in its pilot state, is not designed to be donated or to go directly to individual farmers, Sierra said. Rather, they are focused on working through preexisting systems, including government extension offices, NGOs, insurance companies and inputs — which means the companies and organizations bringing farmers products like fertilizer or seed. To be sure, this plan depends on the systems being reliable and effective, and is focused on the farmers connected to these networks.

Sierra expressed confidence in SoilDoc because it’s based on economic incentive. Insurance companies, for example, would be interested in using this kit to find the best farms with which to do business, she said.

The problem with selling SoilDoc to individual farmers is their low access to capital, Sierra said. In addition, farmers might not understand why they should use it. Past experience shows that it’s unproductive to donate these kits since people tend not to take care of free products.

Stay small, steady and sustainable

Some NGOs keep a small-scale goal and budget. Self Help International is an organization working solely in Ghana and Nicaragua. The group doesn’t donate, but rather trains and advises communities, representative Dale Harpstead said. It also offers loans and connects farmers to better seeds and other resources. Projects have included bee keeping, ovens for women and improved palm oil production.

Self Help International works with an average budget of half a million dollars a year, which is small for an NGO, Harpstead said. The funds are used for operating costs (such as teachers traveling), office management and salaries. Since the NGO is focused on facilitation rather than donation, people who come to their training sessions pay tuition.

To make the system sustainable, Self Help International employs local people to travel and teach classes. It also aims to involve community committees, which is especially important for projects such as bringing clean, chlorinated water to an area.

“We work with people who express interest,” Harpstead said.

Self Help International does not try to be big and is resisting expanding too fast, Harpstead said. It can do better work on a smaller scale.

“If someone gave us a million dollars, we’d probably flounder and not know what to do with it,” he said.

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