MACUNGIE, Pennsylvania — USAID’s Innovation Lab for Horticulture began in 2009 when USAID selected the University of California, Davis (UCDavis) as the lead institution in a number of research projects aiming to “help developing countries out of poverty through improved marketing and production of high-value horticultural crops.”
The Innovation Lab for Horticulture
Funding for the Innovation Lab for Horticulture comes from USAID’s Feed the Future project, an initiative aimed at ending world hunger and fighting food insecurity around the world. As of 2021, the Innovation Lab for Horticulture has projects active in 14 different countries.
The Innovation Lab for Horticulture is crucial in Honduras, a country where the agricultural industry, particularly horticulture, is a key part of the economy. Agricultural output makes up 10% of the country’s GDP and is the main source of income for many Hondurans who live in poverty. According to the latest available poverty data, the World Bank reports that, in 2019, the percentage of Honduran citizens living below the international poverty line ($1.90/day) stood at 14.8% and nearly 50% of people lived on less than $5.50/day.
The Innovation Lab for Horticulture’s work in Honduras focuses on a number of poverty-related aspects of life, including food safety, crop yields, education, entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment. A research team from a university in the United States executes each of these projects, working with the Panamerican Agricultural School at Zamorano University and other local organizations in Honduras. Recent projects include disease-resistant crops, technology design and gender integration.
Dr. James Nienhuis
The work of Dr. James Nienhuis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison focuses on creating disease resistance in a wide variety of plants across Central America. He has spent about 30 years performing this type of horticultural work in Central America. His team’s goal in Honduras and other Central American countries is “providing increased income and enhanced nutrition to rural families” by improving crop yields through disease resistance. Dr. Nienhuis served as the principal investigator in the Expanding Tomato Grafting for Entrepreneurship in Guatemala and Honduras project, which ran from January 2015 until September 2018 with an allotted budget of $330,000.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. Nienhuis says that researchers chose Honduras as the location for this work because “Honduras has the greatest need.” He explains further that he “wanted to give rural families and rural women a chance to gain confidence and empowerment by using available land and women’s cooperatives to make money first selling vegetables and later producing and selling grafted plants.”
Forging Disease Resistance
The team achieved disease resistance through grafting, which Dr. Nienhuis says “is an ancient technology, especially in woody species,” such as apples and figs, that researchers have recently extended to vegetables. Horticulturalists use grafting in situations where pesticides are not effective at treating plant diseases. Additionally, avoiding pesticides is beneficial from a cost and health perspective as they are expensive and contain many chemical toxins. Grafting combines the roots of one plant with the bud or branch of another to create a hybrid between plants that are resistant to disease but do not produce marketable fruit and plants that produce ideal fruit but die from disease.
Dr. Nienhuis says his “dream was that women’s cooperatives in Honduras would begin to produce grafted plants for themselves and also for sale to other growers.” In this way, women’s groups could “generate income, pride, empowerment” and gain “business experience.” And indeed, grafted fruits are now sold in Honduras and other locations in Central America. Dr. Nienhuis is now working in Costa Rica, where grafted tomatoes are already being sold. His project now is to adapt grafting technology to peppers.
Teaching and Technology Design
The Designing for Horticulture Development with D-Labs in Honduras and Thailand project began in January 2017 and ended in July 2019 with $106,905 in funding. In Honduras, this project focused on setting up “D-Labs” at the Panamerican Agricultural School at Zamorano University. The mission of these D-Labs is to help educate local students about new farming technologies and help them develop their own solutions to regional problems in horticulture and agriculture more broadly.
Researchers have already implemented a number of solutions devised by participants in the project. For example, the project put in place produces washing stations that use collected rainwater, low-cost and low-energy cool storage to decrease post-harvest loss, the DryCard moisture sensor to prevent rotting and more.
For farmers, improving storage techniques and decreasing the costs of washing and storing horticultural products means more income, which ultimately helps to decrease poverty in areas like Honduras. These D-Lab-generated technologies are also distributed to the Horticulture Innovation Lab’s regional centers around the world and can make an impact on many more poverty-stricken areas that rely on agriculture as a main source of income.
A Gender Integrated Farmer Field School
The Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN): Honduras project began in January 2015 and ended in July 2019 with a grant of $1,800,000 from the Innovation Lab for Horticulture. During its five years of operation, the project focused on empowering women working in agriculture in Honduras, where “poverty and malnutrition rates are high and take a particularly heavy toll on women and children.” Horticulture provides a unique solution in that high-value crops can be grown successfully on a limited amount of land, providing women and their children a route out of poverty.
The WAgN: Honduras team, led by Dr. Janelle Larson of Penn State University, analyzed the various barriers to women’s success in the horticultural economy, whether cultural, political or economic. Working with Zamorano University and the Asociación de Mujeres Intibucanas Renovadas, an NGO fighting gender inequality in Honduras, WAgN researchers organized a gender-integrated farmer field school. WAgN gave 65 farmers, a mix of both men and women, individualized, hands-on help in building 10×10 meter farm plots on their home properties. Participants also learned to use organic methods in cultivating crops and received low-pressure irrigation systems.
Importantly, WAgN: Honduras organizers provided childcare and meals for participating farmers, helping to reduce the various barriers to accessing quality training that researchers with this project studied. Though the WAgN: Honduras project is technically over, the farmer field school continues to train students and shares its curriculum with other nonprofits, institutions and private companies working to train women living in poverty in the horticultural and agricultural fields.
After completing 10 years of horticulture projects, the Innovation Lab for Horticulture is taking a “short hiatus” while waiting for additional funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Through the lab, “experts investigated more than 2,000 new technologies or management practices,” developing more than 750 technologies that “are now available for transfer and scaling” while impacting the lives of more than 32,000 farmers working more than 13,000 hectares of land.
The Innovation Lab for Horticulture’s 10 years of efforts shows its commitment to influencing horticulture education and development around the world.
– Julia Welp