Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes

by Self-Help International
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Improve Nicaraguan Farmers Nutrition & Incomes
Leaders coordinate production loans with Rodolfo
Leaders coordinate production loans with Rodolfo

The mission of Self-Help International is to, “Alleviate hunger by helping people to help themselves.”  In Nicaragua, Self-Help has adopted a three-pronged approach to assist farmers in improving the quality and quantity of food they produce.

The crucial elements are: (1) access to improved seeds, such as high protein (QPM) corn and biofortified beans; (2) improved knowledge of agricultural practices, communicated through workshops, demonstration plots, and social media postings; and (3) short-term loans using funds received from Self-Help donors.  Access to credit allows farmers to not only acquire improved seeds but also purchase the fertilizer, pesticides, and seed protection inputs they need to take full advantage of the genetic potential of the seed they purchase.

At the beginning, Self-Help provided credit to a group of farmers who agreed to produce certified QPM seed corn, which was then channeled into the commercial agricultural input market.  In 2019, the credit program was extended to a larger group of 68 farmers who, after completing the necessary training, planted the certified QPM seed and produced commercial corn.

After meeting their own families’ nutritional needs, farmers marketed their extra production to other families in the community.  This provided the farmers with cash income to spend on other priorities such as education for their children and home improvements.

Self-Help has developed this innovative model that identifies leading farmers in each community who in turn identify other farmers whom they consider to be good credit risks.  These leaders help arrange loans from Self-Help to purchase seed and other crop inputs.  They also take responsibility for seeing that the loans are repaid after the crops are harvested.  By utilizing local leaders, Self-Help leverages its professional expertise and capital to benefit many more families.

The following farmers are examples of three key leaders from the communities of San Agustín, Nueva Armenia, and Las Minas.  All three of them began collaborating with Self-Help to produce certified seed corn.  As of 2021, they have taken responsibility for helping their neighbors obtain financing to buy needed inputs and market their products.

Isidro is the president of the Los Chiles Cooperative, which has 46 members.  He is also responsible for the biofortified bean seed bank in his community. Through Isidro’s efforts, the members of the Cooperative plus four other farmers in his community received loans from Self-Help.  They depend on the leadership, decision-making, and hard work that Isidro demonstrates every day.  In 2019, he was presented with the SHI Merry Fredrick Leadership Award for his efforts.

Ariel is from the community of Nueva Armenia.  Besides facilitating loans for his group of 22 farmers, he shares with them the agricultural knowledge he has learned from Self-Help.  Although the farmers each receive individual loans, Ariel knows them all personally and is responsible for both the disbursement and the recovery of the funds.  You can read more about Ariel’s role in improving agriculture in his community in the April GlobalGiving report

Basilio is the leader with the largest number of producers under his responsibility. He has taken charge of a group of 39 farmers from Las Minas.  He helps them obtain financing from Self-Help and passes on the knowledge and strategies and he has learned through the Self-Help agriculture program.

In April 2020 every one of the farmers receiving a loan repaid it on time, despite disruptions to the Nicaraguan economy from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the most recent planting season, beginning in September-October 2020, 65 farmers received loans totaling 429,480 Córdobas, or about $12,600 US.  Loans are to be repaid within a period of 7 months, after the crops are harvested.  April 2021 was the deadline for cancellation of the loans.  Of the 65 cooperating producers, only 3 of them had not repaid yet as of April 2021, resulting in a 96% repayment rate (with anticipated 100% later in 2021).

Each producer who works with these three leaders has confidence that everything will turn out well, that they will achieve better yields with their crops, and, after repaying their loans, he will have extra money to expand his corn plantings and improve his family’s living situation.

Self-Help has confidence in these three leaders because they know the people in their communities and their needs, and have earned their trust.  They have become vital intermediaries in fulfilling Self-Help’s mission. 

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Ariel with the QPM harvest (photo by Alex Herrera)
Ariel with the QPM harvest (photo by Alex Herrera)

Ariel is without a doubt one of the most recognized seed corn producers in the community of Las Minas, Nicaragua.

Originally from the town of El Rama, Ariel arrived in Las Minas in 1994 when he married his wife, who was from there originally.  Needing to support his family and not finding work locally, he emigrated to the neighboring country of Costa Rica from 2002 to 2006, where he worked as a field hand.

Ariel returned to Nicaragua in 2007 after realizing that the work he was doing only generated profits for others.  He began to work his own land, returning to Costa Rica periodically to earn money by harvesting coffee. 

When Ariel first returned to Nicaragua, farming was totally different.  Corn was planted by throwing the seed over the ground and then covering it with the stubble from the previous crop.  With this planting system, he harvested yields of only 30 to 40 bushels per acre.  

In 2011, Ariel learned that the priest in his community had organized a group of farmers to work with Self-Help International.  They were planting corn plots and evaluating different varieties to observe which ones behaved best in that area. The group also began to receive training in the double-row planting system. Soon, Ariel was one of several farmers chosen to produce high-protein (QPM) seed corn.  

Thanks to the training that Self-Help provided, Ariel is now able to harvest nearly 100 bushels of corn per acre. Plus, the certified seed he now grows can be sold for a higher price.  He has a goal of producing 500 bushels of certified seed corn each year to be distributed throughout the region by agricultural input dealers, so that other small producers of the region can also benefit.  In addition, he will grow 12 acres of commercial corn because it can be sold sooner than the seed corn.  His motto now is, “Plant less but harvest more.”

With extra profits from his seed corn production, Ariel has been able to purchase tools that make his field work easier, such as a sprayer for applying agro-chemicals.  Self-Help also helped him obtain a gasoline-powered corn sheller, which is used both by him and by other farmers in the community.  He has made several improvements to his home, too.  For example, because he lives far from the electrical grid, he installed solar panels on his roof for lighting his house. 

Ariel and his wife have managed to help their children obtain better educations.  Currently, they have one child who is an engineer in sustainable rural agriculture, a teacher who is still studying, a barber, and a high school student who helps with the field work. All of this they attribute to their collaboration with Self-Help.

Ariel is a responsible farmer who is also a respected leader in his community.  He has formed a group of 22 other small producers who have taken advantage of the agricultural financing offered by Self-Help to help them purchase crop inputs.  His group has had a 100 percent repayment rate on their loans.  Thanks to his efforts, these producers have improved their quality of life and contributed to the well-being of their community.

Ariel with Rodolfo (photo by Alex Herrera)
Ariel with Rodolfo (photo by Alex Herrera)

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Corn farmers in Nicaragua.
Corn farmers in Nicaragua.

Ever since Self-Help International (Self-Help) began working to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in Nicaragua, promoting the production of high-protein corn has been a high priority.  Corn is a staple crop in Nicaragua, and the majority is used for human consumption.  Many people suffer from protein deficiency. Introducing corn varieties that are higher in the amino acids lysine and tryptophan than the traditional varieties – known as “Quality Protein Maize” (QPM) – is an effective and affordable way of improving diets.

Improved Seed

Foundation QPM seed was obtained from the International Center for Improvement of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, where Dr. Norman Borlaug did much of his work that resulted in the Green Revolution.  From the original foundation seed, Self-Help produced registered seed on its test plots.  The registered seed is then sold to leading farmers in the community who produce certified seed, under strict protocols overseen by the Nicaraguan government.  This certified seed is sold to agricultural input dealers who in turn sell it to small-holder farmers.  The farmers’ production is used for family consumption, and the excess is sold in local markets for other families to utilize.

Better Technology

Improved seed is only one piece of the puzzle, however.  QPM not only has higher protein content than traditional corn varieties planted in Nicaragua, it has increased yield potential, as well.  However, farmers must adopt improved production practices to unlock this potential.  Between 2016 and 2020, Self-Help presented over 108 workshops on corn production to an average of 14 farmers per training.  In addition, small bags of seed are donated to farmers who are willing to plant demonstration plots so that their neighbors can observe the results from QPM genetics first-hand.

Self-Help’s trainings help farmers take advantage of the superior QPM geneticsby increasing plant population on the same amount of land they typically cultivate.  Traditionally, farmers in Nicaragua plant about 12,000 kernels per acre.  For QPM seed the goal is 36,000 seeds per acre, or triple the density of the native varieties.  To achieve this higher plant population, farmers learn “double-row” technology during Self-Help training workshops.  Instead of planting single rows of seed roughly a meter (39 inches) apart, two rows are planted about 4 inches apart, then two more rows are planted with a one-meter gap in between.  The one-meter gap is necessary to allow a person to walk between the rows for planting, weeding, applying pesticides, and harvesting.  Seeds are also planted closer together within the rows.

More plants require more nutrients.  Farmers who adopt double-row technology apply fertilizer at roughly double the rate used for the traditional single-row technology.  Other inputs are applied at about the same rates.  The table on this page compares the total costs for each technology, including land, labor and purchased inputs.  The estimated cost per acre for double-row technology is $453, compared to only $273 for the single-row option.  However, the double-row corn conservatively yields twice as much grain and double the gross income.  Profit per acre is estimated at $138 per acre, versus $22 per acre for the single-row technology.  Of course, if families provide their own labor and own their own land, the budgeted costs for those resources go back into their pockets, as well, leaving them extra income for improving their diets in other ways, investing in home improvements, and paying for their children’s education.

Access to Capital

In order to pay for the higher input costs, farmers need access to capital.  Self-Help maintains a revolving fund from which farmers can borrow enough to pay for seed, fertilizer, pesticides and land preparation, or about 43% of their total costs.  Loans are repaid after harvest, about six months later, plus interest at a rate of one percent per month.  Repayment rates are at or near 100 percent.

By providing a complete package: improved seed, better technology and access to capital, Self-Help International is able to support farmers in Nicaragua to improve their livelihoods while at the same time alleviating hunger and improving nutrition in their communities and beyond.  In 2021 Self-Help hopes to finance about 70 farmers.  Your donations can help expand our revolving funds and make it possible to serve even more producers in the future. 

Nicaragua corn farmer.
Nicaragua corn farmer.
Ears of corn.
Ears of corn.
Costs and Returns, High Protein Corn One Acre, US$
Costs and Returns, High Protein Corn One Acre, US$
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Omar.
Omar.

Across Nicaragua, farmers are greatly challenged by irregular crop sales prices. Many farmers depend on microfinance lending companies to finance their farming operations, but these companies charge very high interest rates. This means that in order to repay the loans, farmers are forced to sell their final products to predatory intermediaries. Since there is no pricing regulatory body for agricultural production, prices are dictated by the intermediaries, who buy up most small- and medium-sized farmers’ products for resale. These farmers often receive unfair prices for their products, and their families’ incomes are hurt in the process. 

Another challenge farmers face is a lack of improved planting systems and not relying  on their empirical farming knowledge inherited from their ancestors. Year after year, production declines due to poor agricultural techniques. This is why Self-Help International’s Agriculture Program provides training and tools (like the double-row planting technique) and technologies (high quality protein maize, or QPM, adapted to the zones and climates of Nicaragua). These allow rural families to fight hunger and improve production. Utilizing existing resources and avoiding soil contamination allow these farmers to advance their agricultural frontiers and have higher crop yields.

Omar is a farmer from Nueva Armenia, Nicaragua, about 45 kilometers from San Carlos in Rio San Juan. Omar has extensive experience in agriculture, which he started working in as a child when his father began teaching him how to produce maize, beans, tubers, and livestock. Sadly, his father - an acclaimed and hard-working farmer -  passed away two months ago. Now, Omar and two of his brothers are supporting their family using the skills their father taught them. Omar’s ten-person family lives together - Omar, his mother, his four brothers, and his four sisters. Five of his siblings are still studying in primary school, and they travel 3 km (approx. 1.9 mi) walking or on horseback to reach their school each day.

Omar is particularly adept at cultivating maize in traditional ways. He is a member of Self-Help’s Agriculture Program and has been trained with the planting system promoted by the organization. Additionally, he’s received production inputs for QPM, which is more nutritious than traditional maize.

However, when Omar entered the program, he, like many farmers, was skeptical of Self-Help’s double-row planting technique. He normally establishes up to 7,056 square meters of maize, and traditionally this one manzana (7,056 square meters) yields around 4,000 pounds of maize. But, he agreed to experiment with double-row planting. He established a 2,550 square meter plot. From this plot, he obtained a yield of 3,500 pounds.

By using the double row planting technique in a plot about a third of the size he normally plants, Omar yielded nearly what he would expect to yield using his previous methods. When Omar finished his experiment, he realized that the planting technique increases production and reduces production costs.

Surprised at the result obtained compared to his traditional planting system, Omar claims that if he had planted one full manzana, he would have yielded 9,333 pounds. This motivated him and also served as an example to other community members to apply this planting technique as well. Omar now recommends the technique to other farmers and encourages them to improve their quality of life by avoiding the problem of having to sell their products at a lower price.

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Establishing the demonstration plots.
Establishing the demonstration plots.

More than 70% of Nicaragua’s agricultural land is held by small and medium-sized farms whose farmers have made agricultural advances. However, these advances have led to deteriorated soil quality due to overexploitation, land misuse, and a lack of knowledge about best cultivation practices. Over time, the land yields less and less, and many farmers are unwilling to change their production systems and engage in different maize planting techniques. 

This is why Self-Help International’s agricultural extension team in Nicaragua works with farmers on cultivation improvement techniques to obtain better yields and guarantee protein-rich food (quality protein maize, or QPM) to rural farmers and their families.

Juan, a farmer originally from Nueva Guinea, has spent more than 20 years in the Ojo de Agua community in San Carlos, Rio San Juan. He lives with his three children and his grandson, and in addition to having worked in neighboring Costa Rica as a field laborer, Juan has extensive knowledge regarding the agricultural sector.

Juan and his family are dedicated to cultivating the land, and he is a member of the farming group which receives training from Self-Help International. In May 2019, he planted a 425 square meter demonstration plot using the double-row planting technique to plant the QPM seed variety called INTA-Nutrader. He compared this technique and variety with his traditional planting techniques and maize varieties, and he observed higher yields utilizing the new technique and QPM seed variety. 

During the second planting season of 2020, Self-Help provided inputs to Juan’s farming group, including INTA-Nutrader corn seed, fertilizer, and liquids for pest control and seed treatment. With this, they planted 70,560 square meters of maize, 30% using the innovative new planting technique and the other 70% using traditional planting techniques. The group then compared the results. 

Juan and his group realized that, with good sowing techniques, handling, and fertilizer application, they were able to achieve better crop performance using less land. They also realized that the techniques would make larger tracts of farmland easier to manage. 

Ultimately, Juan’s farming group observed an 88.57% increase in maize yields, so Juan also decided to experiment with two pigs. He fed them exclusively INTA-Nutrader protein maize, and his 132 pound pig increased by 68 pounds while the other 105 pound pig increased by 55 pounds. He sold the pigs around Christmas 2019 and got a good price for them. 

As a result of this, Juan is confident in continuing his family’s agricultural practices as recommended by Self-Help. He no longer needs to emigrate to neighboring Costa Rica in search of job opportunities since the results he yielded allow him to plant and produce more. With the profits from his corn sales, he purchased a solar panel for his family so that his home would have electricity. Additionally, they purchased more animals to increase their livestock herd.

Establishing the demonstration plots.
Establishing the demonstration plots.
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Organization Information

Self-Help International

Location: Waverly, IA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @SelfHelpIntl
Project Leader:
Katie Seifert
Waverly, IA United States
$3,810 raised of $7,020 goal
 
61 donations
$3,210 to go
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