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The secret power of pineapples

Published on 15 January 2020

In 2019, Angola endured its worst drought in decades. 2.3 million people in the south of the country were hard hit by food and water shortages.

Last year’s drought was particularly bad, but it wasn’t a one off. With rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall, droughts across southern Africa are becoming more frequent and severe.

Kwanza Sul, in central Angola, escaped the worst of the drought last year. But farmers in Dumba village have noticed the changes. They explain that the rains do still come, but not as much as previously, and at unexpected times.

Changing rainfall patterns cause huge problems for farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood and their family’s survival. Too little rain, and young plants dry up and die. Too much rain, and seeds rot. Unpredictable rain, and no-one knows when to plant.

Although farmers in Dumba are painfully aware of the seasonal changes that are disrupting their work, they didn’t, until recently, know that such changes were part of a long-term trend. But knowledge is power.

As part of the Partnerships for Resilience programme (PAR), our partner IECA, the Angolan Congregational Church, has been supporting five communities in Kwanza Sul to adapt to the changing conditions.

Introducing climate-resilient crops and techniques is a key part of this work. Dumba is home to the project’s field school, and in 2019 pomology – growing fruit – was a major focus.

Using trial plots and hands-on learning, IECA technicians have supported a core group of pomology trainees, drawn from all five villages, to learn how to care for and propagate drought-tolerant fruits such as oranges, mangoes and pineapples.

Pineapples are one of the most popular fruit crops in the world – second only to bananas in terms of volume sold. But they are a new crop for people in Dumba.

Luciana Filipe in her pineapple plantation, Dumba

Luciana Filipe was among the first cohort of 65 farmers to receive pineapple plantlets. Early in the year, she and her family planted 300 of them, drawing on the skills they’d learned from IECA’s field school.

Pineapples need plenty of sunlight but not much water, enabling them to tolerate dry conditions where other crops would fail.

In the last few years, scientists have unlocked the secret of the pineapple’s resilience – a special kind of photosynthesis which involves them closing up their pores during daylight hours, and only opening them at night, massively reducing water loss. It means that pineapples need only a fifth of the water that most other plants do.

Pineapples are the most economically valuable crop in the world to use this process, and people in Dumba can certainly see their potential as a cash crop. Luciana and the other farmers have reported a good first harvest.

‘The money from selling pineapples will help cover my children and grandchildren’s school expenses,’ Luciana explains. ‘I’m going to sell them here in the community or in Cassongue [the nearest market town], because we don’t yet have enough to make it worthwhile selling further afield.’

The money from selling pineapples will help cover my children and grandchildren’s school expenses.

- Luciana Filipe .

Luciana shows off one of her 300 pineapple plants, shortly before her first harvest.

There is considerable ambition hidden in that word ‘yet’. For Luciana, this year’s harvest is only the beginning.  She intends to use the propagation techniques she’s learned to dramatically scale up her plantation this year. And the very fact that she is already thinking of selling outside her immediate area, when her yields allow, is a credit to the project’s market access work.

From the outset, IECA recognized that there was little point enabling people to grow more produce if they were unable to reach markets where they could sell it all.

‘From Dumba, the walk to market in Cassongue takes about four hours. Women carry their produce on their heads and this limits how much they can take each day,’ explains Onésimo Nunda, IECA’s Director of Social Projects. ‘Because of the distance, the women can’t manage two trips a day and the leftover produce back home can rot.’

But through the five village micro-credit groups, small-scale entrepreneurs can now access loans to invest in transport equipment, such as handcarts or bicycles, or to cover upfront travel costs for longer journeys.

Bicycles cut journey times by three quarters, while handcarts mean that women can carry up to five times as much produce in one trip. And with the funds to pay greater travel costs upfront, some women are now trading as far away as the coastal city of Sumbe, the provincial capital, 200km distant.

Thanks to a loan from her local micro-credit group, Albertina Nakatala was able to set up a long-distance trading business

Albertina Nakatala, from neighbouring Santo Antonio village, is one such trader. She buys goods such as flip flops in Sumbe and exchanges them for maize back home. She then travels back to Sumbe to sell her maize – for about four times the price she originally paid for the flip flops – and uses the profit to buy more goods to barter or sell at home. This makes the long journey profitable in both directions.

Albertina has used the income from her business to build her house. But these newly emerging trade routes don’t only benefit the individual entrepreneurs, they also help the whole community. People here now have more opportunities to sell or exchange their own produce locally, with traders like Albertina, and they have access to a host of useful products, such as fabrics, soap, shoes and kitchenware, which would otherwise be hard to source in their remote rural location.

The micro-credit groups which IECA established are now financially independent and self-sustaining and, after a promising first harvest, new pineapple farmers such as Luciana are well-equipped to build on their success next season. Even if the rains are poor, their pineapples should survive. And if the pineapples’ secret powers result in a bumper harvest, they’ll be able to get all their fruit to market, rather than watch it go to waste.

The Partnerships for Resilience (PAR) programme aims to reach 23,000 people in Kwanza Sul, Cunene and Kwando Kubango provinces by December 2020. Christian Aid funds IECA’s work in Kwanza Sul. The bulk of the programme is generously funded by Bread for the World (Germany).