By Russ Zick
USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer
Smallholder farmers in Morocco are engaged in upgrading their agricultural practices in order to increase income by expanding exports to Europe, the United States, and other Southern countries. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) has been engaged in that process with several programs such as assisting Moroccan cooperatives in obtaining organic certification for their walnut, almonds, and other products. During the certification project, HAF, a Moroccan and U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to using a participatory, collaborative approach to assure sustainable solutions, recognized there were seed storage challenges that needed development for continued progress.
HAF partners with Land O’Lakes International Development (LOL) to develop a project concept and proposal to address the seed storage gaps in the nut supply chain. LOL, in turn, partners with USAID’s Middle East and North Africa Farmer-to-Farmer program to advance sustainable agriculture and forestry activities to enhance economic growth.
Teaming with High Atlas Foundation
HAF staff is a mix of Moroccans and volunteers from other countries, including men and women, young and old, and they manage a diverse mix of local development projects. Members provide a nurturing, encouraging environment. A typical workweek included attending presentations by staff, interns and other F2F volunteers on their projects. The presentations and comments were a means of project quality improvement, as well as team-building. The events also provided insight as to the fit of the seed storage project within the range of other HAF projects. The daily routine of family-style group lunches was a way to share Moroccan food and hospitality with everyone that was congenial, memorable, and productive. I found it an energizing and inspiring experience being included in this uniquely Moroccan HAF team.
Although the final objective of the assignment was clear from the start, “prepare a proposal to the Ministry of Agriculture for seed storage infrastructure improvement”, it took a week and three layout drafts, to clarify the need, size and nature of the concept plan. HAF project managers provided guidance in discussions and site visits to help me understand in detail the need to assist farmers with capacity for two types of seed storage: 1) storing harvested nuts for short periods prior to post-harvest processing, and 2) storing endemic varieties of tree and wild medicinal plant seeds for ready access during the planting season, especially varieties under threat of being lost to more commercially viable varieties. HAF partnering with the Idraren Cooperative had recently developed a business plan to produce 1,000 tons of certified organic walnuts. Seed storage is essential to meet production potential and market demand for years to come.
The assignment provided an opportunity to contribute to development of organic agricultural processing and diversification of endemic seed varieties, benefiting small holder farmers in rural areas. It also afforded the opportunity to use my mechanical engineering experience in agricultural applications and to facilitate the synthesis of a design concept in a cross-cultural setting. In preparation for the assignment, I activated my project engineering network, reviewed professional technical articles on seed storage facilities, and visited a USDA world-class seed storage lab in Colorado. In country, together with HAF colleagues, we visited SONACOS, a large scale quasi-government produce and seed storage distribution center, a large-volume government sponsored agricultural producers’ market, and the recently completed post-harvest processing center at the Idraren Cooperative, located in Asni of the High Atlas Mountains.
The most tangible accomplishment of the assignment was to give HAF a written proposal suitable for presentation to the Ministry of Agriculture. The proposal included a hand-drawn layout drawing, a project narrative describing the need and the proposed solution, a detailed cost estimate and a tentative implementation schedule. It is likely that the highest value of the concept plan will be to stimulate further discussion about the new capabilities needed. The concept plan is undergoing further revision before it is presented to the Ministry of Agriculture, but the plan will help to advance the discussions and can lead to improvements in the current post-harvest processing.
There were other intangible impacts from the assignment. I will long remember the rhythm of the Marrakech day with the morning and evening calls to prayer, sleeping indoors with the door wide open to the quiet, perfectly cool night air, the excitement about an afternoon rainstorm, even though there was not much moisture; the aesthetic experience of sharing sweet mint tea, poured high above the glass to aerate the tea and the touch of a scorching hot glass. It’s also nice to feel I now have some friends and colleagues in Morocco.