“I had to be evacuated because of Ebola.
I was the only expat there on the ground—it
was really hard to leave the project and all of
my colleagues behind,” Gilliam says.
The Ebola epidemic stalled more than
GRO’s efforts, of course; Sierra Leone and
its neighboring countries’ economies were
badly affected by the crisis, and whole communities were torn apart by quarantine,
sickness, and death. “Many things were
handled poorly. For example, schools had
to be completely shut down in quarantined
areas, but because no arrangements were
made for students to make up their annual
exams, many students were set back an
entire year. There are ripple effects when
that happens,” Gilliam explained.
GRO is once again in full operation, with
Gilliam on its team. The organization's biggest challenge is tackling the ripple effects
of the Ebola crisis and, before that, a 10-year
long civil war that have crippled Sierra
Leone’s agriculture sector—the main source
of income for 60 percent of the country's citizens. GRO's approach is to help rural farmers
by meeting them where they are.
This idea is central to HESE's affordable greenhouses program. As such, every
partnership like GRO, implementation
approach, and greenhouse is designed a
little differently in each geographic location.
This is what the success of any technology
depends on, says Khanjan Mehta, director
of HESE. “Technology isn’t a magic bullet.
It isn’t automatic. It can help, but people
have to invest in teaching and learning how
to use it.”
Mehta’s team on the greenhouses project
has had a long time to learn this. The idea
for a small-scale, inexpensive greenhouse
first came to Mehta and his students eight
years ago. They were trying to identify technological solutions to rural poverty and food
insecurity in agrarian societies, like most
of sub-Saharan Africa. In East Africa, for
example, 80 percent of households depend
on subsistence and small-scale farming for
food and income. Most do simple, open-air vegetable farming on quarter-hectare
plots of land, which leaves their livelihoods
vulnerable to drought, pests and fluctuating
Commercial farms operating in the same
conditions are able to weather changes more
easily because they have better access to
sophisticated technologies and financial
resources. Greenhouses play an important
role in commercial farming, allowing farmers
to dictate the climate in which their crops
grow and plant year-round, during both wet
and dry seasons.
The HESE team and its partners believe
that small-scale farmers can similarly benefit
from greenhouses. “Because [a greenhouse]
is an enclosed space, it [allows] farmers to
deal with variability in weather patterns a
lot better,” says Ku McMahan from USAID’s
Global Development Lab, which funded WHI
and GRO in Sierra Leone. “They are able to
produce more seedlings that can survive
warmer summers and drought conditions.
Those can then be planted to improve overall
crop production and [farmers’] livelihoods.”
Greenhouse farming also requires less
water than field farming, thus improving
water conservation—a major issue for the
global agriculture sector, which consumes 70
percent of all fresh water, according to the
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And
it is less labor-intensive than field farming,
which can be physically hard on women,
children and the elderly.
Most greenhouse manufacturers and
distributors cater only to commercial-scale
customers and charge upwards of US$3,000
for each greenhouse. They do not sell a
product that is size-appropriate or affordable
for small farmers. Mehta and his multidisciplinary team at HESE wanted to change that.
When the HESE greenhouses team began
field research to understand small-scale
farming conditions in Africa, they started
by interviewing farmers and agribusinesses
in Nyeri in central Kenya. That work in 2009
informed the key parameters HESE uses
today whenever it explores a new market.
“Our initial design targets were that two
people should be able to build it in two days
HESE greenhouse operations and growth plans
Pilot and near-term launch sites
“Technology isn’t a magic
bullet. It isn’t automatic.
It can help, but people
have to invest in learning
how to use it.”