Women and children first at the table


Photo credit: WVC 2005-12-DRARIA WOMEN-41.jpg – with Gérard RUOT (SOS Village d’Enfants Draria, Algeria), Raymond JANSSENS (Representative of UNICEF ALGERIA) and Willem VAN COTTHEM (Ghent University, Belgium)

Within the framework of UNICEF’s project “Family gardens for the Saharawis refugees in S.W. Algeria” in 2005-2007, a workshop was organized in December 2005 to prepare a group of  women for the construction of their own kitchen garden in the Sahara desert and in the Village d’Enfants of Draria..  They learned how to apply the water saving and fertilizer saving soil conditioner TerraCottem (www.terracottem.com).  With some 2000 small family gardens in the Tindouf area (Algeria) constructed at the end of 2007, UNICEF’s project was a remarkable success.

About brown and green food revolutions, grasses and food crops

by Prof. Dr. Willem VAN COTTHEM (University of Ghent, Belgium)

If the lives of a group of people are at stake, “Women and children first” implies that the lives of women and children are to be saved first. If the lives of hungry and malnourished people are at stake, those of women and children are to be taken care of first.  That was one of my thoughts after reading Shannon Horst’s article entitled: “Africa needs a brown (not green) food revolution” in The Christian Science Monitor on July 6, 2010 :

Africa’s long-term food security will come from nurturing the soil, not manipulating expensive seeds


First of all I want to confirm that I agree with most, but not all, of Shannon’s excellent points.  One of my remarks is that some of her views are too generalized:  

  • I do not believe that all Western initiatives to help Africa risk to cause more damage to that continent.  Not all these initiatives are ‘grounded in manipulating seeds and increasing synthetic fertilizers to improve production’.  
  • It is my sincere conviction that nowadays not all the aid groups ‘put more money, more science, or more business savvy behind the same old approach’.  If this were the case, it would mean that ‘all scientists are looking in the wrong direction’.  If Shannon Horst is a scientist herself, she certainly feels accused as much as I am by that statement.
  • Not all the scientists ‘are focusing on how to grow bigger, more, and disease- and pest-resistant plants’.
  • Not all the scientists ‘focus on how to manipulate the plants rather than how to produce both healthy plants and healthy soil’.

I therefore take for granted that Shannon Horst is aware of the content of my contributions on three of our blogs:

  1. https://desertification.wordpress.com,
  2. http://containergardening.wordpress.com and
  3. http://www.seedsforfoood.org.
Women and children preparing their kitchen gardens in Draria (Algiers) at the local “SOS Village d’Enfants”- PHOTO Gérard RUOT – P5120032-SOS-042006-JARD.FA.jpg

While manipulating seeds and increasing application of synthetic fertilizers to enhance plant production can be qualified as ‘looking in the wrong direction’, these two points do not cover fully the content of what is called the Second Green Revolution.  There are no strong arguments to sustain the idea that the totality of this agro-industrial model ‘would further destroy Africa’s soil and water in the long run and exacerbate the problems: food insecurity, bare land, soil erosion, increased drought and then flooding when the rains finally do come; increased pests and invasive plants; and the collapse of the river systems and groundwater stores’.

Even at an overripe apple there may still be some tasty pieces!  

So, let us not blame all the ‘Western’ scientists to be part of what Shannon is seeing as some destructive machinery, called the Second Green Revolution, described as exclusively using technologies to boost farm yields.

Very fortunately, we all know numerous people, men and women, scientists, aid workers, members of international, national and non-governmental organizations, who are not looking in the wrong direction.  They are working continuously hand-in-hand with the rural and urban population on the African continent, like on all the other continents.  By the way, we certainly know many respected scientists, whose research work has been contributing or still contributes to the improvement of the living standards of the poorest human beings.  Many of them developed excellent and constructive methods or models, successful practices and inputs, applied in all kinds of development programs for the welfare of farmers and townspeople.

Grassland or farmland, or both?

Grasslands are dominated by grasses. Grassland with scattered individual trees is called savanna.

Savannas cover almost half the surface of Africa (not 70 %). They are characteristic for warm or hot climates with an annual rainfall from about 50 to 125 cm (20-50 inches), concentrated in 6 or 8 months of the year, followed by a dry period when fires can occur. The soil of a savanna is porous, rapidly draining water. It has only a thin layer of humus, which makes them inappropriate for agriculture.

Farmers sometimes cut down small parts of forests, burn the trees, and plant crops for as long as the soil remains fertile. When the field is abandoned a couple of years later, grasses take over and a savanna can be formed.

Elephants can convert woodland into grassland in a short period of time. Shannon Horst is right in saying that ‘Africa’s once vast, healthy savannas were produced by the hoofs and manure of vast herds of grazing animals and pack-hunting predators’.

Some activities are seen as environmental concerns regarding savannas: poaching, overgrazing and clearing of the land for crops. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that people aiming at a Second Green Revolution would ever plan to turn all those grasslands (half of Africa!) into crop fields, risking the creation of another Dust Bowl or the collapse of all the grasslands.

As savannas are covering half of the African continent, the rural populations of these savannas are indeed ‘pastoralists or agropastoralists who do not farm’, although many of them do have a small garden.  Do we really suspect the international organizations or the big agri-business to plan the transformation of these pastoralists into farmers?

If half of the rural populations of Africa are pastoralists, the other half must be farmers. If half of the continent is covered with savannas, the other half of Africa’s landscape must be farmland in tropical or temperate climate, humid, semi-humid, arid or semi-arid climate zones.

I can’t believe that neither ‘Millions have already been spent by US and European aid organizations throughout Africa on unsuccessful farming programs’, nor that ‘these approaches to increasing food security focus on production without considering the social, economic, and biological consequences’.

To the best of my knowledge, many successful programs and projects with contributions of numerous famous international scientists, with expertise in their different disciplines and belonging to highly qualified institutes, have been set up in collaboration with the very best national experts, to improve agricultural and horticultural practices in almost every African country.  It is not even thinkable that all these programs merit the qualification ‘destructive’.

On the other hand, I gladly take Shannon’s point on the interesting aspects of Allan Savory’s work on the role of livestock for animal husbandry. My high esteem and appreciation go to his remarkable findings.

However, I must admit that I have a lot of difficulties to understand how Savory’s findings on

‘educating local people in practices that blend some older pastoral knowledge and techniques of animal herding with new understanding of how grazing animals, soils, plants, and organisms coevolved and function in a healthy state’ are applicable on Africa’s 50 % of farmland, an ‘ecosystem’ that is so completely different from grassland that the two impossibly can be compared.

Finally, I want to congratulate Shannon for her closing remark:

‘Does this mean we should not support technological innovation? Of course not.

But what we must do is find and support those technologies that not only solve a problem or achieve an objective, but also maintain or enhance the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.

If we accept that farmland and grassland are two different entities, with their own intrinsic finality, having a natural tendency to pursue their own good, one should treat them differently according to the traditional (local) knowledge.  That knowledge can be optimized by combining it with modern technologies, aiming not only at improving the live of ALL the rural people, farmers and herders, but also that of the urban people, who will participate in the success of a revolution, be it a brown or a green one, ‘enhancing the social, financial, and biological fabric of the whole system over the long term’.

Honestly, considering all this, I strongly believe that one should first improve the live of women and children in Africa.  Women deserve it to get a better live, because they play a key role in the ‘social, financial, and biological fabric’.  Children deserve it, because they carry the future of a continent in themselves.  Therefore, child malnutrition is a real shame.

The most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security, both on farmland and on grassland.  I am convinced that container gardening will play an important role in the achievement of that food security goal.  All over this beautiful continent women and children should sit first at the table and their daily fresh food on that table will undeniably come from their own kitchen garden and/or school garden, if only we really want to change nutrition as rapidly as the climate.


This text has already been posted on my desertification blog in 2010:


It got 3 comments and was edited today.



(1) Carole Gonzalez:

Wow, that is interesting. My “yes – but” – is that growing food plants in containers in villages is an adjunct to improving the grasslands.  There is much to be said for a paleo diet.  I am diabetic and must follow it to be healthy. Some but not much fruit, mostly green vegetables and meat must compose my diet.  I am looking to send Patrick Harry in Malawi some seeds of trees that grow well under arid circumstances and produce fruit without much or any care.

(2) Frank Ziddah:

“Tons of “super” seeds of rice, maize, cassava and other local staples in various parts of Africa are made available by international development agencies every now and then. The problem with their programmes is that those agencies and their regional or local partners fail to effectively market and convince farmers [mostly educated] to make the switch. Hence, a year or so later adoption and usage rates are not surprisingly [very] low. In short, their efforts fail. Going forward I would suggest a 2-prong approach: better soils + better seeds. “

Frank Ziddah: Having read the post at Scribd, I must agree to your concluding remarks “the most important challenge for Africa is to improve food security,” using solutions suited to Africa’s soil and ecosystem.

(3) Tony Simeone: Very informative exchange that clearly articulates your interest and philosophy on land use – AND recipients of benefits.


See also:




A fruitful diary in 2008, and now … ?

Photo credit: WVC 2007-01

UNICEF’s Representative Raymond JANSSENS and his delegation visiting one of the hundreds of family gardens in the refugee camps of S.W. Algeria (Sahara desert)

THE DIARY OF : “Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardening against the actual food crisis”

by Willem Van Cotthem

See more: European Tribune

Six years after publishing my contribution at the EUROPEAN TRIBUNE,  I am still reading with great interest the comments in the diary. However, enchanted by so many positive reactions in 2008, I remain wondering why this message has not been leading to new initiatives in the field.

UNICEF’s project of “Family gardens in the refugee camps of the Saharawis in S. W. Algeria” was a remarkable success in 2005-2007. Why was it stopped ?

The diary about my posting in the European Tribune in 2008 was extremely fruitful.  And now ?

Here are some interesting comments:

gardening against the actual food crisis (4.00 / 5)
Sounds like this story could be relatedIndependent – Malawi’s farming revolution sets the pace in Africa

A green revolution taking place in the fields of Malawi has, in three years, turned a nation that was once reliant on international aid to feed half its population into a food exporter. In doing so, it has set an example for other developing countries struggling to feed themselves. But it has done it all against the express wishes of Britain, the United States and the World Bank – its largest donors.

Malawi suffered a catastrophic drought in 2005. The World Food Programme estimated that five million people – out of a population of 12 million – needed food aid and many villages reported people dying of starvation.

A new government, led by Bingu wa Mutharika, believed the problem was straightforward. Farmers were using seeds that were highly susceptible to disease and weevils, and too few were using fertiliser. If farmers could afford high-yield maize seeds and fertiliser, the government argued, they would be able to grow enough food. At a cost of £30m, the government launched a subsidisation scheme. With a state coupon, the price of a bag of fertiliser fell from 6,500 kwacha (£23) to 900, while a 2kg bag of hybrid maize seed dropped from 600 kwacha to 30.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 02:39:34 PM EST

Re: gardening against the actual food crisis (4.00 / 5)
Thanks Helen.  You are completely right : the recent “Green Revolution”in the drylands of Malawi is at least partly due to small-scale horticulture by the rural population.  NGOs play a very important role in this (r)evolution.  Their successes should inspire donors, and not only the largest ones, to provide substantial financial aid for duplication of these “best practices” at the largest national and even international scale.Food aid can only be a temporary relief, because it is never eliminating the causes of the drought catastrophe. Think at my variant of the Chinese proverb : “Don’t bring these people food, teach them how to grow it”.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:34:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardens (4.00 / 3)
Welcome to ET, Willem.I tend to agree with you that small farming (and, why not, urban etc gardening, about which I have a diary in preparation, with application to Europe)is likely to feed people more and better than large-scale industrial plantation enterprises.

But can you tell us why the drought management techniques you propose could not be used by big farms as well as small?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 03:59:37 PM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban garde (4.00 / 2)
Hello afew.  Small-scale gardening in rural or urban areas is more effective for the poor, hungry people than the industrial farms, for different reasons.  It is determined by daily actions at their own level and not by sophisticated mechanization or high-tech production schemes.  Return on investment is always significantly higher, because investment in simple horticultural tools and materials is low and production is always close to the kitchen, without intermediary transport and stocking costs.The drought management techniques I mentioned (water stocking soil conditioners) can certainly be used by big farms too.  However, it is my personal experience that it is very difficult to convince industrial farmers to change their traditional farming methods (e.g. use of mineral fertilizers and fine-tuned irrigation systems).  Investment in “new” soil conditioners seems only possible after years of experimentation.  But the day will come …

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:50:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (none / 0)
Can someone provide some numbers on family/urban/school garden productivity? It’s important to get a handle on this, in terms of kilocalories per day on an annualized basis.Adult diets are around 2000 kilocalories per day (about 2.3 kilowatt-hours, if you prefer those units for some inscrutable reason — about like a 100 W light bulb).

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 05:08:28 PM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (none / 0)
The range of climates, micro-climates, technological level, cultivar availability, weather patterns, land use patterns, farming/gardening practices – to name a few – of urban areas, considered globally, make it impossible to determine useful comparative statistics.In general, horticultural techniques yield more food value per land area and diverse agricultural production operations (many different crops and mixed-use areas) yield the highest food value.

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. — Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:28:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens… (4.00 / 2)
Hello technopolitical.  I take the point of the next comment below : it is almost impossible to make valuable statistics on comparative horticultural productivity because of the dramatic differences in location, climatic variation, soil quality etc.Data on adult diets and the number of kilocalories or joules are undeniably important. However, one should also take into account that the daily consumption of fresh food (vegetables and fruits) plays an extremely important role in public health, particularly for children, because of a significant enhancement in vitamins and mineral elements. Having a small family garden or a school garden will perhaps not solve ALL the food problems of the rural or urban poor, but it certainly will avoid a number of classical diseases and hunger.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:04:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban garde (none / 1)
Thank you Prof. van Cotthem for this diary.

Application of water stocking soil conditioners, keeping the soil moistened with a minimum of irrigation water, and seeding or planting more drought tolerant species and varieties will definitely contribute to solve the food crisis.

This is exciting information as it implies a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world’s food crisis.

A triple win.

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. — Denis Diderot

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:45:21 AM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardens (4.00 / 2)
Sincere thanks ATinNM. With my team at the University of Ghent (Belgium), I have developed this water and fertilizer stocking soil conditioner.  In more than 20 years it has shown its benefits for horticulture, agriculture and forestry in the drylands.  Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.The question remains : why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology. Like you said, it is “a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world’s food crisis.”

When will this message be understood ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:34:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Getting funding to distribute TerraCottem (4.00 / 3)
Thank you for this informative and inspiring article.willem vancotthem: why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology.

In the article about that Helen referenced above, it says that Malawi’s largest donors (Britain, the United States and the World Bank) initially refused to fund Malawi’s “revolutionary” program that provided subsidies to farmers to buy high-yield seeds and fertilizer.  However, upon seeing the results, “international donors [including Britain], after early scepticism, now support the scheme”.

willem vancotthem: Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.

What is the visibility of these programs to the decision makers in large donor organizations and bureaucracies?  Do you have anyone inside them to champion the use of your soil conditioner?

Also, have you approached deep-pocketed private donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation?  It seems probable that some of these large charitable organizations would be very interested in supporting you.  And assuming the results of these pilot projects continue to be positive with only minimal (if any) harmful side-effects, then such major philanthropies may also have the connections and/or influence on governments to persuade them to use TerraCottem on a more wide-scale basis (in addition, obviously, to the money to fund them).

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

by marco on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 06:07:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Getting funding to distribute TerraCottem (none / 0)
Dear Marco.  You are completely right : international and private donors, even deep-pocketed ones, are well-known. They could (should) be interested in providing funds for large-scale application of “success stories”.  However, this picture changes as soon as “a good idea” is “commercialized”.  The soil conditioner TerraCottem, which I developed at the University of Ghent (Belgium), showed its potentialities all over the world : plants can be grown easily and successfully with a minimum of water and fertilizer.  So far, so good for our nice idea !  But from here to convince donors to finance larger quantities of such a “commercial” product (produced by a spin-off company of the Ghent University) is far more difficult.  That small TerraCottem company is not in a position to fund large programs at the global level.  Thus the money should come from donors.  The question is : will they contribute to the prosperity of a business company, even if that soil conditioner can help to solve the problems of drought, desertification and poverty ?  We all know that TerraCottem can be one of  the best tools to make the life of poor rural or even urban people quickly better by making small kitchen garden very productive.  But who wants to purchase such a commercial product for humanitarian projects ?  It will need serious lobbying and introduction of numerous files.  And I am not a lobbyist !  Who is interested ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:20:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Re: Family gardens, school gardens (none / 0)
welcome, professor!i enjoyed this diary, it is heartening to hear such good news from Academia, especially about issues as important as this.

i have seen consumer houseplants soil conditioners before, how is Terracottem different?

i have read in organic gardening magazines that simple rock dust adds great fertility to food gardening. i am thinking of going to the local quarry and getting a load to test out.

i have not heard of anyone doing this in my area, so they will probably give quite a funny look!

(rock dust is touted for its helping the longterm uptake of important nutirtional minerals in food crops, a bit OT from the thread about water retention, but similar enough not to be too much of a distraction, i hope).

if this works, wouldn’t it be a relatively inexpensive way to help the poor eat better from their own gardens, and wouldn’t it be smart to get this program running with the last of the fossil fuels we are burning so profligately? rock dust is heavy, and there’s only so much donkeys can carry!

thanks for adding your voice and reports of your good work to ET, we are fortunate to have more authoritative info on soil science joining us here. other than the quality of air we breathe and water we drink, (obviously very connected to the amount we waste on inefficient crop watering), what else can be more relevant to our continued survival as a species?

“We can all be prosperous but we can’t all be rich.” Ian Welsh

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed May 7th, 2008 at 03:17:24 AM EST

Re: Family gardens, school gardens (none / 0)
Dear melo.  Thanks for your appreciation of my work on the soil conditioner TerraCottem, which is a compound of more than twenty different substances, working in synergy to produce more biomass with less water and less fertiliser.  In this it differs from most of the available soil conditioners, which are mostly single products, consisting of one or two chemical substances.  TerraCottem’s most important objective, apart from other application possibilities, is to help poor rural and urban people to more fresh food with a minimum of water and fertiliser.  Small kitchen gardens can be made in almost every free space, even on roofs.  One can also switch to container gardening in almost every kind of container (flower pots, bottles, barrels, old wheelbarrows, yoghurt pots, etc.).  One can find a lot of applications of container gardening on my blog containergardening.wordpress.com.  You are right in saying that rock dust can be used as a good fertiliser for poor soils.  Indeed, rocks contain a number of fertilising mineral elements and rock dust, mixed with a poor soil (e.g. sand) will certainly contribute to the enhancement in dosage of certain, but not all mineral elements.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 – B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:37:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]