MIT Public Service Center

Design, Engineer, and Implement Appropriate Technology for Farming Amaranth in Rural Communities in Oaxaca, Mexico

www.puentemexico.org

Background

Puente a la Salud Comunitaria's (Bridge to Community Health: Puente) mission is to contribute to food sovereignty and advance the health and economic wellbeing of rural communities in Mexico by promoting the cultivation, consumption, and commercialization of amaranth. Amaranth is a plant native to Mesoamerica that is uniquely positioned to address the high rate of malnutrition in rural Oaxaca. It is one of the few vegetables where both the seeds and leaves are edible, and both are loaded with nutrients. Amaranth seeds contain 13-15 g protein, among the highest for any grain. Its proteins have an ideal balance of amino acids, with a high concentration of lysine, an essential amino acid that cannot be found in other cereals. Owed to the relatively high market price of amaranth, not only does the program impact the nutritional wellbeing of these communities, but also aims to create income generation activities, and thus advance community sustainability and food sovereignty.

Puente has been working in rural communities in the Mexican state of Oaxaca since 2003, and has trained over 6,000 women to reintroduce the regular consumption of amaranth into their families' diets in order to reduce the levels of malnutrition amongst Oaxaca's indigenous population. Beginning in 2007, Puente incorporated the Eco-Amaranth Program and a participatory approach to community development that includes ambitious objectives related to improving nutrition, agriculture and income-generation. Since that date, Puente has hired experienced agronomists who have trained over 415 farmers in the production of amaranth using ecological and organic practices. In total Puente works directly with approximately 1,000 families annually. In 2010, Puente works in 15 communities in three micro-regions (Attention Zones) located in the Mixteca, Mixe (Sierra Norte) and Valles Centrales regions of Oaxaca.

The Challenge

Puente recently conducted a participative evaluation with the farmers to assess their experience and lessons learned from 2009. With a 120% increase in harvest from the previous year, the farmers were content with their successful harvests and showed enthusiasm about planting amaranth again in 2010. However, the greater amount of amaranth harvested also triggered their concern about the potentially rigorous process of manually preparing the grains for both consumption and commercialization in the future. The farmers, along with Puente's technical team, concluded that the combination of three farming machines (thresher, seed cleaner, and popper), or any alternatives, would considerably help reduce the time and labor invested to transform their harvest into useable form for both consumption and commercialization. The participants noted that access to this technology would consequently encourage more farmers in the community to grow amaranth. Currently, available amaranth technology is limited, expensive, and does not always consider the needs of rural communities (i.e., the machines are not very mobile, designed only for large extensions, expensive, among other factors). Puente's expertise is community development in nutrition and agriculture, and definitely not engineering. For this reason we are reaching out to MIT students.

Puente currently has intern positions available in rural communities ranging from one to three hours from the office headquarters in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Puente is offering a unique opportunity to students of MIT to learn about rural, indigenous communities and agricultural systems in Oaxaca first hand. The MIT interns will come up with an innovative, community and participation-based approach at developing appropriate technology to process amaranth for family consumption and larger volume processing. Participation is one of the core principles of Puente. Puente believes that by involving participants in the process, from diagnosis to evaluation, we can ensure both the pertinence and the impact of our programs. MIT engineers will work with the community members and Puente's agriculture technicians to come up with the best possible technologies, created from local resources, to transform amaranth seeds into a healthy food alternative and a sustainable source of income. Our goal is to be able to provide alternative, affordable solutions to the communities.

Puente can provide on-the-ground coordination and local knowledge and support to the MIT team. Oaxaca is rich in its culture, cuisine, and landscape. Puente encourages the volunteers to explore and travel during their time off to fully experience what this beautiful state has to offer.

Qualifications, Preferences, and Assets

Puente is looking for candidates who are enthusiastic about sustainable development and agricultural technology, and who have a strong desire to learn about rural communities in Mexico first hand. Puente's participatory approach requires that the volunteers must keep in mind the needs, experiences and expected outcomes expressed by our participants when developing the technology. Creativity, a willingness to exchange ideas, and a strong technical background are all key qualifications for our candidates.

Puente's staff and the community members are primarily Spanish speaking and therefore Spanish-speaking skills are preferred. We do have bi-lingual staff that is available to support.

Time Constraints

Puente is looking for results. We hope that by the end of the year, the interns will have developed one or more appropriate technologies that can be tested on the 2010 amaranth harvest.

The dates for the interns are flexible, but we would prefer that the majority of the planning and engineering happens in the communities with our participants and staff. Puente will give preference to candidates willing and able to spend at least two or three months this fall in Oaxaca.

Contact

MIT students interested in developing projects around these ideas should contact Peter Noll, Executive Director, at pete@puentemexico.org or call +52 951 518 6642.

PSC Support

MIT students who develop projects around these ideas may apply for support from the Public Service Center's Fellowships, Internships, or Grants programs. Please check the program descriptions and deadlines and talk to program staff to determine which is most appropriate for your needs and project.

If you want to volunteer or you have funding from outside the PSC that enables you to work on one of this project, that's great! However, please do let us know if you work on a project you saw advertised here, even if you don't use our funds. And remember, the PSC staff are happy to advise on service projects even if we are not funding them ourselves.

 
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