Beahrs ELP Blog

Stepping back, taking a look and beginning with an open mind…to rehabilitate degraded soils of western Kenya

by Abigael Nekesa Otinga, Kenya, ELP 2015
Written on August 9, 2015.

When I received my ELP course invitation letter, I was elated and for obvious reasons. Firstly, I was going to America….guys, America! Secondly, I was attending one of the most distinguished universities of time. Thirdly, I would meet experts from all over the world that were in their own capacities environmental leaders championing sustainable management of the environment.

The ELP course has been a great eye opener. After years of soil science, this was a beautiful and welcomed change. The courses ranged from Climate Change, Communications, Food, Biotechnology, and Agriculture, Water, Biodiversity, and Conservation, Collaborative Leadership for Sustainable change to Marketing, CSR and Enterprise Facilitation to mention just a few. The courses were delivered by highly experienced professionals and distinguished scholars, some of whom are world award leaders in their academic fields. One particularly interesting one (interesting with me because it resonates with what I do) was the talk by Dr. Ernesto Sirolli stemming from his worldwide known Ted Talk “Shut up and listen!” Dr. Sirolli emphasizes the fact that if you want to assist a community, you have to shut up and listen to them. According to Dr. Sirroli, there are many smart people in the communities who are entrepreneurs and this potential should be tapped not by telling them what to do but by listening to the ideas they have and then giving them knowledge and helping them develop their ideas. Dr Sirolli quoted from the book Small is Beautiful, by Ernst Friedrich Schumacker, that in economic development principles, two principles are a must. First, respect the people and second, if people do not push to help, leave them alone. This to me was very powerful because many times we walk into a community “uninvited” with our projects do our work, walk out after completion of the project and when you go back, there is absolutely no impact. According to Dr. Sirolli, as an entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur, you must have three things working well: 1) The product that you want to sell has to be fantastic; 2) You have to have fantastic marketing and 3) tremendous financial management. And he rightly says that not one person can do these three things together. And so Dr. Sirolli’s advice for those helping communities is to advise the aspiring entrepreneurs to have at least three people with the above-mentioned qualifications from the start. He emphasizes that no company or business in the world was started by just one person! “The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, energy and imagination of its own people,” says Dr. Ernesto Sirolli. We cannot afford to do the same things in the same way; we have to change the status quo!

My concern has always been about the management of our degraded soils in a sustainable way. From an environmental standpoint, this is actually possible, a lesson I learned during one of the hotly debated issues of whether agroecology can feed the world. You see, in small-scale farming where mechanization is not an option and land is scarce, agroecology is the next best alternative. These farmers have to till their fields to provide their families with food, education and medical supplies. It therefore means that if the farmers have to meet all these needs, then the agriculture here has to be intensive.

In Kenya, maize is the staple and many farmers depend on this crop for their livelihoods. This crop is largely produced by about 3.5 million small-scale farmers producing approximately 75% of the crop. The remaining 25% is produced by large-scale farmers. Since Kenya’s independence (1963), farmers have cropped maize in the mid and highlands whose yields have continued to decline. The maize crop has been bogged by numerous problems, from the 2008 energy crisis (affecting market prices, fertilizer inputs, etc.) to the most recent being the maize lethal necrotic disease that caused 10-100% losses. It is rain fed and a very nutrient-demanding crop that is highly dependent on external fertilizer inputs in conventional agriculture. However, some case studies have shown that conventional agriculture, i.e. maximizing the use of fertilizers in smallholder farming systems, is not enough. Wairegi and Asten (2011) echoed this sentiment in their study on the use of fertilizer in East Africa. They showed that in East Africa, the use of fertilizers on maize was not economically feasible. In fact, these authors discouraged the high use of fertilizers on the commonly cropped maize in the region citing unprofitability.

I work on a project that seeks to rehabilitate degraded soils of western Kenya in small holding farms that are involved in crop-livestock integrated systems. Soils in this region are degraded and respond little to application of fertilizers. The main factors of soil degradation include loss of nutrients (ions) adsorption sites, especially in clay-poor soils, micronutrients exhaustion, structural collapse and low water retention. Further, long time use of these soils with little organic material addition has depleted the soil of organic carbon. Such soils undermine the resilience of food systems and livelihoods to climate variability and population pressure. As mentioned above, highly degraded soils may even become poor-responsive to conventional mineral fertilizers (N, P, K) and in this region, farmers are concerned that the soils that were productive some years back now hardly produce enough to feed them. Rehabilitating such soils entails building up organic matter that would provide adsorption sites for nutrients and water. These small-scale farmers do not have the luxury of leaving their fields fallow to build up organic matter over time. They depend on the fields every year and every day for their livelihoods. Agroeclogy could be an alternative, and in this case, the priority would be in-situ and/or ex-situ additions of materials that restore the depleted soil carbon that would provide the skeleton needed to hold nutrients and water that are very high in demand by these soils. The addition of organic matter and sustainably keeping it in the system through agroecology would thus be a first in managing these soils in a sustainable way. Indeed, agroecology is both labor and knowledge intensive but if practiced well, the rewards are long lasting as was observed on Rene Zazueta’s farm during the ELP training.

For the smallholder farmers in this region, it is not about a competition between biotechnology and agreocology. For us, the pertinent issue is can we feed, clothe, and educate our children on a less than two ha piece of farm? Can we still be able to do this amidst the threats of climate change? Are our food systems resilient enough? And perhaps combining a little bit of everything in the most appropriate way to make sure that we achieve this could be the forefront on our agenda. A really stimulating talk given by Prof. Miguel Altieri was enlightening. The most important thing for such farmers is for them to be food secure. The poverty cycle is broken once this is achieved. During our ELP course, Prof. Altieri stated that if one is food secure, apart from having food throughout the year, they could also sell their labor. And since they are food secure, they can actually negotiate and the chances of being paid less for their labor are low.

Before the course, I had two pressing questions. The first is: in on-farm experiments, how do we get farmers and extension officers interested in work? Now this question has arisen from the so commonly referred notion of “farmer fatigue.” Farmers see many researchers and NGOs come and go, sometimes with different issues, sometimes with the same issue. They have become tired of the researcher’s and NGO’s ideologies…they have become tired of being told what to do. In fact, they actually do not see the benefit of experimental research projects for them. This was answered by Dr. Sirolli’s talk, “Shut up and Listen!” From his stimulating talk, I found that we have been approaching the issue in a completely different way and the key question is, “Did these smallholder farmers invite you?” If they didn’t, then you will spend your time and money doing whatever brought you to that region and once you have packed and left, they would go back to their own systems. The lesson is “shut up and listen!” Let them own the process.

otinga1 otinga2

Rene Zazueta on his farm in Berkeley- Due to the characteristic of diversity, agroecology can indeed nourish the world!!

My second most pressing question was how to involve stakeholders in sustainable soil management, especially in intensely cropped lands where available land for agriculture is a challenge. Now to answer this question, I got insights from Susan Carpenter’s presentation on negotiation. In the negotiation presentation, I learned that the most important thing is to make all the stakeholders understand their benefits of what you are working with, i.e. what is their stake.

I have successfully completed the course (now I am a certified environmental leader!!!) and now I have more questions than answers. However, with the skills acquired during this course, I know I will make a difference, taking one tiny step after the other to rehabilitate the degraded soils of western Kenya!


Wairegi, L.W., van Asten, P., 2011. Exploring the scope of fertilizer use in the East African region. Challenges and opportunities for agricultural intensification of the humid highlands of sub-Saharan Africa (CIALCA) International Conference, 24-27th October, 2011, Kigali, Rwanda.

Reflections from the ELP

by Gabriela Ponce Guerrero, Ecuador (in Switzerland), ELP 2015
Written on July 18, 2015.

gaby1The summer course is close to an end. Each one of us will go back to reclaim what we left behind, to continue what we have postponed, to carry on with our goals and ambitions. We have had three intense weeks of lectures, field trips and, most of all, getting to know each other. The great diversity of the ELP participants was definitely one of the things I enjoyed the most, since we got to experience a truly international environment. We are, literally, from all over the world with unique and inspiring stories.

One of the moments I will not forget is when we started singing songs from our respective countries when coming back from one of our field trips. We were all surprised by the deep voice of Mister Hamid while singing in Persian, or by the powerful voice of Jason while singing some old Chinese song. Or when even after a long day we will gather just outside our dorms and start reciting poems, singing, and dancing. We also had so many discussions ranging from the importance of education to food security and overconsumption. We got a glimpse of each other’s experiences and opinions. We became close and formed lasting bonds and memories.

With the fear of sounding idealistic (which happens to be my personality type according to the test done in the workshop by Susan Carpenter), I believe that many of the conflicts or problems could be solved or prevented if more and more people get to experience an international community. Once you have formed good memories with people from countries you might not have even heard before, you realize that we, humans, are not as different as you may have thought.


Climate Change Challenges in Bangladesh

by Marjana Chowdhury, Bangladesh, ELP 2015
Written on July 29, 2015.

Climate change has emerged as the greatest threat to humankind. The long-term effects of climate change are likely to hinder the progress towards sustainable development and undermine the development gains. Climate change will have negative impacts on all aspects of human development including livelihoods, food security, safe water and sanitation, health care, shelter, etc. Poor communities of the developing countries will be pushed further into extreme vulnerable conditions and suffer the most in the face of increased intensity and frequency of disasters.

Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries that is facing immense challenges due to climate change. Its geophysical position coupled with highly dense population, limited resources and dependence to nature makes Bangladesh a hazard-prone country with many subsequent catastrophic events like floods, cyclones and salinity intrusion. The poor are the most affected by the climate extremes and have very little capacity to cope with the risks.

Bangladesh is already experiencing the impacts of climate change through irregular rainfall patterns, floods, flash floods, cyclones, saline intrusion, drought, sea level rise, tidal surge and water logging. Poor communities in the coastal areas of Bangladesh are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme climatic events with environmental degradation. The northwestern part of Bangladesh is experiencing successive drought and acute water shortage, pushing agriculture dependent communities further into poverty. In the central zone and northeast, increased and prolonged flood, flash flood and river erosion are causing unprecedented loss of livelihood and assets.

Two devastating cyclones, cyclone Sidr in November 2007 and cyclone Aila in May 2009 that hit the coast of Bangladesh gave a glimpse of the challenges waiting for the country in the near future. While the loss of lives during the cyclones were reduced, the destruction to infrastructure, ecosystem and livelihood would take many years to recover, making the long-term impact of climate change visible with declining living conditions for the coastal communities.

Hundreds of thousands of coastal improvised communities have already been displaced and pushed into extreme poverty without any livelihood opportunity and shelter. Millions more will follow if the sea level rise and saline water intrusion continues to move upward in the inland. A 45 cm rise in sea level will not only affect the vast coastal ecosystem and hamper agriculture and food production, it has the potential to dislocate about 38 million people from 20 coastal districts. The climate-induced displacement will create new housing, livelihood and settlement challenges as well as enhance competition and conflict over scarce resources including land, water, fisheries and forests. Rural to urban as well as cross boarder migration will continue in the slums without adequate income, food, water, shelters and basic amenities.

Even with its scarce resources and increased challenges, Bangladesh has traveled a long way in reducing risk of its people and communities. People of Bangladesh have shown incredible courage and steadfast determination in combating the impact of disaster and climate change. From each disaster, the country bounced back with renewed optimism, harnessing the unwavering spirit of the people, learning from the past and preparing for the future.


by Nadine Ruprecht, Germany, ELP 2015
Written on July 15, 2015.

“Sustainability” was probably one of the most often used words during the ELP 2015. It was defined by the Brundtland commission as development meeting the needs of the current population without compromising the satisfaction of the future generations‘ needs (UN 1982). However, sustainability has not only an inter- but also intra-generational dimension, given the aspects of justice in resource distribution. A sustainable development path would be one that a) fosters social equality, b) is within the environmental thresholds1, and c) uses economic development to improve the livelihoods of the poor rather than to further increase overconsumption in industrialized countries. The graph (SER 2011) shows the need for policies to overcome silos between the social, ecological, and economic aspects of development in order to foster sustainable development.


Sustainable policies need to be “eco-social-eco:” fostering economic production that meets the needs of the poor, driving social wellbeing and respecting our sensitive and interrelated ecosystem (Rockstrom 2009). State intervention not taking those three dimensions of sustainability equally into account has led to environmentally negative results (Reed 2012), e.g. in the case of fossil fuel subsidies.

A sustainable future requires more than a “technical fix” from green technology (UNRISD 2012), but a process of “greening society” towards consumption reduction in industrialized countries (Daly 2005) and socially and environmentally sustainable growth in developing and emerging economies. A global society that succeeds to build resilience (Diamond 2004) requires new measures for development beyond GDP, precaution due to the thresholds of our finite planet (Rockstrom 2009) and strong sustainability criteria (Daly 2005). Solidarity is a central part of a sustainable future based on shared prosperity: if more people need to eat from the same cake, the ones who already have a large piece need to share with those who have not yet had their fair share.


1 Thus maintaining the value of natural capital stock

Is the selfie important for environmental leaders?

by Harutyun Gevorgyan, Armenia, ELP 2015
Written on August 13, 2015.

As with any program, the Environmental Leadership Program also needs an evaluation. By evaluating the program, we make an assessment, to analyze project objectives, development effectiveness, efficiency, impact and sustainability. Actually evaluation can be different; it depends on the situation, project requirements, project context, etc.

The evaluation itself should cover not only all activities, which has been done during the program, but also some photos and other necessary illustrated materials should be added. In my understanding, one of the most highly used forms is photo reporting, when you can present photos from all your activities. And by doing so, the evaluator can understand the project and what kind of visible outcomes you had.

What is the difference between ELP and other projects? It was highly interactive with intensive participatory actions (all participants are actively involved in almost all processes, generally any academic lecture does not exist, but in contrary, more discussions took place) that were very diverse (almost all activities are different) and very fast-paced (we saw one process, but we should move forward quickly because there are so many other things we should see in the frame of ELP). So now the questions, if you want to participate, listen the lectures, and report all your activities, you should be very attentive and behave accordingly to the situation.


Of course for your photo reporting you can take photos of the current activities and move forward, but I have a theory, that the quality is a bit different, when you or your face appears in the photos, which makes an effect of participatory actions. I understand this theory since in my professional activities I had an opportunity to lecture quite often and I saw from students’ and other participants’ feedback that if in your presentations you show just a photo of the exact activity, it can be fine, but when you show a photo where you are involved (your body or your face are in the photos), it gives a totally other taste to your presentation and makes it more qualified. After understanding this a few years ago, I always try to take photos not only for the presenting activities, but also taking selfies, getting photos with my face, because I know that when I use them I will have better presentations.

Besides that, you want to share your feelings and experiences in social nets for your friends and other people, which will make them learn and also think what’s going on around them. I like when I received comments and likes from my Facebook friends, which means that they are following me and I can share my stories with them.



But what is another advantage of selfies? During the intensive learning process, all participants are very busy. They do not have time or are not in the mood to use their time for taking your photos anytime you need. But with selfies, you can do it alone and have the same outcome. And even more, if you ask someone to take your photos, he/she will take only one and will finish, and I can tell you for sure that the quality of that photo usually is not good. And therefore you need more, in order to get a better one. But at the same time you feel uncomfortable to ask for another photo. With selfies, you can take as many photos as you want and then later you can select the best one, which you like and which fits with your interests.

By saying so, during the 3 full weeks of the ELP, I took about 4000 photos (I counted all the selfie photos I took). Initially I got a lot of Jokes from ELP participants about it, but at the end I see that about 50% of participants started to do the same and even some more people, who never took a single photo, started to take selfies too.

To conclude, I just want to ask a question. What the lecturers do during their lectures, is that not a selfie of their knowledge? What specialists do during their job, is that not a selfie of their skills? And what the Earth does with us, is that not a selfie of its weather and climate change?

So, always take your selfie stick with you, learn, get practice and take photos.


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