We Cannot Reach 100,000 Families Alone: Collaborating to Spread Better Crops Across Guatemala

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Semilla Nueva envisions a developing rural Guatemala, where farmers have harnessed the power of new sustainable agriculture technologies, community organization, and engagement with local government.

Our work with biofortification, or conventionally breeding crops to contain higher levels of essential nutrients, promises to push us further towards this vision. By allowing farmers to grow foods that are more nutritious to their families, they simultaneously grow their communities out of poverty and preventable illness. Over the past three years, we have tested Quality Protein Maize (QPM) and zinc biofortified rice, determined to find the best options to meet our partner farmers’ needs. Convinced of their potential, we are now working to expand access to crops like these from the select communities we have worked with in the southern coast of Guatemala to communities across the nation.

Both culturally and agriculturally, Semilla Nueva has a deep understanding of the practices and needs of farming families in the southern departments of Suchitepéquez and Retalhuleu gained from years of experience in the region. We know how to test crops in experimental parcels, ways to energize farmers to eat QPM, and methods to connect farmers to new technologies. However, we are much less familiar with other parts of Guatemala, a country with over 20 different recognized languages and ethnic groups, 18 ecosystems, and more than 300 microclimates.

Semilla Nueva has ambitious plans to reach 100,000 Guatemalan families in the next four years with biofortified crops, providing access to better nutrition in the most malnourished nation in the Americas. We recognize we cannot achieve this goal alone. In order for our agricultural solutions to work in other areas, they must test them there first, looking at how they must be adapted to fit region-specific farming practices. For this to work we need local experts on the ground.

To work towards our goal, we recruited a group of collaborators committed to making such a knowledge exchange to achieve a shared goal: ending malnutrition and rural poverty in Guatemala.

Our partnership with the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) through their grant program made this work possible, connecting us with other organizations to open a conversation on biofortification and ways to work together in late 2015. At a conference in Guatemala City in February of 2016, collaborators sat together and drew up a draft proposal that would allow us to reach our goal. Semilla Nueva Country Director Jake Weisenthal played a key role in getting collaborators to sign on and finalize our proposal with the IAF to foster collaboration and pool resources between projects across the nation. The proposal provides resources to all participating organizations and sustains the project over the next two years, securing our ability to foster these relationships and increase the knowledge base of participating organizations for enough time to make a true impact.

Luis Cortez from the Inter-American Foundation helps lay out a strategy for the collaborators planning meeting held in February of 2016.
Luis Cortez from the Inter-American Foundation helps lay out a strategy for the collaborators planning meeting held in February of 2016.

This past March our team invited staff from these organizations for one such training at our Experimental Center in La Maquina, Suchitepéquez. Here, Semilla Nueva field technicians trained attendees on the design, set up, and maintenance of experimental parcels for biofortified crops. They worked one-on-one with participants to show the process of conducting economic analyses, enabling them to measure the potential impact of new crops on farmer incomes in their regions.

Collaborators working with Semilla Nueva and the Inter-American foundation come together for a conference to “train the trainers” at our Experimental Center in Suchitepéquez. Training participants: Alex Santos and David Morales from Alcaldía Maya, Elmer Reyes of EcoLogic, Pedro Villaforo,HermenejildoTomás, and Genaro Calair of ASDEA in Chimaltenango.
Collaborators working with Semilla Nueva and the Inter-American foundation come together for a conference to “train the trainers” at our Experimental Center in Suchitepéquez. Training participants: Alex Santos and David Morales from Alcaldía Maya, Elmer Reyes of EcoLogic, Pedro Villaforo, Hermenejildo Tomás, and Genaro Calair of ASDEA in Chimaltenango.

Once the participants understood the process, it was time to take the message back to their organizations and begin training farmers in their regions.

At the end of April, Semilla Nueva field technicians Chepe, Cirilo, Hugo, and Juan Manuel left their homes for four days to travel the country as each visited one of our partner organizations. The four covered nearly all corners of Guatemala, from the northern forests of Petén (over 580 kilometers from our Experimental Center), to the Western highlands of Quiche, communities at the Mexican border in Ixcan, and Mayan farming communities in central Guatemala’s Chimaltenango.

During their visit, our technicians ensured that all partners had high protein, savable corn seed– QPM variety ICTA B9 – and high-iron black beans– variety ICTA Chorti. They reviewed how to set up, tend to and care for the plots, covering quality-control for the harvest and data analysis phases to ensure the data they will collect is valid. Good data will allow partners to perform accurate and realistic economic analysis on the plots later in the year. Then, Semilla Nueva field technicians guided partner organizations’ field technicians with on-the-spot assistance and feedback as they set up their new experimental parcels.

Thanks to this project, our field technicians are being recognized as experts in the field of rural development and agricultural innovation. It brings our team great pride to see them stand as farmers before farmers, imparting the knowledge they have gained with Semilla Nueva.

Chepe, Cirilo, Hugo, and Juan Manuel will continue providing technical support throughout critical points of the growing season, as they are available to answer questions and review partner progress as they tend their parcels. They will ensure quality control on the data collected on the parcels, and in a few months’ time, trek back to the partners for a post-harvest follow-up visit and results analysis. In a second phase of the project, Semilla Nueva will be supporting these partners not only as they continue the process of developing and analyzing experimental parcels, but to assist them in building the technological know-how to produce biofortified seed suited to their regions. By empowering other institutions to produce the seed themselves and supporting them in becoming legally certified to do so, we can work to remove barriers to access to such valuable crops.

Throughout this journey, we are seeing local farmers evolve into leaders in rural development, not only at home, but in other regions of their country as well. As they spread new agricultural solutions and methodologies to new corners of Guatemala, Semilla Nueva can effectively reach some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities. Local experts are helping us to do something that Semilla Nueva has neither the resources nor know-how to do – cater our nutrition and income improving tools to fit the needs of these diverse communities, fitting them into the unique contexts of their regions. In the process, we are empowering other organizations to lead the march for biofortification in Guatemala. With collaboration from farmer groups from across the nation, we are heading closer towards our vision than ever before.

Stay tuned for updates as this exciting new project continues to develop!

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