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In Africa, impoverished farmers seek better technology

Journal & Courier
June 20, 2007

Larry Murdock
Purdue University, Department of Entomology

During the last 20-some years I have traveled into the back country of Africa at least 40 times, gotten sick more times than I like to count and invariably returned home exhausted and half in a state of shock.

Every time I arrived back I pinched myself and asked, "Was that real, what I saw -- or just a bad dream?"

Africa is indeed disquieting. In the countryside people truly do live in mud huts with thatched roofs, and girls carry water jugs on their heads every day, sometimes for miles because there is no nearby well.

People subsist on $1 a day in the countryside, and work extremely hard for that dollar out in the blasting tropical sun -- bent over a hoe, or threshing grain or gathering firewood in the bush.

Yet, poor as they are, they have bright smiles and straight-backed dignity that would do any of us proud.

They are eager to learn and will walk long distances to hear about a new technology that might better their lives. America, for them, is still a place of wonder, rich beyond words. These impoverished African farmers, are, in most ways, people exactly like you and me. They laugh and cry and smile and worry about their kids and making ends meet, just like we do -- though their means are far shorter than ours. One thing is for sure: They are still grateful for a helping hand from America.

America has had its own helping hands. Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant boy who became vastly wealthy in America, gave away 90 percent of his fortune in his lifetime. He said that a man who dies rich dies disgraced. He built, among other things, thousands of libraries and so benefited countless millions of young Americans for generations to come.

That tradition continues strong today. Two weeks ago it was announced that Purdue University will receive $11.4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help some of the poorest people in the world, cowpea farmers living on the desert borderlands in sub-Saharan West Africa. The problem: cowpeas, a key food, lose their precious grain to weevils when stored after harvest.

In March 1987, together with Purdue and Cameroonian colleagues, I began a USAID-supported project aimed at finding better ways for West African farmers to store their cowpea grain after harvest. They needed simple, low-cost storage technologies because their cowpeas were being destroyed by the cowpea weevil, a rapidly-reproducing post-harvest pest. They needed the grain as food and for the income it brings. They have precious few other sources of cash.

Twenty years later, one of the simple storage techniques we first developed back in Cameroon in the late '80s had been embraced by large numbers of farmers throughout West Africa. But tens of millions more didn't know about our storage method and so weren't using it.

The storage technique we invented -- a childishly simple form of hermetic storage, involving sealing the dry cowpea grain in air-tight plastic bags -- can still be improved. The bigger problem is to devise ways to spread the technology to reach the millions who might use it if they knew how.

The Gates grant will develop an optimized storage bag, determine the most effective extension delivery method and transfer the technology to the farmers in tens of thousands of villages throughout the West Africa region via extension education.

Since the emphasis of the project is on extension, the project will be led by Joan Fulton of Purdue's Department of Agricultural Economics, while Barry Pittendrigh of Entomology and Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer of International Programs in Agriculture will lend their expertise to our effort to reach 50 million West Africans in 10 different countries in the region.

We are just getting started. Wish us luck.

If you have ever bought a Microsoft product or one from a company owned by Berkshire-Hathaway, you have indirectly contributed to the finances of the Gates Foundation. And to our project.

When I first visited Africa in 1985, an Englishman who had been there for many years cautioned me to be alert: "The red dust of Africa settles upon your heart," he said.

It's true.