A healthy diet is the first step to proper health: Mercy Ships Nutritional Agriculture Program

12 November 2016
An Opening Ceremony celebrates the beginning of the Agriculture Program in Benin.
An Opening Ceremony celebrates the beginning of the Agriculture Program in Benin.

The Mercy Ships Nutritional Agriculture Program (Food for Life) aims to increase the capacity of local agriculturists through sustainable farming and agropastoral practices. A healthy diet is the first step to proper health. 

We recognize that people need more than just access to healthcare, but also access to nutritious food to obtain such health. Since 1997, Mercy Ships has encouraged people to discover significantly improved methods of food production – working with them to rebuild, restore, and renew their lives, land, communities and nations through holistic, organic agriculture development. Farming practices in much of West Africa do more harm than good.

Mercy Ships seek to help its agriculture participants understand how greenhouse gases work in the atmosphere, how these greenhouse gasses are increased by slash and burn practices, and how this affects their crops, health, and nutrition. Slash and burn, pesticides, herbicides, and others lead to the production of poor harvests and deplete the soil’s nutrient levels, leaving behind infertile ground.]

Food for Life:

Mercy Ships photoThe Nutritional Agriculture Program (Food for Life) works in conjunction with the Africa Mercy’s 10-month deployment schedule to provide training and resources in countries served by Mercy Ships. In this project, Mercy Ships will train trainers who serve with local NGOs in Benin. These experts will then possess the knowledge and skills to train others in organic farming techniques that can improve nutrition, provide a business, and offer a sustainable response to environmental deterioration.NeedsOver half of Benin’s population relies on agriculture to maintain their livelihoods.

Agriculture in Benin:

• Agriculture makes up a large part of Benin’s economy with cotton alone making up 40% of the country’s GDP and over 80% of their export revenue. To facilitate the production of cotton, dangerous pesticides were used which caused damage to human health and environmental degradation. Today, there is a push to use more organic methods to protect both human health and the environment.

• Not only is the environment being harmed by these practices, a 2013 study by the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 11% of the Beninese population is moderate and severely food insecure and 34% have limited or poor food consumption. Adding to this, 32% of children six to 59 months suffer from chronic malnutrition.

• About two-thirds of Benin’s population is dependent on farming (i.e. beans, maize, and yams) with maize being the primary crop and the most profitable. Although the relationship between environmental practices and Beninese food insecurity has not been established, these issues can still affect the overall health of Benin’s population.

Goal of the Food for Life Project:

Mercy Ships photo• To improve food security in Benin by increasing the farming capacity of partner NGOs and provide training for Food for Life participants and agriculture workers at a local orphanage.

• 25 – 35 participants will be mentored and trained from local NGOs serving in Benin during a 22-week course. Participants intern with poor families to apply their knowledge on climate-oriented agriculture. This includes the implementation of an Agroforestry system – fruit trees in association with vegetables.

• The assisted families are able to improve the quality of their farming methods to produce organically sustainable fruits and vegetables and help reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

• Families are able to adapt positively to changes in their climate by initiating new ideas to increase their Agroforestry system.Assist partners in setting up demonstration gardens for agriculture training programs.

The importance of food safety and nutritional security as it relates to health and the transmission of disease:

• The course addresses climate change, how such change affects the agricultural sector, and methods to adapt to and mitigate such effects. Facilitators further identify and discourage destructive practices such as slash-and-burn tactics and the use of harsh, expensive chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

• After receiving an understanding of the impact of climate change on the farming activities, the facilitators show different actions that could help reduce poverty and at the same time protect the soil from degradation through REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and ForestDegradation).

• Many farmers each year destroy forests because they are looking for new land to cultivate, while they forget to replenish depleted soil nutrients. Such practices lead to forest reduction.Business PracticesAlongside organic agriculture techniques, facilitators provide instruction in proper business practices and communication for development

• Facilitators engage in Participatory ActionResearch (PAR) approach to communicate development principles. The training thus emphasizes how participants can help their communities identify the challenges they face in their traditional agricultural activities and techniques, and together identify (and therefore ‘own’) innovative means to improve ecological sustainability and yield increase. In particular, the team emphasizes how micro-credit can help build businesses.

• Towards the end of the course, participants also create a business plan indicating how they intend to apply the course material in their respective NGOs.

• Mercy Ships uses the Participatory Action Research theory to empower and lead people to increased control over their lives. It seeks to understand and improve the world by sharing the power with persons being researched; therefore, the researched become the researchers and cease to be objects and become partners.

• PAR seeks to understand the local practices, situations, contexts, and challenges while actively involving locals into the research process. In cooperation with Fondation Espace Afrique, facilitators identify five very poor farming families in a community not far from the site. In an internship-style format, participants meet with these local farming families and discuss different aspects concerning their agricultural activities as per the training they received during theFood for Life (FFL) program.

What happens when the Africa Mercy leaves Benin?

• The Agriculture Program Manager with local partners and agriculturalists on a monthly basis and conducts follow-up visits 6-12 months after the ship’s departure. The Program Manager will also examine what the participants learned to bring change into their lives and the lives of others (i.e. new farming methods, creating a business plan).

• Long-term indicators of success Evaluation occurs one to two years after the ship’s departure. Participants continue to implement the knowledge and skills learned. NGOs are able to report on the numbers of people trained and the amount of food grown by the new training participants.[:]