Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Food Toxicologist in Guatemala: Analyzing Acrylamide in Panela

By: F2F Guatemala Volunteer, Katherine Li

In November 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala and volunteer as a food toxicologist for the F2F program. The main organization I worked with, Industria Panelera de Guatemala (IPAGUA), produces dulce panela, using a manufacturing technique that is the first of its kind in Guatemala. The process of making panela, which includes boiling cane sugar at high temperatures, can generate acrylamide. Worldwide, acrylamide is a food toxin with rising concern, as it has been classified as a probable human carcinogen, and is present in a lot of commonly-consumed foods (e.g., french fries, potato chips, toasted bread, coffee). Research on acrylamide formation in panela is limited, and Guatemala currently does not have an in-country laboratory that can reliably measure acrylamide in food products. As such, the purpose of this assignment was to help determine which stages of the panela manufacturing process generates the most acrylamide (with the goal of minimizing acrylamide formation), and to help laboratories develop an analytical method for analyzing acrylamide in food products.

[Left] Pablo (on the board of directors of IPAGUA) and Angela, a food engineer from Federacion Comercializadora de Café Especial de Guatemala (FECCEG), in the early mornings of the sugar cane harvest and juicing, which occurs just before start of processing. [Right] Starting the fire

Fabi, a senior chemist, preparing an analytical standard 
Panela is a staple sugar in Latin American diets, yet little is known about this food elsewhere. The process of its manufacture is simple yet mesmerizing to watch. At IPAGUA’s factory, the process starts with harvesting the sugar cane, followed by extraction of the cane juice, and boiling of the juice. It’s a tricky, almost intuitive process. “Starting the fire is considered the most important job in the entire factory”, they tell me, “It has to be the right temperature [for boiling] or else the entire process won’t work.” After the final boiling, the sugar is pulverized into dulce panela, which resembles finely-powdered brown sugar. The sugar cane pulp is laid out and dried, and used as fuel for the fire the next day. IPAGUA’s factory can make up to 0.8 to 1T of panela per day, and 250T per year.

After spending time at the panela factory, I met with analytical experts at Universidad de San Carlos, Universidad del Valle, and private laboratory in Guatemala to work on developing an analytical method to analyze acrylamide in panela. Some of the staff had been working there for decades, were experts in analytical toxicology, and committed to seeing this project through for the benefit of their country. I also presented on acrylamide to a public university audience, and to the export industry. After my presentations, I received all kinds of questions, with people wanting to know what foods they should start avoiding, to if acrylamide will be an issue in their company’s biscuits and bread products. Although the health effects of acrylamide for humans are still unclear, starting the conversation is the first step in driving interest in studying acrylamide, especially as it pertains to Latin American diets. For me, this assignment has been a great learning experience, not only on panela, but also on the welcoming people and vibrant culture in Guatemala. Hopefully this visit will have propelled further understanding of acrylamide in Guatemala, to benefit consumers, researchers, and the food industry. 

Meeting some staff members at the Universidad del Valle

Presenting on acrylamide to a public audience at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Universidad de San Carlos

Monday, January 8, 2018

Strengthening Business Management in the Ecuadorian Amazon

By Ian Robinson, F2F Volunteer in Ecuador 

It’s a Tuesday morning in Esfuerzo, a rural community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. As the clock hits 9:00 am, a handful of individuals gather in a covered area on the side of the road, each of them carrying a shovel, ax, or hoe. Six piles of decomposing organic waste are spread out across the ground beneath the structure, each pile at a different stage in the process of transformation from vegetable scraps to becoming compost.

For the last ten years, these Tuesday morning work sessions have been a weekly tradition in Esfuerzo, one of ten communities in the area to participate in a program that transforms organic waste from municipal markets into nutrient-rich compost. When the waste decomposes, the municipality helps the communities market and transport the fertilizer to their final customers.

Residents estimate that they produce 500 40-kg sacks of compost each year and generate over $1,200 in revenue. They also use the fertilizer on their own crops and take advantage of the work sessions as an opportunity to socialize with neighbors. A portion of the proceeds also support the community association’s development efforts. Much like the compost, this operation has grown organically.

As the operation continued to grow, the participants never accounted for the operation’s profitability. After ten years in business, they weren’t sure whether they were making money or how long it took to transform the market scraps into compost. They were enjoying the fertilizer, income, and camaraderie it provides but were also curious about how much they were making.

As part of a Farmer-to-Farmer Flex volunteer assignment with the Arajuno Road Project — a local NGO that strives to support healthy communities and a healthy environment for communities along this stretch of road in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon Basin, I worked with the members of the Esfuerzo compost group to develop a management control system to track revenues, expenses, member participation, and production to develop a clear idea of the plant’s operations. Arajuno Road Project has worked with the residents for many years on different initiatives. Their leadership worked with the Esfuerzo leaders to identify this opportunity during my F2F assignment.

I began the workshop by asking participants to think individually about why it’s important to know how much money a business is earning. They then discussed their thoughts with another member of the group before they shared their ideas with the group.

I then divided the group into two, asking each group to make a list of the information they would need to keep track of to be able to calculate profitability and design a format that would allow them to do so. One group presented a format that detailed daily entries into a register, while the other group had created a format that represents an end-of-period report. I explained that any management control system must be able to do both. We spent the next few minutes reconciling the two groups’ ideas into an easy-to-follow format that could also be used in their homes.

A digital printout of these sheets now hangs on the wall in the fertilizer plant as a reference. It contains examples of how daily bookkeeping formats and explanations on what to do at the end of the period to understand their net income. The Arajuno Road Project staff will regularly follow-up with the Esfuerzo composting group to make sure that they are following their new accounting guidelines.

At the end of the workshop, we calculated an estimate of the operation’s yearly profitability. We realized that nearly half of the company’s costs come from purchasing a dump-truck of chicken manure once per year, residents use approximately half of the compost on their own farms, they weren’t sure how long the process of making compost makes, and they do not have any direct labor costs. We discussed the implications of these takeaways and created additional spreadsheets to monitor production and weekly attendance at workdays to answer these questions.

The compost program is a side hustle for these farmers. Most of their income comes from their own crops. Learning how to keep track of their income would be transformative for their day-to-day lives as smallholder farmers. I framed the workshop activities as structures that could also benefit their own households as well.

It is relatively uncommon for microenterprises in the area to keep a written account of their basic accounting. Instead, they depend upon mental accounting to track this information. That data can fall victim to biases, selective memory, or any other peril that would base decisions misinformation. By using basic accounting tools track their business (and home) income, the residents of Esfuerzo now have the tools to understand profitability and make data-driven decisions to try to increase it.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Happy Holidays!

Partners of the Americas' Agriculture and Food Security team wishes you Happy Holidays!

2017 has been a busy year, with lots of stories from our  USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program and other activities. In January volunteers helped improve Dominican coffee, in February they empowered youth in Paraguay through 4-H, March assignments evaluated onion growing practices in Guatemala, volunteers in April helped prevent deforestation in Ecuador, in May a team of volunteers trained farmers on rotational grazing and crop management in Nicaragua, in June F2F highlighted the achievements of a long-time Haiti volunteer, in July a F2F host from Colombia started selling their products in Whole Foods, in August volunteers helped improve goat milk production and processing in Guatemala, in September F2F put the spotlight on two Nicaragua hosts - Fabretto and FADCANIC, an October volunteer helped analyze the meat processing industry in the DR, sweet potato and dragon fruit chips were on the menu in Guatemala in November, and December highlighted coconut oil production in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. These are just a few of the great stories from 2017!

And we are looking forward to 2018. Our RANFOSE Food Fortification Program in Haiti will be in working hard to address the continuing problem of micronutrient deficiencies and our F2F Program is recruiting for some exciting assignments throughout the hemisphere.

Enjoy the rest of 2017 and have a wonderful start to 2018!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Marketing Coconut Oil in the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast

By Julie Heifetz, F2F Nicaragua Volunteer August 13-27, 2017

I had the opportunity to work with the Farmer to Farmer program (F2F) in Nicaragua in August 2017. The purpose of the F2F assignment titled: Women and Youth in Agriculture Specialist in Market Research (Artisanal Coconut Oil) was to conduct a preliminary market study to explore the potential of coconut oil in the Nicaraguan marketplace. The assignment objectives included: a look at consumer trends and preferences, nutritional/health aspects of the oil, domestic and international competition and market feasibility.

This technical assistance opportunity involved meeting in Managua with The Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast (FADCANIC) to provide input and recommendations regarding the marketing of their agricultural products from Wawashang in the Atlantic Coastal region. FADCANIC is a civil society, non-governmental organization working as a major implementer of development and infrastructure projects in the Atlantic region of Nicaragua. They engage in projects addressing development of environmental, agricultural, and educational programs particularly for youth and women and are dedicated to promoting the preservation and use of the natural resources and biodiversity of the Caribbean Coast. At the same time they are introducing global technology to the indigenous multi-ethnic communities.

Working with the F2F Field Officer and another F2F volunteer we learned of FADCANIC’s plans to commercialize aspects of their foundation and become more proactive in selling and promoting their agricultural products from Wawashang, especially coconut oil. In addition to coconut oil, Wawashang products (under the FADCANIC umbrella) include: hearts of palm, banana flour, coco powder, jams, jellies, spices (ginger and turmeric) all are natural with no additives. FADCANIC’s Program Director stated they will concentrate on marketing their best sellers – the coconut oil and hearts of palm. He further explained that there are only 4 people at the agricultural school who are producing the coconut oil by hand and it takes 60 coconuts to make approximately 10 liters. It very labor intensive.

My role as a specialist in women’s livelihood development was to bring to FADCNIC’s attention the salient issues in marketing - such as knowing their local and global competition, and assessing the volume potentials and production capacity of the Wawashang farmers. I posed many questions and provided some global best practices relative to marketing in general and shared some activities from the US and other countries with respect to marketing coconut oil.

The branding and packaging/labeling must meet a variety of customers needs, demand and requirements; quality of the coconut oil must be ensured and demonstrated, timely delivery of the product is essential, strategies for advertising/promotions, online sales and e-marketing need to be designed. The necessary steps and timetable for creating a small-scale enterprise must be outlined and launched. Many of the lessons learned from my work as a Program Manager in Sri Lanka (2008-2010) in the coconut sector were relevant to this context and I shared the successes and challenges of small-scale women farmers in mobilizing a micro-enterprise.

During the assignment the F2F Field Officer and I frequently visited a variety of supermarkets and health food stores in Managua and also Granada to obtain feedback from their managers and vendors regarding the potential for Wawashang products to be sold in the local stores. This was my first time in Nicaragua and I am eager to return not only to find the outcomes of my assignment but to visit the rural areas of the country and spend time outside of Managua. I also carry away precious memories of my days in Granada and my immersion in the warm waters of the Apoyo Lagoon. One of the greatest highlights was my first-ever view of an active volcano. Bearing witness to the Masaya volcano at night was an extraordinary and added gift to this great venture I will never forget. Thank you to everyone who supported me before and after this rewarding assignment.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

International Volunteer Day 2017 | Assignment Highlight

On this International Volunteer Day, Partners' F2F program would like to highlight a previous team assignment in Guatemala. We would also like to express our sincerest gratitude and appreciation for all of our F2F volunteers, past and present, who have exemplified the true meaning of volunteerism.
Dr. Lindsey du Toit assessing onion crops at a field
Earlier this year, Lindsey du Toit, Professor of Plant Pathology at the Washington State University, and Bill Buhrig, Extension Educator at the Oregon State University, traveled to the Sacapulas region of Quiche in Guatemala to provide training and assistance to the Association Sacapulteca (ASPROCE), a collective of onion growers in the region. Combining their respective expertise in plant pathology, and crop fertility and post-harvest management, Lindsey and Bill were able to develop a comprehensive analysis of current onion production practices and recommend ways in which the producers could improve the quality and quantity of their onion yields.

Dr. du Toit’s assignment focused on helping the growers manage the diseases that were harming their onion crops and significantly reducing their yields. Meanwhile, Bill’s assignment had the dual purpose of training producers in onion crop fertility and post-harvest storage of onions bulbs to increase the quality and shelf-life of their crops. During the beginning of their trip, they visited several fields to observe current production practices, pre- and post-harvest, and evaluate the conditions of the onion crops.  
Bill Buhrig & ASPROCE member at a training session 
Bill observed the post-harvest handling of the crops and storage facilities being used. While he was impressed with the storage facilities growers were using, they were also storing many onion bulbs that were infected with diseases like bulb rot and trying to mitigate infections post-harvest. Following these observations, Bill and Dr. du Toit worked together to determine the causes of the diseases, like bulb rot, and the best practices to reduce the risk of infection.

Dr. du Toit specifically assessed the incidences of diseases that were most prevalent. She observed that the crops grown at higher elevations experienced a prevalence of bacterial leaf blight, while crops grown at lower elevations tended to be affected by Iris yellow spot virus (IYSV). She also determined the prevalence of pink root in crops grown at all elevations.

Both Dr. du Toit and Bill concluded that the key factors triggering these diseases were excessive irrigation cycles and amounts of fertilizer being applied to the crops. These practices were contributing to the pre-harvest and post-harvest bulb rot that the groups were encountering. Bill conducted several demonstrations using a soil moisture sensor and fertilizer spreader in order to introduce better ways to measure the amount of irrigation and fertilizer needed. In addition, the team observed that several onion bulbs were being transplanted too deep into the ground, which prevented the necks of the bulbs from drying properly, creating a higher risk for disease infection. They recommended placing the crops so that approximately 80 percent of each bulb was above the soil.

Through the volunteer team’s assessments and recommendations, it is expected that ASPROCE growers will be able to take critical steps towards improving their disease management practices and consequently increase the quality and quantity of their crops, while also extending storage life.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Soil Conservation in Rural Cibao

Mision Illac (ILAC) is a non-profit organization that operates in the rural communities of the Central Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic. Its mission is to provide agricultural education and training to local community members in order to improve their overall financial well-being, health, and quality of life, and discourage migration to the city. Specifically, ILAC promotes nutrition and environmental conservation through its focus on the production of organic vegetables using sustainable agricultural practices.

F2F volunteer Charles Mitchell with ILAC members
Partners’ Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program has been working with ILAC since the start of this year, during which it has sent several volunteers to provide assistance and contribute to the organization’s mission. Recently, F2F volunteer, Charles Mitchell traveled to the Dominican Republic to provide training and workshops on best practices for soil conservation. An organic farm inspector and former member of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Charles was able to train the technical staff and members of ILAC in improved methods to reduce soil erosion on slopes, increase fertility, and improve soil cover. During the beginning of his assignment, Charles was able to assess the soil conditions of the farms, as well as the current management practices being used. 

Following these visits and meetings, he tailored his workshops to suit the needs of the farmers and provided them with recommendations on ways that they can strengthen their soil management and conservation systems. In particular, he proposed further training in the production of organic inputs to control pests and increase soil nutrition, such as through composting. It is expected that with the implementation of these recommendations, the associated farmers of ILAC will be able to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events on their soils, adopt more sustainable practices, and ultimately increase their overall production. 

In this upcoming year, Partners F2F program will continue to work with ILAC through similar volunteer assignments to help them meet their goals. In particular, Partners F2F will send volunteers to conduct training sessions and workshops in organic coffee production, beekeeping and honey production, as well as on climate-smart agricultural practices to follow up on the work of Charles. 

F2F volunteer Charles Mitchell (top) and ILAC member

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Increasing the Resilience of Dominican Cacao to Changes in Climate

The Dominican Republic has a long and rich history in the production of cacao. However, farmers have struggled to increase the resilience of their cacao yields to changes in the climate. Rebecca Roebber, Marketing Director and COO of indi chocolate, recently traveled to the Dominican Republic to share her expertise in cacao production and quality assurance. In particular, Rebecca worked alongside IDIAF (Instituto Dominicano De Investigacion Agropecuarias Y Forestales) staff members to help them improve their production practices to become more sustainable in face of climate change and increase the quality and value of their cacao. Following an initial assessment of their current production practices, Rebecca provided training sessions on methods to increase the quality of organic cacao through improvements in pruning and post harvest practices. She also emphasized the importance of soil nutrition to ensure the quality and sustainability of their cacao yields. Rebecca also noted a significant need for a fermentation and drying center to facilitate farmers’ post harvest activities and subsequently contribute to higher quality yields.

In addition to assisting farmers with increasing the quality of their yields, Rebecca also shared best practices in marketing and chocolate making to help them add value to their cacao and increase their income opportunities. During these workshops, she demonstrated the various steps involved in chocolate-making, including roasting, winnowing (removing the outer shell of the beans), refining, tempering, and packaging. Additionally, Rebecca recommended venturing into the local tourist industry to create alternative opportunities. She suggested that they could organize demonstrations for tourists to showcase the complete process of making chocolate, from cacao production to the final product.

Rebecca Roebber has extensive experience in cacao production and quality control. Through her work at indi chocolate she has also led the marketing strategy for their chocolate and cacao product line. Rebecca has previously volunteered with our Farmer-to-Farmer flex program in Ecuador, training smallholder farmers in rural communities in best practices for cacao processing.