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Ullo Promise - A future model for sustainable semi-arid food systems

Setting a global example by realizing a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future by thriving in this semi-arid savanna environment.

Photo of Kyle Poorman
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Iowa State University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

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

Engineers Without Borders - Iowa State University Chapter, Ullo Senior High School administration and parents association, traditional area paramount chief and leadership of Ullo, Ullo Youth and Development Association, Self-Help International, Self-Help Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Consortium for Innovation in Post-Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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


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?

Ullo, Upper West Region - 500 km² - The Ullo food system is defined by scarcity and abundance of water in this tropical savanna climate.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Iowa State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-ISU) and the Ullo community, a traditional area in the Upper West Region of Ghana, have been partners since 2013. EWB-ISU students and faculty travel annually to Ullo. In 2019, EWB-ISU hosted an Ullo community member at Iowa State for the first time. The community member, a maternal and child nutrition expert in the Ghana Health Service, was a visiting scholar and attended medical nutrition classes, participated in World Food Prize events, worked with EWB-ISU on a clinic project, and connected with Self-Help International (SHI). 

Upon returning to Ghana, he visited SHI’s training center that specializes in nutrition education, improved agricultural practices, youth entrepreneurship, and microfinancing. As part of this new partnership, SHI sent an assessment team to Ullo in January 2020, where seven community meetings, attended by about 1,000 people, were held with EWB-ISU and formed the basis for this vision. 

EWB-ISU initially focused on the lack of water infrastructure and in early 2019 implemented a water project that ensures daily access to 25,000 liters of clean water for the 1000 students boarding at Ullo Senior High School (USHS). EWB-ISU students designed and constructed a photovoltaic-powered mechanized borehole system that pumps water over 1 mile to six points on the school grounds. 

The USHS administration and parents association, traditional area paramount chief and leadership of Ullo, Ullo Youth and Development Association, Self-Help International and Self-Help Ghana, KNUST, Iowa State University and EWB-ISU are all part of our Food System Vision team, and have contributed to formulating our common Ullo Promise vision during the team’s most recent winter 2019-2020 trip. This vision has also been shared with and endorsed by the Regional Minister during a meeting with our team. All team members have pledged 100% of the prize money to advance the Ullo Promise.

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.

The Ullo traditional area consists of 38 settlements with about 15,000 people on 50,000 hectares. The population is fiercely entrepreneurial and is motivated to build a sustainable community that will become a model for other water scarce areas. 

The area is a semi-arid savanna with a 4-month rainy season followed by an 8-month dry season. The community must cope with the extremes of seasonal rains that can cause flooding and impassable roads. Additionally, untimely rains can result in drought, crop failure, and a “hunger season.” Water scarcity is the defining feature of the food system. 

All three dams in the area are nonfunctioning. With little ability to store water, it is difficult to grow crops or raise animals. This situation leaves relatively fertile areas near would-be water reservoirs barren during the dry season when they could be irrigated and cultivated with nutritious crops.  

Most people are subsistence farmers that have 2-5 acres, grow crops and tend some animals (chickens, guinea fowl, goats). Farmers grow a mix of maize, sorghum, millet, rice, edible beans, soybeans, white yams, okra, chili peppers, and groundnuts. Tree fruits are mostly shea nuts, mangos, and cashews. The majority of farmland is depleted loamy sand. It has a low organic matter content, low pH, and little to no topsoil. 

Even when farmers have a successful crop, harvesting, storing, processing, and marketing their product is difficult due to little investment in infrastructure. The few roads often become impassible during the rainy season, making it tough to get crops to market. 

Ullo has thousands of shea trees each shedding the equivalent of about 400 kilos of shelled and dried nuts per season. Women, who have organized into self-help groups, generate income by hand-harvesting the nuts and making shea butter using traditional, labor- and wood energy-intensive methods. Many choose to sell nuts during the harvest at the lowest prices (1 GHC/kg) to buy food for their families, pay school fees and other bills. Prices for nuts increase up to 5-fold within three months of harvest, but women do not have access to credit for bridge loans to capture this value. 

Undernutrition, malnutrition, stunted children, and inadequate health care are challenges. In the Upper West Region of Ghana, stunting affects 22 percent of children under 5 years.  Undernutrition as reflected in underweight affects more than 15 percent of young children. Young children are particularly vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies, including deficiencies of vitamin A and iron.  

There is no hospital or bank in the Ullo area; the closest are in the district capital Jirapa, a 45-minute drive away when roads are passable. Access to mobile banking is limited due to poor cell coverage and the inability by many to afford phones. 

Even though money and food are scarce, poverty is rampant, and climate change is exacerbating the extremes, this community is hopeful and ready to build a more sustainable Ullo. 

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


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


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

Water scarcity defines the current food system and by 2050 climate change will further exacerbate the seasonal extremes of droughts and floods. Projected mean annual temperatures will rise 3.0°C by mid-century, more than anywhere in Ghana. This means the Ullo population, one of the world’s poorest, must adapt to intensifying extremes that endanger their livelihoods.

Ullo is currently not able to capture water during the rainy season behind broken dams and irrigate crops during the dry season. Harvesting rain water behind dams and off roofs is critically important.

Climate vulnerability will only increase without bolstering resilience. For example, if the value of shea nuts is not captured, people will continue to cut trees for charcoal. One tree yields two bags of charcoal worth GHC 28 (~USD 5) compared to GHC 400 (~USD 80) for five bags of nuts yearly. Shea charcoal is sought after and the demand threatens Ullo’s sustainability. If the value for shea nuts is captured more trees will be planted and begin to bear additional economic and environmental value by 2050.  

Ullo has depleted soils and irrigation equipment has disappeared or become inoperable because farmers have not had access to reservoirs for years. Without irrigation, dry season crop production is meager. Also, crop rotation is not well understood or practiced. Post-harvest loss mitigation technologies, such as hermetic bags, are not well known. They could prevent maize stored in homes for subsistence from being eaten by insects. Ullo agriculture, the community’s foundation, is inefficient, unreliable, and exceedingly difficult. This extends to market links and fair prices for crops, produce and products, and access to affordable credit for seed, fertilizer and chemical purchases. 

People do not have running water in their homes. Women and girls spend huge amounts of time waiting at boreholes to hand-pump and carry water. Despite strides at gender equity (women shea groups, female-owned businesses), much of Ullo abides by traditional gender roles. Most women are responsible for time-consuming household tasks (cooking, cleaning, childcare) that limit their ability to be economically engaged and entrepreneurial. 

An average person in Ullo makes between $0.25 and $0.50 per day, mostly spent on food. People generally eat between 1 and 2 meals a day. Diets are high in starch and supplemented with small amounts of eggs, plant protein, and green leafy vegetables. Animal protein might be consumed once or twice per week. Most people prefer TZ a fermented ground maize or millet product, fufu made from crushed boiled yams and cassava flour, or Banku a fermented maize or cassava flour dumpling. These dishes are generally eaten with Bambara bean stew containing small amounts of onions, cabbage, tomatoes, okra and leafy greens. Frying dough from sorghum or bean flour in shea butter is common. There is not much daily variety in food consumed which increases the likelihood of malnutrition.

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

The Ullo Promise is about building a robust food system that is able to harvest water and ultimately captures value from crops and animals to eliminate poverty. With plenty of land, the community has a resource that it needs to more effectively utilize to advance its future. The typical rain-fed maize yield in Ullo is 0.5 MT per hectare when it could be at least 2.5 MT/ha with better hybrids, adequate fertilization, crop rotation and protection, and access to mechanization and microfinancing. 

While maize is a popular food crop, it suffers from low prices. A more profitable crop to grow is sorghum which needs less water and fetches higher prices. A higher income from a crop mix of sorghum and nitrogen-fixing ground nuts, edible beans and/or soybeans would set a subsistence farmer on the path to becoming a smallholder farmer if given access to affordable financing and quality inputs. 

With extra income a smallholder farmer could afford to buy maize to meet their family’s food preferences. Furthermore, they would be able to afford to add value to their crops through egg production from backyard poultry, and catch rainwater from roofs for home produce gardens to diversity diets. 

The future food system in Ullo will provide most of the nutritious and culturally preferred food to the people of Ullo by first teaching them about sustainable intensification of land and water resources, and utilizing these resources to grow vegetables on irrigated land during the dry season, increase milk production from cows and goats by improved pasturing, and add value to their crops by properly feeding hens to lay eggs. A higher-yielding food production system allows farmers to specialize and frees up those who do not care to farm to pursue other entrepreneurial activities. Entrepreneurship, especially among youth, will generate jobs and income for the community. Ideally, this will keep young people from leaving for the cities except to gain education and training, and for many to return and deploy their knowledge and skills to advance the Ullo Promise. 

Converting the abundance of shea nuts into value added shea butter, and utilizing water from reservoirs to increase vegetable and fruit production are two of many examples where education and training combined with entrepreneurial initiative and technical know-how could make an immediate difference. Shea production in particular will economically empower women and girls while combating desertification and climate change. 

A critical first step is to harness the substantial rainfall during the rainy period (totals comparable to Nebraska). Once the community gains this ability to store, distribute, and use rain-harvested water during the dry season for agricultural production, improved transportation infrastructure will be critical. Thanks to the current election season, a major road improvement project is being completed through the Ullo traditional area. However, much more is needed to secure the Ullo Promise.

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.

By 2050, Ullo will be a model for semi-arid food systems around the world. This food system will produce an abundance and diversity of locally produced food with a focus on agricultural products that are more adapted to the extremes of this savanna environment. It will also be a model for water harvesting and utilization of water saving irrigation techniques. 

A sustainable, efficient, and equitable food system is the foundation of economic growth, security, specialization, trade, entrepreneurial  innovation, improved nutrition, and, ultimately, improved livelihoods. This sustainably-intensified food system in the Upper West region of Ghana will nourish people and enable them to pursue full and healthy lives. This nourishment will consist of nutrient-rich diets from locally grown crops and animal/aquaculture-source foods. Additionally, the local community will find financial stability and economic possibilities through access to finance, technology, and markets to break the cycle of poverty. A healthier and better-off community will emerge when preventative and curative local healthcare and nutrition education is accessible and affordable. 

The economic, agricultural, and financial transformation of the community will be underpinned by expanding educational activities, experiential learning and entrepreneurial achievements. With increased food security and improved access to affordable credit, people will be able to farm because they want to, not because they have to. Ullo will experience an increased diversity of commerce now that people are free to pursue their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Progress towards a healthier, financially stable, and food secure community will mean enacting stakeholder-engaged and good governance policies that help regenerate the climate damaged semi-arid savanna environment into a thriving ecosystem, and sets a global example for realizing a more promising, nourishing, and healthy future for all.

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

By 2050, Ullo will have become a model community for regenerative and nourishing food systems in semi-arid regions. Increased socioeconomic opportunities and environmental sustainability made it resilient to the impacts of climate change. Its sustainably-intensified food system nourishes people and enables them to pursue full and healthy lives. 


Community members will green the savanna by harnessing rainwater for dry season agriculture and planting trees of economic value. Three properly re-constructed dams with large rainwater reservoirs will result in a thriving agricultural sector that produces nutritious foods. The community will reap the benefits of having adopted regenerative farming and grazing practices that rebuild soil organic matter, restore degraded soil biodiversity, and improve the water cycle.

Shea trees are abundant and the community is planting more to mitigate climate change and extract economic value. More cashew trees will be planted given their value. Fast-growing Eucalyptus trees will provide a transition for firewood and charcoal away from Shea trees. As photovoltaic electricity expand, LPG cook stoves will be replaced by electric ones well before 2050. 


Self-Help Ghana (SHG), Iowa State and KNUST will work closely with Ullo to establish regenerative agricultural and environmental practices that community members will utilize to mitigate climate change.  They will advise community members how to properly re-construct and maintain the dams that have failed and green the savanna. By 2050, the community will have the capacity to sustainably meet their own needs. Ullo will become a model where the partners will help train those with similarly challenges in northern Ghana and across the tropical savannah of West Africa.


By 2050, Ullo’s sustainably intensified food system will supply an abundance and diversity of food with a focus on crops and animals that are more adapted to environmental extremes. Value-added crop and animal-source food products will allow community members to diversify their diets and sell excess produce/products to external markets. Dietary diversification will be further achieved by increasing high quality protein from poultry production and expanding new plantations of mango and plantain trees. These will yield crops with high nutrient and economic value. The protein intakes of children will improve due to more diversified plant sources and availability of poultry meat and eggs. Eggs will also serve as a valuable source of vitamin A.  Increased shea oil availability will enhance caloric intakes and promote absorption of provitamin A carotenoids from leafy greens and other plant sources.  The frequent addition of small amounts of poultry (and fish) to the legume-based diets will improve iron nutrition by enhancing nonheme iron absorption from leafy greens and other plant sources.  

SHG will work closely with the community and successfully introduce improved nutrition education in schools, community health centers, and the new clinic (constructed by EWB-ISU). Trained teachers and health workers will routinely mothers about appropriate diets during pregnancy and complementary feeding practices to support the proper development of their children. Students at all schools will be well nourished, learn about regenerative diets, and teach their own families about improving diets.


By 2050 we envision a thriving local economy that will be grounded in value-adding agriculture but has expanded into more diversified food production and other entrepreneurial activities that provide goods and services that generate taxes, income and local job opportunities especially for women and youth. 

The Ullo community will transition its current economic base from subsistence agriculture to agri-business farming and entrepreneurial activities. This requires residents be able to borrow at affordable interest rates. Current rates for loans exceed 25% per year and payback terms are not affordable; thus, they are out of reach for most community members. Many in Ullo are part of savings groups that pool small amounts of money. During the 2020s, SHG will significantly boost the available credit for individuals in existing and newly formed groups. SHG will introduce microfinance education and loans among small, accountability groups. Affordable financing will spur entrepreneurial activities and have an immediate impact on local food production because input prices are approximately 25 percent lower a few months before the start of planting. Community members will deploy inputs in a timely manner and sustainably intensify yields. 

A local Micro Finance Institute (MFI) will provide training and staff support, and facilitate growth of the Ullo Promise fund’s cash base started with the prize money. The community will flourish with budding entrepreneurs armed with knowledge of financial literacy, accounting, marketing, and best business practices. As a result of economic growth, the district government will invest increased tax revenues in local infrastructure. These investments will empower women and make Ullo more attractive to youth. Additionally, a reliable transportation network, tied to the budding regional economy, will connect Ullo’s entrepreneurs to local and global markets and buyers. 


The cultural identity of Ullo is rooted in its traditional leadership and religious tolerance. About a third of the population is Muslim including the paramount chief and most divisional chiefs, and about 40 percent is Catholic including many teachers and health care workers. All have lived peacefully together for generations with many families intermarried and of mixed faiths. Conversations with community members reveal a high level of confidence that Ullo will remain a traditionally governed area. This confidence stems from its community-driven initiatives and the request of neighboring communities for incorporation to expand the paramount chieftaincy and become an independent district with the council of chiefs residing in the lead community where EWB-ISU has been focused. Given the progressive thinking of the traditional leadership, the community will maintain its cultural identity. An annual homecoming event on December 31 of each year illustrates the earnestness and desire of community members who have moved out of the area to return regularly and continue to identify with their home, community, friends/neighbors, and family.


Low water microirrigation is a proven technology used in many semi-arid regions. This technology will be deployed via the three Ullo reservoirs during this decade. Water-saving tech will enable growers to expand the types and amounts of crops they produce and sustain livestock production in the dry season. 

Rainwater harvesting will not only fill the reservoirs but also tanks to contain runoff from buildings. Climate models predict higher rainfalls and temperatures during the wet and rainy seasons. Catching rainwater will supplement borehole water for drinking, cooking and hygiene with rain-harvested water for laundry, sanitation, and gardens.

Photovoltaic electricity generation coupled with energy storage technologies will allow Ullo to establish its own microgrid that can operate in both grid-connected or island mode. This will provide uninterrupted renewable electricity to power homes, schools, clinics and businesses. 

Solar water heating systems will be commonplace for providing hot water for cooking, dish washing, laundry, and personal hygiene. 

Information and communication technology (ICT) will be available in all of Ullo allowing access to information for students and teachers, entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, and farmers.

Mobile crop processing units reduce post-harvest loss and GHG emissions. Combined with energy-efficient cooling and refrigeration systems, these will be essential for preserving nutritious crops, extracting end use value locally, and expanding marketing options for local produce and packaged products. 

Local Talent

USHS will have expanded to a vocational technical college and train skilled workers and young entrepreneurs. Young men and women will learn business skills, science and technology to become agri-business entrepreneurs, health care workers, technicians able to fix and maintain dams and irrigation equipment, machinery and equipment operators, and technologists able to utilize photovoltaic electricity and digital ag tools. 


Good governance and business practices will be further strengthened by 2050. Due to economic growth, local government will use increased revenues to invest in local infrastructure: better education, health care and sanitation, improved access to water, uninterrupted renewable electricity, improved roads, high-speed internet, and efforts to combat climate change. The regional and district governments will enact policies that encourage purchase of local produce to improve diets, incentivize entrepreneurship in support of women- and youth-owned enterprises, provide fair and competitive market access, and protect community members from predatory business practices. 

By 2050, Ullo will be recognized as a traditional leader in ethical and effective governance and on the cutting edge of innovative business development. The community leaders and members of the Ullo traditional area shared their hopes and dreams during eleven community meetings attended by about 1,000 men and women. They prioritized their most pressing needs as access to water during the dry season, access to affordable financing, and access to markets that pay fair prices for their crops, produce and products. The Ullo Promise as envisioned will address these short-term needs and build on this foundation a regenerative and nourishing food future that breaks the cycle of poverty and improves the lives and livelihoods of the people of Ullo and beyond.   

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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  • Prize partners
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Team (6)

Kyle's profile
Kyle's profile
Kyle Poorman

Role added on team:

"Consortium for Innovation in Post Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction"

Michelle's profile
Michelle Friedmann

Role added on team:

"ISU-EWB, ISU Graduate Student, and top class engineering talent"

Cassie's profile
Cassie Welch McGee

Role added on team:

"Iowa State University and Program Manager of Consortium for Innovation in Post Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction"

Dirk's profile
Dirk Maier

Role added on team:

"Team Lead - Iowa State University Professor, EWB-ISU Faculty Advisor, Director of the Consortium for Innovation in Post Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction"

John's profile
John Hanley

Role added on team:

"Iowa State University student and member of EWB-ISU. Jack was just in Ullo with the EWB-ISU travel team."

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Attachments (5)


This document is from a group of students at Ullo Senior High School. As part of the preparation for submitting to the prize, the team asked students to write or draw pieces about Ullo and its food system. This group of students wrote and drew about the past, present, and future of the Ullo traditional area. They have a clear vision for the future of Ullo that includes crop production, reforestation, sustainable development of water resources, and the enhancement of biodiversity.

EWB History Updated.pdf

EWB-ISU and Ullo have had a formal partnership since 2013. This document provides a history of the EWB-ISU student chapter and chronicles the history that EWB-ISU has with the Ullo community. EWB-ISU is a partner in this prize application and its interactions and relationship with the Ullo community has formed the basis for the prize submission.

A visit from Ullo podcast.pdf

This attached document has a link to a podcast from Zack Saeed and Michelle Friedmann. In October 2019, with the help of donors through the Iowa State University Foundation’s FundISU program, Zack Saeed, the eldest son of the Chief of Ullo made a visit to Ames and the Iowa State campus. During his visit, EWB-ISU's Michelle Friedmann sat down with Zack and talked about his trip, and the impact this student organization has had on the people of Ullo.

2018 Impact Report.pdf

This is Self-Help International's impact report that documents their work in Ghana. SHI and EWB-ISU jointly convened a set of meetings in Ullo that form the basis for our prize submission. SHI is also integral to carrying out the Ullo Food Vision and is a partner in the submission itself.

Gold Table Top Final - Food Vision Prize.pdf

The Consortium for Innovation in Post-Harvest Loss and Food Waste Reduction is a partner in building this vision. The Consortium includes research institutions throughout the world working to preserve nutrients, improve livelihoods, and realize an efficient food system.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Kyle Poorman  Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is currently unpublished.
The Early Submission Deadline is almost there. Publish your Vision by 5:00pm EST on December 5, 2019 and have the opportunity to attend an invitation-only webinar with members of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food team, the Sponsors of this Prize.
You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your facepost. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top.
We're looking forward to seeing your submission in this Prize.