Daily bread and a wee bit of jam

“Are we really reaching the poorest of the poor?” I asked my co-worker, Badri.

The year was 1994, and we were sitting in a teashop in Galyang, Nepal, discussing whether or not our programme was having the desired impact on the poor people in the community we worked in. At the time we were involved in enterprise development, helping local entrepreneurs develop industries that would then, we hoped, result in job opportunities for the poor.

Our conclusion was, “Actually – no, we’re not,” but just at that moment our order of chow mein arrived, so we never got to explore why we weren’t really reaching the poor. Instead, in his unobtrusively inquisitive way, Badri asked Tilak, the proprietor, how his business was doing. When Tilak responded that he wasn’t happy with the quality of the noodles he was buying, Badri asked, “Why don’t you make your own?” Six months later Tilak’s noodle factory was up and running, employing five poor people, and within two years it was supplying three districts with good quality noodles.

A survey conducted in 2004 revealed that as a result of our programme, a total of 75 people were employed in 11 industries. Our programme was working! But I still had these nagging questions in the back of my mind: Was I really helping people to get their “daily bread”? Were we really reaching the poorest of the poor? When I voiced them to my Nepali colleagues their response was, “Of course you are helping the poor. Everybody in Nepal is poor.”

I still wasn’t satisfied, though, that providing income was all that was needed to feed hungry people. Statistics tell us what we want them to, so I usually accept them with salt-flavoured cynicism, but one statistic stuck in my mind: even when income is increased, only 10% of that increase is spent on food.

Another flaw in focusing solely on income creation was exposed in Mugu, where even though the people were reasonably wealthy, they were malnourished and food insecure. They were selling the nutritious food they produced, and using the money to buy food for their own consumption, but the problem was that the food they bought was of lower nutritional value than the food they sold. One farmer, for example, would sell his litre of milk for five rupees at the local market, then promptly spend those five rupees on a cup of tea at the teashop, and return home satisfied with his day’s transactions. Because his end goal was income, it didn’t occur to him to drink a cup of that milk instead and share the rest with his family so that they could all benefit.

I like to think that my job description comes from the Lord’s prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread… and may I have a wee bit of jam, please?” As a food technologist, one of my contributions to food development in Nepal has been the utilisation of appropriate technology to process surplus food in order to give it a higher market value. Though limited by the lack of electricity, roads, transport, telephones, water and heating fuels, we still managed to produce dried foods such as vegetables, fruits, fruit leather, spices and spice mixes, as well as fruit juices, bakery products and pickles (no jam, sadly – sugar and cooking fuels cost too much). We discovered, however, that there wasn’t much of a market for the processed foods, and we eventually came to the conclusion that what Nepal needs most is good quality, readily available, low-priced fresh food.

A change in mission focus has brought us into the field of food security, which is all about having a secure supply of food with a focus on availability, access and usage. It includes the whole chain of events from ploughing and putting a seed in the ground to putting food into one’s mouth. It recognises that income, marketing and nutrition are also important for having a good food supply – having a secure income means having a secure food supply.

The 21st century buzz word is food sovereignty, which considers the whole environment in which food security and the food chain take place. It looks at rights to land for owning or renting, rights to water for irrigation and drinking, access to markets, access to forests and environment conservation in general. Right to food is also talked about a lot. This is the legal aspect of food sovereignty, which says that the government of a country should be responsible to see that everybody has access to food security.

What we find we are dealing with in reality is the management side of food supply – management of farms, food production, water supply, forest, food storage, processing and diet, and management at household level, with a particular focus on reducing wastage. Ninety percent of Nepal’s population live in rural areas, which means that a lot of the very poor in Nepal still have access to some land on which they can grow their own food. There are obstacles, however, such as issues with accessing the land and water, lack of technical know-how, and poor land management. It’s these things that we are now trying to address.

I have a hypothesis that God has given everybody enough resources to be able to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, education, health and peace. However, it has a rider which says that in order to get maximum benefit from these resources, they need to be shared. This hypothesis is based on the parable of the talents, particularly focusing on what can be done with only one talent. Maybe I’m taking it beyond what Jesus intended, but maybe He envisaged that some unassuming 21st century development worker with a big imagination would take it that far!

Shankar, another co-worker, and I recently visited a village called Pipaltar; it is a low caste village, the poorest in that community. Many years ago, though, it was a thriving village, able to produce its own food and fulfil the basic needs of its inhabitants, because it had a good irrigation system. But then a high caste community settled near it, and took their irrigation intake from the same stream, 50 metres above the Pipaltar intake.

This diverted most of the irrigation water away from Pipaltar, and it slowly withered into the poor community that it is today.

One of our first steps to bring about change involved working with a partner organisation to mediate a water sharing system for both villages. Then as we explored the situation, we discovered that they have enough resources to meet their basic needs, including land to grow sufficient food once the irrigation system is functional again. We realised, however, that success will depend on good management: first of all, of their irrigation system; secondly, of their farming system (to be able to provide a balanced diet); thirdly, of their storage system (there is a lot of unnecessary wastage, including vast loss of stored grains due to rat and insect infestation); and finally, of food within the household – ensuring that everybody gets a fair share and that there is enough to last them for the whole year.

When we consider a goal for food security for the Nepal situation, we realise that looking to the West, at a market-oriented capitalist system, isn’t appropriate. Instead, because we are still dealing with a lot of remote areas and isolated pocket communities, we see that subsistence farming still works, and still needs to work.

The standard we would like to set for Nepal is a well-managed subsistence farm run on a business basis. The present farming thinking is supply oriented, which means that the farmer produces the two crops a year that his ancestors have always produced. What we aim to promote, however, is business thinking, with a demand orientation which considers that the family is the market and the supply should be according to the market demands, that is, what the family needs. So our ideal farm includes the usual two grain crops a year, a vegetable garden, animals and pulses for high quality protein foods, fruit trees and a cash crop, maybe with a beehive and fish pond for variety. With this the farmer can provide all the nutritional needs of a balanced diet for his family, as well as have some cash for school, medicines, electricity, television, jewellery, mobile phone and so on This money will come from selling the cash crop as well as excess food.

Many ask, “How come they haven’t already thought about making changes and improving their own situation?” The answer lies in a fatalism which says that it’s the will of the gods that they are that way and they can’t change it. A change in attitude and mindset is needed and that will come through our demonstrating the alternatives.

One aspect of this that is already working is our promotion of vegetable gardens, or “kitchen gardens” as we call them here in Nepal. Some recent visitors to our work area asked a local woman what difference having a kitchen garden had made to her life. Her response was, “The children don’t get sick as much as they used to. And when they do get sick, the sickness isn’t so severe and they recover a lot more quickly.”

Are we really helping to feed the poor? Yes! We would like to see a 30% increase in food production soon, and later we hope to be able to expand that to 60% and 100%. But we won’t do it just by focussing on income or food production or good management or good marketing. We’ve learned that changing only one factor doesn’t change the whole situation – we need to change multiple factors. We haven’t yet reached the point where all those factors have been identified, especially since each situation needs to be considered independently – we need to explore the local resources and the possibilities. But I am now satisfied that we truly are helping provide people from poor and marginalised communities around Nepal with their daily bread, and that – someday – there will be jam too.

Roydon is a NZ partner, who has been working as a food technologist in Nepal since 1985.