Polly Noyce: "It’s a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is."
Ecological philanthropist and founder of Manor House Agricultural Centre (MHAC), Polly Noyce, outlines the ecological principles of agroforestry and the importance of healthy soils. Since 1984, Polly has dedicated her life’s work to aggregating smallholder farmers and spreading ecological agricultural philosophies to mitigate climate change.
Could you tell us about your background and how you came to live in Kenya?
I’m a Northern Californian girl, I grew up on the edge of Silicon Valley. I rode my horse every day after school and loved going out into nature. I went to the East Coast to do my degree in Physics for two and a half years before realising I wasn’t ready to live in an office through all the wonderful daylight hours. I was getting home too late to water my garden and I thought I needed to go back to school to find my purpose. I decided to pursue Environmental Studies along the Sustainable Agriculture track and that’s what took me to Kenya.
I was also an editor for Energy News – a monthly paper that talked about alternative energy. In August 1981, my sister was studying to be a medical doctor and she was asked by John Jeavons to attend a conference on renewable energy in Nairobi. She didn’t have the time, so she sent the information along to me. It was a great excuse as I could write an article about it for Energy News. I flew out to Nairobi for ten days with my husband at the time, and while I was there, I met some people who were instrumental in the birth of MHAC.
What was Kenya like when you arrived in the 1980s?
It was much less populated than it is now, and large-scale farms operated for the most part. It was part of the White Highlands and when the British left, large pieces of land were turned over to people who were eligible for a bank loan and who could buy property. Forty years later, their children’s children have been educated and don’t want to be farmers, so those big lands are subdivided into small farms.
In 1984, you set up MHAC, could you tell us how the idea evolved into reality?
I had come to Kenya to relay information for Ecology Action, which was valuable to Kenyan smallholder farmers. I was in a session with all men except for this one woman, who stood up and announced that I had something important to say. Afterwards, she invited me to her house for a traditional African meal along with a gentleman I had met, Patrick Peacey, who had been chaplain at Manor House Preparatory School in Kitale. We talked about what he was looking for and what I had come out to represent. There was some unity of purpose, so we kept ideas flowing for another two and a half years before Manor House was born. It was difficult though, as Patrick was living in the UK, myself in California and our founding trustee in Nairobi. The eleven-hour time difference resulted in many calls at inconvenient hours to move our agenda forward!
Patrick had a vision from God, which spelt out to him the terms of a declaration of trust. The original 40 acres of school property would be put to charitable use. With the help of Sir Humphrey Slade, he wrote up a declaration of trust under the Perpetual Succession Act of Kenya. They were looking for somebody to purchase back the school, so I took the information to the board of directors of Ecology Action. We wrote out a declaration, took out the reference to God and replaced it with environmentalism as a better way to meet the needs of people in Kenya. During School holidays at the end of 1981, Patrick flew to California to meet the Ecology Action Board and then we both flew to Kenya so he could show me Manor House. We travelled upcountry to see the site and I fell in love with the place. I was delighted by the gentle environment and the huge plants! We identified three founding trustees, including the woman who had invited me to her house where the whole thing began. By 1986, we had our two-year training programme running and have been pushing out graduates ever since.
At that time, what were the greatest challenges facing farmers? How does this compare to today?
The challenge was getting the necessary agricultural inputs that farmers needed to be successful. Around 80% of the Kenyan population survive on subsistence farming and it was hard for them to meet the demands of the international market. They were unable to buy medicines and anything manufactured outside the country, including tractors. It was hard to get bank loans as they had no collateral.
Today, there is a lot more financing available. The government is working on getting out title deeds to people who recently purchased land through schemes. What’s difficult is the unsustainable population growth, which puts a lot of pressure on agricultural land. There’s a lot of encroachment on forests and rivers, which need protecting because of their value as natural areas.
Can you define the ecological principles and strategies of MHAC?
It’s understood as agroecology, almost the same principles that I was taught at Santa Cruz University back in the ‘70s. In a nutshell, you must give back what you take from the soil, but the way that it is returned matters. Microbial life in the soil makes it sustainable and the continuous process of death and decomposition of microbial life releases nutrients to plant roots. Organically feeding the soil is the way we feed the planet. Carbon levels are essential to soil fertility and anything decomposing or composting acts as a sponge to absorb rainfall and keep the soil moist.
Since 1984, MHAC has trained over 500,000 smallholders. What difference has this made to the lives of these farmers and their local environment?
I only know a small portion of those farmers, but the ones I’ve talked to over many years are happy with what they’ve learned. It has given them a goal, objectives, a methodology and practical experience. They are still committed to what we taught them and give us glowing reviews. We take an ecological agricultural approach that doesn’t depend on capital-intensive farming, tilling, exposing soils to sunlight and speeding up the decomposition process. When you see this put into practise, it’s very rewarding.
What impact have you witnessed climate change having on farmers in Kenya?
It depends on where you are, for us here in Kitale and specifically at Manor House, the rains and winds are heavier, stronger and more destructive. We can manage it to some extent, but we had a lot of trees unexpectedly fall. We’ve had roads wash out and become so mired in mud that we had to find alternative routes. The rainy season is no longer reliable and the changing weather patterns mean we can’t plan as we used to.
How do you see agroecology helping mitigate or even reverse climate change?
It’s more diversified. We are putting plants together that help each other – there’s a symbiosis. In the environment, if a bird is going to destroy a crop and we don’t want that bird to be there, we can plant something else instead, without having to kill the bird or put down poison. It’s really about understanding what the threats and challenges are and taking mitigation measures. You then have several choices, which is where communication amongst farmers becomes so vital. Change comes slowly unless you see with your own eyes something that works - you learn from your neighbours.
How has COVID-19 affected the work you are doing at MHAC?
Last March when the government announced the threat of COVID, we closed the gates at Manor House for nine months. Training continued but we weren’t allowed to be an educational facility. Instead, we had interns, so the gardens and farmlands under production were maintained. Another group that’s still with us now at MHAC, the African Maths Initiative, continued to write computer apps to help Kenyans keep track of their records. It became very insular, even on my farm everybody who worked for me had to stay and we became a big family. We ate together, worked together, found enough space for everybody to sleep and made sure everyone had what they needed. Our employees could still send money home digitally as standard operating procedure and keep track of their families’ needs.
What are your ambitions for the coming year and are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly looking forward to?
I’m really excited about the TreeKenya Food Forest, which is built to emulate a real forest – only we will fill it with the plants and trees that best serve ecological and community needs. I became interested in the terminology a few years ago when it came to my knowledge that one of our graduates was saving rivers in his county through Biointensive Gardening Innovations (BIOGI). He was involving community groups, moving along rivers and showing them how to grow perennials that would be productive and hold the soil in place so the rivers could flow without corrosion. If you live along the river, you need to understand that the river doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to all the people downstream who depend on it. When trying to work out how to save our rivers, I came across the BIOGI example and thought the ideas should be communicated widely.
Protecting the water resources with forests is number one. Another way to talk about food forests is the multi-tiered levels of food production. From underground systems to bushes, to vines climbing a tree and the top-level trees, to the trees feeding the soil nutrients whose leaves supply animals with fodder - who then produce milk - to the trees that are producing medicinal feed, there’s information here. With knowledge handed down from ancestors combined with modern research in the agricultural realm, we can go anywhere. As long as we keep our soils alive. Everything seems to be coming together, which is what we needed after the last year. It’s just a shame that we had to destroy the environment to recognise how important it really is.
Where would you like to see intergovernmental organisations putting their efforts over the next decade?
They have to deal with issues brought upon us by climate change. How can the world feed this many people? Where will climate refugees be welcomed and how can they begin a livelihood that helps the Earth to continue to feed humanity and all living things? We need these agencies to be responsive to the people and living creatures who inhabit this Earth, not responsible for a single group of people with the loudest voices because they are the wealthiest. We need to question whether what we do is valuable and whether it is valuable because it profits us or because it makes it possible for our great-great-grandchildren to have a good life.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
As an older person, I respect that my kids can teach me things. They shouldn’t give up on us old folk. We still have a bit of wisdom and sometimes, all we need is a better way to express it. When they help us to express ourselves in a way that they understand, they have empowered us. I would encourage the younger generation to empower the older generation to become better communicators.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Polly Noyce, Director at Crescent Springs Ltd
Roger Leakey: "We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence."
For almost 30 years, Roger has dedicated his life’s work to alleviating poverty, hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. He outlines the importance of adopting a holistic approach to development programmes and the potential to transform the lives of the world’s most impoverished communities.
As a child, what was life growing up in Kenya like?
Kenya was a wonderful place to be brought up. My dad was a forester, so we went to all sorts of interesting places and almost inevitably, I developed a great love for wildlife, the countryside, for Africa and its people. That provided a strong foundation for my career. I have worked in most African countries and, indeed, many others in the tropics in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific.
What drove you to work in Agroforestry and Sustainable Development?
I grew up surrounded by biology, agriculture and the lives of African peoples. I didn't want an office job, so I started my career studying practical agriculture, then went on to do a degree in Agricultural Botany, before doing a PhD in the physiology of regeneration in perennial weeds. My first job was to apply horticultural techniques to the domestication of West African timber trees, eventually evolving to a wider set of tropical trees producing numerous food and non-food products. Throughout my career I have set up field projects around the world to implement such initiatives. I gradually became aware that the techniques and strategies we were developing for timber trees were equally applicable to the wide range of trees that have been overlooked by science. They are the ones which provide everyday products required by millions of poor communities in Africa and around the world.
About halfway through my career in 1992, I organised a conference about this in Edinburgh. Soon after, I applied for the job of Director of Research at ICRAF in Nairobi 'on a ticket to domesticate useful Cinderella trees for agroforestry systems.' I got the job, and I was then responsible for hundreds of scientists from a wide range of disciplines working on this in about 20 tropical countries. I was hooked! Then I applied for a job at James Cook University in Australia as Professor of Tropical Biology. This then changed to Agroecology and Sustainable Development, and I set up the Agroforestry and Novel Crops Unit. Just before I retired, I was chosen to be a Coordinating Lead Author for the "International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development" (IAASTD) to assess the sustainability of agriculture worldwide.
Could you tell us what inspired you to start writing your multidisciplinary research papers on Multifunctional Agriculture?
I noticed that many international leaders in Science and Development didn't understand the issues behind failing tropical agriculture and its impact on low crop production, poverty, malnutrition and social injustice - especially the need for a holistic approach rather than the predominant 'silo mentality' of one issue at a time. I was inspired to think about the moralistic approach to resolving these big issues. I see agroforestry as being about how you use trees to create functioning agroecosystems that then provide products, social and environmental services and economic benefits. This can have a huge impact on the lives of subsistence farmers who don't have any money. Emerging from this, we developed the programme in Cameroon.
We started by asking the farmers what they wanted from agriculture - they were surprised as they said most white guys normally tell them what to do and don't ask them what they want. We didn't want to run a standard top-down development programme, but rather work in ways that allowed farmers to develop the necessary skills and techniques to drive the project and benefit from their own initiatives. We started with 10 farmers in two villages in Cameroon and within 10 years it rose to 10,000 farmers in 500 villages.
From your research, could you highlight a few of the ways in which the lives of subsistence farmers in the tropics, particularly in Africa, could be improved?
In a nutshell, they need to have their day-to-day needs for food, income and social justice addressed. Dominant international policy has instead imposed 'foreign' ideas on what they need and should do.
After talking to African farmers, it was clear that they needed to establish appropriate techniques to improve soil fertility and the health of their small holdings. To address this, we developed a generic model, which can be adapted to any part of the tropics. The first step was to improve soil fertility. During colonial times, under the Green Revolution, people were encouraged to cut down their trees and grow monocultural crops. If they could not afford the fertilisers, they had to cut down more forest to access land to feed their families. So, as an alternative, we sought to help farmers restore their soils, without the need for money. The simplest way to do that was with leguminous shrubs and trees, which extract nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil. This increased fertility then raised maize yields from roughly 1 tonne per hectare up to 3-4 tonnes per hectare.
The next step was to help those farmers living on the brink of the cash economy to generate income. We agreed to help them domesticate their trees using simple, low-cost, low-technology horticultural techniques, by establishing village-level training schools. The farmers could apply these skills to different species best suited to their particular family or community. With the money from the sale of plants and products, they could then purchase inorganic fertilisers and so raise maize yield still further – up towards its potential yield of around 7 tonnes per hectare. Once these farmers start to integrate those sorts of species into their farming system, you diversify the farm ecosystem, the diets of the family and give them a better lifestyle. This programme rapidly became highly successful in Cameroon. If we can get donors, development agencies, politicians and policymakers to see this different way of looking at the developing world, we could indeed have a great impact.
Could you tell us about your global programme to domesticate wild fruit and nut trees in developing countries and its impact on the well-being of people?
Based on the Cameroon experience, ICRAF initiated tree domestication projects in other countries. In order to be as successful as the Cameroon model, it is essential to follow a truly 'bottom-up' approach, driven by the farmers themselves so that they are the beneficiaries of their own work and initiatives. For historical and political reasons, this is not always recognised and understood by those seeking to go down this domestication pathway. Nevertheless, where it is appropriately implemented it is very successful and farmers can start to integrate a wide range of tree species that produce domestically useful, locally marketable and often highly nutritious products, that diversify diets and diversify the rural economy. From this, new cottage industries are emerging in local towns, trade has expanded, and it creates new employment opportunities. All of this is having important and highly beneficial consequences on livelihoods. I think we can say that we now have a highly adaptable, species diverse, generic model that, given the political will, could transform the lives of millions of impoverished people in rural communities around the tropics and sub-tropics.
In your experience how are 'socially modified crops' a gamechanger?
What I have just described is what I now call the 'social modification' of tree crops (SMO’s). It is done by small local communities in a highly decentralised and appropriate way to meet their specific needs. When GMO’s became very fashionable 10-15 years ago, they were sold to people as the answer to all the world's big problems. But if the issues are social and environmental, then tweaking the genetics of potential yield production will not have any real benefit. The problem is not to increase potential yield, but how to cultivate the crops sustainably – in other words it is all about the husbandry needed for higher yields. We generated this term SMO to illustrate a different approach.
Hunger-related issues kill 25,000 people daily and the UN estimates the number of chronically hungry is rising by 4 million per year. Globally, what are the most important steps we need to take to combat this?
The most important thing that has to happen, is to recognise that crop failure, hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation, climate change, illegal migration, social conflict, and even the emergence of pandemic disease, are all the consequence of a complicated set of intertwined environmental, social and economic factors. They arise from the failure of the international community to address the failures of tropical agriculture to meet the needs of the poorest people, by feeding them with nutritious and culturally acceptable local foods. These foods should be marketed to generate income and allow these communities to climb the ladder out of poverty and social injustice. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals illustrate the 'silo mentality', but we need to bring all of those together into a single issue. The approach that we've been developing in Cameroon has a positive impact on 14 of those 17 goals!
What is your advice to those who want to help fight hunger and poverty issues within their own communities?
This may be the most difficult question to answer, as these communities are not heard by international agencies who could provide the help outlined above. So, others have to advocate change on their behalf. There is now a growing network of organisations starting to do this, but it seems the political will to think differently and with a new mindset is still lacking at the international level. Having said that, there are small charities, like the one that I assist (the International Tree Foundation), which provides 'start-up' funds for community tree nurseries in Africa - currently it supports about 39 such projects.
How does climate change affect the lives of farmers in Africa?
Climate change, as increased prevalence of droughts, floods, famine and environmental disasters, is exacerbating all the negative issues we have addressed. I believe that we have to stop seeing it as a single problem. As I have said, its causes are part of a much bigger and more complex set of factors. The best way to address climate change is to take the pressure off trees, forests and woodlands by resolving the problems of failing agriculture which drives farmers to clear forests for fertile land to support their farming. We can produce much more food from much less land if we start to restore degraded farmland by planting useful food and non-food producing tree crops and by default simultaneously sequester carbon in tree crops, which also restore wildlife habitats.
How has COVID-19 impacted hunger, poverty and social issues in developing countries?
Interestingly, we don't hear too much about how COVID is affecting developing countries in the international press. People's lives in the tropics and particularly in Africa are seriously impacted by the environment. Many of these communities, because they don't have access to money for health services, suffer from all sorts of diseases, particularly because they don't have a nutritious diet. Undoubtedly, we need to take both short-term actions by proving vaccinations and health services; as well as long-term actions to address the agricultural issues already discussed.
Could you tell us about your upcoming projects for 2021? Have you set any specific goals?
After 15 years of retirement, my on-going work seeks to raise the profile of all that we have been talking about and hope that the powers are listening! So, I have several current writing projects in hand.
I'm currently writing two papers for the journal Sustainability, one of them is a review of progress over the third decade of tree domestication. That has been incredible, as I said earlier, we started with 10 farmers in two villages and a conference in Edinburgh in 1992. Looking at the last decade, there have been about 540 research papers relating to nearly 60 tree species from different parts of Africa, published by scientists from over 400 African University departments and research institutes. So, it's both being picked up by African academics and adopted by them and being done in a multidisciplinary way that looks at this holistic approach, which is extremely encouraging. The second paper goes on from there and looks at how we can encourage African governments to adopt all of this more actively. It looks at the importance of “African foods for African people”, through advocacy at the political and policy-making level. We are trying to see if we can encourage them to stand up for approaches appropriate to farmers in Africa rather than accepting pressures for industrial approaches from Europe and America.
Where do you hope to see governments and intergovernmental organisations putting their focus over the next 10 years?
I wish I knew! I hope they respond to the points that I have been raising above and in my writing. Some of these research papers and books get through to the people that are in positions of power. There has definitely been a shift over the last 15/20 years - The African Union has signed several agreements between African countries, for example one promotes the restoration of 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. That is a huge step. Things are changing but we need it to happen quicker.
Are you optimistic about the planet's future?
I believe that we do now know how to turn around our current failures to address the needs of the planet, its natural resources, its people, and its wildlife. Slowly, slowly, I now see positive steps in the right direction. So I have to be optimistic. But the depressing part is how slow it is to get people in positions of power to understand it. That is partly due to education and the popular view of agriculture as needing to have the intensive model in which trees are cut down to make way for monocultures. So, there is resistance and I guess the change will eventually come with the next generation where there is more interest and understanding of the environment.
If you were Bill Gates or Elon Musk, how would you improve the biosphere?
I think all celebrities have a responsibility to use their influence on the media, and on the public, to advocate for change along the lines of our discussion. It seems odd, but they are listened to while others, perhaps more knowledgeable about the detail, are not.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
One point would be to do with capital. There are five forms of capital that we recognise: financial, human, natural, physical and social. Most of the world is interested in financial and to a lesser extent physical/manufactured. We don't adequately use natural, human and social capital, or really recognise their existence. The more holistic approach I have outlined tries to bring all of the five forms of capital together to see how we can develop better forms of land use in a way I have called 'land maxing'. It seeks to sustainably maximise the benefits – “profits”, if you like - from those five forms of capital. This is an important point to get across to people - instead of exploiting natural and social capital, we need to make them work for the planet and its people.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Roger Leakey, Vice Chairman at International Tree Foundation
Being a top wine producer involves a visceral relationship to the earth. Taking pride in the quality of the product, is about respecting what you use and return to the land. Christian Seely, long-term wine connoisseur and Managing Director of world-famous vineyards for 27 years, illuminates how viticulture is the embodiment of our ecosystem.
Growing up, what influenced you on your passion for wine?
My father was a passionate wine journalist and writer, who owned various wine and restaurant businesses. From an early age, he shared some delicious bottles with me, I just had a real love for the product and everything around it right from the start. What fascinated me is how wine takes its character from a particular place, its expression unique and individual. Making wine is a way of allowing the earth to speak and express itself. When you make wine, you can make a product with a unique personality. The other thing is, of course, the influence of nature - every year is completely different.
Could you tell us about your venture with your father when writing his book 'The Great Wines of Bordeaux'?
After quite a bit of journalistic writing, my father decided to write his first book in 1982. I had just left university, where I spent three years reading English, wandering around reading poems, and dreaming. I was then horrified to find that there were no marvellous jobs available to people whose principal talent was reading poems. So, my dad offered me to join him on his journey and help with the historical research. We were going to visit 159 Chateaux to taste all their wines and write about them. It was like a prolonged holiday with my dad, but it changed my life because it was a baptism by fire in tasting. We visited a Chateau in the morning to taste at least ten vintages and then we'd have lunch with the proprietor who'd serve more lovely vintages. Then we'd get in the car and visit another Chateau where we'd try ten more vintages, followed by dinner with more lovely wine. When we got home in the evening, we had to write it all up as we quickly learnt that if we didn't, within two days everything had gone blank. It was huge fun to do with my father and I learned a great amount in a very short space of time. I discovered the region of Bordeaux and what life was like for people looking after vineyards and making wine. I thought to myself, I've got to get into doing this one day.
In 1993, you were named Managing Director for Quinta do Noval in Portugal. What was Portugal like, and could you share with us your experience of the first few years?
It is one of the greatest vineyards in the world and historically has been making wines for a very long time. But it had gone through about 20 years of making wines that were perhaps not so great as before, and the vineyard was a bit run down. I was parachuted in as MD to give it lots of love and attention, which I have been doing now for 27 years. Portugal at that time was old fashioned. The roads were terrible – now, it takes you an hour and a half to drive to Porto, back then it would take three and a half hours. There was one telephone at the house. I would be out on the vineyard all day, which is vast, so if anybody tried to call me on business, somebody in the house would answer in Portuguese, and by the time they'd found me, the caller had given up. It was almost impossible for anyone from the outside world to contact me, which was incredibly nice and unimaginable today. It was like stepping back in time, I just concentrated on the magical place, looking after the vineyards and making wines.
What are the perks of the job?
When you're involved in looking after vineyards and making wine, you're working with people who share your passion and aim. It's almost impossible to work in this business of producing wine and looking after vineyards if you don't love it. Every year, the goal is to look after the vineyard as best you can, grow the best grapes, and then make the best wine. The verdict of the work is in the bottle and that bottle is the result of your year's work. Every year is a new beginning, and you see the results of what you do together. Some years are better than others because of the weather or how you choose to do things. There's always something to learn for the next time and there's the endless pursuit of a dream, which is to make the most beautiful wine. When you have a great year, then open that bottle to taste, it's a wonderful feeling.
When you've got a historic vineyard like Quinta do Noval, you've got the evidence from the sublime Vintages of the past – 1931 is one of the most beautiful wines in the world and I've been fortunate to taste it. These wines express something of the personality of the place. I fondly remember tasting our 2017 Vintage Port and recognising characteristics from the great Noval wines of the past.
How do you manage your time between multiple vineyards for AXA Millésimes group?
Before COVID, I divided my time between Bordeaux and the Douro Valley. Quinta do Noval is a big operation - it's 200 hectares of vines now. We've got a couple of vineyards in Bordeaux and I often go to our vineyards in Burgundy. I sometimes go to our Hungarian vineyards, and we also have one on the top of Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. I then have my vineyard in England called Coates and Seely, where we make sparkling wine in Hampshire, so I spend a lot of time going from vineyard to vineyard.
Now, I can manage things by talking to people on Zoom. We do Zoom tastings and blendings these days as I can't get to the vineyard. I also talk about the wines we make, and we've done quite a few Zoom tastings with wine lovers from all over the world. I sit in the tasting room or my house with different bottles in front of me, everybody around the world sits with theirs, we open the same bottles together, drink and talk about them. It's not as much fun as being all together in the same place but it's not a bad substitute.
Are there any wines that you are particularly pleased with?
As you can imagine, you become particularly fond of the vineyard you look after, which happened with Noval. All I've done is work with the people who work with me, we are the servants of the place, we look after the vineyard and the vineyard then produces great wine. Above all, Noval is known for Vintage Ports and has been making them for a long time.
Over the last 30 years, one of the most exciting things happening in the Douro Valley is not only are the Port houses making their finest Vintage Ports, but the whole region is reinventing itself in making red and white wines. In the 90s at Noval, we started doing experiments and released our first red and white wines in the early 2000s. In 2018 we had a wonderful harvest, and the red wines are some of the best we've made so far. I'm happy about that because first of all, they're lovely and secondly, it's a dream that we've been pursuing for 25 years to express this great 'terroir' with red wine. This 'terroir' found its expression in the Vintage Port, but I believe that we are now making red wines that give you an idea of Quinta do Noval’s personality.
Could you tell us about your experience making sparkling wine with Coates & Seely in England?
It's great fun. Looking after vineyards like Quinta do Noval, or Pichon Baron has taught me about the importance of place. When you spend time looking after vineyards, you realise that different parcels in the vineyard will give you different qualities and personalities of wine. Some years ago, I realised that there are certain areas in southern England which geologically are more or less identical in terms of the soil makeup you have in Champagne, France. Finding parcels of land with this unique combination of chalky and clay soil meant it could be possible to plant a vineyard with Champagne grape varietals, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and make great English sparkling wine. Although I've made my life in Portugal and France, I remain an Englishman and the idea of trying to make world-class sparkling wine in England was fun. My friend Nick Coates and I found perfect soil in Hampshire and planted it with the Champagne varietals. We had our first vintage in 2009 and today we're making about 70,000 bottles of English sparkling wine a year. I think we've started to prove our point that it is possible to make high class sparkling wine in England. It's exciting to be part of something new that is going to go on forever.
Which growing region do you see emerging/taking off next?
The Douro Valley is rediscovering itself as a producer of non-fortified red and white wines. Paradoxically, although the Douro is ancient, it's also an emerging region. Southern England for sparkling wines is also a thrilling emerging story. I'm enthusiastic about Beaujolais – it's probably best known for Beaujolais nouveau, which is a cheerful fruity drink but not really what you'd call a great wine. Yet, there are some great vineyards in the Cru Beaujolais - like Fleurie and you can make great wines from those places. The wines are still quite cheap, but the quality is rising, and people are becoming more interested. That would be my hot tip for the next decade.
How do you feel about biodynamic wine and its reduced/ positive impacts on soil?
Anyone involved in looking after a great vineyard and striving every year to make great wine from it is aware that wine is an expression of the soil, but it also relies entirely on nature. You can't make great wine if the soil and environment are not healthy, and serious winemakers are aware of the need for environmental protection. It is something that I've seen evolving over the last 27 years. There was a period in the 70s and 80s when people discovered various systems to help control pests in the vineyard and were enthusiastically applying products in a way that they certainly don't do today. The problem with viticulture is that you have various diseases like odium or mildew, and if you do nothing about it, they will destroy your crop. It's a question of doing the minimum necessary to make sure that there will be grapes because it's only sustainable if you're making wine.
Biodynamics is a specific approach - I manage a vineyard biodynamically in Burgundy, Domaine de l'Arlot. It is a very coherent system of looking after a vineyard in a biological organic way. It’s built on a rather mystical approach to viticulture and agriculture, based on the work of a wonderful, eccentric Austrian philosopher called Rudolf Steiner. For example, part of it is putting quartz crystals into cows' horns and planting them in the soil so that cosmic energy will radiate into the roots of your vines. However eccentric it may seem, it works. You can be sure that a biodynamic winemaker spends an enormous amount of time in the vineyard.
How is climate change impacting the wine industry?
Viticulture is the canary in the coal mine about climate change in that we tend to notice differences as the evidence is there in the bottle. Harvesting dates are changing, getting earlier and the Douro is particularly sensitive to this because it's quite a dry region anyway, but we're getting less rainfall and warmer average temperatures.
In the vineyards, some grape varietals resist drought better than others and need more sunshine. In the Douro Valley, we are trying to manage the canopy to have as many leaves as possible to protect the grapes from sunshine. So, there are various techniques you can use to resist the problems, but we need to be respectful of the climate accords and put a stop to global warming.
What steps do wine producers need to take to be more sustainable?
From my own experience, I think that many things can be done. Even just introducing systems of limiting water usage can make a gigantic difference. Using unharmful products on your vineyard is vital, or instead of using weed killer in between the vines, you can grow grass. Wine producers are becoming more aware, which is encouraging. Even if they didn't care, which would be a big mistake since you can't produce great wine if nature is in poor health, consumers care and consumer awareness helps to drive sustainability as much as the personal convictions of winemakers.
How has COVID-19 affected winemaking?
Last year when it was all new and uncertain, I was worried there would be an outbreak just before the harvest and people would get sick. But we made sure that everybody took the necessary precautions to ensure their health and safety, so we didn't have that problem. It's been difficult, but people still seem to be ordering wines and drinking them at home, which helps wine producers keep going. We worry not just for ourselves, but for all our friends in the restaurant business who have been hit incredibly badly. Restaurant and wine bars are so much a part of our culture and sharing a glass of wine with friends is a wonderful celebratory thing to do. We just hope it will come back soon.
As a conscious consumer, what should we look for in a wine?
What I'm looking for in wine is personality. The wines that I most admire and enjoy come from the attitude of the winemaker looking after their vineyards and doing their very best to allow the vineyard to express itself. Nobody wants to drink a bland wine that's made like Coca-Cola, so by seeking out wines of character you'll increase your enjoyment because each one is going to have a different personality. You're also actively encouraging and helping the individual winemakers who subscribe to that sort of idea. It's important in the choices we make of what we buy to encourage people who do their best to look after their vineyards and make the best wine they can.
Finally, if you could drink one vintage bottle what would it be and who with?
I have four sons, who range from 19 to 4 years old and I'm expecting another baby in two weeks. My ideal is to drink a vintage bottle of wine with all of my family, which means that I can't drink it for at least 18 years, and it has got to be a wine that's going to be ready in that time. It must be a wine that I love that comes from a place I love, so I would choose the Quinta do Noval Vintage Port from 2017. 2017 was a difficult year in terms of climate change, but miraculously produced one of the most outstanding Vintage Ports of the vineyard. It would need to be a magnum because I have so many children. So, I'd like to have a Magnum of 2017 Vintage Port, lay it down now, and open it in 20 years with my family.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Christian Seely, Managing Director at AXA Millesimes
Promoting women’s rights, including access to a fair education, advocating against FGM, and economically empowering women, are cornerstones of gender equity and SDGs. Whilst measurable progress in empowering women has been made, there is still a long way to go. In this interview, we hear from Lanoi Parmuat - long term thinker, role model and founder of Ewang’an Nadede Advocacy Initiative (ENAI). ENAI–Africa’s primary mandate and focus is to build the capacity of pastoralist communities in Africa with special emphasis on gender equity and equality, sustainable food security, quality health, improved literacy and education systems, environment, resource utilisation, for sustainable development in Africa. It is guided by the vision of a healthy, food secure, good governance and developed Pastoral community in Africa.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and tribe?
I am from the Maasai, an indigenous community in the south rift of Kenya. I grew up in a small village in the Mau Forest highlands until the age of 12. I went through many challenges, including distance to school and cultural encounters that suppressed girls’ rights. I was rescued by a school and a religious platform, which sheltered me for some time. Then I transferred to town with more of a cosmopolitan community.
What was your experience like as a young Maasai girl in school?
I attended a boarding school up to secondary education and became a mature girl at the age of 18 - that's why I have the spirit for championing girls’ rights. Being a Maasai girl, I can say you become, what you call a girl of two worlds. On one side, you are battling with technology advancement and other societal issues. On the other, you are a very innocent, naive girl from the village and the only thing you know is your communal spirit and culture. Being a Maasai girl was the best thing. I am so proud to be an Indigenous Maasai woman, except for those elements that suppress a child. For instance, the female circumcision and early marriages.
FGM is seen as a transition from childhood into womanhood. It is done at a very early age of 9 or 10. Then you're married at the age of 15, already having children and a husband to care for. I feel it is depriving girls’ rights because they need to have free will and free decision, whilst having parental guidance, community guidance and respect for our important cultural values. I feel that you should have that freedom to access education.
Who or what inspired you to promote the rights of young women?
I have a PhD, but that does not make me a non-indigenous woman, denying me the opportunity to serve my community. Those elements I just discussed could have hindered me in achieving my goals. That's why I'm in the community, to give back. I initiated ENAI, an African organisation that supports communities and ensures that women’s rights are realised. We give voice to indigenous communities, helping defend their God-given lands. Every human being has a right to be on his or her land and fulfil their purpose. I want to see women and girls accomplish that.
As a Maasai woman, I want girls to reach a position of free choice over what to do, who to marry, with equal opportunities as a girl from the West. Maasai girls are courageous, tough and resilient communities, they can be whoever they want in the world today.
What is the mission of the ENAI organisation and what is your role as CEO?
My role is to manage and drive the organisation, implementing decisions that I'm given by the board of directors. I need to make sure that our vision is actualised and that we are accountable to the partners who have entrusted us with funding to support our advocacy work.
Could you give an example of one of ENAI’s support schemes?
We have individuals willing to support our girls with educational scholarships, we have individuals who’ve supported our voice and we received funding from grant-making organisations. For instance, the Ford Foundation and Johnson & Johnson, have advocated for favourable policies to strengthen health systems, specifically in Kenya. In Kajiado, we’ve been training Community Health Assistance (CHMT) in developing ChisApp, a community-based information system and advanced primary healthcare at the grassroots level. We've ensured that health is a priority as an organisation through the partnership with the County Government Department of Health. We've also partnered with PAI (Population Advance International), spearheaded development of Family Planning Costed Implementation Plan for 5 years (FPCIP) on issues relating to Reproductive Health (RAMCAH) and advocated for child spacing.
Do you see gender equity improving in Kenya?
We still have issues around gender gaps and women lag behind, yet they are the primary producers. At ENAI, we've developed a social entrepreneurship programme where we enhance women’s income and support them through a saving scheme, which they can share in groups at the grassroots or household level. We've initiated an income-generating activity where women operate the dairy plant, as we know in our community milk is central to Maasai women because it’s a ‘full course meal’, with nutritional value and it enhances the economy. We add value to the milk by producing yoghurt, butter, ghee and cheese. These products reach the market, so women can enlarge their saving culture. It's through their indigenous knowledge and skills that these women can advance in the world today. We are proud of our cows; our riches are measured in their numbers. The strength we hold is in our land, food & security, and we are the best stewards of our environment.
With a population of over 40 million that need enriching, the government is also producing economic opportunities for women, such as the women’s enterprise fund and an electorate wing for women’s leadership. As an NGO, we’ve complimented the gaps within the government, but we need these policies to be customised to each unique area. There are also spaces in universities that provide opportunities for studies on women’s issues or even focus on gender development.
Are FGM and early marriages still a big issue in rural communities?
It’s still a big issue in the rural areas because culturally it is believed that it's something to celebrate, like a birthday. But there is a lot of advocacy happening and I'm proud to be part of the women who champion for anti-FGM. Today we have a policy against FGM, and I am glad to have spearheaded this from November 2011 to campaign for those rights. I'm pleased that today we have a board that the government accepted. The leaders embrace it, and they are not shying away from supporting these women. It's now a criminal offence if you are caught participating in FGM - you will serve 5 years and pay handsomely for the crime.
What key societal actions need to happen for women to access a fair education?
In our communities, we believe in our indigenous knowledge and skills. If we keep this, I feel it's something to be proud of as we can hold onto it forever. I think of all the countries today worldwide, we are the top in preserving our culture. We have our own identity in terms of language, dressing, territorial land, and we are still proud to have our governing system.
When it comes to formal education, we can still say we have not yet fully embraced it. We are trying, but there are issues of early pregnancies and early marriages, which pulls girls out of the system. Yet, we can see each community gradually accepting education, especially now that it's free.
How does climate change impact the lives of nomadic peoples?
We still have a long way to go, we’ve seen so much destruction and now it’s a global issue. We've seen our territory invaded by technology and development, where towns expand into pastoralist land. One of the impacts of the economy and accepting the devolution system is people selling their lands, which develop into industrial skyscrapers. There's a mass excavation of timber, minerals, sand and building stones. Then there are locust invasions, which are a threat to us and our food security. It's still a big issue, which is why one of the programmes supported by open society initiative focuses on land, food security and nutrition. We bring the female voice to the centre, but if there is no land or food for the cows, women become powerless. It's a big agenda and we need to protect women from changing weather patterns.
Do you see children playing an active role in achieving the SDGs?
Yes. We need children in education to get there. When it comes to health, we are championing it through nutrition. That's why we engage in community health units for universal healthcare. All these interventions help us achieve the SDGs.
How has COVID-19 affected Kenya’s most vulnerable communities and what more can be done to help?
It has affected communities and we’ve lost loved ones. We are just holding our hearts and fearing for our children as now social distancing is a big issue in schools. It has affected the productivity of women - for nine months they were not able to produce anything, economically nothing was generated and when our markets were closed, we could not sell livestock or trade across the border.
There were risks for girls and women, we couldn’t even access the family planning services and that’s why there was an increase in unplanned teenage pregnancies. There were also a lot of issues of domestic violence due to lack of food. The road to recovery is now the big focus in Kenya and is a key area where we want everybody to come on board and support our local women, especially in the indigenous communities.
What does a typical day look like as a Community Health Volunteer (CHV)?
I had the incredible opportunity to support women during that time, even when the doctors and nurses were on strike. The community volunteers depend on the traditional knowledge of the Maasai, as midwives, they help girls to deliver, they help us use herbal medicines even to suppress issues coming from COVID-19 and use traditional treatments for dislocations or bone breakages. If there are issues with headaches or stomach-aches, they can help.
The only challenge we have is addressing these issues with sanitation. There are many water-borne diseases in pastoral communities because we share the same water paths with our livestock and wildlife. In some communities, we have open defecation and no closed toilettes so when it rains the sewage gets very bad. One of the things we are doing is encouraging people to build toilettes and purify their water. We’ve done it in our community by helping women purify their own water for consumption. We continue to campaign and support our communities to address sanitation issues because it's a big problem.
Could you explain one of your greatest achievements in the last year?
We were able to distribute food to the households of those drastically affected by COVID-19. We were able to take prevention measures, find ways to cope with social distancing and used the community volunteers to reach out at the household level. It was really challenging due to the restrictions and lockdowns, but we were still able to distribute food and send messages through the social media platform and local radio stations.
We gave a lot of counselling as there were so many cases of domestic violence. We were able to get shelter for some girls in religious houses and get them counselling. We also distributed 25 motorcycles to take food, messages and get reports back from the local people.
What are you most excited about working towards this year?
Now that the world has opened up, I'll be glad to see children back to school and succeeding. I'll be very happy to see a good formula for girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy returning and achieving their goals. I'm excited because now we have all the policies, I want to see them implemented in safeguarding and supporting the community of volunteers. I'm going to be happy at the end of this year to see all the programmes that we planned as an organisation and all that we've been able to achieve. I'll also be pleased to have more partners supporting our initiative.
Finally, when are you are at your best or happiest?
I was happy to see Kamala win the election in the US and now that we are going towards an election, I will be glad to see more women in power voicing gender issues. My best moment will be to see every woman and girl prevail in a balanced society. That is why it is so important to achieve an all-round healthy environment.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Lanoi ene Parmuat, Board Secretary and Executive Director at ENAI
Could you tell us a bit about your background?
I got my bachelor’s degree in liberal arts studies, focusing on music and German. That's where my interest in different cultural backgrounds started. I was born in the United States and grew up speaking German, but it wasn’t until I studied the language, culture and literature at college that I got a chance to engage in different mindsets. Learning about world music and international music really sparked my interest. After pursuing my Master’s in International Communication in Germany, I got an entry-level job at the United Nations in New York with the United Nations University. I was so interested in cross-cultural understanding and working together across different nations to solve global problems. The job gave me insight into the broader policy discussions within the UN and how to look at these issues to make an impact.
I then got a post with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) as a public information officer, translating policy processes into the field. I also started a youth peace programme. It was exciting to see how much we could change the lives of some of the world's forgotten people. Then I got a post in Nigeria with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) doing public information communications, media and advocacy. That was an intense time to be in Nigeria because of the conflict with non-state armed groups in the north-east.
For the last few months, I've been with the UN World Food Programme in Sudan doing media and communications, responding to different crises such as the flooding in September. It was the worst the country has seen for 100 years! We've also had the refugee crisis on the border with Ethiopia, trying to mobilise assistance for nearly 60,000 refugees. Sudan was also recently removed from the US state-sponsored terrorism list, so many changes are happening. The World Food Programme is one of the largest humanitarian agencies providing food assistance and establishing long-term food security and livelihoods.
What triggered you to work in the humanitarian sector?
My grandparents were refugees after World War Two and my father was born in post-World War Two Germany in 1946. I heard a lot of their stories growing up and what it meant to go through conflict. My grandma was always trying to do some humanitarian work or bridge cultural understandings between different people. She inspired me to want to alleviate the suffering of people. I was drawn to work that had meaning and impacted people's lives, especially the most vulnerable.
If you were to pick an influence(s) growing up, how did they affect your career path?
It's actually a lady that I never met, but I'm named after. She saved my uncle's life in World War Two. As a small child, he got lost in southern Germany, this lady named Leni found him and took him in for two years until she was able to find my grandparents. I was given her name and I feel I have to live up to it because she made such a difference in my family's life. She was always known for her warm-heartedness and helping everybody, which inspired me to have that kind of difference in people’s lives.
As UN Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in Nigeria, what did a normal day look like?
You couldn't say that there's a typical day working in that kind of humanitarian emergency and protracted crisis. The situation in North-East Nigeria is quite insecure - it's one of the highest levels of security that staff members work in. I lived in a compound and we were driven around in armoured vehicles, so there was always this security concern in the back of your mind. It was a terrorist environment where at any point somebody could blow themselves up. We were reporting on all kinds of insecurity incidents, so because of this and the counter-terrorism operations going on and the Nigerian military trying to free villages from non-state armed groups, there were a lot of population movements. In January 2019, shortly before the Nigerian elections, there was a sudden influx of around 50,000 people to the state capital where I was working. The humanitarian community had to mobilise an emergency response for these people, who were fleeing from conflict, find a place for them and try to get them urgent life-saving support.
There were constant crises like these popping up during my role in public information and advocacy. I was sharing and drawing attention to what was happening with the outside world to mobilise resources. There were also various attacks on humanitarian compounds throughout the area and aid workers abducted. You had to react, respond and raise awareness so that the international community knew what was happening.
How did your UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan differ?
It was more on the grassroots level, focusing on peace and security. It wasn’t necessarily about mobilising food, water and shelter, but about creating the conditions for a lasting peace. There were also many humanitarian actors in South Sudan, the peacekeeping mission is just a different part of the UN. We would go out to villages and hold peace dialogues. The peacekeeping mission also ran a radio station, which was one of the only functional national radio stations in the country. So, I turned into a radio journalist, reporting on some of these peace dialogues and informing the general public on important peace processes.
I was responsible for going to remote locations and building trust with local communities. We would explain our purpose and the role of the local people in trying to move past conflict, look towards building durable peace between the different tribes and how this could contribute to peace and security more broadly on a national level.
What were your greatest achievements of the past year?
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was in North-East Nigeria. When they closed the borders, one of the biggest challenges in the humanitarian response was the lack of water and over-crowded camps for internally displaced people. At the same time, we had to adapt the response to maintain social distancing measures, get masks into the country, distribute PPE and run information awareness campaign. I took the lead in doing an education and information campaign on COVID-19 prevention measures. There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation around the pandemic, so we worked closely with local radio stations and different humanitarian actors on the ground to produce material that saved lives. Implementing measures in these areas with poor sanitation and the mass amount of people, prevented what could have been a catastrophe.
The second half of the year, I moved to the World Food Programme in Sudan. I’m proud of our media efforts throughout the crisis of refugees from neighboring Ethiopia crossing the border into Sudan. I produced the video news highlight reel that was picked up by a lot of international broadcasters. I was glad to be sending information out to the world on an emerging crisis and advocating on behalf of the needs of vulnerable people fleeing conflict.
How have you seen COVID-19 affecting the position of the world’s most vulnerable?
More than anything, it's the economic impacts felt most among the world's most vulnerable. In Nigeria, they tried to do a lockdown, which lasted no more than two weeks as people were going out on the streets saying, ‘I might get COVID, but if I don't have anything to eat, I'm going to die.’ Having these types of lockdowns in countries where the standard of living is much lower exacerbates the economic impacts and food insecurity. Globally, one of the big things we are also seeing is the ‘shadow pandemic’ and the increase in domestic violence, mostly against women.
What role do you think the media is currently playing in reporting what's happening on the ground?
I think one of the issues is how news cycles work - what's breaking news, what's developing and what's new, because that's what makes news and that's how the industry works. One of the biggest problems in the media industry in covering protracted humanitarian crises after several years is that it's no longer new and therefore there’s no focus. I just experienced it in this emerging situation from Ethiopia. There's been a protracted crisis in Sudan for decades and at the height of the hunger season last year, there were 9.6 million people food insecure - the highest number ever recorded in the country and close to 25% of the country's population. Yet, international journalists only became interested in Sudan when Ethiopian refugees entered the border fleeing from violence in the Tigray region. If you look at it in terms of numbers, the 'bigger' humanitarian crisis was in Sudan, and especially Darfur, yet the media focused on the emerging situation because that’s what makes ‘news’.
Is there a better role for the public to play in helping improve humanitarian action?
It's difficult because it's a matter of proximity. Around 50% of Americans don't have a passport and have never left the country, so when something is going on in a far away country there’s nothing they can relate to, they have no understanding of what it means. I would say it is more of a long-term and profound change that's needed in terms of developing as a society that is more globally aware. That all has to go back to the education system - it's more of a domestic and education policy question. We need to change the schooling system and expose children to a global society and developing an international mindset in an interconnected world.
How does climate change affect disasters on the ground?
Climate shocks from droughts to floods, as we've seen in Sudan last September, are exacerbating humanitarian crises and are sometimes the cause of humanitarian crises because people have to migrate. The flooding of the River Nile in Sudan was the highest level it has been in 100 years, over 150,000 homes destroyed, and nearly 1 million people were affected. This is one natural disaster that happened in one country in 2020, but it's happening globally. Again, it’s not communicated by the media, especially on how its broadcasted to the West. Because climate science is such a complex, interconnected system, it's quite hard to explain it in a straight forward way. For example, how one particular case of flooding in Sudan is related to greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
Do you think the UN Humanitarian Affairs should prioritise this in their strategic focus over the next 5 years?
There is ever more focus on this, especially from the office for UN OCHA, demonstrating how climate shocks exacerbate global crises. For the UN's 75th anniversary, the UN held a survey on the core issues concerning citizens around the world. Climate change and how to frame responses to humanitarian crises were at the top of the agenda. But, the thing to remember is that the UN is not one organisation that can mandate something for everybody - it’s a multilateral network of different nations with their own policies. More than anything, the United States re-joining the Paris agreement will have a greater impact in leading the global green policy change.
Do you have any particular goals for 2021?
Given that 2020 was such an unpredictable year, my goal is to be kind to myself. There's enough pain, suffering, crises and anxiety and to uphold my role in humanitarian work for the next three to five years, I can’t afford to burn out. Self-care is essential to staying strong, energetic, motivated, inspired, compassionate and most of all dedicated to the work that I do. We're seeing the effects of the pandemic taking a toll on mental health across societies, so my motto is to try to maintain that mental health and stability amidst these turbulent times.
Finally, what is most important to you at work?
The most important thing for me is to embrace teamwork to solve problems and to create a work environment where we build upon each other’s strengths. We should empower and motivate each other to stay inspired, remain committed and look at as many angles as possible to solve a problem. If you create an environment for people where they love to work and feel passionate and committed to what they do, I think that's the best way for them to strive individually, reach collective success and make a lasting difference.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Leni Kinzil, Communications Officer at World Food Programme
Venter Mwongera: "I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa."
Could you tell us about yourself?
I grew up at the foot of Mt. Kenya (Meru) in an average family set up. My parents were strict disciplinarians who believed in holistic growth and the importance of having a multi-faceted skillset to succeed in life. From a tender age, I had an insatiable thirst for information and an inquisitive mind. My grandparents were mixed-crop and livestock farmers - I was amazed by the complex world of farming which they navigated with ease! I would negotiate with my parents for permission to spend time with them, having spent much of my youth living within the grounds of a missionary hospital where my mum nursed. So, a day with my grandparents in the countryside was a breath of fresh air.
I’m now an integrated communications specialist, passionate about telling African stories through the lens of solutions, inclusivity and dialogue. I believe we can overcome challenges by embracing an open mind-set and listening to each other. I have been a Multi-Media (print, broadcast and digital) storyteller for over 15 years. I have broadcasted news, trained and mentored journalists and implemented complex developmental programmes in fields such as agriculture and gender mainstreaming. I’ve worked with many organisations, including Environmental Research Mapping Information Systems in Africa (ERMIS-Africa) and the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT). I also serve at various board member positions in media organisations in Africa.
What was the driving force that led you to the fight against poverty, hunger and social injustice?
Growing up interacting with medics, farmers and business people allowed me to mingle and ask questions. Their answers shaped my world view at the age of 10. Often, I would visit the patients in the hospital to hear their story, especially those who had malnutrition complications and cases of gender-based violence. Sometimes, my parents would send me and my siblings to share foodstuffs to various families, especially, when drought was declared as a national emergency.
After working with various regional and global organisations in African communities, I learnt that most family feuds were a result of insufficient family resources and male land ownership. Women were left to till the land, unpaid labour, whilst their husbands controlled the yields, sold the farm produce and left to spend the money how they wished. The women and children were left at home without access to food, school fees, clothes and other needs. After spending the family money, the man would come home empty-handed and this ignited gender-based violence. A patriarchal society limits holistic family happiness, promotes poverty and breaks families - a fabric that unifies society.
Embracing an environment that embeds equity from family, community and society levels would reduce poverty, hunger and social injustices in Africa. The governments need to provide a separate budget for sustainable agricultural farming methods for the farmers to live a decent life from their agricultural investments. Also, in July 2003, the Maputo declaration committed by the African countries to allocate 10% of their national budget to agriculture need be honoured. Only Morocco and Ethiopia have honoured their commitment.
How did you get into working for DAKOKE (Dissemination of Agricultural Information and Knowledge in Africa)? And what is your role as the Consulting Director of Communications for DAKOKE entail?
I’m a co-founder of DAKOKE. We founded the communications consulting firm to seal the gap in the dissemination of agricultural information existing between the smallholder farmers and the research. We demystify the technical-scientific reports relevant to the smallholder farmers’ farming calendar, make it digestible and develop farmer-to-farmer training videos that explain various agricultural innovations that are easy to adopt. We also offer various communication services, including documenting the impacts of the projects/programmes and advocate for formulation of policies supporting sustainable farming methods. We work with seasonal communications consultants with over 10 years’ hands-on expertise in global agricultural communication.
I implement the communication functions, identify partners and nurture relationships, lead in advocacy activities and fundraising initiatives, train and mentor in science communications in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What is your philosophy towards your work?
These are the times and we are the people to bring the change we want through honest and smart handwork. Embrace the unity of purpose, gender equity, live in the present, espouse the diversity of skills and perspectives to achieve a common goal of abolishing poverty in the African continent.
Can you name 3 of your greatest achievements since working at DAKOKE?
Growing the partnership base to achieve more with fewer resources. For example, partnering with like-minded organisations to advocate formulating agroecology policies in Sub-Saharan African countries.
Developing modules on training and mentorship of science, health, agriculture and environmental communication, contributing to improved ways of communicating simplified but factual science in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Developing proposals with various organisations where DAKOKE’s responsibility is to entirely handle communication, advocacy and the documentation of the projects’/programmes’ activities.
Have you faced much gender discrimination within your work? If so, how have you overcome these encounters?
Sometimes. With scientific communication, especially in leading positions such as Director of Communication and Chief-Editor, which were previously held by the male gender. Mostly, patriarchal societies place women as subordinate to men which becomes complex when a woman is in charge.
With such an understanding, any time I join a new team, I hold meetings to understand their motivations, fears, world views, belief system, their understanding of the job description (JDs) and how our roles are crucial to the organisational goal. Once this is clear, I share my views, various working styles and then we choose a style that works for everyone. I explain my role in the team and how working together will help us succeed as individuals and as a team. We create collegial relationships backed with open communication and empathy.
Can you tell me a bit about your new project, Farm Studio? What were the reasons and inspirations for setting it up?
With over 15 years of hands-on experience in science, agriculture, climate change and environmental communication, I have worked closely with African and Asian smallholder farmers, governments, scientists and all those crucial voices in the agricultural ecosystem. With farming challenges and research reports written in a technical language, providing a platform for these voices enables the discussion of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through knowledge and information empowerment. COVID-19 hindered extension teams in meeting with farmers’ groups for training or responding to their farming challenges. Hence, agriculture was adversely affected.
So, Farm Studio is a digital platform offering smallholder farmers e-resources, responses to their daily farming challenges provided they have a smartphone and internet connection.
What synergies exist with TreeKenya?
There are synergies in ensuring that the benefits and outcomes of the programmes reach the smallholder farmer. Local language and local knowledge are key to broadening the impacts of the programmes. There’s clear communication through lobbying, documentation, developing farmer training radio programmes in local languages and farmer-to-farmer learning videos. Both see the importance of identifying partners, nurturing relationships and building support initiatives on a community or regional level to change mind-sets and implement policies to aggregate farmers.
How do you see technology unlocking the potential of smallholder farmers?
I have done much research for my second MA/PhD in Digital Journalism and my dissertation is in technological communication among the smallholder farmers. Adopting the digital paradigm could unlock farmers’ potential as the e-resources are available for all. The fibre cable provides a vast internet connection, even to most rural areas and affordable smartphones allow farmers to surf the net and access updated agricultural information and knowledge.
Technology enables knowledge sharing and farmers can choose the digital platform which has solutions to their issues. Or, the training team can e-learn on a broad topic relevant to the farmers’ and train them on the subject. It offers expansive and borderless access to agricultural e-resources enabling sustainable farming to feed the current and the future generations. Although movements and large group meetings are regulated due to COVID-19, tech-savvy farmers continue to surf the net to learn about the various sustainable technologies applicable to their farming environments. However, adoption of these technologies is still dismally low. Hence, there’s an opportunity to build the capacity of the smallholders on how to navigate around digital world for their convenience and improve their farm yields sustainably enhanced by digital agricultural solutions.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa?
It has adversely affected the production, processing and distribution of food and further aggravated hunger and malnutrition in a continent already food insecure. Scarcity of workers due to massive lay-offs, sporadic food production shortages, food losses and food price inflations have increased malnutrition. It has hit the very poor hard as 70% of their income goes to food. It’s affected the consumption of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits and animal products, whilst increasing micronutrients deficiencies such as in Ethiopia. Developing countries that depend on food exports have been adversely affected due to COVID-19 since there’s low income and less food availability due to the imposed food export restrictions, increased methane emissions and risks of diseases like salmonella, which increases vulnerabilities to COVID-19.
Are national governments doing much to support your efforts, especially during the pandemic?
COVID-19 is an awakening call to all governments to relook at their priorities. They need to invest in human resource refresher courses, increase budget allocations to the ministries of health, agriculture and education. They must build scenarios for proper planning to mitigate the impact of any unforeseen catastrophic occurrence, improved crisis communication and response preparedness, develop infrastructure and efficient systems, invest in cold storage systems and tarmac roads in the interior regions to reduce food losses during transportation. Governments have an opportunity to look beyond these times of triple crisis - hunger, locust incursion and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are your goals for the upcoming year?
I envision partnering with like-minded organisations to digitise agriculture in Africa, support efforts to combat COVID-19, continue lobbying African governments to honour their promises made in the 2003 Maputo agreement and support the formulation of agroecology and climate change policies among other policies relevant to agroecology. We need to create an enabling environment for farmers (including creating alternative sources of incomes for the youth and women) to farm sustainably without depleting the natural resources. I want to connect various players in the agricultural ecosystem to make decisions based on relevant data to combat the food crisis in Africa.
If you were head of the UN, where would you put your focus over the next decade?
I would digitise all sectors of governments and find sustainable solutions to the challenges affecting people from the community, to national and global levels. I’d review policy frameworks and align them to emerging challenges, encourage all governments to install functional systems that allow equity, invite all multi-national corporations to mitigate the impacts of climate change and insist on their commitment to reducing global warming. I’d put a stop to irresponsible mining and oil drilling, embrace indigenous knowledge and empower communities to have stocked seedbanks with indigenous seeds that are always accessible to the smallholder farmers. I’d embrace the complementarity between the genders as both perspectives are unique and relevant to the global development agenda.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
To be among the teams changing gradually, with consistency, the African narrative from food insecurity to food sovereignty, whilst promoting the unity of purpose working closely with both young and old for a seamless continuation of generations.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Venter Mwongera, Co-founder, DAKOKE Communications
I’d like to start by asking you about your family background?
My dad’s origin is Iraqi Jewish and he was born in India (Calcutta), now living in Israel. He travelled to the UK by boat with his parents and some of his siblings in 1960, while others went to Israel. My mum’s parents were of Dutch and Russian origin but lived in East London. My mum is now living in Bristol close to my sister.
Could you tell us about your influences growing up in London?
I grew up in North London. I always found the socio-cultural and historical aspects of London fascinating. I also lived in Hackney and Stoke Newington for several years, which is one of the only places in the world where Jewish and Muslim people live together as one community. My background, in combination with growing up in London, always inspired me to work and travel, doing social stuff especially in Asia and Africa. However, I never thought I would end up living in Kenya working for myself in gender and social responsibility.
Did you encounter much racial or gender discrimination– and how did that frame what you’re doing now?
I don’t recall experiencing any gender discrimination, but I do remember seeing racism in school and experiencing some myself, being Jewish with a dad who was born in India. This was in the 1980s and 1990s when racism was more prevalent in London than it is today, although nationally and globally it is still at the forefront of global social and political issues. I am very proud of my heritage and love the reactions I get when asked where I am from.
Can you tell us about Rise and your role as a consultant?
I established Rise in October 2018 in Kenya to take on a fresh challenge and to broaden my service offerings. Previously, for 12 years I worked at an international sustainability firm called Environmental Resources Management (ERM). Projects at ERM included working with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to integrate gender into their Fragile and Conflict States Programme, developing gender action plans and strategies for several clients, and mainstreaming gender into Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), management plans and others.
For the last year, I have supported Agence Française de Développement (AFD) as their Regional Environmental, Social and Gender Specialist, which has included managing related risks and integrating gender into their East Africa portfolio including in education, energy, transportation/infrastructure, water and sanitation sectors. Other projects have included developing a gender management system for a financial institution in Gabon, undertaking a social safeguard review on a smallholder tea farmer programme in Rwanda and acting as strategic advisor for impact assessment related to the refugee influx in Uganda for the World Bank, which included a component for gender and violence against children.
In short, Rise offers a broad range of social and gender development/safeguard services in Africa and internationally. This includes gender mainstreaming, risk review, due diligence, community needs assessment, impact assessment, management planning, livelihood restoration and resettlement.
Through the years, how has Rise impacted Kenya? What has changed and what has worked?
This is a big question for a young company. At Rise and during my time at ERM, working with E&S risk management and gender integration has influenced clients. For example, working with AFD and their government counterparts has allowed for capacity development in these areas, including enhancing female participation in decision making regarding project designs and mitigation measures, as well as increasing access to benefits through employment and other project impacts (e.g. access to energy).
From your experience, how can a baseline help to reduce gender inequality?
Having a baseline to understand the gender context is key to designing a project or a programme. It enables an understanding of the current situation in terms of roles and responsibilities in the household and community, access to education, participation in decision making, access and control of resources and assets (e.g. land, shelter, finances etc), and issues related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This allows us to identify programme outcomes, monitor and measure success and recognise areas for improvement related to project impacts and inequalities.
Community engagement seems like a key process to your work, could you tell us what types of projects you’ve been running?
For most projects that I work on, participatory and inclusive community engagement is essential. It ensures that everyone’s views and needs are considered, allowing us to build a connection and manage any risks that may block or delay a project. In many countries, it is a challenge to get a representation of females due to cultural factors, so having group discussions helps to alleviate this.
For the refugee project in Uganda, we focused on engagement activities. We met with key informants who specialised in gender issues, conducted separate focus group discussions with male and female refugees, and host communities to capture sensitive issues regarding their situation and gathered information relating to SGBV, violence against children and social inclusion. I also led social and gender aspects of projects in Malawi, Liberia and Sierra Leone where female participation in meetings is also very limited. The only way to capture their views was through focus groups and interactive data collection techniques.
Political will is key to how Kenya progresses. How much emphasis does the government place on mainstreaming gender into Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG)? Do you think enough is being done?
Kenya is a signatory to Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1979) and the United Nations Declaration of Violence against Women (1993). There has been a lot of progress in Kenya concerning gender resulting from the Sustainable Development Goals, which has led to the development of a number of gender specific policies and integration of gender in environmental and social legislation. As such and from experience of working with various agencies, I can say that the will to integrate gender in ESG is very much there. However, there is sometimes limited capacity to mainstream gender due to the number of projects that are running at the same time, and not enough gender specialists within agencies to meet this need.
How do you see gender playing a role in mitigating climate change?
In 2009, I undertook my masters' dissertation on ‘gender differentiated impacts of environmental change in West Bengal, India’. I also researched a policy paper for Oxfam on the linkages between gender and climate change in 2008. This topic area has been a priority for many academics and non-governmental agencies for over 10 years. Since women and men have different roles in communities, they are impacted in different ways and therefore are adapting according to their needs. For example, in rural areas, women are primarily responsible for collecting food, water and fuel (firewood) for the household, while men are usually responsible for income generation and farming activities (although women often take on this role in combination with their domestic role). Across Africa, many women are now selling and using energy-efficient cookstoves that minimise reliance on natural resources for fuel. Mini solar panels are also being used for lighting and mobile phone charging. Women are being trained in water management techniques, such as rainwater harvesting, to improve access and the safety of those that have to walk long distances, due to water scarcity resulting from climate change.
How do gender biases differ in rural vs urban life?
Patriarchy, cultural and traditional behaviour continues to play out more in rural areas resulting from poverty, lack of education and health facilities that compromise the position of females. This includes teenage pregnancy, SGBV, polygamy, and other issues. In urban areas, through social media and government initiatives, there has been a focus on encouraging females to complete education (e.g. through Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) programmes) and an incentive to take on professional positions. In Nairobi, many women are now in professional positions, such as managers, engineers and lawyers.
What other countries could we draw exampled form in terms of gender equity?
Rwanda is far ahead compared to other African countries resulting from gender integration in their development framework following the 1994 genocide. The World Bank gender portal suggests that women have 61% of seats in parliament, compared to its neighbours; 21% in Kenya, 34% in Uganda and 36.9% in Tanzania. There is a lot of focus on education. The UN Women report on Rwanda also states that they are leading on the numbers of signatories to the UN HeForShe campaign which aims at bridging the gender digital divide by tripling girls’ enrolment in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and eradicating gender-based violence in all its forms.
What has been your greatest challenge and how are you/have you overcome this?
Through my clients and network, the demand for gender mainstreaming in ESG and development is growing. So, I am currently working to build a network of experienced gender specialists in Africa and elsewhere to support this area of growth for Rise, covering all sectors. It is an area that I have always been deeply passionate about and I am determined to meet this important demand.
Youth exclusion at almost all levels is widespread. How do you convince a generation of young women that there is a better future for them?
Education and mentoring are the key to empowering young women to play more of a role in economic development. It is challenging to change cultural beliefs and social influences that often determine the role young women play, mainly in rural areas, and shift aspirations from young marriage and domesticity. However, if there is a platform where they can freely express themselves and are guided by mentors, then I believe this will empower gifted young women to fulfil their dreams and to inspire others. This includes young men who can also be vulnerable and sometimes engage in petty crime, alcoholism and SGBV if they feel that there are no opportunities and are unable to fulfil their social role.
I understand you’re also working Pan Africa and soon going to Sierra Leone – could you tell us about what you will be doing there?
I am leading social studies for an EU funded project aimed at constructing bridges at various points in rural areas to improve access. Currently, pedestrians and vehicles use makeshift cable ferries made from planks of wood. This is an important project for communities in these areas as it will open up the market, enhancing income opportunities, for both men and women in these areas, as well as improving access to education and other important services.
Where should we be drawing optimism from, that the ‘war’ against gender-based inequality, will be won?
If you look at gender indicators over time, positive changes are happening with education, employment and participation in decision making. The role of social media has a role to play in supporting this shift, without leaving men behind. This is crucial in the success of beating gender inequality as men face other challenges that are often hidden and must be addressed.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Natasha Ezekiel, Founder, Rise Sustainability Consulting
As the stewards of our natural resources in Africa, women disproportionately shoulder the burdens of climate change. They are most vulnerable to its adverse impacts on human welfare; the agricultural cycle; food production and food security.
Yet women’s potential to increase resilience against climate disasters remains untapped due to existing gender biases; restricted land rights, limited access to training, financial resources, technology and policy making. A staggering 70% of women live in poverty, and with reduced access to their basic human rights, means they are 14 times more likely to die in climate-related disasters than men. They often do not receive adequate warnings ahead of a crisis and are left to take care of the children and elderly. In our efforts to tackle climate change, leaders at family, community, national and global levels need to listen to the voices of women and invest in their futures.
The first step towards tackling the challenges of climate change is to empower women to safeguard the environment. Given their traditional roles in agricultural production and as the procurers of water, cooking fuel, and other household resources, women are not only well suited to finding solutions to prevent further degradation and to adapt to the changing climate; they have a vested interest in doing so.
If given the opportunity, women can increase household and community resilience to mitigate our changing climate. Through community-based associations, they can exchange ideas in a self-organised network and strengthen their positions within the farming community. Community-based action creates ownership and stimulates innovation, so it is more sustainable and strategic.
In Kenya, women own less than 1% of the land and make up 75% of farming labourers. Until recently, they used hand-watering systems to grow vegetables for their families. To improve productivity, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute introduced female farmers to drip irrigation technologies. These kits helped to deliver water to crops effectively with less effort and at a minimal cost. The use of the drip-kit is spreading rapidly across Kenya and is an example of a successful initiative that has already increased profits and put women on the map.
Investment in these types of technologies and initiatives will enhance sustainable food production. It is also important to reflect women’s knowledge, needs and roles while incorporating indigenous expertise and traditional practices. We can then develop policies that deliver gender-sensitive impacts, giving women access to resources and providing them with opportunities to participate in climate action.
By including women in the creation of policies and strategies around environmental protection we can improve disaster response, secure land & inheritance rights, all the while, replenishing our food resources. Characteristically, women bring empathy and inclusiveness to their networks. They understand what is needed to adapt and often find practical solutions, enhancing their efficiency as sustainability leaders.
Our TreeKenya programme has been designed to ensure women’s equal access to full participation in power structures and decision-making. Starting with advocacy, we raise awareness on the importance of gender complementarity through embracing the unique contribution and perspective of each gender to foster communal success. What’s more with strategic and clear communication, we build on prevailing customs to embrace gender inclusivity for the success of communities.
In summary, a more balanced power structure with equal measures of masculine and feminine qualities is a critical first step for a functioning society. Without such actions, the devastation created by climate change will continue to accelerate with women being the hardest hit.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
As the existential threat of climate change looms over our planet, no continent will be affected as badly as Africa. Extreme weather events – such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, and soil degradation - are wreaking havoc on smallholder farmers, upsetting yields, food quality and human safety. By 2050, hunger and child malnutrition could increase as much as 20%.
Increasing demand for healthy food, clean water and energy from a growing population are 3 of our greatest global challenges. Although efforts have been made to combat hunger, Africa is battling the impact of climate change and farmers are amongst those most vulnerable.
At the same time, the farmers can be agents for change themselves. Whilst climate change presents challenges for African farmers, it also offers opportunities. If carefully designed, regenerative farming can provide sustainable, economic benefits that help keep the rise in global temperature below the science-backed 1.5c-degree 2030 target. Yet, for Africa to unlock this potential, funding is urgently required in the development of sustainable farming practices.
To reduce the impact of climate change, national governments need to support state & private sector investment in climate information services (CIS) to better understand weather pattern variability, in turn modernising weather monitoring, data collection and modelling to provide greater accuracy of forecasting extreme weather events.
Greater investment is needed in research to understand how different crops and livestock breeds cope with drought, famine, and heat stress. There needs to be more emphasis on providing investment, education and management training in local communities to improve the well-being of farms, build sustainable and resilient ecosystems and undertake projects to increase food production whilst ensuring the natural resource bases are restored.
These climate finance mechanisms should be designed so that farmers can have better access to interventions that sequester carbon in the soil, such as agroforestry systems and better land use management practices.
In Kenya, farmers suffer from unreliable rainfall leading to drought conditions that subsequently increase vulnerability and food insecurity. At TreeKenya, we provide a digital platform backed by climate smart technology and sustainable precision farming that will enable farmers to access accredited markets, information and mitigate risks.
Farmers will benefit from 60% of the carbon credit revenue as a financial incentive, generated by improving farming methods – such as increasing organic matter in soils and planting indigenous trees. In the long term, this will improve the soil’s water absorption, nutrient supply and biodiversity, and help prevent erosion. Better soils also raise farm yields, improving food security and helping agriculture’s resilience to climate change.
At face value, farmer livelihoods and agricultural production in Africa have much to lose with the onset of climate change. However, with the right tools, farmers have the potential to reduce and even reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Their capacity to drive sustainable agricultural development that builds resilience will combat food insecurity and help to limit the global temperature rise.
African agriculture has long suffered from a lack of interest and investment. Both have contributed to the food crisis in the last decade and has left the continent in a perilous position. In its deliberations over which projects to fund, the international climate community has not prioritised Africa and it has often ignored agriculture, Africa’s biggest source of jobs and a crucial contributor to human welfare on the continent.
Investment in smallholder farmer, climate-smart technologies and sustainable methods of production is urgent for the survival of our planet. With it we can harvest the fruits of our labour. Africa should now be top of the climate change agenda.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist
Photo: Marco Simola/CIFOR, A Faidherbia Tree
TreeKenya’s Agritech platform connects smallholder farmers to accredited organic, carbon and financial markets
As a major employer and driver of economic growth, agriculture lies at the heart of the Kenyan economy. Yet, out of a population of 46 million, 14.5 million people face food insecurity and poor nutrition every year.
Today, 63% of food in Kenya is produced by smallholder farms. They manage a large share of natural resources – such as water, land and soil – despite very limited access to education, technology, finance and markets. Along with felling, the harsh chemical fertilisers and pesticides used on the lands are damaging and directly contribute to greenhouse gases.
For farmers to respond to the increasing demand for food, they need to be able to rely on well-functioning research and development, training and information systems. In the wake of sustained efforts to modernise farming practices, the role of technology is at the crux of maximising the value chain.
With the right access to the latest technology and agroecological inputs, local farmers can become stewards of biodiverse farmlands that hold great potential for carbon storage. Encouraging farmers to grow a variety of native tree species, using organic-only practices also facilitates the production of healthy and nutritious food.
At TreeKenya, we provide an innovative, free digital platform to enable smallholders to access organic value chains, up-to-date information and digital services. Our agritech initiative, backed by climate-smart technology and sustainable precision farming, aggregates farmers to transform the food and agriculture system.
The proprietary platform merges the best of agriculture, climate, food, finance and technology information. As a Plan Vivo validated Monitoring and Evaluating application, it presents a system change to smallholder regenerative agriculture, improving output and increasing farmer development enriches the livelihoods of farmers and the quality and nutritional value of the crops.
Carbon credits enable the programme and incentivise farmers to plant high-value trees for their nuts, fruits, seeds and leaves – such as moringa, neem, avocado and citrus trees. Coupled with the land converted to certified organic, 60% of carbon sales go straight to the farmer for tree and soil organic sequestration.
Our circular solution secures long-term offtake agreements with organic retailers; establishes organic seed banks at participating schools; and builds a database of farmers with transaction and payment trails, enabling micro-finance & insurance businesses to sell their services.
We aim to arm farmers with the same intelligence as Big Ag – weather, land mapping and precision farming - with satellites monitoring and evaluating. Moreover, we enable access to crop and finance insurance, protecting farmers against growing agricultural risks - particularly locusts, natural disasters, disease and theft.
By providing these services, farmers gain more control over their productive assets and overcome the degradation of the natural resource base. They will also be guaranteed markets for their organic production from farm to fork.
We are at the vanguard of smallholder farmers achieving economies of scale and enhancing their market power.
Rosanna Pycraft, Journalist