“In the future I’ll be measuring instead of guessing” – A tech innovation by a young Jordanian helps farmers increase crop yields
Sager Marayha, 28, developed a device he hopes will boost the most important trade in his birthplace – farming. FCA supports the young agricultural engineer with a grant to start production.
THE AIR FEELS thick and there are flies buzzing around. In early November, Jordan is preparing for winter; but in the sheltered Jordan Valley, west of the country, summery conditions continue.
The greenhouses are brimming with foliage. Between them, cucumbers are loaded onto a truck that’ll soon begin its journey to the capital Amman. There, the cucumbers will be pickled and then sold to be served in local restaurants.
Sager Marayha, 28, stands in the scorching sun and fiddles with a tiny plastic bag. Inside it, there’s something that can reduce farmers’ workload and improve crops in the future.
“This is the prototype, like a small computer with several sensors,” Marahaya says, digging into his bag.
“This sensor measures soil temperature, this one assesses humidity, this one acidity and salinity.”
Marayha demonstrates how the innovation works. First, it’s thrusted into the soil, and soon, the farmer will receive information regarding the properties of the soil on a smartphone app. A new result will appear on the screen every five seconds.
“The farmers in the Jordan Valley use fertilisers and water without knowing exactly what the farmland actually needs. It’s possible that the soil is so rich in nutrients already that it’s impossible to grow anything anymore. The device will help reduce the unnecessary use of fertilisers and watering just in case.”
As a teenager, Marayha already worked in the fields and greenhouses. The community encouraged him to continue his studies at a university. Marayha became the first in his family to have a higher education.
During his studies, Marayha got to know different kinds of agricultural measuring instruments and wondered why they all seemed so complex and clumsy. Could a small and easy-to-use alternative provide all that information in one go?
Northern Jordan Valley. Jordan Valley is an area in West Jordan which is known for its agricultural opportunities and crops that benefit the whole country. Photo: Sherbel Dissi
A cucumber farmer is ready to invest in smart tech
The practical experience from the field and the knowledge from university helped Marayha get started with developing the device. Soon the technology began to garner the interest of not only farmers and the media but also researchers.
“The problem is that Jordanian agriculture doesn’t really attract investors,” Marayha points out.
The young agricultural engineer was given support from a joint project of Finn Church Aid and the foreign ministry of the Netherlands. The project trains young agricultural professionals to ensure the industry continues to attract future workforce. After proving his commitment and willingness to develop, Marayha was given a grant he can use to begin the production of the devices and selling them to farmers.
There are plenty of potential buyers. Cucumber farmer Abu Muhammad has a total of a hundred cucumber tunnels in Jordan, and in three months, a single tunnel produces 7000 to 7500 kilos of crop.
According to Marayha, a 500-square metre tunnel can be covered with three devices. Manufacturing one device costs approximately 65 euros, but it hasn’t got a market price yet. Even so, the farmer is ready to invest in the innovation.
“The price doesn’t concern me, and I don’t care about it. I’m sure the benefits will outweigh the price,” Abu Muhammad says.
He’s confident that the device will be particularly useful during sowing.
“Sometimes I fertilise wrong and end up losing both the money spent on fertilisers and the crop. In the future my farming will be based on scientific measuring instead of guessing.”
Making a living as a farmer isn’t easy. The biggest reason, Abu Muhammad says, is that there’s no fixed market price for crops in Jordan.
“As we’re farming, we don’t know for what price we’ll be able to sell. Many have quit, and most people have started to cultivate various plant species to mitigate the risk. I’m taking a significant risk with all these tons of cucumber. I get along, because I have a contract for getting them pickled. If all my cucumbers were sold in the fresh market, the profit would be uncertain.”
Farming is badly lacking young professionals
The situation in the rest of the world also poses a challenge for Jordan’s farmers. The crops no longer travel to dinner tables around the world like they used to.
“We used to farm a lot to meet the needs in Syria, and through Syria, our products would go to Turkey and from there to Russia. Because of the war in our neighbouring country, the trade route has been closed. Previously we also sold to the Gulf countries, but now they have their own farms,” says Abu Muhammad.
Abu Muhammad says he’s constantly on a razor’s edge due to the fluctuating markets.
“I only have to fail once. If I can’t sell my next crop, I’ll give up farming.”
At worst, the consequences to food production can be dramatic. If one farmer after another quits their profession and the young aren’t drawn to it, Jordan might have to start importing more food in the future. The cucumber farmer has faith in young professionals who otherwise have no work opportunities in the region.
“It’s great that Marayha and other young people are developing agriculture. Everyone wins: the farmers benefit from the innovations and the young get more work opportunities. Marayha has a university degree, and the studies have cost a fortune, and currently he hasn’t got anything else to do for work. It’s up to us farmers to encourage the young to make a living for themselves,” Abu Muhammad ponders.
Marayha says that his education as well as the grant he received improve the financial situation of his family. The young man wishes that with the help of his future income, his hard-working mother could finally get some rest.
“I dream about my future every day. I have already received inquiries from people who could help me sell the device abroad. My dream is to see the device in use specifically in Jordan, so it could benefit the people in my own region.”
The Cool-Ya project is funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The project is seeking to attract more youth to the agriculture sector by making it more appealing and interesting for the young people.
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Translation: Anne Salomäki Photos: Sherbel Dissi
Some of us have enough food to waste, others have hardly any; and many do have food, but it isn’t sufficiently nutritious. We made a list of 10+1 things that affect the future of our food production.
1. There is plenty of food – in theory.
There is both hunger and overabundance in the world. Currently, the food that is produced globally would be enough for everyone, if only it were evenly distributed. Although there are immense differences between regions when it comes to resources for food production, in the grand scheme of things the problem lies not in insufficient food production but our dysfunctional and unfair food system.
2. Climate change forces us to rethink food production.
Climate change has led to extended droughts, longer and more intense storms, and other types of extreme weather, all of which affect farming and crops. Hence, both emission reduction and climate change adaptation are imperative. The food system in itself is a significant source of emissions, so we need to think carefully about the ways in which we can cut emissions in farming and logistics as well as food waste.
3. Conflicts lead to empty farms and plates.
The war in Ukraine has proven how many developing countries are dependent on the affordable grain produced in Ukraine and Russia. However, conflicts disrupt food production, deliveries and sales all over the world. When violence forces people to flee their homes, they often leave behind their farms and their means of livelihood. Climate change reduces resources, which will cause further conflicts in the future.
4. Unbalanced production is a threat to biodiversity.
Approximately two thirds of the world’s farmland are used to cultivate only nine plant species, although there are thousands of options to choose from. Intensive production depletes the soil and increases the risk of plant diseases and pests. A much better way is to vary between different strains and follow the principles of agroecology and sustainable development in food production.
5. Rising proces and inflation hit the middle classes.
The price of food and inflation have risen so high that, together with energy price rises, even the middle classes end up counting coins. The situation is a downright disaster for the poor, who were already living from hand to mouth. However, food corporations and their owners are getting richer. Some think that the situation should be changed through political means, for example by taxing extreme wealth and the immense profits of corporations; but this isn’t as straightforward as it might sound, as many food giants are multinational.
6. Food is supposed to nourish.
A key issue in the future of food production and the functionality of the food system is nutritional content: food must be healthy and nourishing. It makes zero sense to produce immense amounts of food items that are by no measure the best when it comes to nutrition. At the moment, unhealthy food is often cheaper than healthy alternatives. A better diet would not only make us healthier but it would also help reduce emissions.
7. Towards a plant-based diet?
Particularly in the industrialised world, people consume far too much meat and other animal products. Transitioning to a plant-based diet would help solve health problems, reduce emissions, and diversify the use of soil. However, vegetarian food might not be a suitable option in all situations. For nomads, for example, animal products might be the only source of protein.
8. We must end food waste.
According to the UN, almost half of fruit and vegetables produced globally end up in waste, as does approximately a third of all food. The amount of food waste and refuse equals hundreds of billions of euros every year. Although we’ll never do away with all food waste entirely, even small acts can help reduce it significantly from its current levels.
9. Support your local.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shown the dangers of being overly dependent on global value chains. Diverse and smaller-scale food production could improve food security for local populations, bring about opportunities to safeguard biodiversity, as well as offer local communities ways to make a living.
10. Innovations and technologies exist already.
To respond to the challenges in food production we don’t need disruptive technologies or entirely new methods, as a wide range of practical measures is already at our disposal. Instead of future technologies, we can look at the past and learn from the ways previous generations used in cultivating land. An agroecological approach helps improve the resilience of communities and supports local farmers.
+1: FCA Supporst livelihoods with cash allowances.
In many places there is food available, but the prices have risen beyond what the poorest can afford. Finn Church Aid helps those struggling with food security by, for example, offering cash allowances that families can use to purchase food. FCA also supports education and independent livelihoods with entrepreneurship training.
Interviewees and sources: human advocacy advisor Merja Färm at Finn Church Aid, research manager and senior scientist Mila Sell at Natural Resources Institute Finland, FAO reportsThinking about the future of food safety and The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, Oxfam report Fixing Our Food: Debunking 10 myths about the global food system and what drives hunger, and Global Food Policy -reports by CGIAR.
Distance learning, quarantines and travel bans. Lockdowns, cancelled events, and hundreds of online meetings. Remembered as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was an exceptional year for everyone, including Finn Church Aid, writes executive director Jouni Hemberg.
Conditions have been dire in our programme countries before; however, this was the first time that a crisis affected the entire organisation. Even though we have experienced conflicts, earthquakes, natural disasters and epidemics, none of us had ever experienced a global pandemic.
Although what happened during the year took us and everyone else by surprise, we weren’t entirely caught off guard. As our teams are geographically dispersed, remote working is not unusual. In Finland, our entire Helsinki office relocated to employees’ homes practically overnight. When I compare the ease of remote working now to what it was a year ago, it’s as different as night and day. Our country offices in Asia, Africa and the Middle East were also able to ward off coronavirus infections for a long time, which was crucial for our Covid-19 response in 2020
The pandemic has inevitably affected our education, livelihoods and peace programme work. Schools worldwide switched to distance learning, and some had to shut down entirely in 2020. While families in Finland agonised over remote school and remote work arrangements from home, people in our programme countries needed to be even more resourceful. Without access to internet or any infrastructure, teachers travelled from village to village teaching children, and radio lessons were provided.
Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on livelihoods. Unlike in Europe where governments have taken responsibility for helping people and businesses cope, people in developing countries have been left to their own devices. In countries where social safety nets are weak, an epidemic much less dramatic than the Covid-19 pandemic can make life difficult. Unable to earn a living, people are forced to leave their homes and seek opportunities elsewhere. Forced migration is not only a risk in terms of the pandemic, but it also increases regional tensions. Conflicts arise regardless of epidemics, and this has made our peace work all the more challenging.
Despite such challenging circumstances, we as an organisation have performed extremely well. A significant increase in our international funding shows that partners such as the UN, the EU and other public funding providers, have strong faith in us and our vision.
However, the Covid-19 epidemic diminished our church collection income. With various social restrictions in place, we have been unable to reach our donors as we normally would. Passing the collection plate online is very difficult, and our hardworking face-to-face fundraisers were forced to stay at home. But while our internal funding in Finland decreased, so did our expenditures, as travel-related costs shrank. With that being said, we were fortunate to not experience significant losses in 2020.
A year amidst the pandemic has opened our eyes to new opportunities. We must be able to grow as an organisation and learn how to make effective use of new digital tools. Going forward, a large part of our education activities will no longer take place in physical buildings despite a vast number of people in places like Africa will still need access to education. This is where digital learning could come into play. The fact remains that the way we work will never be the same it was before the pandemic. We need to contemplate on the lessons learned during the pandemic and adopt new working modalities in the future.
As the Executive Director of Finn Church Aid, it is my heartfelt wish that we will soon defeat the pandemic and begin our journey to recovery. Our post-Covid-19 work will focus strongly on sustainable development. We will continue our efforts to promote education, peace, livelihoods and equality. And now that remote working has proved successful, we can start pursuing more ambitious environmental objectives, such as rethinking what constitutes as necessary travel.
Although 2020 was an extremely tough year for us at Finn Church Aid, it was also a major success story, thanks to our employees, board members and other elected representatives and volunteers. You are our most significant resource, and your valuable input allows us to help those most in need.
You are also the best indicator of quality and trust in our activities. Thanks to your efforts to develop our operations, our funding has increased. We learned a valuable lesson from the pandemic: when all the parts of our organisation come together, we can weather any crisis.
Jouni Hemberg, Executive Director for Finn Chruch Aid
This text twas originally published as the preamble of our Annual Report 2020 that came out recently. Would you like to know more about what was done?
Remote working opens up new job opportunities for refugees – FCA to collaborate with Startup Refugees in Zaatari camp
Residents of the Jordanian refugee camp Zaatari will receive entrepreneurship and ICT lessons from Finland remotely.
Finn Church Aid and Startup Refugees are about to begin a collaboration in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The project’s mentors in Finland will offer ICT entrepreneurship training remotely to young people living in Zaatari.
For nine years, the camp of nearly 80,000 residents has provided a home for people fleeing the Syrian civil war. However, the lives of young people in particular are marked by a lack of training and employment opportunities in the camp. The training programme launched this week responds to this need.
45 people living in the camp will receive training on the opportunities freelance jobs in the ICT sector can offer and on how to market their skills. The 15 most active participants in the programme will be selected for mentoring by internationally assembled ICT, marketing and HR professionals.
Zaatari residents have been excited about the mentoring opportunities. Rana Ibrahim Alsees, 40, hopes to get training to help her market her craft business on social media.
Zakaria Tahseen Alkilani, 25, is a games programmer who hopes to run his own online business by this autumn. Both Rana and Zakaria will attend the training from home.
The mentors in the programme, which will continue until August, are also looking forward to the coming months.
“I moved to Finland about eight years ago, so I know about the challenges in finding your place in a new environment,” says user interface designer and mentor Kazi Athar.
“But everything went great for me, and that’s why I want to give something back. I believe that supporting the employment of refugees and asylum seekers benefits everyone: employers, the economy, cities and entire states – and, of course, the people themselves.”
Kazi says that in the ICT sector you can work from anywhere in the world and “all you need is a computer and the right kind of attitude”.
Felipe Gasnier, a web and graphic designer who has joined the mentoring programme, is also looking forward to future meetings.
“There is always demand for ICT professionals. I will help my student create a portfolio and a website and see how they could showcase their skills.”
ICT sector can provide employment regardless of where you live
At the heart of all Startup Refugees’ work is an offer of support from an extensive network of partners, along with training and mentoring provided by top experts in many fields.
“A huge number of people who want to share their professional skills and practical advice with those living in the camp have become involved as mentors. Our work in Finland has shown that when people with the same interests are brought together, miracles begin to happen,” says Mustafa Abdulameer, Global Director at Startup Refugees.
Finn Church Aid’s work in Jordan focuses on improving the livelihoods of refugees, youth and women.
“The global shift towards remote work will open up new employment opportunities for refugees as well. The experience of Startup Refugees mentors shows that the ICT sector can employ refugees regardless of where they live. It is important for the project participants to see that their starting point won’t matter; they can succeed anyway,” says Ville Wacklin, Senior Programme Manager at Finn Church Aid.
Startup Refugees is a non-profit organisation established in 2015 to support refugees in finding employment and setting up companies. By now, Startup Refugees has provided nearly 1,000 jobs in Finland and supported more than 200 business ideas. The Startup Refugees network includes 1,000 companies, organisations and individuals who all in their own way support the employment and entrepreneurship of refugees.
Finn Church Aid (FCA) is Finland’s largest international aid organisation. FCA works to promote education, peace and livelihoods. As part of its efforts to improve livelihoods, FCA develops the conditions where companies need to operate and helps people start their own businesses in its programme countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
By Ulriikka Myöhänen / FCA, Elisa Vepsäläinen / Startup Refugees Photography by Osama Nabeel / FCA
Covid-19 increases poverty and aggravates the education crisis in developing countries, but solutions exist
For more than a year, Covid-19 has dominated the news globally. In March 2020, when the first restrictions were imposed, nobody could have imagined that we would still be combating a crisis a year later. The global impact of this pandemic has been and will continue to be enormous.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased global poverty for the first time in twenty years. The World Bank estimates that up to 93 million people were plunged into extreme poverty in 2020.
“For poor countries, the outlook is grim,” says Saara Lehmuskoski, a Senior Adviser at Finn Church Aid (FCA). When the pandemic hit, she was working as FCA’s country director in Cambodia.
“Many are reaching a level where just getting food on the table is difficult. For them, moving out of poverty will take a long time. In recent years, we have heard positive news about how people are being lifted out of poverty. Sadly, we’re now taking a big step backwards.”
With less economic activity, tax revenue will fall, which then leads to cutbacks. The World Bank estimates that two out of three developing countries have cut their education spending due to Covid-19. Combined with a rise in poverty, families and children who are already poor will be the ones most severely affected.
“In Cambodia, distance learning is only available for the richest children. The poorest rural students, who have limited access to education anyway, don’t own a television or a smartphone,” says Lehmuskoski.
Children no longer have access to education because schools are closed. And due to rising poverty, some families need children to work to make sure that everybody gets fed.
“In the long term, this is a terrible risk for the children who are now at school age. We will be dealing with the aftermath of this pandemic for another 10 to 15 years. Right now, we need to make sure that children stay at school and continue their learning so that, once the pandemic is over, young people completing their studies will be equipped to earn a living and engage actively with their communities,” says Lehmuskoski.
Digital learning provides access to education
In poorer countries, the education budget is often small in comparison to other expenditure. When a crisis such as Covid-19 strikes, funds are needed for healthcare and other similar items. Deputy executive director Tomi Järvinen at Finn Church Aid points out that decisions about short-term savings should not be taken at the expense of education.
“Research findings show that education is a key to higher gross domestic product and, of course, improved levels of personal income. Each year at school will boost the student’s future earnings. For girls, this rise is even more marked.”
School closures in response to the pandemic raised concerns about whether children, especially girls, would return to school in the poorest countries.
“What we hear from the field is that the scenarios presented at the beginning of the pandemic have, at least in part, materialised. We have seen more teenage pregnancies and child marriages, and the concerns about young people not returning to school are real,” says Järvinen.
To prevent children from dropping out of school, it is important to develop ways of communicating with learners and preparing them for the eventual return to school. In Kenya, FCA has supported efforts to ensure that schools maintain contact with students and young people return to school as soon as possible.
Digital learning is part of the solution for developing countries. It contributes to enabling access to education and to providing high-quality education for all. Going forward, digital solutions will continue to make remote education possible, for example when children are ill or unable to attend contact teaching for some other reason.
“We shouldn’t think that developing countries will take up digital learning at some later date. They have already gone digital in fields such as communication and commerce, and now we need to extend these solutions to education,” says Tomi Järvinen.
In fragile countries where FCA operates, the first stage of digitalisation means low-tech solutions, such as radio lessons and WhatsApp messaging. For example, radio receivers have been distributed and radio lessons broadcast to families in refugee camps and rural areas in Kenya.
“The situation is never hopeless; there’s always something we can do. Now we need to invest in digital learning and its development, and analyse the lessons learned from the Covid-19 crisis.”
1. Donation: The blockchain creates a reference for each donation. The reference allows users to track exactly how their donation is used.
2. Beneficiary registration: Blockchain technology enables electronic registration of beneficiaries, for instance, biometrically through fingerprint or iris scans or with smart cards.
3. Verified retailers: Retailers of food and other necessities are equipped with the relevant technology for identifying beneficiaries and trained in using the system.
4. Redemption: The retailer receives payment from the NGO that coordinates the operation for the items they have sold to identified beneficiaries.
5. Monitoring: If transactions are made electronically, the smart contract enables the donor to follow up on how the beneficiary spends the assistance in real-time through an online link.
The benefits and challenges of cash assistance
Cash transfers are one way to ensure that a greater amount of assistance funds directly reaches those in need while also enabling vulnerable families to decide for themselves what they need and prioritise their procurements. Local retailers benefit from increased activity at local markets.
Distributing cash does also bring challenges. The beneficiary is subject to risks by carrying relatively large amounts of cash in a fragile context. To ensure that the money does not instigate fraud or corruption, organisations need to allocate staff for monitoring and follow-ups.
The spread of the coronavirus has also complicated arrangements of cash distributions, and the use of cash increases the risk of transmitting the virus between people at local markets.
With the support of blockchain technology, an organisation can create a virtual wallet for each beneficiary. The beneficiary can then buy necessities from verified retailers equipped with the appropriate identification equipment. Transactions are followed virtually, making monitoring easy, and the blockchain enables safer transactions that protect the identity of the beneficiaries.
Ugandan Emmanuel Obwori, 40, has founded and run five different businesses during his lifetime, all of which have been successful. Now he has a job that no one in Finland had done before January 2019.
In the autumn of 2018, when Finn Church Aid became the first humanitarian organisation in Finland to found its own investment company, FCA Investments, taking the position of investment manager was a natural decision for Emmanuel Obwori.
Obwori has always had a knack for business.
Born and raised in Ugandan capital of Kampala, Obwori first became an entrepreneur at age 16 while on summer holiday from school.
”Back then, my father worked for Sony, and one day he brought home a computer. At the time, computers were still very rare in Uganda. At first, I used it to play games, but then it occurred to me that I could teach other people how to use it as well. I started giving computer lessons on my parents’ balcony for a small charge.”
Obwori used the money he made from the computer lessons to buy baking supplies and started baking sesame cakes.
”The neighbourhood children coming home from school were always looking for something to snack on. I made quite a lot of money selling the cakes. My parents ended up being angry with me because I focused more on my business ventures than I did on schoolwork,” Obwori laughs.
Later, Obwori became an assistant in a computer hall near his university. When the elderly man who owned the hall wanted to retire, Obwori persuaded him to sell the hall to him on credit, with Obwori paying him back once the business would become profitable.
”I soon noticed that children and young people were mainly interested in computer games, so my younger brother and I turned the hall into a gaming arcade. It was one of the first gaming arcades in Kampala and is currently the biggest in the city. My younger brother still runs it.”
Obwori sees a great deal of unexplored potential in combining traditional development cooperation and sustainable investment.
”Most people think of this as a zero-sum game; you either work for a non-governmental organisation or for the private sector. In fact, the two complement each other. Non-governmental organisations are good at providing emergency aid: delivering food, shelter and drinking water as well as offering education and immediate income support. But if we leave it there, the recipients of aid will depend on our support for the rest of their life.”
Finn Church Aid’s investment company invests in small and medium enterprises in developing countries in order to offer people work and an income even after aid organisations have left the country. As an investment manager, Obwori’s job is to seek out and assess potential enterprises.
”We choose the entrepreneurs and businesses that already have the biggest positive impact on their communities. We invest in these businesses to help them grow and employ more people. This way, these businesses lift the community out of poverty for good.”
Text: Elina Kostiainen
Translation: Leena Vuolteenaho