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Profits, not poaching, is message Cornell scientists are aiming at Zambian farmers

In an effort to improve lives and at the same time save African wildlife, Cornell researchers are helping farmers in Zambia, Southern Africa, develop such products as peanut butter and tofu under the It's Wild! brand name. The goal? Enabling farmers to reap more financial rewards from the food they grow so they won't poach threatened wildlife or destroy forests.

The effort is part of a partnership between Cornell and the Wildlife Conservation Society to support the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), a Zambian organization with a vision to save wildlife by addressing human poverty and hunger that forces farmers into poaching and cutting forests down for farm fields.

One of the main goals of Community Markets is to train farmers to grow food using sustainable agricultural practices and give them the expertise to make honey and rice and other lucrative products under the It's Wild! label. With Cornell's guidance, Community Markets' food processing facility was recently certified as a vendor by the World Food Program (WFP) to sell a soy-maize protein powder supplement to the WFP for refugees and HIV/AIDS patients.

"This now positions COMACO to provide high-energy protein supplements to relief agencies," said Alex Travis, Cornell assistant professor of reproductive biology in the College of Veterinary Medicine's Baker Institute for Animal Health and a principle investigator in Cornell's ongoing collaboration with the wildlife society. "The certification represents a huge cost-savings versus importing high-energy protein supplements, and [it] also contributes directly to the local economy."

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (through its Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources Management Collaborative Research Support Program), Cornell assistant professor of food science Carmen Moraru convened a food safety and hygiene workshop in Lundazi, Zambia, in spring 2007 to teach the Community Markets food-processing staff simple measures to improve food safety and quality, such as washing hands and utensils and wearing lab coats, hairnets and shoe covers. Moraru also taught farmers about microbes, for example, by using glow kits that illuminated residues that remained under nails or between fingers after poor hand washing.

"They could really see with their eyes that even washing hands was not that simple when working in a food processing facility," said Moraru, who used posters and print materials developed with help from Cornell's National Good Agricultural Practices Program to teach about hygiene and hand washing.

Farmers also learned how to reduce the oil separating in their peanut butter by grinding the peanuts less and lowering the heating during processing and how to reduce rice breakages by modifying their equipment.

Another goal was to help Community Markets diversify its product line. The farmers are now experimenting with soymilk and tofu and also plan on producing puffed rice and meat substitutes made from soy. Growing soy has environmental benefits because the plant fixes nitrogen in soil that is depleted by cotton crops. But, Moraru said, new products must realistically fit with Zambian culture and the local conditions. Zambians may not know how to cook tofu in ways that suit their tastes, and soymilk requires large amounts of freshwater and refrigeration, so right now the products are consumed soon after they are sold.

In the meantime, Cornell economists are devising ways for donor-reliant Community Markets to be financially self-sustaining.

"Family incomes have gone up dramatically, as have the prices per unit," said Travis. "The value-added products are really the key to the profitability."

By Krishna Ramanujan