An Irishman’s Diary: How an Irish aid project is encouraging green fingers in Zambia

There are two kinds of potato in Zambia: the sweet variety and the ones they call “Irish”

Near Mumbwa, in Zambia,  a  cookery class and goat-milking demonstration form  part of Concern’s RAIN project

Near Mumbwa, in Zambia, a cookery class and goat-milking demonstration form part of Concern’s RAIN project

Wed, Jan 21, 2015, 09:49

There are two kinds of potato in Zambia: the sweet variety and the ones they call “Irish”. The “Irish potatoes” might not be Kerr’s Pinks, or Records, or any other type we’d recognise. But they’re so called, apparently, because it was people from here who first brought them. Eat your heart out, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Whatever its provenance, the noble spud has a supporting (if peripheral) role in a thing called the RAIN project, which I witnessed up close recently. The acronym stands for Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition, and the project goes to the heart of an enduring problem in Zambia, even in a period when harvests have been excellent.

The dominance of maize as a cash crop keeps people fed. But the poor nutrition of a typical Zambian diet means that almost half of all children suffer stunted growth, the effects of which are irreversible from a very young age. Hence RAIN, a pilot programme targeting pregnant mothers and infants under two – the so-called “first 1,000 days” of life.

The experiment centres on a place called Mumbwa, a town two hours west of Lusaka. It’s not a big drive by Zambian standards. Even so, the Concern jeep that brought us there had to get a full tank of petrol first. There would be no filling stations along the way.

In fact, the trip is an education in itself. In a pithy juxtaposition, the Lusaka Concern offices are located immediately opposite Manda Hill Mall, the most upmarket of several new shopping centres that serve a small but growing middle
class.

From there, however, we quickly move to poorer suburbs, with their shanty huts and road-side stalls. A few aggressive speed-bump strips, forcing the jeep almost to a halt near schools, are among the last signs of urban life. Then the city disappears.

The Great Western Road opens up ahead, stretching for hundreds of miles towards Angola, in an almost relentlessly straight line through the surrounding greenery. Lusaka’s appalling traffic is suddenly just a memory. From here on, the main form of mechanised transport is bicycle.

Bicycles are also part of RAIN, given to participants who don’t have them already. Goats and chickens have been distributed too. But the big focus is on the vegetable gardens that each of the 4,100 participating families maintains, with a diverse range of produce: groundnuts, okra, tomatoes, African egg-plant, and so on.

The event we’re attending is a “field day”, centring on one model garden where locals will critique the husbandry on show. But first there’s a formal ceremony at the host’s house, with speeches from the area “head man” (a rank or two down from chief), without whose approval nothing can be done, and a programme of entertainment.

Then, after the field visit, it’s back to the house for educational drama, a cookery class – enter the potatoes – and a milking demonstration involving a loudly-protesting goat.

Along with its support from Irish Aid and usual sources, Concern is running the project with the help of a €1.25 million donation from the Kerry Group. But although there is, clearly, a charity element to the work, it is also impressively hard-nosed.

RAIN is, essentially, an experiment, the success of which is not taken for granted. Results will be independently evaluated in 2015. In the meantime, like all experiments, it needs a control group. And just as the participating areas were chosen as developmentally “virgin” territory – places that have had no previous intervention – so there are adjoining areas where there is still nothing being done, apart from monitoring.

You might wonder at the ethics of this – I did. But as the project director, Bangladesh-born Subrata Chakrabarty explained, the area involved is very large: about the size of Munster. It’s not like the non-participants are looking across a fence at those more fortunate. And besides, if the project does prove itself, the model will be exported, with the control-group areas a moral priority.

Ironically, the project was not being helped by the recent weather in Zambia. The crucial rainy season, which should run to the end of March, appeared to have dried up a little early around Mumbwa. When we were there, the sun shone all day, as it had been doing in Lusaka.

But back in the city that evening, the traffic was even worse than usual, and the suburbs looking even more bedraggled, thanks to the puddles left by an afternoon deluge. So, happily for the upper-case RAIN, the lower-case variety may not have finished just yet.

Frank McNally travelled to Zambia with assistance from the Simon Cumbers Fund