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Gender-Focused, Community-Led Food Systems for Africa

Tré, Benin, will drive a gender-focused, community-led visioning and development process to address all six interrelated food system themes.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Hunger Project (THP)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

The primary team includes The Hunger Project, The Hunger Project-Benin staff (led by THP-Benin Country Manager Waliou Yessoufou) and the people of Tré, Benin -- in particular, members of the Tré Epicenter Committee. The Tré Epicenter Committee will in turn form and cultivate collaborative relationships with Benin’s agricultural extension services (Direction Départementale de l'Agriculture, de l'Elevage), and agri-food value chain development services (Agence Territoriale de Développement Agricole) as well as other local CBOs.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.thp.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City, New York, United States of America

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Tré

What country is your selected Place located in?

Benin

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The people of Tré hold a firm belief that real change is possible and that it begins with them.  Tré’s leaders take full responsibility for everything in their community -- both the good and the bad. This mindset of “it’s up to us!” is steadfast even amidst very difficult circumstances: soil degradation in Tré is very high -- driven both by climate change and by unsustainable water and land management practices.  Agricultural production in the area has fallen 10%+ over the last 10 years -- and so, 46% of Tré’s people live with chronic hunger.  Tré could throw its hands up in the face of such circumstances -- but instead, the people carry a spirit of hope and responsibility.  They believe in innovation and continuous improvement in all areas of their life.  Tré’s spirit has its source in the fortitude of its people and in THP’s long standing relationship with Tré. We began working in partnership in 2010 -- when the community agreed to participate in THP’s integrated, community-led Epicenter Strategy.  THP facilitated participatory dialogues which began with the community asking and answering the question, “how will we end our own hunger?”   In the process, natural leaders surfaced and the community chose their own “Animators” – volunteer leaders so named for their ability to move people to action. THP then intensively trained these Animators -- some of whom were then elected to gender-balanced Epicenter committees.  Once Tré’s leadership was mobilized, they partnered with THP to construct their own Epicenter building. Tré hauled sand and water to compress bricks and worked in cooperation until the walls of their Epicenter went up.  Their committees and Animators have been in steady action.   Now, 10 years later, we have chosen Tré for the Food System Prize application both because of their community spirit and for their momentous challenge: to transition their food system to an agroecological model in the context of climate change -- and end their own hunger.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Tré is rural cluster of villages -- a 320 square kilometer area -- situated in a zone between Benin’s savannah in the north and the equatorial zone in Benin’s south. The topography is a wavy plain -- a peneplain -- with many hills and lowlands formed by a long duration of erosion. The climate of the area is subequatorial -- with a dry season (November to March) and a rainy season (April to October.)   95% of Tré’s households are headed by farmers who grow maize, beans, cassava and rice. 90% of the economy of the area is based on agriculture. Tré’s people speak two main indigenous languages: Idatcha and Fon. 43% of the community’s population is under the age of 15.  26% of households live below the poverty line and nearly half of Tré’s people are living with chronic hunger -- two thirds of these members of the community are women and children, among whom there are signs of stunting. The community leadership has expressed hopes to learn and implement a sustainable agriculture system and to develop community-wide resilience to external shocks.  They have begun a one hectare community demonstration garden and have begun learning moringa cultivation and cuniculture -- the raising of rabbits for meat and manure. Tré’s current food system -- the food’s journey from farm to family -- includes the input suppliers (including agricultural extension officers) providing seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and equipment; the producers (Tré’s smallholder farmers) who farm staple crops, vegetables, moringa and rabbit; the food processors (Tré’s community members)  who are involved in grading, milling, and preserving food for storage or sale; food distributors (Tré’s community members) who store, transport and sell food in local rural markets; and consumers (Tré’s community members, other members of the local market and regional/national markets) who purchase or directly consume processed staple and fresh crops.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

320

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

4779

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Tré’s 2050 food system challenges are already present in 2020 -- they are simply a matter of degrees -- each compounding over time. Tré’s challenges align with all six food system themes. However, one theme stands out: culture -- in particular, the culture of gender inequity, marginalization, and disempowerment of women. Tré’s food system is in the hands of smallholder farmers -- and most of those farmers are women. Here below, we examine Tré’s food system challenges through the lens of gender.  

CULTURE: In Tré, women farmers do most of the food farming, processing, storage, and transport -- as well as collecting household water and firewood and caring for children and elderly family members. But though they may be the core of Tré’s food system, they are regularly denied the opportunity to increase their productivity – to produce more food. They receive a small fraction of farm extension services. These gender-based cultural pressures -- and the demand on their time -- holds them back from activities that would improve their farms’ productivity. Further, they are discouraged from participating in community planning -- so their vital perspectives are absent.  

ENVIRONMENT: In Tré’s area, rainfall has decreased ~ 4 mm per month over the past decade and annual temperatures have increased by 1°C -- so that staple crops cannot take root. When rains do come, it is often a deluge -- washing topsoil, seed, and chemical fertilizer away.  While the average Tré farmer can see that her seasons grow shorter and rains more erratic -- that her soil holds no water but turns to dust -- she has no means to mitigate or reverse its impact. For decades now, all the farmers she knows have been planting the same seed and applying the same chemical fertilizers.  Such fertilizers yield only short-term results -- further depleting the soil -- creating even greater dependence -- fueling a cycle of soil loss, drought, degradation and hunger. 

DIETS: Tré’s farmers -- in their fields sun up to sun down -- farm plots of depleted, fragile soils – producing smaller crops each year.  They have no margin for error and so take no risks: they plant what they know -- crops that produce calories but do not offer micronutrients.  

TECHNOLOGY: Tré’s farmers’ tools are the same as those their mothers and grandmothers used -- short handled hoes, hand-grinding stones, carrying wood and water on foot -- that trap them in daily drudgery. 

ECONOMICS: It is a long distance from  field to market -- without access to cash, transporting any excess crop becomes nearly impossible. Should she manage to reach the market, she faces low prices due to a glut of her staple crops and the pervasive threat of violence -- most markets have no facilities for women to safely use the bathroom.  

POLICY: The local government has said they will send agricultural extension officers to help improve farming techniques, but their workshops are not for food farmers like her -- they are for the male cash croppers. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In partnership with The Hunger Project -- using THP’s Epicenter Strategy -- designed by Africans for the African context -- the people of Tré themselves have already set a collectively-held vision and agenda for their own development that will address all six themes of a thriving food system -- as a system. Tré has elected gender-balanced, sector-specific committees (such as Food Security & Agriculture, Health & Nutrition, WASH, Microfinance, Monitoring Evaluation and Learning (MEL)).  They have identified and engaged their corps of civic-minded Animators -- forming an operating social infrastructure.  Elected committee members and Animators are engaged in intensive capacity-developing leadership training.  Together, this gender-balanced social infrastructure has been directing and overseeing the maintenance of an Epicenter facility as well as the operation of programs that make full use of the building they built themselves: Epicenter clinic-based Essential Nutrition Action trainings, malnutrition screening campaigns, nursery school feeding programs, food storage trainings, cuniculture workshops, moringa cultivation trainings, a functioning microfinance program and the banking of crops for safe storage and community use.  So far, over the course of their work with THP, they have banked over 100,000 pounds of food. Their Epicenter Rural Credit Union has over 5,000 active clients from Tré and beyond.  They have installed a clean water source and clean latrines at the Epicenter.  Top among their future plans: an agricultural shop, community-owned food mills, a moringa cooperative -- and a full transition to an agroecological model measured in terms of hectares of soil regeneration, but also in terms of crop, dietary, and income diversity -- an end to hunger in Tré.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

A woman farmer in Tré wakes before dawn to prepare breakfast: a porridge made from cassava ground at the Epicenter solar-powered food mill and water collected from the Epicenter-based water pump -- fortified with her homegrown moringa powder.  Her elder daughter and son both leave for school -- her daughter is able to attend because she is not needed to collect water. With her baby strapped to her, the farmer walks one mile to the Epicenter where she places her baby in the care of the Epicenter nursery school -- who will feed the baby a locally-grown lunch. The woman farmer meets up with her husband and neighbors at an agricultural extension training at the Epicenter demonstration garden.  Extension officers offer new local government-funded climate resilient native grass seed from the University of Benin. The grass will stabilize the growing topsoil forming beneath the moringa trees at the perimeter of her land -- and will also serve as moisture-retaining mulch for her crops. The government has begun regular trainings since the Tré Epicenter leadership began persistently requesting help in transitioning from chemical imports to agroecological strategies.  The farmer’s graduation from an Epicenter-based functional adult literacy class means that she can read the extension officers’ educational materials. After the training, she visits the Epicenter Credit Union to deposit cash she earned from the sale of rabbits and moringa at the Epicenter market and makes a payment on the microloan she took to start a rabbit farm.  She fills her water jugs at the Epicenter well, uses the safe Epicenter latrine, stops by the Epicenter food mill to grind some cassava and picks up her baby from the nursery -- where she learns of an upcoming vaccination campaign.  On her way home, she stops by her fields to pick from a short-cycle crop of greens and crosses paths with her husband who has come from expanding the rabbit hutch he built from moringa lumber. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Through the Epicenter Strategy’s community-wide participatory dialogue, and in close partnership with THP’s Benin staff (all of whom are from Benin) the people of Tré have envisioned a new future for their community -- including a new food future.  Tré wants to transition its food system to an agroecological model. They want to learn efficient cropping practices that allow them to produce food in a sustainable way – in particular agroforestry. Tré has already begun expanding their crops to include the cultivation of moringa -- both for home use and for market. They have collectively recognized the importance of gender equity -- electing women to 44% of the Epicenter’s committee positions.  Here below, we will look at each of the six themes -- starting with culture -- to paint a picture of what is next for Tré, come 2050. 


CULTURE: By 2050, there is a pervasive understanding among Tré’s community members that when women thrive, families thrive. 50% of Tré’s elected sector-specific Epicenter committee positions are held by women -- so the committees consistently make decisions that are gender-informed. This is due in part to intensive Women’s Empowerment Program workshops led by Tré Animators in the decades following 2020. When participatory planning meetings happen at the Epicenter, women sitting at the front of meetings and speaking is now commonplace.  When literacy and numeracy classes are offered at the Epicenter meeting hall or or agricultural extension courses are offered at the Epicenter demonstration garden, women farmers attend in equal or greater numbers to male farmers -- so that all of Tré’s farmers are developing their capacities for agroecological farming strategies. Tré’s farmers have formed small cooperatives that are more visible, efficient partners to larger entities such as municipal agencies, CSOs and NGOs.  Through cooperatives, the farmers are better able to make use of resources and training, benefit from cross-pollination of ideas with other farmers, and take up new techniques more quickly – all while reducing risks to crops and livelihoods by bearing that effort together. They begin to earn cash from the sale of moringa and other surplus harvests and with their earning power, they gain confidence and voice in their households and villages.  Women farmers are elected to serve on the Epicenter’s Rural Credit Union Committee – in equal parts with men – to make decisions about extending financial services to other farmers. Tré Epicenter’s MEL Committee is itself trained to regularly inquire into the gaps in their food system. The committee has assessed the cultural shift using the Women’s Empowerment Index -- gauging changes in women’s agency, income, leadership, resources and time.  While there have been gains in all measures, the index indicates that women have gained dramatically in income (due to diversified crops -- in particular moringa) and time (due to solar-powered food mills, solar tricycle bikes for crop transport, improved health among their vaccinated and well-fed children, and the thriving Epicenter-based nursery school).  


ENVIRONMENT: By 2050, the second generation of Tré’s Animators (50% of whom are women) are well-versed in agroecological strategies -- having been thoroughly trained by agricultural extension officers dispatched by the municipal government.  The Animators have in turn made full use of the Epicenter’s 3-hectare demonstration farm -- showing Tré’s farmers what to do and why. Farmers can see the fruits of new methods with their own eyes. Thanks to the Epicenter’s successful advocacy to local government, each of Tré’s eight villages has a clean water source and solar food mill, so women farmers now have time to attend regular agroecological trainings on subjects such as water and soil conservation through construction of contours, swales, grass bands, intercropping, mulching, compost making, use of organic manures, agroforestry, guilds, rabbit production, runoff harvesting, zai pits and bio-fertilizer production. Tré’s farmers are producing abundant crops of both heat and drought tolerant varieties. Both nutrients and healthy water-retaining structure have returned to the topsoil.   With increased soil fertility and productivity in their current farm plots, food farmers see no need to put new land into cultivation -- and so the forests around Tré have thickened and expanded. The Epicenter MEL Committee has been tracking increases in measures of agroforestry, cover crops, minimum tillage, use of manure, mulch, compost, shade nets, and improved seeds, as well as decreases in use of chemicals.

 

DIET: By 2050, Tré’s farmers’ full adoption of agroecological strategies has meant a diversification of diet -- including tree fruits and vegetables such as traditional greens. There have been Epicenter-sponsored recipe contests and Animators have held regular Essential Nutrition Action trainings for new parents and grandparents so that the people of Tré understand the importance of micronutrients -- particularly in the first 1,000 Days. Additional Animator trainings have focused on a variety of food storage methods (canning, elevated granaries, triple bagging to suffocate insects, storage in the Epicenter food bank) so that the typical crop loss of 25% to rot or pests has been reduced to near zero.   All of Tré’s farmers are farming moringa in their own household plots and some women farmers work in moringa value chain production to sell a variety of moringa-based products -- tea, powder, flower, seeds.  Their primary customers include the area elementary and secondary schools as well as the municipal health unit.  Further, because the moringa is certified, it can be sold wholesale to a buyer for regional and national markets and exported to Europe and the US where the demand is high. Because moringa consumption is so widespread, families are meeting their calorie and micronutrient requirements. The MEL Committee has been tracking women’s dietary diversity and have found an increase from 2 food groups to 4+ food groups each day.

 

ECONOMICS: By 2050, the MEL Committee has found that most of Tré’s farmers are selling farm produce in the Epicenter-based market or to a regional market.  Rather than farming solely for household consumption, newly confident women farmers plant part of their plots with items such as tomatoes, ginger and peanuts that they know will sell at the Epicenter market – which is no longer an expensive ride away, but now within walking or solar powered tricycle distance away.  Through the moringa value chain, women farmers now own and operate an inclusive business -- generating income for many households and jobs for youth in the community. Further, the Epicenter Credit Union Committee has sponsored a training on mapping other value chains and from that, a series of new value-added crops have begun emerging -- including peanut cultivation and processing for local use and sale in regional markets.  The Epicenter’s solar-powered food mill also offers farmers a way to add value to their crops, for example: turning peanuts into peanut butter yields a ten-fold increase in profit. Boys and men have stopped departing for cities in search of work, but have instead remained in Tré to participate in the thriving food system. Most of Tré’s farmers are accessing microfinance services through the Epicenter Credit Union -- with these loans they have invested in improved seed, seedlings, husbandry, irrigation, transport and storage.   By 2050, Tré has made enormous improvements in storage -- preventing crop loss – from the Epicenter to household levels. With greater yields from fertile, productive plots farmers are now regularly banking food surpluses in the Epicenter food bank when there is a glut in the market and then selling their crops at a higher price later in the season.  This also means community-wide resilience as there are backup stores in case of flood or drought.  In addition, farmers have improved storage within their villages – for example, building elevated granaries so that harvests are kept dry and away from pests or triple bagging harvests to suffocate insects.  At the household level, farmers now use such simple strategies as canning and adding shelving to their homes. 

 

TECHNOLOGY: By 2050, the Epicenter has collectively-owned, solar-powered machinery for pumping water to irrigate crops and moringa -- as well as drying and grinding machines to produce moringa powder for international markets.  For a small fee, Tré’s farmers can use the machinery to process their own crops -- reducing drudgery and saving women time so that they may more fully participate in the community.   In addition, the vast majority of Tré’s households have cell phones and use them to assess market timing -- checking to see the price of their crops before transporting them to market -- so to get the best price for their yields.  Tré’s farmers also now have solar powered tricycle bikes for transporting their crops to the local market -- where they sell directly within the community or transfer their crops to wholesalers to be taken to larger markets.

 

POLICY: By 2050, the municipal and national governments have adopted policies that favor transition from industrial agriculture to agro-ecological farming.  At the local level, Tré has been successful in lobbying the agricultural extension services in bringing agroecological trainings and inputs to their community.  Further, Tré has been successful in applying to the local municipal government for funding to improve irrigation systems around the Epicenter site and further out into the eight villages.  As a result, Tré has managed to implement all the recommendations in Benin’s National Adaptation Plan for Zone V.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Colleague

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