In Africa, Fighting AIDS By Farming

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Photo by James McWilliams


To read an on-the-ground account of the work Gardens for Health is doing in Rwanda, click here.

Graduates of Milton Academy and Brown University are generally not the sort of people who enter professional life ready to start directing a farm. They're more typically like Emma Clippinger--a 24-year old graduate of both these institutions, a woman schooled in the intricate intellectual property rights of pharmaceuticals, and an urbanite who freely admits to having no background whatsoever in something as rustic as growing food.

But in the summer of 2006 Clippinger visited Rwanda and everything she knew and didn't know about drugs, farming, and international development went topsy-turvy. The result was a fateful decision: Clippinger, although only a sophomore in college, started a non-profit organization that's becoming a template for emerging food systems throughout Africa: Gardens for Health International. "I'm young and idealistic," she says.

Clippinger had gone to Rwanda as an intern with the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative. Ostensibly,she was there to help the HIV/AIDS Initiative achieve it mission of delivering HIV/AID services, including critical drug therapy, to the infected population of Rawanda.. Immediately after she arrived, however, she realized that the challenge to effective treatment was much more basic than she originally thought it to be.

Clippinger and Morell joined forces with Rwanda's National Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS to create a "nutrition through agriculture" initiative.

As so often happens when one leaps from book learning to practical experience, Clippinger had missed something fundamental: many of the country's HIV patients did not have access to ample food. HIV/AIDS drugs work most effectively when patients are eating a sound diet. They work poorly when patients are malnourished. Experts called this situation "a nutrition gap."

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Photo by James McWilliams

Clippinger called it "a nightmare."

Plus, she noted, it was inexcusable. Rwanda is fertile. Most of the country (about 70 percent) enjoys an abundant supply of water. Agricultural cooperatives benefit from ample government support in the form of land, irrigation, seed distribution, and agricultural schools staffed with highly trained Rwandan scientists. Even more maddeningly, most of the country was executing bold agricultural initiatives to supply Rwanda with locally produced food. Healthy Rwandans were taking charge of their food supply. But AIDS/HIV victims were excluded from these governmental programs because they were deemed physically incapable of participating.

Clippinger might not have known much about farming, but she knew this was wrong. She shared her thoughts with Emily Morell, a Yale undergraduate also working as an intern with the Clinton Foundation. Together they looked into nutritional and agricultural support programs targeting people with HIV/AIDS. Finding such programs to be lacking, Clippinger and Morell joined forces with Rwanda's National Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS to create a "nutrition through agriculture" initiative.

When Clippinger returned to Brown in the Fall of 2006, she and Morell raised $16,000 by shaking down friends, family, and a few foundations. Cash in hand, they went back to Rwanda over the winter break, hired two Rwandan agriculture experts who began to teach the HIV/AIDS population to grow their own food, with their own labor, through agricultural cooperatives, and with land that the government donated. "Through collective and collaborative agricultural production," Clippinger explained, "we knew they could improve their nutrition." Lo and behold, she was right.

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Photo by James McWilliams

Even Clippinger herself is surprised with how the idea, as she puts it, "took off." Through dozens of cooperatives and hundreds of home gardens, HIV-positive individuals have, over the past three years, substantially increased their access to nutritious food. According to Julie Carney, who was hired in 2008 as the Rwandan director for Gardens for Health International, "crops are chosen mostly on the basis of their nutritional value." They include papaya, avocados, amaranth, spiderplant, cowpea, soy beans, beets, swiss chard, collards, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, chili pepper, tephrosia and, Carney adds, "some sunflowers (for their seed, for their aesthetic value!)" Growers have been especially enthusiastic about indigenous greens called dodo and isogi, which have a higher iron and vitamin A concentration than spinach. Provisional ingenuity prevails: pesticides include neem, garlic, and chili peppers; multivitamins come in the form of leaves from the moringa tree; old tires serve as planters; no kitchen gray water is wasted.

Carney and Clippinger aren't the only ones thrilled with the model they've created. Donations have exceeded $150,000, JP Morgan threw in another $25,000, Ashoka, the world's pioneer in "social entrepreneurship" and Staples awarded Gardens for Health International the Ashoka/Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur award in 2008, and Clippinger earned an Eachoing Green Fellowship.

But perhaps the best endorsement of all comes from the farmers themselves. These are people with HIV/AIDS who were once marginalized as incapable of maximizing the productivity of Rwanda's agricultural resources. Today, they're people who are not only growing food--and preparing their own bodies to benefit from the wonders of modern medicine--they're making money by selling their surplus produce. "These are vulnerable individuals who have banded around their vulnerability," said Clippinger, "and taken their weakness and made it a strength."

To read an on-the-ground account of the work Gardens for Health is doing in Rwanda, click here.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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