An Israeli scientist who has reached across political and ethnic boundaries to help dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America improve agriculture with new methods of irrigation will receive the World Food Prize, the prize's foundation announced June 12.
Daniel Hillel, who is credited with developing drip irrigation methods that conserve water while allowing food to be grown in some of the world's driest climates, was named the winner of this year's $250,000 prize during a ceremony in Washington. He will officially receive the prize Oct. 18 during the annual World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.
The system Hillel developed, called micro-irrigation, carries water through narrow plastic pipes to plants, where it drips or trickles onto the roots in a continuous way. It has revolutionized agricultural practices in more than 30 countries over the past 50 to 60 years, helping thousands of farmers, said World Food Prize Foundation president Kenneth Quinn, a former US ambassador.
Mr. Quinn, in announcing the award, talked not only about Hillel's research but the fact that an Israeli found a way to work with leaders in Arab nations to improve food production.
"He's able to reach across the intercultural gap with this agricultural achievement in order to address that problem that they have in common about how to lift people out of poverty and reduce hunger by working together," Quinn said. "In an area of the world and in lands where the divides — whether they be ethnic, political, religious, or diplomatic — seem so great, here is a man who by devoting his life to this peaceful development has sought to bridge those gaps."
Quinn noted several of the letters supporting Hillel's nomination for the prize came from individuals and institutions in Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delivered the keynote address at the Washington ceremony, spoke of the importance of getting the most out of every drop of water. In many regions of the world, water is either too scarce or too unpredictable to sustain an American style of agriculture, she said.
"For 40 years, Dr. Hillel has worked to solve this problem by bringing his micro-irrigation techniques to the driest and least hospitable growing climates on earth, from Israel to Pakistan to Sudan," she said. "Today, farmers using micro-irrigation produce high-yield, nutritious crops on more than 6 million hectares [23,000 square miles] worldwide. Dr. Hillel's work will become even more important as we grapple with how to feed the world's growing population."
Hillel told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Israel that managing natural resources, respecting ecosystems, and living in an environmentally sustainable manner transcends boundaries.
"I'm a great believer in international cooperation, and I've devoted much of my career to it," he said. "I believe in peace. I'm a passionate believer in peace rather than rivalry, enmity, and destruction."
At age 9, he was sent to live in a rural, communal settlement known as a kibbutz, where he learned farming practices and gained a respect for the land and preservation of resources. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, he returned to Israel in 1951 and joined the Ministry of Agriculture, where he helped create the first map of the country's soil and water resources.
Within a year, however, he joined a group of settlers who were dedicated to creating a viable agricultural community in the Negev Desert highlands in southern Israel, where water was scarce. Working with those farmers, who were willing to set aside tradition and experiment with new methods, allowed him to develop and refine his ideas on micro-irrigation, he said.
For thousands of years in the Middle East, irrigation involved diverting large quantities of water from rivers, trapping it in basins, and using it to soak farmland. The soil would then gradually dry out. It was an inefficient method of growing crops, Hillel said.
The availability of inexpensive, small plastic pipes after World War II created the possibility of moving water to crops in a more continuous fashion. The pipes could be perforated to allow water to drip from small holes down to the roots of plants, Hillel said. In time, fertilizer was added to the water.
"With a little bit of water, you'd get a much better crop," Hillel said. "This was a great innovation. I was in on the ground floor of this. I can't say that I was the inventor of it, but I was very active on the early stages of it and developing the philosophy of it."
David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel, visited the farm and was so impressed he asked Hillel to take his ideas to Asia, Africa, and South America. Hillel said he's visited as many as 40 different countries during his career, teaching, experimenting, and learning more about crop production and water management.
"We need to learn how to manage land so that it will not degrade and do it efficiently. At the same time, we must maintain natural ecosystems without encroaching upon them without excessive deforestation and destruction of biodiversity," he said. "All of that is a great concern to me, and I'm devoting my career to it."
Cynthia E. Rosenzweig, a scientist who heads the Climate Impacts Group at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia, works with Hillel on developing ways for agriculture to adapt in a changing climate.
"He is known as the father of sustainable water management," she said. "His work on water is so significant, but he didn't stop there. Sustainability and climate change are now the issues that are challenging agriculture today, and he has turned his attention to the current challenges, never forgetting the issues of water."
The World Food Prize, which honors efforts to fight global hunger, was created by Iowa native Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to increase food production in developing nations with the use of hybrid crops. He died in 2009.
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On the outskirts of India's third-largest city, 5,000 partly blackened chimneys stand 100 feet high, belching smoke into the sky over millions of reddened bricks below. Some of the bricks are stacked neatly into huge square-cornered stacks, and still more, innumerable, are piled roughly – some broken, some chipped and cracked, as if tipped wantonly from a wheelbarrow.
Here around 1.25 million low-caste migrant workers and their dependents spend six months each year dredging clay from nearby lakes or molding bricks under the scorching sun, or lugging back-breaking hods. It is seasonal work, done by India's lowest castes, or in some cases, dirt-poor immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Weather-beaten Ram Dayal, whose home is in Gazpar in Uttar Pradesh, a 24-hour train ride away, says has worked these kilns for 25 years. Asked his age, he laughs and says he doesn't know exactly. “I have a son about your age though,” he tells me.
He's getting ready to go home – “in two or three days” – as the monsoon season approaches, rains that make brick-baking impossible. For now, however, he spends 12 hours a day fueling and stoking a huge kiln, baking around 400,000 bricks at a time. “We are paid 4,700 rupees [$84] a month,” he says.
The soft, wet bricks are stacked in a basketball court-sized area around the stack. With venting space between the wet bricks, they are covered in a layer of stone and baked for two weeks. Keeping the fires lit, Ram Dayal and Murai Rajbal share two, six-hour shifts over each 24-hour period. In between, they mostly sleep in a nearby shack, which, astonishingly, sits right on top of the baking mass of bricks and a short stone's throw from the chimney stack behind.
The afternoon shift from 12 noon to 6 p.m. is the worst, with daytime temperatures nearing 40 C (104 F.) and relative humidity between 70 and 80 percent. That's before you factor in the heat from the vast kiln, though.
“You get used to it,” shrugs Murai Rajbal, his hands black from soot and brow laced with smoke-darkened sweat. He guesses his own age to be “around 41 or 42.” With “only 12 years working here,” he's a relative newcomer compared with Ram Dayal.
The migrants and their children often have little or no formal schooling, and, given that most of the workers – except those working the fires– are paid according to how many bricks they make or can carry, being able to count is key to ensuring a fair day's pay.
Since 2006 the nongovernmental organization GOAL, based in Ireland, has worked alongside local authorities and other NGOs to improve living standards for 3,500 children and 8,500 adults who live and work at the kilns for half the year. Dora Chauduri is the assistant country director for GOAL's India program, which works in tandem with West Bengal's local government – particularly the social welfare department and the women and child development department.
Watching as GOAL-funded teachers give basic literacy and numeracy lessons to children at the kilns – in a small, steamy classroom – she says that "as well as supporting the migrant workers with much-needed safe drinking water and sanitation, such as latrines, GOAL works with the Narayantala Mass Communication Society [a local West Bengal NGO] to help with basic literacy and numeracy for migrant children and help the migrants gain awareness of their rights under the law.”
India's economy has grown by 7 to 8 percent on average per year for most of the two decades since the government ditched a socialist economic model in 1991 and opted for a range of free-market reforms. The country still has hundreds of millions of poor, however, and a caste system that many human rights groups regard as discriminatory. So many Indians are left out, even as the country booms and affluence becomes a more common sight in big cities such as Kolkata.
Among the marginalized are Jyoti, aged 20, and her daughter Puja, 3. Sitting in a tiny waist-high hovel fashioned out of bricks lifted and dried from the ground outside, mother and child sit and eat kichiri, a lunch mix of rice and dhal (lentils).
As the brick season ends, and the rainy closes in, they too are readying to travel home, to Jharkhand state in the northeast of India. Jyoti and Puja are from the Munda tribe, numbering around 2 million and scattered across India's northeast and into Bangladesh.
“It is tough work here for me and my husband,” says Jyoti, who adds that she has been married “for four or five years.” Every day Puja joins the other children for basic learning in the morning. “This allows us to work on the bricks,” Jyoti says.
A single, rope-thick braid grows on the back of young Puja's head, woven into a sort of dreadlock and looking almost too heavy for the child's neck to support. Jyoti says she had tried for several years to conceive before Puja was born. “We will cut the braid off when she is 5 years old,” she says. “It will be an offering to [Hindu god] Shiva, in thanks for me finally having a child.”
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Back in 2003, country music singer Toby Keith was attracting a reputation for controversy following a high-profile spat with the Dixie Chicks over his penchant for patriotic lyrics. In 2002 Keith had recorded "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a response to 9/11 that became a controversial political statement.
In the beginning, he robustly defended his viewpoint – trading barbs with his fellow country music stars. A doctored image of the Dixie Chicks appeared for while on a backdrop at Keith's concerts that appeared to show them canoodling alongside former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Then a tragedy close to home intervened to reset his priorities.
That was when a close friend and former bandmate’s two-year-old daughter succumbed to an illness. Shortly after that shock, Keith announced he was bringing his feud with the Texas threesome to an end, citing the death of the child as the moment he realized that there were more important things in life.
Roll the clock forward to 2012, and Keith is on the road to realizing the fulfillment of that focus by way of his Toby Keith Foundation, a charitable effort established in 2006 in the wake of the tragic case with the intention of supporting pediatric cancer patients. The singer was recently on site to mark the ground-breaking of the foundation’s main effort: a new lodging facility in the Oklahoma state capital intended to help assuage the challenges faced by children diagnosed with cancer and their families.
Between the burden of treatment and the associated travel to medical appointments, children often miss out on valuable time with family members, Keith says.
That’s where the OK Kids Korral – complete with day rooms, overnight suites, a kitchen, a dining hall, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a movie theater, and a center for learning about cancer – is set to come in, promising a “cost-free, convenient, and comfortable home for families of pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment in Oklahoma.”
“The last thing a parent wants to hear is that your kid has cancer,” said Keith, a native Oklahoman to reporters at the ground-breaking ceremony on the grounds of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “One of the parents usually has to quit work, your bills skyrocket," and parents end up spending "precious time" commuting back and forth to the hospital, he said.
So far, nearly $4 million has been raised by Keith's foundation in the quest to make the center a reality. Events such as the annual Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic – which this year was timed to coincide with the May 18 groundbreaking of the Korral – are the chief sources of fund-raising income. The estimated total cost is about $10 million.
According to Keith's publicist, Elaine Schock, the golf tournament and an associated auction raised $664,000. The Keith camp lauded the effort -- which apparently exceeded the amount raised at last year's version of the event -- saying it took them "one shovelful closer" to completing the project.
In order to devote more time to the center, Keith has announced he is cutting back on the number of shows he performs. The 28,000-square-foot OK Kids Korral is earmarked for completion next year, probably in the fall.
“We’re gonna build it one way or another, if I have to build it myself,” Keith says.
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As most American parents are oppressively aware, our children are far behind their counterparts in Asia when it comes to academic achievement. Departments of education around the country and on the national level have aggressively attempted to remedy the discrepancy by drowning our kids in standardized tests.
So it came as quite a surprise to me – and a breath of fresh air – to discover that the leadership at a prestigious high school in China is heading in a very different direction. Peking University High School is focusing on a skill its educators believe is the key to success in the 21st century. Not calculus, not computer programming, not filling in little ovals; this forward-thinking institution emphasizes teaching empathy.
“There’s convincing scientific, psychological, pedagogical, and anecdotal data to suggest that children are naturally empathic, and learn best through collaborating with each other, and at their own speed,” explained deputy principal Xueqin Jiang.
Xueqin actually sees empathy as the missing ingredient in China’s educational system, and one that is absolutely critical to his students’ future success in a rapidly changing, globalizing economy.
“There’s a consensus that the Chinese system doesn’t work,” Xueqin said. “One question the Chinese like to ask is, ‘Why does China not produce any Nobel Prize winners in the sciences? Why doesn’t China produce innovative entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates?’ And I think that the key here is empathy.”
“Empathy is the basis for collaboration of course, as well as also communication and creativity,” he explained.
This is an important way of looking at empathy—as a teachable, fundamental skill, without which innovation, collaboration, and creativity cannot happen. Empathy is more than just awareness and concern. It’s about cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution.
In a world in which more and more people are able to—and are—demanding to have input into products, services, institutions, and systems, the most successful adults are those who can embrace this fluid new world, work with changing teams of collaborators, and see solutions rooted in the needs of others.
“We have to have a set of social skills so we can contribute in a world defined by change, rather than repetition,” said Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, the pioneering global social entrepreneurship organization. Ashoka is spearheading an ambitious push to put empathy front and center in education. This global initiative is based on the experience and wisdom of its fellowship of social innovators who have witnessed the role and power of empathy in social change.
Drayton sees empathy as an imperative, and the centerpiece of “a new paradigm for growing up.”
“The old paradigm was: Master a set of skills and the associated rules, and then that defines you,” he said. “You are a baker. You are a banker. And then you just repeat that for the rest of your life. And in a world where things don’t change, that works. But it doesn’t work anymore.”
For me, this is both a revelation and a relief. As a parent it’s not hard to feel unsure of how best to help prepare our children for the future in this dizzying time.
Should we push our kids to do well on state tests? Perhaps encouraging a pursuit of technology courses? Or finding a school that offers Mandarin?
Trying to anticipate how the world will be, where our kids will fit in, and how to help them get there is an exhausting—and ultimately fruitless—endeavor. But armed with an understanding of the value of empathy and its role in fostering individuals’ flexibility and nimbleness, I can view change with more confidence for my children’s future.
From incorporating empathy into curricula, to rethinking discipline, to providing teacher training and parental support, schools and organizations are putting empathy at the center of young peoples’ education. And the early results are undeniably positive.
Dovetail Learning’s Toolbox Project, for example, is a K-6 human development program in 60 schools that teaches kids to use their inner resilience to work through frustrations and conflict. The program helps young children see the power they have to solve problems and succeed by helping them see their own innate “tools,” giving them a common language for defining and utilizing them, and encouraging them to use the tools often. The 12 Tools include the Listening Tool, the Please and Thank You Tool, and the Empathy Tool.
My older children are in their teen and pre-teen years, and while they are pretty empathic and resilient kids, every child going through those turbulent years can use support in seeing other perspectives and being understanding. But I don’t think the Toolbox is going to be up their eye-rolling alley (it is, after all, for elementary school kids). For them, I’m intrigued by Parents Forum, a peer support group that offers role-playing workshops called, “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear.”
Ultimately, it’s in schools that the major shift must happen—and is starting to. Teachers are discovering that placing an emphasis on empathy creates a positive impact in their classrooms. Some schools in Washington, DC, and in Baltimore, Md., have implemented an empathy-centered teacher-training program called Inspired Teaching. At these schools, 82 percent of teachers report students are more engaged in class.
The Inspired Teaching training gives teachers hands-on activities that put them in the position of learners—so that they understand the school experience from the students’ perspective. Teachers get a glimpse into students’ minds to better understand and appreciate their way of looking at the world, activating empathy, and increasing their ability to individualize instruction and engage their students.
To discover the fascinating array of approaches to teaching children empathy, and to take action to support the success of initiatives you find are most inspiring, visit the Ashoka Changemakers Activating Empathy Competition. Peking University High School, Dovetail Toolbox, Parents Forum, and Inspired Teaching are among the 12 finalists chosen from among 628 entries from around the world.
Vote for your favorites and the winners will receive prizes from a pool of $110,000 to advance their initiatives.
See Ashoka’s empathy initiative website, Start Empathy to learn more about how educators and parents can help activate empathy and why it’s such an important skill.
In rural villages in East and West Africa, electrical connections are humming and light bulbs are shining for the first time in homes that only knew candlelight before.
Although no power lines yet reach these villages, multifunction platforms (MFPs) are filling the energy void, powering not just lights but machines that lessen the drudgery of farmers' work.
What is a multifunction platform? Though the name sounds a bit daunting, the MFP is basically a stationary diesel engine that can be attached to about anything that rotates: grain-milling and husking machines, water pumps, and power tools. The MFPs are quiet, 6 to 8 horsepower, 750-lb Listeroid engines. Their basic construction and features have not changed significantly since their debut in the 1930s.
The engines have more than proved their durability, efficiency, and hassle-free maintenance over the years. Their efficiency and raw power make them perfectly suited for continuous electrical generation and work.
With MFPs farmers can mill their own corn and wheat for food and sale, while earning income by processing the crops of neighboring farmers. Members of cooperatives can run mechanical tools, power rural electrical grids, and soon, it is hoped, irrigate crops with the machines.
Organizations working with the platform have paid special attention to women users, hoping to free up several hours per day that can be devoted to other priority tasks.
The first MFPs were installed in Mali and Burkina Faso in 1994 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began to install MFPs in 1996, and the project is still ongoing, having expanded to include other countries in West Africa.
To acquire an MFP, a group of men and women from a village usually create a formal organization to request and purchase a generator. The cost is usually subsidized between 40 to 50 percent by the UNDP. Residents are given training and then placed in charge of installation, maintenance, and repair of the platforms.
In 2009, student engineers from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and Columbia University in New York City installed two of these engines in the Teso region of northern Uganda, one of the first in East Africa. The students worked with a local NGO, Pilgrim, which had established several cooperatives in the area. The machines cost nearly $9,000, plus $3,350 to train people to use them.
With fuel prices varying greatly, access to diesel fuel to power the MFPs can be a challenge. In response, Columbia University students modified the platform to run on vegetable oil, which could decrease operating costs and ensure continued MFP use. In order to avoid using food crops for the oil, the engineers have recommended that users plant Jatropha, an inedible plant whose seeds have high oil content. With the right attachment, the MFPs themselves can extract the oil from the seeds. It is hoped that excess Jatropha plant oil can be sold to biodiesel distributors and soapmakers for additional income.
• To read more about appropriate technologies for smallholder farmers, see What is an Appropriate Technology? and Using Appropriate Technologies to “Feed the Future”.
Collida Harawa has spent a lot of her life gathering firewood. Like most villagers in the hilly district of Rumphi in northern Malawi, the 39-year-old peasant farmer relies on it as the only freely available fuel for cooking.
But collecting fuel is time-consuming and tiring. Harawa must walk up to seven kilometers (more than four miles) to the forest to fetch firewood, which she ties into a big bundle and carries the same distance home on her head.
And over time, the environmental consequences of fuel wood consumption have become clear, as Malawi’s forest cover dwindles and carbon emissions rise.
But now Harawa and villagers like her are taking advantage of a new kind of cooking stove, made from locally available materials, that requires much smaller volumes of fuel than traditional stoves.
By doing so, they are not just saving themselves time and effort but are also helping to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say contributes to climate change.
The new brick and ceramic stove cuts use of wood fuel by up to 65 percent, according to John Bwati Gondwe, coordinator of the Esperanza stove project at the Eva Demaya Center, a local nongovernmental organization.
“That means a lot as far as protecting forests and reducing carbon emissions are concerned,” he said.
Trees use and store carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, and cutting them can not only increase carbon emissions but also disrupt the rainmaking process, called evapo-transpiration.
That leads to drier and more extreme weather conditions, which is harmful for agriculture and can increase the risk of weather-related disasters.
The Esperanza stove is a chamber made from materials such as bricks which are locally made from dried soil. The chamber contains six to eight ceramic rings, depending on the size of the stove. The rings are also made locally.
When a fire is set in the stove chamber, the rings quickly absorb and retain heat.
“They are heated even with fire made with very little amounts of wood,” Gondwe said.
“Once the ceramic rings are fired up, the chamber starts absorbing some of the heat from them and stores it as the small amounts of wood burn,” he explained.
When the fire goes out, the chamber will remain sufficiently hot to cook food, as the ceramic rings transmit sustained heat to the cooking vessel above them.
The ceramic ring technology was developed in Canada, but the Esperanza stove is a local invention. The Eva Demaya Center began distributing the stoves in Rumphi in late 2011 and has so far given out 750 of them. In total, Gondwe said, the project is targeting up to 10,000 households.
Each stove costs 2,500 Malawian kwachas (about $10), a subsidized price that mainly covers the cost of installation.
“With sufficient funding, the project can be replicated anywhere in the country. We have those plans to extend to other areas of the country but we are restricted by insufficient funding,” Gondwe added.
According to a World Bank report released in 2011, about a third of Malawi is forested with either indigenous of exotic trees. But the country is fast losing its remaining native primary forest, with losses between 2000 and 2005 estimated at about 35 percent by forestry organizations.
Domestic cooking is the primary use for wood, but trees are also felled to clear land for agriculture, and wood is also used to fuel kilns that make bricks for building.
Villagers mainly target native trees for fuel. Benita Mbewe, of Rumphi North, says the high quality of wood from natural trees yields a more efficient fire than exotic species.
But since adopting the Esperanza stove, Mbewe has been using less wood, and finding other advantages too.
“I now have more time to perform other chores like gardening and attending to some income-generating activities such as taking part in some public works projects,” she said.
• Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based freelance writer with an interest in climate issues.
Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian businessman, joined with five other colleagues to put up $5 million in 1997 to acquire a struggling Nigerian bank. Five years later, the bank merged with another to become the largest in West Africa, employing about 25,000 people.
Mr. Elumelu, who has become one of Africa’s most prominent philanthropists, likes to contrast the results of that $5 million investment – the jobs it helped create and the tax revenue it generated for governments – with what he sees as the disappointing track record of foreign-aid money showered on Africa each year.
The Nigerian businessman thinks it’s time for a new approach to Africa’s problems, and he has been pitching the idea in speeches to donors and businessmen, and to the news media.
He calls his idea “Africacapitalism,” a business-led, African-run approach to fighting poverty.
In 2010, he started the Tony Elumelu Foundation to finance nonprofit work that supports economic growth.
Led by a former Rockefeller Foundation official, Wiebe Boer, the Lagos, Nigeria, foundation seeks to groom business leaders, change government policies that discourage the creation of new enterprises, spread research on entrepreneurship in Africa, and provide capital to businesses that have a social purpose.
Jane Wales, founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, says Mr. Elumelu stands out as a philanthropist because he doesn’t just rely on grantmaking. He also ties his investments to businesses that bring about social change and uses his own voice and influence to sway policymakers.
“He employs all the tools of strategic philanthropy, and he does so deftly,” she says.
Mr. Elumelu also wants to improve philanthropy in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent. His organization is pushing legislation in his home country that would seek to organize nonprofits by requiring them to disclose more information about their work.
But Mr. Elumelu is tight-lipped about his own giving, declining to say how much he’s donated to the foundation. Mr. Boer says the foundation will start providing that information soon, most likely in the next year.
Mr. Elumelu is part of a small but growing cadre of philanthropists in Africa, say experts. Some of the most prominent African donors, like Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, run their philanthropic foundations from outside of the continent. (Mr. Ibrahim’s fund, which focuses on good governance in Africa, is based in London.)
“In Africa, you’re seeing the same thing: Folks who were very successful in business and who are very quickly moving into philanthropy and doing so in a very generous way,” she says.
Cargo bikes, which can be thought of as smaller and versatile counterparts of the pedicab, are bicycles designed to carry everything from bags of groceries to pots of plants. These utilitarian bikes have been in vogue in Denmark for years, and in its capital city Copenhagen, this nature-friendly mode of transportation is rapidly replacing cars.
Cargo bikes are especially alluring to parents seeking to shuttle their children around the city with ease. Some of the city’s small business entrepreneurs are also innovating designs and adding features to transform their cargo bikes into portable businesses to sell newspapers, crepes, drinks, and more.
Across Denmark’s borders, in Germany, a new website called Velogistics is offering an intuitive platform to enable peer-to-peer sharing of cargo bikes internationally. The website is maintained by Tom Hansing. Since the launch of the Velogistics website, people from the United Kingdom, Austria, and the United States have offered to rent out their cargo bikes.
The premise of this cargo bike-sharing project is simple: People interested in lending their cargo bikes post photos and short descriptions of the features of their bikes to the Velogistics website. The lenders can offer their bikes for free or set rates for daily use, and those looking to rent a cargo bike can send messages to the lenders directly via a form on the site. The location of all the cargo bikes that are available for rent are plotted on a world map on Velogistics’ homepage for users to quickly ascertain where the bikes are available for rent.
Hansing, who calls sharing “the new property,” said in an email that he hopes the website will spread to many parts around the world and will be translated in many languages. He added that providing an online space for people to share their cargo bikes and offering them an incentive to earn a little money will hopefully lead to an increase in the use of cargo bikes.
“The most important thing: Muscle power rather than fossil fuel. We need to save our natural resources and use it for really important things … not cars,” he said, adding that he would like to include additional features to the website like profile pages for lenders and a mobile application if he is able get funding for the site through donations.
Christophe Vaillant, who is also involved with Velogistics, organizes workshops to build cargo bikes out of old used bikes that are often left in backyards or basements of buildings in Berlin. He said he organizes teams of three people who are skilled in building bikes to modify these old bikes, so they can be used as cargo bikes. He posts information about the repurposed bikes on the Velogistics site so they can be shared locally.
Vaillant said that he is also developing an open-source wiki with do-it-yourself instructions on building cargo bikes.
“The idea is that globally the knowledge commons of making cargo bikes will grow and be refined step by step, and that locally groups can rebuild and copy successfully implemented workshop formats,” he said in an email.
Though San Francisco has a thriving biking community, the popularity of cargo bikes has yet to migrate over to this side of the pond.
Josh Boisclair, a mechanic at My Dutch Bike in San Francisco, a company specializing in the import and sales of city and cargo bicycles, is one of the few cargo bike enthusiasts in the city.
“It’s getting more popular, but it’s still in its infancy,” said Boisclair, adding that the city’s parking woes is one of the reasons people are turning to bikes. He said My Dutch Bike is working to popularize cargo bikes.
“I promote the bike by just riding it around. We promote our business just by living by example – riding the bikes that we sell,” he said.
Tom D’Eri needed some help. In September of last year, he co-founded a small social enterprise that helps people with autism find employment. He quickly realized that he needed some outside assistance with things like branding and website development, topics that he didn’t have much experience with himself.
Mr. D’Eri could have hired some expensive consultants to do the work for him, but he was eager to find a better value for his money. So he tried something new: He got in touch with the folks at Catchafire.
Founded in 2009, Catchafire is a “social mission business” that aims to connect skilled professionals with meaningful volunteer projects. To date, the organization, which is based in New York, has built up a database of about 10,000 volunteer professionals and 2,500 organizations that are looking for pro bono services.
And the Catchafire team says that it's just getting started; 10 years from now, Catchafire wants to be a household name.
“Our vision is a more effective and efficient social good sector, and – on the other side – a world where it’s commonplace to serve for the greater good,” says Rachael Chong, Catchafire’s CEO and founder.
Too many pro bono projects leave volunteers feeling disillusioned, Ms. Chong says, and too many nonprofits are struggling with some fairly straightforward technical tasks. Catchafire offers a solution to both of those problems by matching skilled professionals with specific, time-limited projects.
Here’s how it works: Accountants, photographers, lawyers, PR gurus, marketing strategists, and the like log onto the Catchafire website, upload their resumes, and fill out an application. That information is crunched by an algorithm, which figures out which projects in the database will be a good fit for each potential volunteer.
The process has worked beautifully for D’Eri’s organization, which is called CanDo Business Ventures and which has its main office in New York. Their first volunteer, who advised the organization on brand messaging, was “fantastic,” D’Eri says. “He really took the time to understand what our business was, and then how to communicate that really succinctly…. Now, he’s actually one of our advisers, so we’ve continued a relationship.”
CanDo Business Ventures is now working with a second Catchafire volunteer, who’s doing web development, and D’Eri has put in a request for a third.
Working with Catchafire is ideal for organizations that are short-staffed, says D’Eri, whose own enterprise has just one long-term employee other than himself. Taking on the volunteers has allowed him to focus on what he does best, instead of getting bogged down in technical subjects that he doesn’t have much experience with.
Catchafire volunteers aren’t paid for their work, but that doesn’t mean that D’Eri gets to enjoy their services for free. Like the other organizations that list pro bono projects in the Catchafire database, CanDo Business Ventures pays Catchafire a membership fee, set on a sliding scale. That’s a critical part of the Catchafire model, Chong says: “We need to make sure that both parties are serious before they engage.”
If both the volunteer and the nonprofit are committed to the process – and in most cases, Chong says, that’s been the case – then both sides will come out happy at the end of the project.
It’s all part of Catchafire’s goal to create a more “meaningful, impactful, and delightful volunteer experience,” Chong says. “We know that if somebody has a great experience, they will very likely give again.”
In 2002, two neighbors armed with spades and seeds changed everything for crime-addled Quesada Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area.
The street had been ground zero for the area’s drug trade and its attendant violence. But when Annette Smith and Karl Paige began planting flowers on a small section of the trash-filled median strip, Quesada Gardens Initiative was born. Over the course of the next decade, the community-enrichment project profoundly altered the face of this once-blighted neighborhood.
Jeffrey Betcher is the initiative’s unlikely spokesperson. A gay white man driven to the majority-black area by the high cost of housing elsewhere, he moved into a house on Quesada Avenue in 1998 to find drug dealers selling from his front stoop and addicts sleeping beneath his stairs. He told me about the day that he returned home from work to discover that his neighbor Annette had planted a little corner of his yard.
“Even though there was a throng of people – drug dealers who were carrying guns, pretty scary folks – she had planted flowers on this little strip of dirt by my driveway,” he told me. “I was so moved by that ... I thought, that’s what life is about. That’s what community development is about. That’s what’s going to change this block faster than any public investment or outside strategy. And in fact it did.”
We too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act.
A group of neighbors got together for a barbeque, and Jeffrey – who has a background in community organizing – started a conversation about the positive aspects of living in the neighborhood. What followed was a long-term, consensus-based process that resulted in the creation of a series of gardens on vacant land in the surrounding blocks. On Quesada Avenue, the median strip was transformed into a wonderland of Canary Island date palms, bright flowers, and leafy vegetation. Any neighbor who wants to can organize a new gardening effort, take responsibility for the existing gardens, or put together a public art project.
While Quesada Gardens Initiative is not specifically focused around growing food, it does incorporate a food garden used to teach local children about crops, as well as free-form community garden plots. And the way the project uses gardening as a powerful locus of community engagement and empowerment demonstrates an important truth about the social value of food that we seem to have largely forgotten in this country.
A major reason our food system is so damaged – so dominated by corporate interests, rife with unhealthy products, and unbalanced by unequal access – is that we too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act. What we eat is far more than a pile of commodities. Not only is food’s essential job to nourish our bodies, but it can also serve as a creator of quality livelihoods, a locus of community engagement and cohesion, and an engine of citizen empowerment and education.
To improve our system, we must realize and act on this fundamental truth. Most of the industrial food corporations do not. Their central motivation is profit, and the highest profit apparently comes from treating food as a product like any other – a plate full of widgets that can be engineered, created, priced, marketed, and exploited.
Luckily, a growing number of people concerned with the origins and impacts of their food are rejecting this materialistic and one-dimensional view of what we eat. Projects and organizations all over the country are putting food back into the social context it has traditionally inhabited.
"The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners.”
For example, companies and cooperatives that supply local food to an area’s population strongly demonstrate that food is central to community cohesion and to local economies. In school garden programs, students learn the complex processes and intense collaboration that go into making what they eat. Projects that help underserved populations like refugees and inner-city residents grow produce help make food once again a central concern of family and community life.
Quesada Gardens Initiative reflects the power of growing things to bring a local community together in a powerful way. Jeffrey made this point as he took me on a tour of the garden plots dotted amongst the houses and stores of the surrounding neighborhood.
Quesada Avenue, the block once known as the most dangerous in the area, has been transformed completely and now serves as a hub of community life. At the top of its hill, Jeffrey showed me the beautifully designed food garden for educating kids. Behind the chain-link fence, stalks of corn stood at attention beside a glowing patch of leafy greens.
At another garden a few blocks away – a patchwork of small plots that had previously been an improvised trash dump – a sandbox and rope swing indicated that the garden was for more than growing food. Kids, in fact, had painted the signs that ringed the garden’s perimeter with such slogans and quotes as “Don’t dump on my garden” and “If you want to change the world, start in your own neighborhood – Harvey Milk.”
Quesada Initiative’s success arises from the project’s appreciation of gardening as the means to an end more profound than a harvest of lettuce and peas. While the plants produced are of course a key motivation for any gardening enterprise, growing food can also – should also – serve other important social purposes, like cultivating a culture of civic engagement and an ethos of community participation.
“The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners,” Jeffrey told me. He stopped to greet a neighbor as we rounded the corner back onto Quesada Avenue. As we continued on our way, he smiled at me with satisfaction.
“We realize we have done something right here,” he said.
• Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, DC, area. Her first book, "Change Comes to Dinner," about sustainable food, was published this month by St. Martin's Press.